The Artist on Loan

by Lesta Bertoia

My favorite way to paint is to start by preparing a canvas with a variety of colors thrown into the gesso in order to form random combinations of hues and shapes. As I smooth the pigments into the gesso with a fan brush, or dab and dart a rag at the canvas, the tone or character of the background develops. It might be pale, with subtle pastels vaguely blending into one another, or dark, with smears of sienna and umber twisting around a hint of ochre here or violet there. It might be sprinklings and splatters and rag-crinkle patterns of blues and aquas and greens. By the time I have a background with some pleasing integrity, I usually have paint-covered hands as well, so I’ll set the canvas up on my easel, if I’ve been working it on the floor, and go wash up. When I come back, the acrylics have dried, and I can now sit and look at the canvas, from about eight or ten feet away.

I will probably be sitting here for ten or fifteen minutes. This is the time during which the random background begins to suggest certain forms or scenes or relationships. If nothing demonstrates itself to me, I’ll turn the canvas onto another edge. Sometimes two or three of the turnings will show me something, so I have to choose which one I like. Ah, this way has an uplifting feeling to it. Okay, so what is this painting about? The painting already knows what it’s about. All I have to do is be receptive. Gradually I begin to see it. There’s a cliff there. A bird flying sideways. The hint of a human profile with an animal inside it. What is the animal? I squint. Oh, it’s a bear with hunched shoulders. Is there anything I need to highlight yet? Yes, I don’t want to lose where that profile is. So I take a brush and outline the rust in pale blue. But the brush wants to do more, it wants to thicken the outline here, pull the paint sideways there, then splash down into a waterfall. The brush pulls my hand along one of the random shapes of the background, bringing into relief figures that I won’t recognize until I step back again. It jumps into a couple of colors on the palette and spreads the paint in twirls around a corner. I don’t even know what it’s doing until it has finished, but when I put the brush down and retreat a few feet… Ah! It has created a shield containing overlapping bison. And now I see where a mesa will rise up if I put a bit of red-gold sky above it. This time the brush, with three colors on it, pulls itself into a rapid succession of strokes, darting and jumping. I simply watch, getting out of the way, having no desire of my own to intend anything, to impose anything of my conscious will into the work. It’s almost as if something or someone else is taking over. Sometimes these strokes will be finished in a few seconds. Sometimes they dash on and around for five minutes, filling in a large area, with what, I do not know, until once again, when the brush stops, I put it into the water and step back, way back, and sit down, and look. Whole new images have been elicited from the background by the new strokes, ones that surprise and delight me when I discover them.

The painting has taken on a very definite quality by now. It’s Aboriginal or Native American or perhaps African, or it has light beings and fairies and children in it, or it’s a cascade of rocks and water with ancient creatures meandering through the cracks and shadows. It has begun to pull itself together, but there are empty places and loose ends. So I look again. This time my eyes see needed colors, a hint of dioxazine purple over the burnt sienna there, a dash of cerulean blue here. My mind doesn’t make a decision; my eyes see what is missing. Okay, I’ll try that. Yes, and that wants to happen over here, too. When I let the painting create itself, I make no mistakes. If I try to add something for effect, it usually doesn’t work. The more the painting creates itself, the more delighted and excited I get. I see what it’s doing! It’s as if I’m looking over the shoulder of a masterful artist, being educated in techniques and enchanted by the hues.

And then, I begin to fall in love. The painting has started to nourish me. It has started to exchange something with me, messages, emotions. It’s showing me another time or place by lifting away a veil, or it’s revealing a hidden aspect of myself or my life, or it’s summoning the symbols and entities that will be most meaningful to the person who will be drawn to this work. I have fallen into a time warp, I am living in another world, the painting and I are creation, showing itself off, caressing the senses, becoming music, moving the secrets of the universe into visibility. Touches of the brush to the canvas are shocks of delight. Gentling the tones into softer, smoother blends is an act of affection. The character of the painting imbues me with its focus and strength, if it is a stalker, or with its wispy layers of visions, if it is a magician. It turns me into what it wants to become, so that if I am to bring out a look of wonder on the face of a child, I cannot determine what line to accent or what shadow to deepen, I can only let the sense of wonder that has overtaken me move my hand with the brush toward the right color, and then soften that color into the cheek or brow.

At least a third of the time that I am painting is spent across the room, looking for and seeing what is needed next. There comes a moment, then, after an hour, a day, or a couple of weeks, when the painting feels finished.

But two more things will still happen before it’s decidedly completed.

The first is that I will sit, not to study, not to be summoned, but to receive, to allow the vision to give me back some of the energy I’ve put into it. This is such a replenishment that even if I have been at the canvas for the past sixteen hours and it’s three o’clock in the morning, I will happily absorb for another hour what I’m being given, insights, beauty, love, empowerment, satisfaction, joy. I will continue to take in from the painting until I have received enough to be able to let it go — to sell it or give it to someone else — or until I’ve discovered that, well, this painting belongs to me.

