A group of us were sitting in a clearing on a misty Sunday morning looking at astrological charts that Claudia Johnson had just put together. We were looking at Chiron, an asteroid discovered only recently in the 1970’s. Chiron, the centaur, is the wounded healer who appears in one’s chart where there has been damage in our life (or lives) that needs attention. Mine appeared in the 5th house – that of family/children/creativity.
“That’s funny,” said Claudia, “I thought you were supposed to have had such a great family and you’re so good with kids and everything. How does that fit?”
“I know,” said Vivi Tallman in a burst of clairvoyance, “it’s creativity. That’s the part of Lane that was never allowed to develop fully in her family. She still has some work to do there.”
Wham! It hit me how right on she was. My father, Louis deMoll, and his mother, Mary (Polly) Hitchner deMoll, were both artists – painters. I wasn’t the daughter who had inherited the obvious drawing gift. I have long said that organizing is my creative field, resonating with a card someone once sent me that said, “The most visible creators I know of are those artists whose medium is life itself. The ones who express the impossible – without brush, hammer, clay or guitar. ” Still….
All the way through high school and at Bennington College I included at least one art class though my major was in the social sciences. I especially loved my life drawing classes and looking back now in my folder I am pleased to find some things that weren’t half bad. I couldn’t see that at the time, however, and had no illusions that I could be a “real” artist.
In fact, there is a story that when meeting with my parents and the high school counselor about college plans, I was asked why I wanted to go to Bennington. When I said it was because I would be able to take art, the counselor turned to my dad and asked if I had any real talent. He said no. My mother was horrified at his bluntness, but if I was disturbed by his pronouncement, I’ve repressed it. In fact, I had forgotten the moment until she reminded me of it in later years. My dad had made his judgment known to me a long time before. Any damage had already been done. Still, I was clear that I loved doing it and wanted to study in a place where I could fit art in with honor. Looking back, I am quite proud of the fact that I stuck to it as much as I did without having the obvious gift of other family members – and in a college setting that was full of “real” New York artists.
So – Chiron appears in the right place in my chart to show this up and Vivi was perspicacious enough to realize it. She also pointed out how I have always been a caretaker of others (double Cancer after all), as well as an organizer (Moon in Capricorn). Yup! Oldest of five children born in eight years, I was often in charge at home. At the School in Rose Valley, I was on my first committee when I was six – first grade representative to the school Hungarian Relief committee – and was elected to monitor rest time as a second grader in a 2nd-4th grade mixed class.
I said something to the group that day by the river about how right on all this was (with this family history flashing like a slide show through my head) and how I had a sense I needed to work on my artistic side.
Susan Walsh then said that she had a course she had developed that was a self-discovery process through painting. I said that sounded great to me. “Let’s do it!” “OK” said Susan. “I’ll figure out a time.”
Now there are lots of times when plans are hatched that sound great in the moment but people’s schedules and life’s details interfere and nothing ever comes of them. There was no way that summer Sunday to know that we had serendipitously been lead to put something in motion that would change all of our lives. Each of us around that circle involved in that few minute’s huddle ended up in the class together. And eventually the Hero’s Journey would be a process that Susan would offer over and over in our community in the coming years.
The Hero’s Process
We weren’t there to become artists or even to learn how to paint. We were getting together to use the painting medium as a means to learn something about ourselves. It could have been collage, it could have been dream work or even dance. It was painting because that was Susan’ medium. And it worked for us.
For that first course we met on Thursday evenings every other week (with some odd weeks due to people’s schedules) to paint together for three hours. On Saturdays we met for the day at Susan’s studio – a trailer christened the Rusty Institute of Painting – to talk about our painting and how it fit into our lives. These intense, inquiring and emotion-fraught sessions were soon like life’s blood to me.
Susan based the structure of the course on Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces. The steps of the painting assignments were roughly those that he describes as the process that a hero goes through in the search for life’s important mysteries and the accomplishment of an important task.
*(We did have a conversation early on about the word “hero” versus “heroine” – we were after all a group of women, feminists all. But we quickly concluded when this was one of the times it felt right to appropriate the normally masculine term, the feminine sounding lesser somehow, like a girlish novel.)
The Hero’s Journey could be described as the quest to find the grail – that mysterious holy object that is always just out of one’s reach because it is the process that is the real quest. It is a seeking into the unknown – an underworld of the psyche – where the clues and the treasures to be found are the stuff of one’s very soul. The questions we asked ourselves were about what made us tick, what made up our life’s stories and where we were going next. The paint and brush and paper were the tools that fueled the inquiry process – the vehicle for the journey. Since the language of the soul is in metaphoric images, the process was as illusive as working with dreams.
