God called me into women’s ministry in 1974 at a Winsome Women’s Retreat in Warsaw, Indiana. I was 18 years old and newly married to my high-school sweetheart. I clearly remember that day. I was a baby Christian, however, and it would be years before I fully understood the calling and became immersed in that ministry. You can imagine my confusion when, several years ago, I felt God asking me to step out of that work. What would I do if I didn’t minister to women?
Reluctantly I stepped away and began the process of redefining myself and finding purpose in what I do. It was during this season that I created a blog and began to write. Writing was always a secret desire of mine, but I had never done anything to cultivate that skill. The only evidence of that secret was a couple of writing books hidden on my bookshelves, impulsively purchased from quaint little bookstores. God was planting seeds in my heart, and in all the seasons of moving or purging, those two cherished books were tucked away with the hope of someday.
“Someday” is often elusive due to the urgency of the “here and now” and there never seemed to be enough time or energy to explore those books. I was busy raising four girls, and more recently helping with the care of elderly parents. Such was the case the day I received a distressing phone call from my 88-year-old mother.
“I want to come back, Connie. Whatever it takes, I want to come home.” She had been living in an assisted-living facility close to my sister’s home, two hours away from me. Her anxiety was surprising as I thought she had adjusted to living in a retirement home. She was involved in many of the activities and seemed to be content, so this plea to come home caught me off guard. There was not much discussion. Mom’s mind was made up! I called the retirement village in her hometown and was able to secure an apartment. Within a few weeks, she was back in the area. Mom was content again—almost.
One of the activities she missed from her former residence was the art class. On several occasions, the administrator at her new facility and I talked about the possibility of such a program. I may have nagged too many times because one day she asked, “Would you like to teach it?” My immediate response was, “Oh no, I’m not an artist.” Weeks went by, no class developed, and I couldn’t stop thinking about art for this group of seniors. There was an internal battle going on in my heart as I felt God impressing me to say yes to this opportunity. Feeling unqualified to take this on, I resisted.
I admire people who are naturally creative, and I don’t consider myself one of them. I am a self-proclaimed doodler. I scribble pictures in the margins of classroom notes, church bulletins, even store receipts. I sketch flowers when I talk on the phone. I draw scary dinosaurs and big superheroes for my grandsons to color. However, I didn’t take any art classes in high school. Not one. I just envied the kids who did. In her book, Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain, Betty Edwards says, “Most children between the ages of nine and eleven have a passion for realistic drawing… and begin to draw certain favorite subjects over and over, attempting to perfect the image.” (Mine were Charlie Brown and Snoopy.) Edwards goes on, “Children often abandon art… because unthinking people make derogatory remarks about their work. Children react defensively, and understandably so, seldom ever attempt to draw again.”
Reading those words brought back a long-forgotten memory from third grade. During art class, the assignment was to draw trees. As the teacher walked by the students, she commented on their artwork. When she got to my desk, I remember her taking hold of my elbow, pulling me out of my seat, and walking me over to the window. Sternly she said, “Look outside. Do you see those trees? Is that what your trees look like?” Evidently not, and I slinked back to my chair. I don’t remember ever drawing much again after that class. I didn’t sign up for art classes in high school. I didn’t think about art for many years. I wasn’t an artist. I couldn’t even draw a tree.
I don’t know why Betty Edwards’ book caught my eye in the library that day, more than 30 years after my humiliating third-grade experience. I’d like to think there was a divine connection. Perhaps God led me to it, knowing I’d need it for this new season in my life. I checked it out and read it, cover to cover, and I renewed it three times. When the librarian said I couldn’t check it out again, my eight-year-old daughter checked it out for me. I found the pages fascinating and inspiring, but I wasn’t ready to buy the book. That seemed presumptuous of me. Afterall, I wasn’t an artist.
One evening, with that book in my lap, as my husband and I watched a basketball game, I took a piece of scrap paper, and began to doodle. Ten minutes later, when I nudged him as I revealed my drawing, he said, “Hey, it’s me! That’s pretty good.” Those few little words were all the encouragement I needed.
I bought the book.
That was 15 years ago, and although I sketched for months after I purchased the book, again the “here and now” consumed me. Life with a young family was super busy, and the coveted art book found its place alongside two writing books on my forever dusty bookshelf. I was satisfied and fulfilled (and tired) as I found my purpose in motherhood.
