Whose Story Is It

Embrace, 39″ x 34″ x 2.75″, Mixed media on board, ©Patricia Steele Raible 2019

Sometimes I feel that I am not so much the painter as the conduit for a painting. That is the case with many of the pieces in my current series about dementia. “Embrace,” the one you are viewing here, is about my personal journey with my mother, but it is also about other people. First, it is a story created by people who traveled the same path before me, though with less science and perhaps less support. It is also a story about those that traveled with me, those that cared for and about my mother. Finally, it is also about the people who are still on this path.

My Story

To me an embrace is normally a good feeling, a comforting feeling. But the term also describes how the lead and partner function on the dance floor as they glide across the floor. I always thought dancing was magical. Yet, after taking lessons, I found out about the hard work and frustrations as well as the rewards.

My husband and I were taking ballroom dance lessons just about the time my mother was diagnosed with dementia with Lewy Bodies. My father had already died; my brother was in another state and ill as well. So her care fell to me. I usually just take charge, but that doesn’t always work with someone whose judgement is impaired. She resisted strongly; I became frustrated. Much like a dance, we went back and forth and back and forth. I came to wonder was I her lead, or her partner?

Her Story

In reading Daniel Siegel’s The Developing Mind, one quote stood out : “A story is created by both teller and listener.” The quote made me question if this could also true of the visual story in my paintings.  When I paint, is it my story alone or is the viewer involved?

With my mother I attempted to understand how she was feeling? But I also realized that my capacity for endurance, pain, and suffering was different from hers or even my husband’s. I was left with my imagination and hopefully, my empathy. But I did wonder how she felt about being told she must move into assisted living, that someone would to be there when she showered to make sure she didn’t fall, and when she toileted to keep her clean.

Their Story

So what about the viewer or the listener?  I now recognize their part and know that they can add to the story or even change it.

I look at myself and other artists as both archeologists and architects.  We are diggers of history and truth, gatherers of ideas, and manipulators of bits and pieces. Perhaps none of my of my paintings are completely my own for I am history, a bit of this and a piece of that, a part of her and some of them.

When Technology Goes Bonkers

An abstract collage painting called "Earthshine" shows line, texture and some color though not perfect taken with my smart phone.
I took this photograph of “Earthshine” with my telephone (not an iphone). It’s not what I would use for a juried show, but it’s fine for sharing. It shows texture and line—though the color is bit off. I love the ability to see what it’s going to look like when it’s finished.

How do we respond as artists when the technology we have been depending on goes a bit…well haywire? While most of my artwork is done by hand, the old-fashioned way, I do depend on my computers, various programs, and my printer.

When You Least Expect It

This morning I watched my husband as he dealt with the Bluetooth in our car. He said he was riding along when suddenly the Bluetooth announced that it was changing the language to French. He swears he pushed no buttons and even tried to fix it by calmly asking the “French woman” to change the language back to English. Instead, he got a terse, “Pardon?”

It was not quickly resolved. Even with manuals, the internet, two telephone calls to different car dealers, and a plea to a daughter fluent in French, no one could offer much help (though the daughter offered a few choice words he could say in French when it didn’t work). So like any good American he went out punching buttons. The first punch got him another language, but it was Spanish. No problem, our other daughter is fluent in Spanish!) All he had to do was figure out which buttons he had pushed in which sequence. Finally, on the third try he was able to get the car to talk to him in English again. And incidentally, the only car dealers that called him back wanted to know if he would like to trade the car in for another one.

Obviously, the younger artists are most comfortable with technology, but I have seen a few of them get frustrated when something didn’t work “as advertised.” I guess the reality is that when it works, it makes our life easier and probably more creative even if we produce primarily with our hands. I know being able use technology to view and discuss the work of other artists influences my work. Videos teach me about new techniques, and the simple means of communicating allows me to share my own work with thousands of people even in other countries.

Our Art and Soul

In some ways adaptation to different circumstances is the heart and soul of art. I recently discovered that Matisse began his “cut-out” series after cancer forced him to use a wheelchair. While the work was a departure from his large paintings, critics often refer to them as among the best works of his entire career. 