Susan’s gift is an amazing ability to zero in on the questions that each person needs to be asked about the paintings themselves and about the ensuing conversation. Zap! I always had the image of a finger quivering with power pointing directly at the hidden broken place. An unerring arrow. Sometimes she looked horrified herself at what had come out of her mouth – like the time she gave me a homework assignment to paint violent sex. “I’d take it back if I could,” she said. But we were both wise enough to stick to it and the assignment was the means for a much needed breakthrough on many levels.
Beyond her intuition or psychic sense, it was the caring and sensitivity of the individuals in the class and their insights that made it work. That and the willingness of each participant to delve honestly into their deepest being. There were tears and anger, laughter and confusion, challenge and retreat. Each of us had times of great stumbling blocks – areas of ourselves that others could see and we could not. Emotional blindspots. These were balanced by moments of intense clarity – ah ha! – those “brief glimpses of the blindingly obvious” when for just a little bit the brambles are gone and the path forward is clear. Til the next turn of the spiraling path.
We finished the Hero’s Journey in May 1995, and launched immediately into the second installment of the process with Susan now inventing as we went – a course called “Creation,” followed in December 1995 by “Aesthetics,” which ran until April 1996. During the summer of 1995, a few of us wanted help with painting techniques so Susan gave a couple of evening “how-to” classes at her studio – the only formal painting instruction for us she ever did. The sessions of “Miracles,” the fourth course, spread out from December 1996 to September 1997. The format changed some for the different courses. In Creation we did the painting assignments at home on our own and spent all Saturday talking about them. By Miracles we were back to doing them together.
I got so turned on I did 48 paintings in 1995 and 16 in 1996. The dam had opened. Then, as the first frenzy lightened up, the numbers dropped considerably after that.
In September, 1999, I took a three day drawing/painting intensive with painter, Susan Keiser. It wasn’t about personal process at all but you can’t tell that from the contents of the large pieces done for the class. By that time I was incapable of putting brush or pencil to paper without revealing things about my Self to myself.
In February, 2000, I revisited the Hero’s Journey with a whole different group of people as a week long intensive where we painted in the mornings together and talked in the afternoons. By that time, Susan was no longer inventing the process and the discussion part had become much more streamlined.
Susan generally had us paint on heavy paper – 16” x 20 ” – that she or one of us gessoed. We taped it to a board so that when our painting was done we could strip off the tape and find a white border. There came a time when I began to experiment with other surfaces – masonite, cardboard, canvas and canvas board and there was one period in Creation when she tried a larger size paper, but that size remains one of my favorites – a manageable scale for a 2-3 hour painting.
My first painting was done with tempera paints. Starting into this process was so scary to me and the poster paints were safe and familiar from the mural and scenery painting I had been doing with the school kids, “where splash, mess, out-of-proportion drawing and rush are all ok. Frees me up.” (Journal 2/20/95) These paints had their limits however, and by the second session I was feeling ready to use the acrylics that Tom had bought for himself some time ago and wasn’t using. In June, the Fire Mountain parents gave me oil paints as a going away present. So none of the materials really required an expenditure. I don’t know if I could have brought myself to spend money on myself. Even an easel came to me by summer time from the school’s rummage pile, rescued by a parent who knew I was ready for one.
The process of “reading” the content of the paintings is like doing dream analysis. If allowed, the flow of paint and brush on a surface can make it possible to access the right, unconscious side of the brain, which tends to speak in symbols. When the left, thinking side of the brain stays active we get ideas and stories and worries about what it will look like.
The ego works hard to maintain the structures it began to put into place in babyhood to defend and protect the physical, psychological being from the dangers it perceives to be out there. It feels to the ego that there is a Big Bad Wolf lurking behind every tree. Even the thought of paint puts the egoic structures into hyper-alert! However, when we can quiet that side, the secrets we have been keeping even from ourselves can come through – the deeply buried hurts and joys, the layers of constructs that rule our lives, the hidden talents and wishes and longings, even past lives and future events. If we let ourselves, we can tap into such different, mysterious realms.
Frustratingly, the images tend to come through in clues and codes, riddles and metaphors. And just like in dreams they are difficult to decipher. Like the advice from an oracle or a messenger from the gods in myth and fairy tale, they are cryptic and often unsatisfactory and one is left thinking, “is that all?” “What am I supposed to do with that?” “But what does it mean” “what am I supposed to do….?!”
