Why on earth would an artist-blacksmith paint hearts?
I began learning blacksmithing in 1998, studying and practicing with growing devotion. Years later, while still an artist-blacksmith, I began painting small canvases just to indulge my yen for color. I played with leaf prints (from trees right outside the studio door) and with the heart motif. These first heart paintings were done right when I reached the age when my father had died of heart attacks. It’s not surprising that the heart was of concern to me.
"I Get to Live"
I went back to forging iron, but then something else happened. A chain of medical events led me to a lung biopsy. It seemed almost certain that I had a rapidly spreading lung cancer.
Yet Dr. Miller woke me from the anesthesia with the words, “It’s not cancer.”
My very first thought was “Now I can make more heart paintings.”
I was amazed. Heart paintings? So that's what I really want to do!
And so I began to paint heart paintings and to make collages with the same theme. Even while caring for my life partner as her Alzheimer’s progressed, I painted an hour or so a day.
"I'm Still Alive!"
After my beloved died, though, I seemed to be floating in a sea of possibilities: where to live, how to live, even -- yes -- do I want to live?
Another illumination came. I was driving on a two-lane country road when a truck surged out of a driveway, aimed right toward me. Yet somehow I avoided the collision, and I found myself still on the road, driving, alive.
Thus I discovered that yes, I did want to live. That was only my second thought, however. My first thought was “Now I can make more heart paintings!”
What about everything else?
I was still wondering about all the other things I might want to do, or perhaps should do because they could help others.
What about writing and teaching about the last years with my beloved, and how we were able to create a great quality of life despite her Alzheimer's? How we saw it as a spiritual path?
What about launching a vigorous campaign for safer walkers and rollators -- devices people depend on to help prevent falls? Then there were things I could do at church, or public health initiatives in the wider community. All this STUFF to do -- besides make heart paintings.
"OK God, I'll do whatever you want."
One day last July, I was driving on the expressway, headed for Atlanta to artist Katherine Taylor's workshop on writing an artist statement. (It was sponsored by Burnaway, and turned out to be a great workshop.) I didn't have the radio on. I was just driving, open.
Suddenly I found myself saying aloud, "OK God, I'll do whatever you want."
I heard an answer immediately. "I want you to make heart paintings, and put them where people are disheartened."
"Um, OK, I get the part about making heart paintings. I can do that. But I don't know about putting them where people are disheartened. I don't know how to do that."
"I'll guide you; don't worry about a thing."
"OK. OK. I'll do it."
I started to cry because it was so wonderful and such a relief. (This is the moment when Carl McColman, who writes and teaches about mysticism and spiritual development, would have advised me to pull off the highway.) I drove on safely, floating as it were, knowing nothing would ever be the same.
I knew I'd better find a spiritual director. At least, that was my thought. If I'm going to start talking directly with God and hearing something right back, it might be wise to check it all out with someone more spiritually mature, or holy or something. (I was vague about it but hey, I've read all nine Starbridge and St. Benet's Trilogy novels (by Susan Howatch) about spiritual directors and healing ministries -- three times!) I did find a spiritual director and it has proven to be a good thing.
So now what?
Have all my fears disappeared? Have my addictions and escape activities and hangups dissolved? No, I fail as much as anyone -- who knows, maybe more -- to remember to open myself to guidance and follow it. Last Saturday I was in a wonderful workshop with Carl McColman on St. Teresa of Avila, and at one point when he mentioned the third chakra (the center of power and will) I saw my foot move back. I could feel the automatic pulling back from the thought of releasing my attachment to being in control (however illusory that might be).
Still, I have a mission and the promise of guidance carrying it out. I've been given something -- maybe everything.
What does "mission" mean?
I realize that the word "mission" carries a lot of emotional weight. For some people it connotes virtue and perhaps even moral superiority, to others perhaps intrusive attempts to convert, dominate, control. It can also mean a corporate statement that may or may not mean anything in action.
I just mean by mission, "what I'm meant to do in the world -- specifically." Perhaps "vocation" -- which means calling -- would be a better term, though that word also has connotations and specific meanings in certain religions. And to me, "vocation" doesn't seem quite as specific as "mission." Mission, for me, also has a sense of sending myself (and my paintings) into the wider world -- probably a good thing for an introvert like myself.
The big risk I take in using words like "mission" -- and especially the word "God" -- is that I'll sound as if I'm proselytizing for a specific religion or for religion in general, as contrasted with atheism or spirituality. That's far from my intention. What I hope is that my paintings will -- when the timing is right for someone encountering them -- evoke the person's own inner guidance from his or her own Deep Self, and offer encouragement along that person's true path.
I know an artist is supposed to sound confident and successful in order to "make it" in the world. I'm confident of the mission. Confident of myself? Well yes, I'm the glory of God, after all. On the other hand, I think I'm pretty clogged up when it comes to channeling God's love into every moment of the day. Painting helps open up that channel.
I keep remembering what Mother Teresa said:
"I'm not called to be successful. I'm called to be faithful."
More important -- what about you?
Most of all, I wish you all the messages and confirmations you need to follow your own true path of heart -- and all the encouragement and reassurance you may need.
Have you had surprising "first thoughts" or other messages that clarified your true heart's desire? I'd be delighted for you to share them here if you like. Your mission, your illuminations and your questions are important.