The power of portraiture – transformation through art

My recent self-portrait – Winged Wisdom – started in October 2015 and completed almost four months later, was the product of a period of deep inner scrutiny at a time of life when ever-increasing white hair and fine lines seemed to be asserting the many years of hard-gathered experience stacked up behind me.

Portrait by Helen White www.helenwhite.orgYet (this painting taught me) I was also entering a time of metamorphosis, of unleashed eccentricity, newly-claimed liberty and of letting go of so much that had held me like a butterfly caught in a net; a time of long overdue self-appreciation, embracing all that I am and of, quite literally, seeing myself in a whole new light. The return of the blue butterfly of last summer’s painting ‘Uncommon Blue‘ is no coincidence; the painting process took me right back into the territory of my self-association with that symbol in all the ways I have played with before.

In fact, this self-portrait had much to tell me…or so it turned out. As the process of honing it towards an ever more elusive completion stretched on over a non-typical span of painting time (most of my canvases take no longer than a couple of months), I quickly realised that every hitch, hold up and frustration that it delivered carried its own perfection in what it had to show me. Ever-closer scrutiny of my own face (oddly unfamiliar for all I have lived with it for almost fifty years but, then, how often to we really meet our own eyes in the mirror?) told me more about myself than I was always very comfortable with, one of the things that self-portraiture inevitably throws up at the artist in a way that no other genre gets close to. A deep-dive into vanity? Hardly! Self-Portraiture is gritty and gruelling and, in equal proportion, cathartic and (potentially) healing and transformational. There can be no hiding from yourself once you take it on and the technical dilemmas it inevitably throws up seem so much more than the minor concerns of the typical painting subject since they all arrive laden with far deeper implications that are of quantum significance to our relationship with self.

From the spring-board of a series of “interesting” phone selfies of myself flung down on my bed on a day when my body was weak and in pain wearing, as they say, nought but an enigmatic smile plus a mop of unruly hair splaying out around my head, these opportunist snaps taken in a dimly lit room proved to be just the starting point for my inspiration. These quick snaps were then played with – much – both in terms of embellishment (that dress, those flowers, the butterfly…all creations Lace detail in self portrait by Helen Whiteof my inner landscape) and the depths to which I went on to explore that face and the persona beneath. Why that white lace dress (which resembles nothing I have ever worn in this lifetime) even I found myself asking, and to whom was I getting married, I wondered, until – in no time, I knew the answer was ‘me’.

By the middle stages, I was often to be found with a mirror propped adjacent to my easel and would lunge towards it to closely scrutinise all the details that were most evading me or to play catch-me-if-you-can with fleeting nuances of expression that came and went quicker than my paintbrush could keep up. Increasingly, I noticed how I was now doing this at times when I wasn’t even painting, as I walked past the reflective glass in a shop or when candid photos were taken of me by other people; the ones where, normally, I would have flinched to see how I really look to others but suddenly I was paying close attention and this became its own healing. I spent more time talking to myself in the bathroom mirror and I made looking at my expression in the floor length mirror near my yoga mat part of my morning ceremony of self-love and appreciation; began to recognise those same subtle signs of weariness, hurt or struggle in my own eyes that I would normally have credited myself with being able to read in the eyes of those I deeply love and like to think I take care of…as I was one of those people now.

Later, I dove deeply into fantasy-land again only, this time, it was to draw deep on a well of self-knowing and self-seeing that told me just how I looked in the perfection of my most complete self, on a “best day” I had yet to experience, without pain or those telling shadows beneath world-weary eyes and, instead, honed in on the shining me that is both an aspirational and yet fully achievable reality, a fleeting winged-visitor even now and likely to stay ever longer, once I lock onto the vibration of the feeling that most encourages it. This is when painting became a healing process bar none and took me deeply into a process of cellular restructuring that was supremely tangible as I visualised and held what I was painting. Maybe this was why my painting was taking so long and was so utterly un-put-downable on high-days and holidays or late into the evenings, all those times I was “meant” to be doing other things; I was being encouraged to lavish the very time and attention upon myself that had so long been lacking and overdue; I was paying it over, now, with interest and found the more I was prepared to give to the process, the more it delivered at a level that the painting itself only hinted at because my best work was being done on the inside of me. My self-portrait had become a laborious exercise in self-love!

