Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Art of Saint Painting

 Chris Hart Studio
What happens in my brain when I pick up a paint brush to paint a saint statue?  If you could do a CAT scan at that moment, I suspect it would look something akin to a drug addict about to shoot heroin.  I get a little sweaty on my forehead, my stomach flips a tiny bit and I start to look around, keenly observant of my surroundings.  For a split second I don't know where to begin because every part of saint painting is so awe-inspiring.  It's like playing dress up as an adult with something holy, not only is the outcome amazing but the process is a blast.  I have to focus closely on one tiny area at a time.  I squeeze a small amount of Ultramarine Blue on my work table then next to that a bit of the Titanium White.  I begin adding a dab of blue to the white, back and forth until I have the basic tone of Our Lady's robe.  A tiny drop of black or brown will knock back the too fresh look of the paint and make it look like its been there for all eternity.

I begin by painting the colored areas of the robe and cape, scumbling and blotting as I go until all of the beautiful draped clothing is done.  Next the base the saint stands on, gets dashes of color to mimic either the clouds or  stone surface, depending on which statue it is.  I work overlaying tones of paint by applying a thinned almost glaze-like transparent coat, one on top of the other, layer by layer with a semi-dry brush until the piece radiates a warm energy from inside.

 Then I know it's time to paint the face, the biggest challenge of saint painting.

Years ago I learned through grievous trial and error to never attempt to paint a saint's face when I was angry, tired or had PMS.  They always reflected whatever emotion I had at the time.  Angels would look murderous.  The Blessed Mommy would look overwrought and crabby.  St. Theresa looked anything but in the moment and St. Rita of the impossible, looked like she was still an abused wife.  It was uncanny how the saint became a mirror for my emotions du jour.

Once when I was sick,  I painted an entire batch of angels that looked so evil they could be related to the devil.  Even when I put them on the sale table, not a soul would touch them.  I finally buried them in the garden for the winter thinking their faces would soften with age.  Instead, that spring my Rhubarb died.  The only angel that works at looking fierce is St. Michael the archangel, guardian, warrior and protector.  He holds a sword and has his foot on Satan's head.  All of us should pray to St. Michael once in a while, since he leads the army against evil and probably protected me from those horrible little devilish angels I mistakenly painted when I had the flu.       

I love painting the saint's eyes.  Over the years I have developed the exact colors for each saint.  Mary's eyes are always a reflective blue.  St. Magdalene's eyes are a beautiful rich green to compliment her gorgeous auburn hair and St. Rita's are a golden brown set off by her classic nun's outfit of basic black.  When the eyes are finally finished I imagine the saint crying out...."I can see!  I can see!" and suddenly the statue becomes alive in my hands.  Usually, I paint the saints' eyes so that they are looking heavenward but the Blessed Mommy statue should always be placed above your eye level so her eyes are cast downward.  Yes, the next thing I will tell you is a fact.  There is unspoken saint etiquette and those of us who share our home with a saint statue should become familiar with it.  That's for a future post.       

The next step is the old world process of gold leaf.  That is where the thin-as-air sheet of gold is adhered to the statue usually around the base, on crowns and on edges of veils or capes and rosaries.  The radiance of the leafing makes the statue  glow with a warmth that actually gives off a bodily heat, a radiance of  the passion.  Gold leaf is like wrapping bacon around something.  It makes it delicious and you just can't stop feasting on it.  That's the beauty of gold leaf.        

Infant of Prague statue from Chris Hart Studio
 After finishing the layers of painting and glazing, the details of the face and the gold leafing then it is time for the nicotine aging process.  This is a special recipe that makes the statue look like its been around for at least a century, most likely in a dusty chapel or quite possibly the library of a lifelong smoker.  The glaze is greyish brown, thin and yet coarse with a weight that makes it want to settle in the cracks and crevices of the statue, showing off every beautiful imperfection and detail.  It is what allows the eye to wander slowly over the abundant surface, soaking up the rich visual impression..

St. Lucy with her beautiful eyes, St. Mary Magdalene with her mass of auburn hair, St. Teresa's crucifix and roses of all colors, St. Rita's cross and stigmata, The Blessed Mommy in blue with a gold leaf crown or the Infant of Prague wearing a robe intricately woven with jewels and gold, all beautiful saints that hold special meanings for us through their stories.      

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What Doe She Ask For When She Goes To The Hairdresser? Sister Mary Magdalene Help!

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As I have crossed over into the second half of my life and I no longer get a second glance from others like I once did, I wonder what makes women become unnoticeable as they age.  We know all that stuff  the feminists say about objectification and valuing women for how smart they are and how shallow our society is to measure a woman's worth in the physical.  This isn't about that.  I admit I look at other people, both men and women, because I enjoy seeing well put together people regardless of age, apparently something that is becoming extinct.

To clarify, I am not talking about the young here.  Anyone can skate on their looks, some longer than others, based on youth.  Skin undamaged by sun, silky hair and a glut of hormones makes even the not so attractive people attractive.  This concern I am voicing here is about the middle aged women who seem to have lost their luster and have not found a way to let go of their past and flourish in the present.