While I would miss technology, I believe artists are among the most adaptable people in our society. Perhaps it would be a good idea for all artists to develop their “other left or right hand.” By this I mean develop more than one method of creating, challenging ourselves to go beyond our daily borders.

Stepping beyond what has worked for us in the past might open the door to even better work in the future.

What Being A Caregiver Taught Me About Art (The Last One For Now)

“Reflection,” 16″ x 20″ x 2.75″, mixed media on deep wood panel, ©Patricia Steele Raible 2018

Doing What Is “Right”

Even with help and support, when you are guardian for someone like my mother who has dementia with Lewy Bodies, you never feel you have done enough or even the right thing. You feel that you should always be there, always be in control. It means I travel very rarely and usually within a few hours of home. I do not want to put this burden on my daughters who have young children. Still they occasionally get the calls. Life doesn’t work on my schedule.

Just this past week there was an “episode.” I was 15 minutes from my mother’s assisted living facility and had planned to visit after my swim at the Y. With 10 laps still to go my husband hovers over the lap lane with phone in hand.  My daughter has texted, and he has called the EMTs who are ready to transport my mother to the hospital.  The aides are concerned that my mother might have had a stroke, but she is combative and doesn’t want to go to the hospital. Since only one person can be guardian, I am the one who must make the decision. They describe her symptoms, and I make the call not to transport her.

My mother decided long ago she did not want to be bed-ridden and on a feeding tube like her own mother. So I dutifully filled out a MOST form (which indicates wishes for scope of treatment). I also know from two previous experiences there is little the hospital can do. They will run four or five hours of tests and may possibly strap my mother to the bed. Making these decisions never gets any easier.

Thirty minutes after the phone call, I am at the facility, and she is napping in a chair. When I wake her, she is angry and not rational. She points at the bouquet of flowers in my hands and yells, “no…out of here.” My mother now has language difficulties and primarily indicates displeasure, not pleasure. She complains frequently about the food, the staff not responding, etc. Today she is simply not happy at all. I spend time thanking the aides and the techs who are doing their job the best they can. They are strangers, yet most of them remain patient and kind even under difficult circumstances.

I do not know what the aides, the med techs, or the facility director thinks of my choices for my mother. Some days I think I have failed. Making decisions for someone else’s life is hard.

The Opinion That Counts Is Yours.

Making decisions about art is also difficult. You not only must choose what to paint, what colors you should use, or what tools, but also you must select what shows to enter, what pieces will grab a judge’s or a collector’s attention. Others may suggest that you should enter a particular show or art fair, but right or wrong, you are the one who must decide.

Like a lot of artists I get rejections. Enough that I could wall paper a large bathroom if the rejections did not arrive by email (Yes, I can remember when they arrived by mail.). I could tell you it doesn’t hurt, but it does. It can ruin a morning. I want to be in every show I enter. Realistically, I know other people’s opinions are only that—opinions. They matter for the moment because they are judging a show or deciding whether to buy a painting. What’s left is only the disappointment. There is a whole world of judges and buyers out there.

In the end, my art must please me. It must occupy my mind, delight and heal my soul, and communicate my feelings to the world. Truthfully, I make art for myself, and if I get to share it with others it is an additional blessing.

What Being A Caregiver Has Taught Me About Art (Part III)

Remembered
“Remembered,” 10″ x 8″, mixed media collage on board

Make Mistakes—It Means You’ve Tried

There are laws in every state designed to protect the elderly, especially in situations where their judgment may be impaired. I was grateful to learn this when I began this caregiving process 9 years ago. My mother needed help, mine and also the help of many others. Unfortunately, few people, especially attorneys and court clerks, knew much about dementia with Lewy Bodies (LBD or DLB) at that time. They understood memory loss and Alzheimer’s, but not LBD, which is defined by fluctuation in cognitive functioning, impaired comprehension and lack of judgment. Even many physicians and directors of assisted living facilities lumped all dementia together.

When my mother was first diagnosed with LBD in 2010, I was urged to seek guardianship. I began that process immediately, but soon found that her appointed guardian ad litem (GAL) was focused on whether my mother knew what day it was, whether she could identify who was president, and whether she could perform most daily living tasks. The GAL was not really interested in whether my mother understood her long-term care benefits, could prepare her taxes, or make appropriate investments to secure her future.

