Painting in Mid-Air: The Messiness of Letting Go

Painting of a woman's arms holding a baby with wings

"It is not possible to complete yourself without sorrow." ~ Hafiz

Last April, I began an enormous and purposeful transition in my life. I left my long career in residential architecture to explore the direct experience of creativity, and its healing potential. I soon felt like my life was out of control, derailed and barreling into the unknown. I was scrambling for tidiness and comfort in the middle of a maelstrom.

I had begun a large painting at the Ashland workshop that February: a woman falling, legs akimbo, arms outstretched and hair flying. She started as a kind of personal dare. A few months earlier, I’d facilitated a spunky, brave woman in her mid-70s at Esalen who chose to paint “the gynecologist’s view.” I found her humor and courage stirring. Stepping up to my blank paper, I saw a similar beginning: a bold purple “V” came first and I sensed it was a woman’s crotch. Immediately I added more paper for her spread-eagle legs. By the time I left the workshop, my woman had grown wings and arms, a pregnant belly and a mysterious expression on her face—and she was an embarrassing uncomfortable mess to work on. I wrote in my journal:

“As I realized she needed more hair I also realized she needed pubic hair and armpit hair … touching a painting in such hidden, personal places is embarrassing.”

I continued painting her when I returned home. In April, the final month of my architecture practice, I wrote:

“My great, exposed woman painting has revealed her ‘meaning’ to me through my body sensations: what an uncomfortable painting to work on—what an exposed, flayed open, gravity-less painting! The anguish and confusion I feel while working on her are equal to the grief and loss I feel in my groundless life.”

For several years, I had been preparing to move away from architecture, but I could not prepare for the loss of the framework it had been. I remember thinking I felt like a blind woman on the moon, not knowing which way was up, free floating. I knew one thing for sure, the woman in my painting wasn’t falling to anywhere, she was just falling.

In a real sense I had chosen a death: the death of my 35-year identity, the death of my purpose in life, as well as the death of a self I had grown weary of.

Other losses in my life magnified my distress, and my painting would not allow me to escape. Everything felt like a mess. My great woman became a descent, an opportunity to face what I felt inside and to surrender to it.

“She is so ungrounded, falling, such a mess!” I wept to my fellow facilitators while painting online one day. They encouraged me to stay with the movement, the feelings and the painting. I painted my own hands green and gave her green handprints. I painted my forearms green and pressed them against hers. I needed to touch and touch her, weeping as I went. I made finger and palm prints to decorate her wings. I slowly stopped crying. I had been doubled in grief and now the messiness of all that grief was all over her.

It took me seven months to complete my falling woman. She remained on my studio wall as I descended and rose and descended and rose through the early stages of this profound transition. At times the wailing felt like it would never stop. At times I reveled in my new freedom and played. And my great woman’s green hands sprouted feathers, her baby grew wings and she got red fingernails and diamonds on the soles of her shoes.

Now when I look at this painting I can see that my great woman encompasses everything. She is big, as is my current life experience. And she is a mess with her smeared and finger-painted arms and legs. She can’t see where she is going, but her expression is unperturbed.

I realize she is okay and she is in mid-air.

More Information

You'll find Lydia facilitating with The Painting Experience on Whidbey Island this October. For other opportunities to paint with her in the Seattle area, visit her website Art for Life.

For the full schedule of upcoming Painting Experience workshops and retreats with Stewart Cubley and his staff, see our Programs page.

To read more from Lydia on this blog, see Reclaiming Play Through Process Painting, Safe Place, Sacred Space, and Process Art: Antidote to a Product-Oriented World.