Winged portion 1In a way that last summer’s painting “Emergence” suddenly seemed like a dress-rehearsal for (see my post Emerging through layers for more on that…), the layers of this one had much to tell me about my own blossoming process through all the perceived imperfections of my life to date and, now, this tricky painting. As these “imperfections” took on the symbolism of all the layers of paint that really weren’t quite right yet (the ones that subsequently got covered up), I realised how these layers were the most perfect thing about it for, without them, the end result would not have been possible. I found I frequently took the paint back a few layers every bit as much as I added new ones until all these “stages” of the journey became so merged and morphed together that they were inseparable. In keeping the best bits of all of them and yet using everything else that had “gone wrong” as the foundations, there really was no sense of “good bits” and “bad bits” or of a coherent time-line by the end and, often, the bit that seemed most terribly “wrong” earlier in the process became the very pigment that resurfaced later, with absolute perfection and timeliness, to be reused in a whole new and ingenious way. All the so called layers of this painting had become the spiders web of cross-over points that seamlessly manifested as the me that I know as an “absolute” holding it all together and not a single “thread” of that weaving process was obsolete or undesirable, not even those aspects that I chose not to reveal at surface level in the finished work.

This, I realised, is how we create ourselves in form; how the pick and choice of what we push up to that top layer and what we recycle as the bedrock beneath is how we are all the artists of our own beings in physicality; this is how we manufacture our own cells in a process that is ongoing, and utterly open to being reset to our own specifications, all the days of our life. To effect that reset, there is no need whatsoever to throw away all that we have been to date yet what I also saw was that something recycled as building blocks, at a deeper layer, does not necessarily mean it needs to be left “active” in its original form; in fact, when I did this, it would almost inevitably “ghost through” to the surface layer in the same way that our own buried traumas have this way of resurfacing. In other words, whilst we cannot rid ourselves of our past, we can disarm what we no longer choose to be “active” by scrambling the coherence of its message in that form or we can soften its edges to where it is indistinct and harmless. My perennial favourite of using very fine sandpaper to graze the top surface of paint before proceeding with a major alteration, breaking down and softening unwanted form into its constituent pigments, was adopted once again and became like a metaphor for our ability to take what isn’t working for us and dismantle it into molecules that are now useful – a foundation layer that provides strength – rather than allowing it to assert any current influence over us. The self-selection of this process – that is, deciding what is being kept for now and what is open to being upcycled in entirely new ways –  is an insanely powerful act when you start playing with it through the symbology of paint and I was conscious of manifesting some major, multi-dimensional tweaks to my own choices across whole spans of many lifetimes in some of my meditative pondering during these parts of the painting process.

Portrait by Helen White www.helenwhite.orgPoint in case: the wildly messy locks and a modest scattering of daisies that I found myself fashioning into some sort of headdress for the priestess that seemed to be stepping forward in me the more I worked on this coming of age piece seemed also to hark back to the carefree times of youth that I felt ever more poised to reclaim; you could say, suggestive of a future potential as well as something nostalgic. Yet – tellingly – the circle of forget-me-nots that some whim had me including in the original composition became, one-by-one, buried so deep in the hair strands that they were soon almost completely out of sight. To start with, I kept working to bring them back…until, I got to questioning, why? Why was I working so hard to keep memories that no longer served me and to fit myself around them when they so obviously didn’t fit with the picture of myself “as I am now”. So, eventually, I took the plunge and covered them over, leaving them hidden beneath my newly abundant hair (which was suddenly freed to go off in whole new directions without these obstacles to fit around…); the message of it seeming to be that this was no time in my life for getting all caught up in nostalgia. Again, to make effective use of what was undeniably part of the painting’s history, these pretty yet superfluous embellishments were polished back into the gentle shades of blue pigment that insinuate themselves vaguely around the edges of my face but no longer dominate all that I am about. Through this set of circumstances, my painting seemed to be trying to speak out (most eloquently) on my behalf because no better than this could I describe where I have now got to with all of my own memories and associations of “the past”, none of which it is necessary for me to actually “wear” – and perhaps I just needed one last reminder of that for my painting to have done its job.

Portrait by Helen White www.helenwhite.orgThese adventures through paint (and there were many more of them) kept circling back to one very important message that this painting had to teach me and that was the importance of identifying, and questioning, any areas of my self that I was protecting and, thus, holding sacrosanct in a way that all of the rest of my painting was being made to fit around, often long after that thing was working coherently with the whole. Let me explain: time and again I would find my painting struggled most when there was an aspect of it that I was working very hard to preserve; usually a portion of it that I had created very early on in its process that I had got really excited about, felt particularly proud of, identified with, had invested a lot of effort or time in or otherwise come to revere in some way. This might be a handful of brushtrokes delivered in a notably inspired way or a particular nuance of colour and form that I remembered feeling really pleased with right after it was achieved. Thereafter, I would step around this aspect of the painting like it was hallowed ground; would dismantle and move all else around it to try and make the composition work to include it. The longevity of this one small part of the whole would become so important to me as to be made almost holy, long after I remembered why it was so important to me or why I was working so hard to preserve it. Each time I (eventually) recognised this kind of sticking point was there, obstructing the coherence or evolutionary process of the whole, I would swallow hard and then dive in to do whatever was necessary to reappraise, recycle or remove whatever it was to the benefit of the whole of the painting. Sometimes this was really hard to do, the territory of experiencing a moment’s exquisite regret as I smudged over something that I was both proud of and genuinely unsure if I could ever recreate – but never, in the longer run, did I really regret taking this brave advance forwards. Most times, the new maturity of whatever followed in the space of what had been dismantled far exceeded what had gone before…and this is where I truly got to see that what had seemed so advanced, so “pinnacle of my achievement”, so complete about this earlier segment of the painting was only relative, seen within the context of a much earlier stage of its evolution. I came to see that the obsolete belief system that taunted me with the fear that I would never be able to replicate the youthful high-points I was about to scrub out was a nonsense with no foundations because I routinely exceeded those previous “highs” with a new level of creation that came in with a degree of maturity that would not have been possible within the earlier paradigm of the painting process. Of course, this maturity seemed to bespeak the very stage of the life that I was celebrating with my subject-matter, newly wondering, as I did so, how any of us had been culturally fooled into believing maturity was a down-grade and not an evolution (which is when the painting’s title, Winged Wisdom, started to suggest itself).