The second thing that happens is that a day or two later, a few more additional touches will be required. Then when there is absolutely no spot left that doesn’t feel exactly right, I put my little symbol in the corner, and paint the edges, or frame it, satisfied that the pleasure and love I have exchanged with it will quietly radiate itself into someone’s home, over time. It’s as if the number of hours condensed into the painting will gradually seep into the consciousness of the observers, they will sense the messages and emotions, subtly, if they only glance at it occasionally, more noticeably if they look awhile and let it speak itself to them as it spoke itself to me.

Although this is my favorite way to paint, there are other ways. Sometimes a scene, from my travels or from a magazine or a photo, will inspire the mood and background. A commissioned portrait, of course, will require more intention. The knowledge of who the recipient will be most definitely affects the images and tones.

This morning I finished a painting for a couple of friends who were recently married. Even though I’d chosen the scene of this gift from a photograph, a sense of what would speak to these two people created the spiritual hopefulness and contentment on the face of the Tibetan-looking man, who gazes upward beside a great plume of smoke rising from an entwined shaft of leaves. Within the smoke several winged beings and a couple appeared, without my intention. I was pleased with the final result.

As I was getting ready to leave, to deliver the painting, I asked my daughter what she thought of it. Fawni’s feedback is usually a ravingly positive response, occasionally tempered with an added suggestion about highlighting something here or there. This time she said, in a somewhat solemn, actually almost frowning, voice, “Mmh…I like it better when you have more going on, like in this whole area.” She indicated three-fourths of the canvas.

“Mm,” I nodded. “Actually, there is quite a bit going on there, it just takes a while to see it. I could probably define more if I had the time, but I’m taking this over to them now.” I wasn’t displeased with her comment. I was a little surprised that she didn’t like it, but we have an understanding. We’re just honest with each other. So I was more than a little perplexed when she came out of her bedroom a few minutes later, with tears glistening in her eyes, and said, “Mom, I had this deep… uhn… feeling… when I criticized your painting…”

“Oh, Fawni!” I went to hug her, thinking she was reacting extremely sensitively with totally unnecessary regret. “I didn’t think you were being too cri…”

“No, Mom, wait, let me finish! I had this strong… feeling…” she groped for the right words. “Harry was, like, inside me.” She was talking about my father, who was an internationally acclaimed sculptor and designer. He died in 1978, a year and a half before Fawni was born. “He was… I understood him… He didn’t mean to be so critical! He was telling me… he’s telling me… he always criticized you three children because he knew how good you were. He was never critical with anyone else because it didn’t matter to him if they weren’t doing their best. He knew how good you kids were. He wanted you to do your best. But he didn’t know how much he was hurting you. I want you to understand… he wants you to understand that he never meant to hurt you. He is so proud of how good you are!” Tears were streaming from her eyes.

I nodded. “I know I’m good,” I smiled through my own prickling tears.

She couldn’t stop crying. “He would have been… he is… so proud of his grandchildren, too.”

“Oh, yes! Yes, he would have been so proud of all of you!” I was still thinking in terms of the past. Harry died when my son Eric was five, before the births of both of his granddaughters, Fawni and my brother Val’s daughter Kyndi. He never knew the girls. It hadn’t fully hit me yet that Fawni was speaking in the present tense.

“Mom, I feel him, like he’s here, helping me to understand, to look at life through his eyes. He’s giving me some of his wisdom and his power.”

“Oh…!” It was finally sinking in. “Oh, Fawni!” I didn’t know what to say. “I’m so glad!”

We hugged. I finally understood.

My father still loves us all.

It’s never too late for love.

For some reason, my friend Sue cried, too, when she saw the painting. And here I thought it wasn’t all that bad. But then, she’s been so happy lately, she cries about almost everything. It’s really beautiful to see that.

It wasn’t the first time someone cried over one of my paintings. A few years ago I arranged to meet with a woman in her thirties who had opened a New Age shop. Oh, yes, she’d be delighted to have some of my paintings on her walls, she said, looking at a few photos, and if they sold, so much the better for both of us. A few days later I unloaded three or four paintings from my van, brought them into the store, leaned them against the counter, and went back out for the rest of them.

When I came back in, she was on her knees in front of one of them. She glanced up at me, wiping tears from her cheeks. “It’s him,” she said softly. The painting was of a Native American looking directly at us through squinting eyes. His hand was raised, and his fingertips glowed with light where they pierced the veil between him and the viewer. “He came to me again in a meditation last week, and this time I could see him really clearly,” she said. “He told me that very soon I would see him, like, for real, not just in my mind, but out here. This is him! This is his face!” We both got goosebumps. “It’s my spirit guide!”

I had painted that painting several years before, sensing the spirit of a Native American blending with me as I did. I’d thought the spirit was another aspect of myself, or the memory of a past life. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that he had his own identity and was touching more than one life from the other side. I began to suspect that I wasn’t necessarily the only one doing the painting when I painted.

My friend Marilyn dropped in with a friend of hers to show him my artwork. I wasn’t home, but Fawni invited them in. Marilyn relayed to me later that her friend loved my work and would like to commission a portrait of his wife and daughter. He would send photos.