Work Hard and Be Prepared for Change

Realizing that my mother needed some protection, I convinced her to give me Power of Attorney (POA) and Health Care Power of Attorney (HCPOA)—but only after she had injured her leg and could not physically get out of her apartment for several weeks. What I didn’t understand (and what is the law in my particular jurisdiction) was that POA status only gave me some control. Even though documents were filed with the court, my mother could change it without warning. Also, if my mother disagreed with a decision and could identify herself, she could reverse that decision no matter how sound the decision and how risky her own might be. Yet there was little option at this early stage.

Luckily with art there are always options. Each day I work on my paintings, filling my tables with “wet work and markings” before I begin any reading, research, or writing. I am at my best early in the morning, and unless I am working on a specific piece I make every effort just to let the paint flow and to work in the moment. When I make a mistake, I am prepared to use my tools and my skills to change it. It’s also what you do in life

Make Connections That Are Meaningful

For five years, my mother and I just kept plodding along together for the most part. Most of her days were good, though because of her medication and diagnosis, she was limited in her activities. She did not look different, but she now had some awareness that something was wrong. She rarely wanted to go out. The Parkinsonian symptoms began to be more pronounced such as a flat expression and shuffling feet when she walked. When these symptoms occurred, I began to panic a bit. While current research does not indicate LBD is hereditary, my maternal grandmother had Parkinson’s Disease. At the very least I have a higher chance.

Everything that is happening, every worry, every concern, makes me glad for my art.  I believe there is a physical connection that happens: Whatever is in my subconscious thought passes through my mind and my hands, healing me and bringing richness to the paintings themselves. Once the paintings are dry, I add another layer (perhaps something I learned reading) that may be symbolic or literal. After all, it is human nature to attempt to impose order. We want to see a pattern. We want to make sense of things even when they don’t, even when we fear our own threads are not connecting, but unraveling instead.

So I work my back and forth process, putting on a layer, taking off part of another, adding a bit of drawing or sgraffito. I am building a painting. I am constructing and describing a life.

 

What Being A Caregiver Has Taught Me About Art (Part I)

watertimpani1 2017MKRcafe
“Water Timpani,” 48″ x 6″ square, Four-sided painting, mixed media on wood

Making Connections

You create your best art when you are focused, motivated, and care about your work. I can photograph beautiful waterfalls, lovely sunsets, and expansive views of oceans and be truly moved by these natural wonders. But my best work is not capturing the light or the movement of the water, but rather making connections—personal connections. Connections with places, sounds, smells, and memories.

When I take photograph for a study, I always try to learn something about the area, even if it’s just about the topography. When I kayaked in earlier years I knew that straight line I saw across the river was a fall line, the hard ledge across the land that indicated where the water fell vertically into a pool below. I’ve since learned a waterfall is formed when a creek or a river flows from soft rock to hard rock. And of course, the size of the fall and the formations within the fall area continue to change over time and sometimes with each season.

Noticing the Little Things

For someone with dementia, especially dementia with Lewy Bodies like my mother it is similiar. When she was first diagnosed, trips to the doctor were much the same as they had been before—except I was there to listen and guide her. Now taking my mother to the doctor requires at least four hours. Because she is a fall risk I have her transported by the assisted living facility, and I meet them there. Once we are done with the doctor and all of the various tests, I again contact the facility and they meet us to transport her back. It wasn’t always this complicated, but in the last year while she can walk with a walker, lifting her feet more than a few inches is impossible.

While I am with her at the doctor I often work in a sketchbook or play in my head, connecting the photographs I have taken to the process of caregiving, illness, and dementia. In some ways it’s easier to see the changes in land and water than in a person you care about. The changes are so small, so subtle that you dismiss them at first as just “aging.” There are no piles of dead leaves, fallen limbs, or huge boulders that alert you to the changes. But they are there. And I believe we sense the changes, although we don’t always acknowledge them.

Finding Ways to Let Go

When I get into the studio, I have learned to focus, to let go of the problems outside the door, and to hopefully find ways of putting those feelings into the artwork. So while I am applying textures with brushes and palette knives and fingers, I am both painting a river and painting a life.