Self-portrait in oils by Helen White www.helenwhite.orgImportantly, I came to recognise that the thing shared in common by those portions of my painting that I tended to work so desperately hard to crystallise as a way of preserving them, long after their time of usefulness had expired, was actually the feeling of excitement I had come to associate with them. This was the excitement I had originally experienced as their moment of evolution occurred; as they branched out as an offshoot that led the way out of one paradigm to somewhere else entirely…somewhere that felt more expansive and potential-filled…and then the whole  of the painting had upped its ante in response…but then, I learned, as soon as everything else had caught up with it and levelled out, it was equally important that the off-shoot be considered for total reinvention, not just fenced off and meticulously preserved to the detriment of the whole.

The painted form itself was not what needed to be crystallised and held-onto here but, rather, the vibration of how that moment of painting-evolution had felt as it occurred; this is what needed to be recorded inside me, as a frequency, in order to be able to recognise when further leaps of evolution were imminent or, you could just say, “moments when the painting was heading in the right direction”. Whenever the painting became “stuck”, that excited vibration or high note was conspicuously absent and all joy went out of painting it. The very thing that had initially led it forwards had been allowed to become the drag-factor upon the whole of the advancement process (and oh how we see this play out everyday in our world; in all our bureaucracy, our systems, our religions, our science, our personal frustrations, our health…in fact, wherever that which once hop-scotched us forwards is turned into something that “must not ever” be questioned again). My preparedness to dismantle that which had once felt like the very best of all that I had created so far…and to brave up to taking this action again and again and again until I no longer flinched as I was doing it…was one of the deepest dives and strongest lessons of this whole painting process, for which I will be eternally grateful.

Self-portrait by Helen White www.helenwhite.orgOn the topic of so-called “best”, in art terms (whatever they are…) this – and here it is – is hardly my best piece of work to date or even a particularly noteworthy self-portrait in a world of highly accomplished portrait painters…I know that…but what it became to me, across the many layers of its creation, runs far deeper than any outward appraisal by an art critic could ever take account of and that, in itself, became a lesson to me. It made me question a lot of things: why do I paint, for whom do I paint, do I really care what other people make of something so intensely personal or is my own take on it enough, is there even the requirement for any audience other than myself and, if not, how do I feel about monetizing what I do any more, is it something I even want to continue equating with “making a living” or does that risk me overlooking, or discounting, the most significant avenues that the painting process might take me down on my journey of self-discovery? Could I ever paint quickly or predictably enough again to call myself a professional or had I unleashed a slow-burn process that is as long-winded as it is unable to work to a briefing?

For, while I painted this piece, all else seemed utterly suspended. Yes, I dabbled with other paintings but, so far, they have all come to nought as my full attention wasn’t there and I was aware, at some level, that it was as though I had taken in a deep inward breath and then held it…for several “outwardly” unproductive (“inwardly” cathartic) months. For the third of a year, while a little voice tried (and failed) to tell me I should be working on other things, I was deeply in my heart space and I was staying there, not coming out, until it was done and this all felt very necessary, not to be argued with. All else could go hang while this was underway and when I wasn’t working on this I mostly didn’t want to paint at all. At some level, it felt like an existential crisis that I was in; a shouted question to the skies and one to which my painting held the answer. Though the painting was finished weeks ago, the process it set in motion wasn’t even nearly complete until today, as I finally felt the urge to express some of this in a post…and is not even done yet as it is all still delivering as I take in what is now hanging on the bedroom wall, looking down at me as I awake and seen last before I release myself again to sleep. She has become the permanent reminder of my best self and the feeling is all the more tangible for having her there in the paint strokes that I laboriously laid down with those brushes over the course of so many weeks. You could say, I feel I have made myself and I am now rising to meet what I have created.