What is it that makes some women age and still look attractive and others age to visual indifference?  Our eyes pass over the plain, the rumpled, the ones who look like an unmade bed.  Out of every 10 women over age 50, only a few will catch my eye.  It boils down to three things....being somewhere within a reasonable weight range but not necessarily thin.  The second is to wear well fitting, clean clothing. The third and most important thing is hairstyle.  You can have the first two of the three but without the third, you vanish.

I have to ask "What does she ask for when she goes to the hairdresser?"  How is it possible that so many middle-aged women pay money for a hairstyle that doesn't look like one?  What did she ask for?  "Yes, I would like a haircut where you chop my hair in uneven layers, then dye it a flat mousy brown and preferably leave the color on too long so it is fried.  Then, please, blow dry it on too high of a heat so the ends frizz all over." or "I'd like highlights on my already dried-out naturally curly hair.  Just process it long enough to turn orange and then style it in a football helmet like I wore in high school." or better yet "I'd love it if you could give me a style that shows no shine, no body, no interesting color and I'd prefer that you give me a cut that ages me at least 15 years."    

St. Mary Magdalene at Chris Hart Studio
Look around, ladies!  We could be praying to any number of saints....St. Mary Magdalene, to intervene with your hairdresser, St. Lucy, patron saint of eyesight and insight, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, to be there everyday while we do our hair or if you really have crummy hair, pray to St. Jude, patron saint of impossible causes.  Hard to say who will be the one to answer your prayers.  My vote goes to St. Mary Magdalene.

St. Mary Magdalene is always shown with a luxuriant head of hair, holding a jar of perfumed oil or a cross.  Yep, you're right, she was a penitent sinner, washing the lords feet with her tears as she wept bitterly for her sins.  Then using  her beautiful, thick head of hair, she dried his feet.  Any saint who has enough hair to dry off with after a bath must know what the fuss is about.  It seems she would be the most likely to intervene on our behalf when it comes to crappy hair.

When you go to the hairdresser next time, it might behoove you to pray to St. Mary Magdalene, ask for her intercession to allow your hair to become a halo of light and vibrancy, to help you be comfortable letting go of the past and find comfort in the future.  We are all sinners here but we don't have to be sinners with bad hair.     

Friday, March 21, 2014

St Lucy, Thank You for the Insight!

Whenever I paint St. Lucy I take extra care to be sure her eyes are especially beautiful .  She is the Patron Saint for the blind and those with eye problems.  She stands for insight, lucidity, great vision and the ability to see the underlying truth in all things.  The statue of St. Lucy shows her holding a palm frond in one hand, which is the symbol of good over evil and in the other hand, a dish in which 2 eyeballs sit.  Lucy's life story teaches us to stand strong for what we believe, no matter how hard the situation is and even in our darkest moments, stay focused on what's important.   

When my mother was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration resulting in gradual loss of her vision, I prayed to St. Lucy every night to let her eyesight and life spend their last days in a happy marriage.  Please let her live as long as her sight will allow her vision to be of value and not confusion.  At 98 her loss of vision began to create the confusion that is easy to label dementia.  Blurred vision blurred the sharpness of her mind as well, it seemed. 

It hurts me when I think of how the gradual loss of my mother's eyesight began a withdrawal from her surroundings.  I became insane with caregivers who didn't put her glasses on when she woke up in the morning.  The excuse was the same...."She doesn't know what is going on anyway, so why bother."  Is it possible that she is lucid of mind and the loss of her eye sight created a confusion that the lazy call dementia?

St. Lucy Statue made by Chris Hart Studio
Many afternoons were spent talking with my mother, asking questions and listening to her answers.  Why yes...she couldn't always remember words to describe what she saw out the window but I filled in for her without a hint of criticism.  I encouraged her gibberish and watched as it sorted itself out the more we talked and the more she gained confidence.  I thought how hard it must be to have people who expect you to make sense every time you spoke and how the drought of conversation only makes you thirstier for words until finally you choke.  We had many enjoyable conversations that only the two of us understood.

We are in a society that depends on how quickly we return a text, not the sight of the morning sun coming over the mountains and the sound of the goldfinches chattering on the thistle sock. St. Lucy reminds us to see what's important.  My mother's days were spent sitting on the deck in the sunshine, watching the birds at the feeder, talking with loved ones, enjoying the world around her.  As her eyesight failed, her vision became more acute.    

St. Lucy's story is that she had very beautiful eyes and a General in the army wanted to marry her because of her beauty but because he was not a Christian she refused.  The General sent his army to convince her but they had no success for she stood up for what she believed in.  From here the story goes one of  two ways.  Her eyes were gouged out by the army as part of her punishment or the version I prefer, she plucked out her own eyes to make herself undesirable to the General.  In either case, she could still see.  Her sight was restored, hence she holds the tray with the extra pair of eyeballs.

So like St. Lucy we have two pairs of eyes.  One pair makes our daily tasks easier and faster.  We can tie shoes and button shirts, comb our hair and eat with a fork more easily because of our sight.  The other pair reveals the underlying truths, insights to greater meaning and visions for the future.  St. Lucy teaches us to know our truths, stand up for them no matter how hard and to stay focused on the deeper meaning.

