The Story of a Canvas is the Story of You
She woke up to the sound of birds, each chirping and warbling their individual songs, their sounds all strung together, looping back and forth. Rolling over in bed, she reached out to tap her phone and checked the time. 4:04 a.m. That's what time it was. She rolled back over and stretched herself long, still listening to the music of the birds. She wasn't tired, not even a little bit, so she rolled over again and got out of bed to get a drink of water, with the sound of the birds following her all the way to the kitchen.
There wasn't even a hint of a sunrise on the horizon. Her kitchen window faced the east so she always looked for the promise of light that could be seen low in the eastern sky at the usual time that she woke up. It was still too early for that and she mused that the saying is true, it's always darkest right before the dawn.
Once she was up, she thought about going back to bed. But when she walked by her studio door, she paused. She stepped in. Leaning against the wall was a half-finished painting that she had been working on for a client. In a dark studio, the details of the artwork looked obscure, but as the artist, none of it was obscure to her. She had memorized every layer of work that had gone into this piece.
Her mind went back to the beginning. It began with a thought in her mind, a desire to create. When she found this canvas on the rack of the art store, she took it down to feel the weight of it before she nodded because she knew it had a strong frame. It was built to go through a process of becoming art, it was designed to be worked over, and so it would be.
The first time her fingers unfurled the plastic around the canvas and slid it out onto the studio floor, she admired the glowing fresh appearance of its unmarked surface. It was new. It was perfect. It was ready. And so the process of creating began. A wash of paint ran across the surface, staining the tiny crevices in the texture of the canvas material. Dabs and marks were placed here and there before the rasping sound of a charcoal stick wrote words across the surface. Another wash of paint soaked the surface of the canvas, blurring the charcoal letters. It all looked like nothing and yet it was something it hadn't been before.
After a time, she stacked the unfinished canvas against the wall of her studio and left it there. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and months turned into a year. In the process of that year, the canvas was loaded into a Uhaul moving trailer where it traveled from Denver to Nashville. Its new home didn't feel like much of a home. Now it was put in the basement, left alone along a gray block wall, where bugs crawled across it every night.
When spring came, the artist went down to the basement and picked up the canvas. It was time to work on the next part of its process. Another wash of paint. Another series of dabs and curious writing. It all looked like nothing and yet it was something it hadn't been before.
And now here she stood, staring at the unfinished piece. Suddenly, she knew what to do next. It was almost like the layered, marked canvas told her what it needed. She knelt in front of it and traced the composition. It was time for another layer. Perhaps she would start all over again if this layer didn't finish the piece, but she was always less interested in an outcome and more curious about the process of creating. She could never find out what a canvas could become unless she was willing to play, to try again, and even to ruin it. The soft promise of a coming sunrise lightened the room where her fingers danced across the surface of the layered canvas. She didn't think too much about what she was doing so she could focus on the motion and the feeling of the wet paint sliding over the textured layers of the canvas.
Just as the first rays of sunlight touched her, she leaned back. She didn't know if it was finished, but she listened to her intuition to pause. Not another mark. Not another dab. Not another wash of paint. It was time to let it be what it was for now. She would let it dry and come back to it later.
That was my Monday morning. I got up at 4 a.m. and worked on a painting that I've been working on, off and on, for about two years. Last summer I met and instantly connected one time with a woman named Elizabeth before she moved to Florida and I moved to Nashville. The day we met, she told me that she wanted me to paint something for her. Maybe that sounds crazy, but that day I knew I would paint for her. I have learned that these types of strong connections never lie — they always happen for a reason.
For years, Elizabeth had been writing down words and phrases that held meaning for her. The words were anything from being obviously powerful words to goofy nicknames or times and places. There were hundred and hundreds of words. When she told me that she wanted me to create a pice of art with them, I felt inspired right away. But once I had all the words and I was sitting in front of the canvas, I had no idea what to do next.
I wrote the words on the canvas in straight lines, to begin with. And then I stopped. I moved across the country and the canvas ended up in my basement for a while. At one point, I felt so frustrated with myself because I couldn't finish this art piece. But through the whole creative process, I trusted our connection and Elizabeth trusted me with her words to create a piece of artwork for her.
On Monday, I sent a bunch of photos to Elizabeth and she cried on her way to work. "Is it done?" she asked me. I thought it could be. She thought so, too. We both felt emotional. I sat in front of it and realized that yes, it was completed. Unknown to me, a few hours earlier at 4 a.m., it was receiving its final layer. I was just following and trusting the process, one small step at a time.
Your life is like this creative process. Each day is like another mark on the canvas. Each year is like another wash of paint. Sometimes it will feel awkward and other times it will feel breathtakingly magnificent, sometimes you may feel overlooked or used or forgotten, while other times you'll know you've been found. Every part of your journey is a part of the process that contributes to who you are becoming.
You are here.
You are spilling onto the canvas of your life, sometimes with lines that are strung together and sometimes with marks that land precariously here, then there. Sometimes your life will feel structured like a fortress and sometimes it will feel like it's falling apart. And yet, not a single mark is lost. Every mark has a purpose that applies itself, unknowingly, to results of your destiny. Like a thousand strings intertwined, touching, pulling, pushing, as you breathe in and out, moment by moment, each part of the process is forming you. Sometimes it all looks like nothing and yet you are becoming someone who you haven't been before.
Today is a day that matters because you matter. Your very breath has a purpose.
You can follow and trust the process, one small step at a time, one loss at a time, one win at a time.