Self-portrait in oils by Helen White www.helenwhite.orgFor a period of time-suspended, other so-called priorities had fought and struggled to get my attention like so many rowdy characters squabbling over nothing on the sidelines yet – as I worked on this painting –  all of them, eventually, quieted themselves down or slipped away to be troublesome on someone else’s patch. This piece of art asserted its authority for as long as its subject took to materialise before my eyes; it held me in a void beyond time and space, for good purpose, as its subject was the healer within me, who was ready to show herself to me now, and in no uncertain terms. Like the little child that finally gets its busy parent to put down their phone and look them firmly in the eye, this one had my full attention at last and was intent on keeping it there while it got everything off its chest. By meeting it with love and  undistracted attention, I know that I great depth of healing has taken place.

What took place through the act of painting was like a lengthy dialogue with myself that was very long overdue, one that took me on a roller coaster journey through a landscape of myself that had previously remained shoved out of view, unexplored, overlooked, untended, under appreciated and dreadfully overgrown with the unguided tendrils of my own fears. The soft, gentle love of self that started to rise in me as I tirelessly stroked my face with brushes came like a golden sunrise on the gobbledy landscape of nighttime (for how else do I describe the monstrous landscape of the almost universal human psychosis we have built around looking at ourselves in the  mirror or daring to put our face “out there” where it will be seen), softening gnarled branches and the indecipherable shapes of my own hidden terrors with new tender light that made ever-increasing sense of them. This was such a tangible feeling that I was beguiled into working at this painting long after I would have put down anything else so stubborn…for I was playing with all new possibility now and things were feeling decidedly better in the well-tended garden of me; a new season of growth was becoming evident, these middle years were suddenly feeling nothing like the dead wood our culture had told me to believe they were, this was not the end of the line but the very beginning of something tremendous and the reclaiming of something mislaid but very ripe for rediscovery, by all of us.

I was feeling softly flowing potential in me like an underground current that had been unstopped and was about to break the surface; could almost feel the actual sun on my own face as I worked ceaselessly to add more light to my own complexion. In fact, I not only imagined but distinctly felt myself laying down by flowing water as I painted…felt sun on face, fingered warm silk grass, heard hum of bee and song of bird. This deeply, timelessly, familiar placed cradled me over the winter months of my painting process and manifested in me a serenity or deep inner calm that belied how I was physically experiencing things on the outside and with a warmth that I already felt glowing from within (and it was this elusive thing that I was still working to replicate with my brushes four months in, long after another artist might have said “its close enough”). That butterfly, which felt it just had to be there, whimsical as it is (though my rational mind tried to talk me out of it more than once), suddenly seemed as though it had flitted over from one canvas to another and settled in my hair like a homecoming or as though I was now the very part of the garden that was most shining with the kind of light that its butterfly-vision is most drawn to; perhaps I was where it had been heading to all along (see Out of the Blue to put this into context). The sense of the divine feminine having not only returned but risen up in me, through the conduit of me, as I painted, was a tangible reality for me as the creator of this work as I finally reached a place where I felt I could lay down my brushes and say “its done now”.

Both an affirmation and a celebration of a (popularly misrepresented…) portion of a woman’s life that can and should actually be a full-on celebration, a time of awe-stricken self-(re)appraisal, of newly unleashed and wholly unfettered knowledge and sense of personal power, of reinvention, transformation, healing and joy…all of these things and more is what I set out to achieve. What I got to in the end (such as an endpoint is achievable or even desirable…) was a deeply transformational journey completed in many layers over a deep and sustained three month period of self-exploration, both on and off the canvas. It became one of the most significant portals of experience that I had ever stepped through in this life; such is the power of the creative act when we work at the level of multi-dimensional experience and wide-open awareness.

If there is a concluding point I really want to share with others, then, it is how art (by which I mean creativity) is, above all things, an incredibly potent tool of transformation and so I encourage you to explore it as fully as you can, in whatever way that you are led (which could be through music, cooking, gardening…whatever creative act calls to you; they all work in the same way). The key is to give it space and keep it as untethered by outside agenda or timescale as you can in order to get the most from it. Whatever this thing is that you are creating – and the more it is some kind of representation of you, the more potent this can be – simply allow its layers, its “mistakes”, its sticking points and moments of rejuvenation to speak to you, allow it to unfold as organically as you can while you stand by as the curious observer to the process. Open up to the process intuitively and then hear what it has to tell you, which may well be everything you most long to understand, heal or reconcile…and, hopefully, much you will feel compelled to appreciate and celebrate, if you will allow this (which can be the biggest healing of all). Prepare to be over-awed by what manifests through you, which will be a representation of you, and you may find the journey it takes you on utterly transforms both the creative act (how powerful this can be as the greatest tool at you disposal) and also your relationship with self; it may never be the same again and nor will you.


Related post – Out of the shadows on Scattering the Light

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