I am remembering and recording the physical and emotional changes in my mother and in the leaning tree, in the broken branch, in the free-flowing water, and in the symbolic windows and doors I place throughout my work.

 

 

 

Church Can Be An Art Blessing

I’m really glad I went to church today. I discovered an incredibly inspiring artist who painted more than 7 decades ago.

helene_schjerfbeck_-_self_portrait_1942
Helene Schjerfbeck, Self portrait 1942

I’m really glad I went to church today. Yes, it’s always a comforting place where I can find friends and words that normally uplift me in this crazy, confused world. And today, I found an incredibly inspiring artist: Finish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (1862 – 1946).

I guess I should explain that in our Unitarian Universalist Church we use art, music and poetry every Sunday. When we removed a hand-made tapestry from behind the pulpit several years ago and added a large projection screen, I was concerned that we were becoming too computerized and maybe a bit cold. But they use this wide-screen to project poetry, words of songs, and yes, art every Sunday!

An Artist That Inspires

My newest artist that inspires painted more than 7 decades ago, and while she is best known for her early realistic paintings, the ones that mesmerized me are her later paintings that are nearly abstract images.

While unknown to me, Helene Schjerfbeck is a Finnish national icon. Her early style was very naturalistic, honed during her studies in France. Her talent was recognized early and she was widely traveled However, in her later years she spent much of her time in a quieter atmosphere.

Next year (2019), the Royal Academy of Arts will exhibit over 60 of her portraits, landscapes and still lifes. Their exhibit publicity calls this a “long-overdue survey  that traces the evolution of her remarkable career.” They plan to highlight a sequence of her self-portraits, which they believe reveal her “lifelong fascination with the physical and psychological process of aging”—what lies beneath the skin and bones.

Influences of My Current Work

I too have found that as the years pass, I am simplifying my paintings. While a lot goes in at the beginning, much gets covered up and painted over. I am finding I must be honest and clear about my intent, and I must spend a lot of time journaling and observing. It is not linear, but rather a process that allows for overlap—a back and forth, a push and pull, an addition and reduction approach.

In particular, I am observing women artists because I believe they are best at distilling ideas and objects to their essence. This is a challenge I have given myself: to find what means the most to me and to simplify the imagery until only the important elements remain.

Lost-and-Found

Thomas Merton is quoted as saying “art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

Mill Shoals Falls,  Brevard, NC
The video “Connections to Nature” shows my paintings and their inspiration. Follow the link: https://www.patriciasteeleraible.com/videos.

Inspiration

Where do you get your inspiration? It’s a common question for artists. For me, inspiration comes from many sources. Sometimes ideas come from reading, listening to others, or writing in my journal. Other times it is both as simple and as complex as being overwhelmed by my feelings as I watch waves cut trenches into the sand at high tide or water cascading over rocks from 30 feet above me. And lately it seems, much of my inspiration comes from nature.

The Painting Process

Thomas Merton is quoted as saying “art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” With my art based in nature, I find the opposite is true. I usually loose myself first and then find myself again in the painting process. And I do mean loose (set myself free). It is a back and forth, pull and push process that can be frustrating at times, rewarding at others.

My nature paintings are usually based on specific places, but they are not unlike other similar locations. In fact, it is this sameness that interests me most—the connections between what is visible and what is below the surface. It is this connection between the physical aspects of the place and the emotional reaction of the viewer that I hope to capture.

It is difficult to explain what happens during the painting process. I am creating my version of the waterfall, the trees, or the seashells at low tide. But as an abstract artist I am not replicating them. Rather, I am striving to duplicate or even elevate the “experience” of walking up that tight, rugged trail to the summit of Mt. Mitchell. I want the viewer to have the impression of being surrounded by fir trees on both sides and sweating from the effort of climbing over roots and rock. I want them to feel the connections, that oneness with what surround us.

Coming Together

Painting is my method of working out ideas and their relationships to one another. It is a mystery or a puzzle to be solved. Often there is resolution. Other times the search continues, and I paint the same ideas over and over. But ultimately it is all a part of the great energy that is within us and that surrounds us.