Some people are fortunate and know their purpose with one big “ah ha” moment, but for others of us, our purpose comes in little bite-sized pieces. Those nuggets might even go unnoticed and neglected for years, gathering dust on an old bookshelf. When my daughters grew up and began families of their own, I found myself a little lost. During this unsettled time of my life, I was invited by a new friend to a writing conference. Yep, a writing conference. God stirred something in my heart that weekend as he creatively used other writers to speak into my life. As we were about to leave, one of the workshop mentors asked if she could say some parting words over me. She placed her arm around my shoulders, and said, “Those women at your mom’s retirement home? Pay attention to that. I think they may be your people.”
That may have been my “ah ha” moment.
Her words resonated in my head and heart for weeks, and with some hesitation, I finally said yes to teaching that art class at my mom’s assisted-living home. After all, the residents weren’t looking to be the next Picasso, I reasoned. They simply needed to pass the time. I felt confident I could help with some activity.
Six residents joined me in the dining room that first day where tables had been pushed together and draped in plastic. One by one I got each artist involved in a project. Lorraine and Daisy chose to color. Nita didn’t seem to understand what was going on, but I placed a coloring page in front of her with a small box of crayons. By the end of the hour, she had two pink flamingos with orange beaks and a blue sky.
Roberta was excited and knew exactly what she wanted to do, saying, “I like acrylic paints, do you have those?” I started to squeeze the paint onto her palette, and she whispered, “Not too much; they are expensive, and we don’t want to waste it.” She created a beautiful picture of flowers and greenery, mixing several paints to get just the right color.
Phyllis wanted to participate, but said, “I can’t see. I wish I could do it.” I drew a large, simple flower on the canvas, and placed it in front of her, and she spent the entire hour coloring that single bloom. My own mother chose an intricate paint-by-number picture using sharp-pointed colored pencils rather than the floppy paintbrush. I was taking it all in and already making notes for the next class.
I thought this activity was for my mother, but I was soon whispering to Phyllis, patting Nita on the back, and embracing the whole group. Lorraine told me she was Mom’s neighbor as a teenager. I was saddened to hear that Roberta’s sister recently passed away. Daisy smiled as she reminisced about playing with my mother when she was just a little girl.
Something happened during that first encounter as wrinkles seemed to disappear and age spots faded away. These new friends hadn’t always been 90-something-years old. They were young once, and I could see it, as if I’d stepped back in time. They had lived full lives with families and careers. They had hopes and dreams just like you and me. I imagined Daisy and Mom sitting under a big oak tree playing with rag dolls, and a young pretty Phyllis, with perfect eyesight, reading her favorite book.
The lives of these wives, mothers, and nurses are now slower-paced, and days full of work from sunrise to sunset are a thing of the past. They look for simple activities to fill their days. Options are few, boredom and loneliness become their close companions. These days, my elderly “students” are content to paint with simple watercolor markers and are happy to spend a couple of hours doing anything productive. They are proud to hang their art on the walls in their rooms because they are pleased with their work. When family members visit, they all enjoy talking about the class. It is something new, and there is a different piece to discuss every week.
I have learned much since that first class. Practical things like paint-by-number pictures and adult coloring books have tiny details that prove too challenging for this age group. Large detail and bold print work best for tired, weary eyes. As weeks went by, I knew I needed to outline my drawings with black marker to enable Phyllis to participate in class. Before long, every artist wanted their picture big and bold as well. I buy black Sharpies by the case now, so I have enough on hand to outline all the pictures on every canvas.
I learned early on that I cannot paint alongside them for when I do, I lose myself in the art, and I forget to pay attention. I miss the sacredness of the precious moments. Sometimes I feel as if I’m on holy ground. The purpose and fulfillment I feel assures me that I’m exactly where God has called me to be.
I am humbled and grateful that God put a desire in me to be an artist and kept nudging me along. That yearning was confusing over the years and I didn’t fully understand. I am awed by the creativity of my Father. I am again ministering to women, but in unique and different ways, and to a much more mature crowd. I love them to pieces and feel incredibly blessed to have them in my life.
I no longer say I’m not an artist. My work isn’t published in an art magazine. You won’t find it on exhibit at a museum. It’s in the age-spotted hand that rests on the canvas. It’s in the crooked fingers that hold the delicate paintbrush. When canvases are held high for a photo-op at the end of class, you’ll see my handiwork in big beautiful smiles and sweet tinkling eyes.
The beauty of my work is in them.
I am an artist.