Archive for June, 2018

mary’zine #76: 7-day Painting intensive, December 2010

June 6, 2018


 “I hear the paint falling…”

When Barbara, my painting teacher, uttered those words, she was referring to someone dropping a container of paint. But I heard poetry. In my world, a lot was falling: rain outside; tears on the paper and on my face inside; mercy, mercy everywhere….

All week I painted a young man who had killed himself after holding a room full of high school students hostage for several hours. The class included my grandnephew, a good friend of the boy. During the stand-off, my sister texted me news as she heard it. I ached for my niece and her husband, who had been notified and were standing by. What a helpless feeling for all the parents who were waiting to see if their children were safe. When the students were released, the relief was palpable. No one else had been hurt, unless you count scarred-for-life. I didn’t give much thought to the young man himself.

But in the intensive a few weeks later, suddenly there he was—the 15-year-old boy who couldn’t even say what he wanted, who had no demands, except possibly the demand for attention, to be taken seriously, who knows what goes on in the mind of a teen-age boy? So I painted him with the gun to his head, in the grave, as a spirit rising from the grave. I had never met him, but his tragedy was the vehicle for 7 intense days of painting.

Having a “subject” to paint didn’t mean it was easy. Despite the easily accessed feelings, it was at times difficult to get past the doubt, the inner debate about what to reveal and how to stay true, the frequent questioning of the difference between us—was I exploiting his pain and his fate? Where was I in this story, this painting? Was it just personal, or was it capable of touching others? Did I have an obligation to broaden the theme, to take it past the small action to a more meaningful level?

At first I painted a lot of guns, bullets, blood. The boy, Sam, was a hunter, as is my grandnephew, so I painted deer as targets, then deer pointing their own guns. Sometimes the imagery becomes so satisfying to paint that you get carried away. I told Barbara I wanted to paint a forest with hunters, deer, mayhem. She got me to focus on the painting in front of me, to see what could be coming in or out. So I connected all the beings on the painting with white cords, felt the connectedness of life whether the ties are visible or not, and still she asked what could be connected. But there was nothing else, just shapes, just colors! I had made the obvious connections, she was asking me to do the impossible. But it turns out that how you face the impossible is kind of the point: Finally, I was neither fighting nor holding back, and though I didn’t think of the word at the time, I had “surrendered.”

At some point a quotation from “The Merchant of Venice” started running through my mind. It was the same quote that came when I painted my late brother-in-law many years ago.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

I painted tears falling from the faces on the painting and from the unknown sky above. I didn’t know where the feelings were coming from, what they “meant,” why I was focusing on this boy. The teacher and the other students in the classroom had done their best to keep the boy calm, talking to him about hunting and fishing… and then the SWAT team came busting in and it was all over, the boy shot himself. My grandnephew seemed to be OK immediately afterward, and his mother, my niece, was euphoric that he had survived, but post-traumatic stress will come, predictable as clockwork.

I was far enough removed from what happened that I knew virtually nothing objectively, but my feeling state as I painted Sam was a projection of his loneliness, despair, lack of choices, forced into a corner, thinking the gun and the attention of the other students would tell him what to do now, how to go on, whether to go on.

By the end of the week, my defenses had been worn down, and I was a soggy mess from crying. But I just kept following the mysterious feelings, painted whatever came next, not like clockwork but like some organic heartbeat leading me on. Expression comes unbidden, you can’t force it.  And then it happened. It was as if the feelings, so deep, so heart-felt, so powerful and seemingly destructive, eased out and spread out as if on a broad plain, flooding all my defenses and finally dissipating into wordlessness, fearlessness. This was not abstract, it was a physical sensation.


So the week of painting (and traveling) for me was about raining, flooding, cold particles falling, breaking the levees of self-protection, pure feeling rising, emerging with or without words, dissipating in riots of color and shape and image; and it was also the opposite: erecting boundaries, patrolling the perimeter, rifling through my own mental carry-on bags for dangerous implements of self-knowledge, thinking security will save me, in turn resisting and surrendering, tears fighting fears. It’s all related, we’re all connected, the hazards are everywhere, the target is indistinct and constantly moving, clarity is hard to find.

But in the midst of the chaos and  misdirection, the indecision and doubt, we painters persist in facing the simplest and deepest truths in ourselves, which is to say, in humanity. The effect on our loved ones or distant strangers cannot be measured, but the painting energy goes out into the world and a little more light is shed, not where the lamppost stands* but in the darkest corners where we struggle and cry, laugh and love, and live lives of quiet exhilaration.


The paintings. You can see the natural progression from blind emotion to more focus, stillness, love, and, finally, peace.

Sam #1



Sam #2



Sam #3



Sam #4



Sam #5  I wrote on the back of this one that it’s not finished, but I never went back to it.



*Nasrudin, the holy fool of Sufism, looked for a lost key under a lamppost, because, though he’d lost it indoors, there was more light to look for it out in the street.


Mary McKenney

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