Real Eyes

Thank you St. Lucy.      


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Where's My Purse, St. Anthony? Patron Saint of Lost Items

It's a great relief when you become secure enough to no longer sleep with your purse.  My mother's dementia kept her in a state of perpetual worry at times.  She would be contentedly watching the cooking channel and the next minute panic would wash over her face and she would ask, "Where is my purse?" at the same time, scrambling in her chair to see if it was on the floor or in her lap.  For that split second, her survival was dependent on the purse that held the answer to the universe, her protection from evil and the key to happiness.  I never could figure out what was in that purse that was so important.

The purse became a security blanket of sorts, taking the place of a teddy bear or favorite doll.  Sleeping with it would provide her with a magic that seemed to ward off disasters.  I took to filling her purse with Kleenex, paper, pens and pencils, a few aspirin, Chap Stick and some small coins after she turned 98.  But really the purse held more than stuff.  The memories from years passed of caring for kids with runny noses and skinned knees, grocery lists for suppers we ate every night as a family, a checkbook that often times had a zero balance and recipes, lots of recipes.  It was a handbag, a medicine bag, a talisman for sorcery, a evening bag filled with glamour, a valise for extra undies and socks, a receptacle with bills to mail, a clutch with lotion and a comb, a silk reticule of a mother's love, a portmanteau that held the meaning of daily living.     

How many times did I hear the prayer..."St. Anthony, St. Anthony, Please come 'round.  Something's been lost and cannot be found".  St. Anthony didn't let her down  The purse was never lost but it seemed like it was until it could be located, sometimes in a few seconds, sometimes hours later, usually where she had hidden it.  A life of vigilance that spilled out of the purse and somehow kept her family safe.

St. Anthony statue from Chris Hart Studio
 The statue of Anthony appears with a typical Franciscan brown robe,  holding either the Christ child, a book or a stem of lilies, sometimes all three.  He is the Patron Saint for lost articles, lost people, lost things, lost spiritual beliefs and even lost minds.  St. Anthony is known for steady courage to face life's ups and downs and he  followed the call to love and forgive.  All traits my mother excelled in.  With the dementia age brought to my mother, came the upheaval of knowing that she didn't know.  St. Anthony restored the peace and tranquility to her mind,  the loss of which is more afflicted than any material loss.

Toward the end, my mother quit sleeping with her purse.  She quit worrying about where it was.  Apparently she didn't need all that stuff where she was going.       .      


Sunday, March 2, 2014

My Blessed Mother Mary

If self sacrifice and martyrdom and 101 well lived years on the planet are indicators of sainthood then my mother is soon to be beatified  by the Roman Catholic Church.  To me she was just my mom, the person that is supposed to accept you as you are.  But I really liked her as a person, too.  It didn't occur to me until I was trying to write something comforting to say at her funeral that I realized she was not like other mothers or more specifically not all mothers were like mine.

I took it for granted that all mothers loved unconditionally, encouraged to the point of annoyance, valued education above stuff, thought you were the prettiest girl in school, had respect for all living things, fed every stray in Josephine county, whether it be cats, dogs, birds or people.  And walked on a road paved with love.

She taught me how to make an informed decision and live with it, look strangers in the eye and smile, don't use you fingernails as tools, never bite the thread with your teeth, chill pie dough in the refrigerator before you roll it out and when baking in glass remember to reduce the temperature 25 degrees, keep your pencils sharpened and throw away the pens that don't work and there is a difference between being unwanted and unexpected.

I was the youngest child of 4 and a surprise at that.  You would think I grew up in a different household than my siblings.  My parents thought they had done their job raising 3 kids and when I came along, it seemed more important to enjoy the life we had.  There were several years when my three siblings were working their way through college and the financial strain was terrible.  Times were tough and my mom did what she knew.  She worked hard in her job and worked hard at home, whatever it took.  And she found joy in the unexpected.

One of the reoccurring themes from my mother in later years was "If we had just stayed in Portland, we would have been able to give you kids so much more"

How much more is there to give then hot summer days spent at the river having watermelon, fishing for catfish in the pond, the whole family hauling hay from the lower field to the barn before it rains, eating out of a science fiction sized garden, going mushroom hunting in the woods, picking the first daffodils of spring, always eating dinner as a family, spilling your milk and no one getting mad.
After breaking both hips 4 months apart when she was 98, my mother's dementia began to show up frequently. Later, when asked how my mother was, I wrote this email...."Usually Mom knows who I am.  But on confused days my mother knows I fall into the category of "someone I love and trust" but it could mean I am her sister, mother or daughter. She recognizes me but isn't sure which one of the three I am but with dementia things are reduced to love and trust, not names.  We should all be so lucky, as our lives would be greatly simplified."

People tell me my mother is in a better place and I like thinking that but I can tell you without a doubt she always felt she had found heaven on earth.  That was apparent in the last two words I heard my mother say before she died and I choose to believe she meant them in the broadest sense....Those words were "Thank You".