Coming Back to Life

Those who read this blog will notice it’s been more than a year since I’ve writ­ten a new post. And there’s a rea­son. Dur­ing that time, I was los­ing my hus­band to brain can­cer, and all my atten­tion and ener­gy went to lov­ing him through it as best I could. Although I strug­gled with whether to say any­thing about it in this blog, I will nev­er regret mak­ing the choice I did to care for him. We shared many lov­ing, beau­ti­ful moments, even through some hor­ri­ble cir­cum­stances, and I will for­ev­er be grate­ful that I was able to be present for him and for our time togeth­er.

Even­tu­al­ly, I real­ized that to hide my expe­ri­ence would be to hide myself, to hide some­thing inte­gral to my growth as an artist, and after what I’ve been through, I’m not will­ing to do that any longer. Besides, I’m a firm believ­er that when we share our expe­ri­ences, espe­cial­ly the dif­fi­cult ones, when we dare to be vul­ner­a­ble and hon­est and dig deep and cry out the secrets we think no one else car­ries, we find our­selves telling a uni­ver­sal truth. To our sur­prise, we often find that truth helps strength­en oth­ers because it touch­es that same deep place in them they thought no one else knew about.

My hus­band, whose name was Brett, was a gen­tle, high­ly intel­li­gent, sharp-wit­ted, extra­or­di­nar­i­ly tal­ent­ed man (he was a world-tour­ing acoustic gui­tarist and song­writer). He fought the dis­ease brave­ly for six years—it start­ed out as a grade III anaplas­tic astro­cy­toma and then, as brain tumors tend to do, it came back aggres­sive­ly, this time as a grade IV glioblastoma—but even­tu­al­ly, there was noth­ing more that could be done treat­men­t­wise. There is so much to say about the expe­ri­ence, so much to say about griev­ing in gen­er­al and how our soci­ety does not han­dle it well, so much to say about being a wid­ow too young and hav­ing to find out who I am now that Brett is no longer with me after being such an inte­gral part of my life and my iden­ti­ty for 15 years. And I will say what I need to, but that’s for anoth­er forum. (I am a writer as well as an artist, and I will be keep­ing a sep­a­rate blog and even­tu­al­ly writ­ing a book about my jour­ney.)

This forum is about my art jour­ney, about my explo­ration through the visu­al. Today, I begin to post again.

Brett passed on April 15, 2017, and after being over­whelmed and going about tak­ing care of what need­ed to be tak­en care of in a rather robot­ic fash­ion, I decid­ed to do some­thing I’d want­ed to do my entire life but nev­er allowed myself to: take a solo cross-coun­try road trip. I thought it would be a good way of mov­ing for­ward metaphor­i­cal­ly as well as lit­er­al­ly. I’ve always loved road trips, loved dri­ving and the excite­ment of being in new places. I knew in my bones it would be the right way for me to have the space to grieve and heal and, I hoped, slow­ly come back to life. Nature is my go-to place; it has nev­er failed me dur­ing times of tri­al, and it didn’t fail me this time. I camped in nation­al parks so I could enjoy soli­tude and feel awed by beau­ty, feel con­nect­ed to some­thing much larg­er. I chal­lenged myself to do things that scared me (such as camp­ing solo in bear coun­try). I vis­it­ed friends along the way; I pur­pose­ful­ly timed the vis­its so I wouldn’t become too much like a her­mit and risk get­ting a bit weird in my iso­la­tion. Soli­tude is one thing; iso­la­tion is some­thing com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent.

Along the way, I got more deeply in touch with myself as an artist.

It took months to assim­i­late what I’d been through and awak­ened to. I left in mid-June, paint­ed one piece in a hotel after I drove on the Blue Ridge Park­way, got home in mid-Sep­tem­ber, went to the stu­dio excit­ed to pro­duce an entire new series, start­ed four or five pieces that didn’t quite work, and then … noth­ing. I hadn’t real­ized quite how exhaust­ed I was, and what I need­ed was rest. Lots and lots of rest, with no pres­sure to pro­duce or even work. I decid­ed to lis­ten to what my intu­ition was telling me, so I stayed away from the stu­dio and focused on doing as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. Not easy for the dri­ven over­achiev­er I’ve always been, but nec­es­sary.

Two days ago. I decid­ed that if I couldn’t quite get to the stu­dio, I could bring part of the stu­dio to me. I went and gath­ered enough paint­ing mate­ri­als to do a few pieces, and I brought them home. I set up my easel in the guest room. I worked on a paint­ing that failed. Rather than be crest­fall­en, I put it down and began anoth­er with left­over paints; I had no plan or pre­con­ceived notions of what I want­ed the paint­ing to be. All I knew was that I want­ed to explore the intu­itive, emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence of the road trip and the pow­er of the scenery I encoun­tered. I didn’t want to ren­der it accu­rate­ly; I want­ed to express it and feel it, through col­or, shape, light, dark, move­ment, ener­gy, thick­ness of paint, lay­ers of mean­ing.

Photo of 12 x 12 painting entitled Leaving the Great Sand Dunes Before the Storm. 12 x 12 inches, oil on canvas panel by Dawn Boyer.

Leav­ing the Great Sand Dunes Before the Storm,” 12 x 12 inch­es, oil on can­vas pan­el by Dawn Boy­er

As I moved the paint on the can­vas, I was brought to a place and an emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence I had in Col­orado. I thought about the unique light that a com­ing storm can bring, espe­cial­ly in areas of vast space, and the metaphor to my own life wasn’t lost on me. On my birth­day, which I half-jok­ing­ly dubbed my “Rebirth­day” in texts to friends as I trav­eled, I came upon the Great Sand Dunes and spent half the day mar­veling at them. As I left, a storm approached from the east. The quick­ly mov­ing dark clouds cast shad­ows over much of the prairie (I trav­eled between two moun­tain ranges with a big prairie in between–quite dra­mat­ic in its own right), but slices of sun insist­ed on hav­ing their say. A strange but fas­ci­nat­ing yellow/green light shone down on expans­es of prairie grass, and its warmth against the cool of the gray patch­es of sky stirred me deeply. I want­ed to express that stir­ring. And so I did. And I made my first paint­ing of 2018: “Leav­ing the Great Sand Dunes,” which is now offi­cial­ly part of the Road Trip Series I’d envi­sioned so many months ago. We’ll see what tomor­row and oth­er days bring.

To me, this is a paint­ing of find­ing strength again. Of weath­er­ing the storm and hold­ing on to enough grace to see the beau­ty in it. It made me think about how impor­tant art is, because it, like noth­ing else, makes us wake up and notice things in a new way. It changes us and makes us come to life. And that’s a good thing.

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