During the first weeks, months (years?) of the process it was hard work for me to quiet that side. Working with a dedicated group helped me to be diligent in weeding out the places I lie to myself and to discern the color and shape of the shields I have raised. Slowly i learned to peer through the murk and the excuses to find the nuggets that tell the true tale. I had to be dedicated to the task and unrelenting in my commitment to peeling off the layers of the small self to get to the capital “S” Self and what it wanted me to know and act on. There were many traps and side trips – many places to fall by the wayside to lick my wounds and pay attention to my fears. It’s hard work. That is why it is called a Hero’s Journey. Not for the faint hearted and not for the casual.
Journal 2/20/95: I want to keep a record of my “hero’s journey.”
Besides the group work to process the paintings of the course, as Susan had designed it, I had the strong instinct to also journal the process. I described the paintings in detail in the journal – what they looked like, what I thought about as I painted them, what the group said, and what I thought about after the group’s input. I didn’t follow every step for every painting, but I did most of the steps for most of the paintings, especially in the early years. And in the same way that Susan gave homework assignments based on some of the mysteries that arose in the discussion of a painting, I followed the threads I was uncovering to do additional paintings. It was sometimes agonizing work but I was so in love with the paintbrush and so captured by what I was uncovering, that I was compelled to keep painting.
When I made my head stay out of the way, and let my hand be in control, I discovered some amazing things. Sometimes I even used my left hand to further eliminate control. I also rarely rinsed my brush in the course of a painting and thus opening even more to serendipity. Some of the most amazing messages came from, say, the slash of red that streaked through when I thought I was going to paint something the yellow I had just dipped into. A drip might become an image of great import. The botched figure I tried to cover over, but which insisted on being there, might lead me on a wonderful jaunt of old memories. Sometimes I recognize the significance in the moment. Sometimes I must wait for years. Sometimes it must be pointed out by the painting group or a family member. Sometimes it hits me right between the eyes while I am describing it in the journal, the very process of putting it into words adding a new dimension to the message.
It’s a process I love though – and not only was I able to apply it to dreams, tarot readings, and paintings, but I also realized I could use it in my sessions with healers & psychics. When my massage therapist, Dana Zia, got images through her hands from my body, I could help in deciphering those messages, often relating them to a painting already done. Or sometimes, I would do a painting of an image she and I had fleshed out together in a session and in the process of painting would receive more clues and images. It was like following Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs. Linking the clues as they appeared – sometimes divided by years – to understand who I am and what I am doing here on the planet in this time and place.
As I wrote in the introduction to my Out of the Ashes painting show held in February 2004 –
I am peeling the layers of the onion. I am Snake shedding her skin.
I present these paintings and altars as some of the inner strata encountered on my journey to my true Self. They are part of a larger body of work done between 1995 and 2003. As mothering turned to menopause, as the 20th century turned into the 21st, as the Piscean Age gives way to the Aquarian, I dove deep and began to come into my own again.
There are many more layers of fears and possibilities to peel. And there is still far to go but I am on my way. So are we all. So are you. May the pieces in this show help you on your own journey to your center that we may rebuild again together. For we are also Spider weaving her web.
Who knows how well they’ll reach you. But I can tell you that I am having a great time and am finally standing proudly in the artist’s stance. I am madly in love with these paintings and altars.
None of it is possible without the inspiration of Spirit and the voices of Mother Earth at my back in the guise of ancient goddesses, gods and power animals (you could call them archetypes if you don’t want to be literal about it). Thanks be to the mountain, ocean, meadow and trees outside my window. And blessings on my tribe – the circle of family and friends that dances in so many of the paintings.
It’s all just coming through me, it’s just coming through.
This show is dedicated to the memory of Frieda Kahlo, for her goading inspiration to me. She painted her way into the very darkest places and had the courage to show us her journey. A muse. A true Hero.
And just as the threads of the story are hidden in a great tangle that must be teased out and woven together, so the writing has slowly been coming together. I knew all along somehow that it was an important part of the process for me. Now putting this webpage together is like the crazy quilt pieces I have been working on for the last two years. They aren’t even a quilt yet (though they’ve gone into a painting frame or two and hopefully soon a jacket for my Tom). They are just pieces of fabric that I sew together in haphazard configurations. A kind of doodle done during meetings or in-between moments. Some of the fabric are pieces from my childhood or my children’s lives. Some come from Cartm, some are given to me by friends.
So the writings and the paintings slowly are stitched together. Time loosens its hold – as does the organized, project oriented, left brain – and I can see the spiral and the patterns. And find a way to convey the meaning and substance of my journey so that it may help you on yours.