Long before the photos arrived, I felt driven to start the painting. Her friend had mentioned to Marilyn that he would like a forest, a waterfall, and some ferns in the background. Even though I was imposing these images onto the canvas, I began to see other forms emerging from the foliage. There was a mossy man, lying on the ground, with his head down, reaching blindly through the waterfall, and a leafy woman, sitting up, looking at him across the water, reaching toward him as if to comfort him. I wondered if my client had been despondent when he met his wife.

What I had intended as some bushes overhanging a low cliff and catching the sunlight took on the form of a yellow-headed parrot. I didn’t get it. A parrot?

The next day, I received a phone call from my client. “Marilyn told me you’ve started the painting. How exciting! I got the photos together, and I was wondering, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you put my parrot into the painting as well? She’s green with a yellow head.”

“I think your parrot is already in the painting,” I told him with a sense of eerie wonder.

I had almost finished the background, leaving a blank area in the stream in front of the waterfall, by the time the photos arrived. Excited by the way the painting had been evolving, I began working on the figures of mother and child. I placed the lovely young woman, draped in an off-white dress, by the edge of the stream. She was stooping, the folds of her dress draped across her bent knees, and holding her hand out to steady the little girl standing in the water.

I stepped back from the painting.

There was another child sitting in the mother’s lap. The image was somehow formed by the subtle shadows of pastel blues and pinks in the draping of the dress.

That’s weird, I thought. I’d better get that out of there. I painted over it and stepped back. It was still there. I smoothed my brush into the white paint on my palette and dabbed at the dress again. That should do it. I stepped back.

There was still a child sitting in the mother’s lap.

Marilyn and I had both been invited to a friend’s house the next evening, and while the other ladies were talking, I sat down next to her on the couch and said in a low voice, “Marilyn, about your friend…” I whispered his name. “Is there another child in the picture?”

“Hoh!” she gasped. “What do you mean?” She looked apprehensive, as if I were spooking her by knowing some secret I wasn’t supposed to know.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry. I was just wondering, because there’s another child in the painting, and I can’t paint it out.” I described what had happened, and I could tell by the way she was rubbing the goosebumps on her arms that something odd was going on.

“She recently had a miscarriage.”

“Oh, my, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.” It seemed that child’s spirit was still around. I told Marilyn about the other images. She confirmed that her friend had indeed been despondent when he and his wife found each other.

I didn’t know why I was getting these visual messages, but when I pointed them out to my client, he became more receptive to other visual messages, to the on-going conversation Life is having with us about its infinite variety of intertwining meanings. He also became one of my most ardent patrons, seeing me through several of my financially meager times with yet another commission.

Marilyn’s daughter, when she commissioned a portrait of Marilyn, asked if I could add a likeness of Marilyn’s mother Dorothy to the surprise birthday gift. Dorothy died when Marilyn was in her twenties, and the only reference available was an old once-crumpled, black-and-white photo, two inches square. I had to get out my magnifying glass to discern the features on Dorothy’s quarter-inch-sized face.

As I painted, I asked Dorothy, whom I knew to be around, because she’d been dropping pennies into our lives (pennies from heaven, confirmation of her awareness of our prayers) to help me achieve a likeness. It seemed to be happening, the features seemed to be painting themselves, but I ran into a problem. I had positioned Dorothy above Marilyn, and I had intended that she be looking down on her daughter, but the eyes seemed to paint themselves looking up, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t change that. I gave up. Dorothy wanted to be looking up at the Light above her, even though her hand was reaching down, dropping pennies around her daughter.

When Marilyn saw the painting, she was astounded. “How did you do this? This is my mother! But she isn’t the age she was as I remember her. She’s older. She looks like she would have if she had lived longer. How can this be?”

Some time later, Marilyn, caught up in a difficult situation, was feeling stressed and in need of inspiration. She had been hoping to find the pennies that had so often reassured her of her mother’s comforting presence, on the carpet she’d just finished vacuuming, or on a chair beside a book she’d just put there a few minutes ago, but none had appeared. One afternoon her son came to the house looking for her. Not knowing if Marilyn was home, he peeked into her room, and stopped in his tracks, stunned. Dorothy was standing at the foot of the bed, looking at the painting. He knew it was his grandmother, because it was the same woman who was in the painting. He fled from the house, and didn’t summon the courage to tell Marilyn about it until a day later. Marilyn was heart-warmed and grateful to know that her mother was still with her.

Help comes through from the other side in so many ways – and knows how to make good use of us on this side.

My favorite way of painting – allowing random shapes and colors to tell their story in gradually comprehended imagery, allowing myself to be an artist on loan – seems like a good metaphor for how to receive what life is trying to tell me, if I will only listen! There are so many ways in which we are being contacted, by souls who have left their bodies, by spiritual guides, by the great binary language of creation behind and within all of what is going on around us. We can be intenders if we want to be, or pretenders or offenders or defenders, for that matter, but we can also be attenders, simply present when the presents are all opened.

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