Why I Need Art in my Life

I’m writing this at 3:20 am. It’s been one of those nights where I wake up in the middle in the night with an urge to express myself. I’ve had these kinds of nights all my life, except in Boston, where my college and teaching life required every ounce of sleep I could get. I’m sure you’ve had one of those nights, too, where you just wake up and don’t know what to do with myself. When I came to Nicaragua, I began to understand what these nights mean for me. They are times when my mind feels as if it can’t wait until morning to express itself. So, I write. Or paint.

Why am I choosing to blog about painting before the sun comes up? Because in Nicaragua, I’ve realized that painting is one of the few things that makes me happy. It’s taken me almost a year into my service to claim happiness as something I deserve purely for myself. Last month, after I’d gone through a breakup and sought out mental health days, Martha, my doctor, asked me what made me happy. I said: “I’ve been here for 9 months, and I have so much free time, but I still don’t know what makes me happy. Making other people happy makes me happy”. I’ve realized this is how many other social justice workers find happiness-by helping others. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if it’s our only source of happiness, we are losing out on life. In order to make others happy, we need to take care of ourselves first.

I’ve always enjoyed drawing. When I was five, my parents bought me the most beautiful “How to Draw Disney Characters” books from the Disney Store. They even came with their own pencils. I treasured those shiny, oversized books. My mom started out showing me how to draw. I can still remember how perfectly she drew Mickey Mouse’s round face and ears. I wanted to draw like that. So, I kept practicing. I wondered why someone would draw the ¾ view of Mickey Mouse’s head turned to the side. It looked harder, so I started drawing that view as well. My goal in life was to draw just as well as my mom had drawn Mickey Mouse’s head.

Me, at age 3. I wanted to draw Mickey as well as my mom could. Photo by the author.
Me, at age 3. I wanted to draw Mickey as well as my mom could. Photo by the author.

Soon enough, I was churning out near exact replicas of Minnie Mouse, Pluto, and Donald Duck. I was eager to show my drawings to everyone I could so that they could catch a glimpse of the joys and frustrations I’d experienced from drawing. My dad was the most critical of my drawings. He always congratulated me first, then advised me to check the proportions and shading of that Dog’s ear I’d drawn, or the Genie’s belly that should be darker because it’s turned away from the light. Of course, when you’re a kid, it’s hard for you to appreciate constructive criticism. It shows someone actually wants you to improve. Instead of working to draw Mickey like my mom had done, I was now working to satisfy my dad, hoping that one day, he would tell me that my drawing was perfect, and that my work was done. I’m glad he never said that to me.

When I was 10, I discovered Lee Hammond’s “How to Draw” books. I can’t believe I still remember her name, but that goes to show how important those books were for me. I remember flipping through her books with my dad, showing him how perfectly she shaded a squirrel’s fluffy tail. How did she make shading look so effortless, I wondered? We quickly found out her secret: tortillions. These are simple stumps of paper, rolled into cones at the ends, that she used to shade the hardest of pencils strokes and blurr them into reality. I needed to draw the squirrel the way she did, with it’s fluffy, perfectly shaded tail. Lee revealed yet another monumental secret to her ways: using a kneaded eraser. In order to make white hair strokes look more real, you could mold an eraser into a thin shape and use wispy strokes to create negative space. I hadn’t realized that by erasing a drawing, you could add to it. It took two or three tries, but eventually, I recreated the squirrel, almost as perfect as hers. That squirrel is probably in my nightstand somewhere in my room, buried underneath old Pokémon cards and a graphing calculator. Back then, the squirrel won first place in my section at the annual Grant County Fair, and put a whopping $13 in my pocket. I was so proud!

Now that I think of when I first began painting, I think of all of the oil-based paint-by-numbers of horses that I’d do. There was something strangely soothing about staying in the lines, making sure that my brush strokes were calm and contained, but that even if I did mess up, I needn’t worry, because you can paint over oils. I remember listening to my Dad explain that “the good thing about oil paint is that if you make a mistake, you can paint over it”. I was more than happy to fix my mistakes, if that meant making him happy.

Only now when write this do I realize that I used art as a way to please my dad. I was homeschooled from age 8-11, and I can’t think of all the times I felt inadequate. I never seemed to understand math nearly as quickly as he wanted me to. Fractions scared me. Long division was always a mental marathon. My brother studied books on web site design and was finding the surface area of cones, while I was still struggling to add fractions. He was 2 years older than me, after all, and ended up studying Astrophysics at Cornell. I studied French and Women’s Studies at a Wellesley and ended up tutoring and teaching math two years out of college. It’s funny how things work out. I didn’t know things would work out this way, so in the meantime, the only leg up I had on my brother was that I could draw. If my lack of mathematical understanding couldn’t please my dad, then my drawings could.

The point of writing about art was to show that it makes just me happy, but it’s interesting to think of the point at which art became something for myself, and not for my dad. During my teens, I barely drew at all. I was more concerned with adjusting to public school life after having my brother be my only friend for 3 years during out homeschooling. I thought that through art, I could please potential friends, so I ended up drawing Disney characters for my classmates. I would even ask them when they needed them by. I remember one classmate sucking on a lollipop, with a puzzled look on her face, then matter-of-factly saying “by Wednesday”. I turned them in diligently, hoping to make new friends this way.

Drawings didn’t help me make friends. Instead, I quickly immersed myself in the negativity of teenage drama, dating, and insecurity, hoping that with that $60 Abercrombie sweater, I could be normal. Normal is such a distorted concept when you’re in middle school, especially when you’re a white-looking Mexican girl with braces who has to explain to everyone that she’s lived in the same town as you since she was 3, but that she was homeschooled. Thankfully, I integrated through sports. I played volleyball and basketball, and ended up making more friends that way.

Once high school began, my parents divorced and my dad moved back to Mexico. By then, art wasn’t a part of my life-I just saw it as something I did to pass the time. I was more focused on playing tennis, eating pizza sticks, and acquiring my permanent residency so that I could finally visit Mexico. You would never suspect it from my appearance and last name (Johnson Stoever), but I was an undocumented immigrant until age 15. I’ve only been a U.S. citizen since 2011. I need to write a book about that.

In college, art had no real significance for me either. I distracted myself from the stresses of grade deflation by rowing with the crew team, going to the gym, and learning to dance to bachata at Ryles. I saw the art students as these foreign, intellectual women who I envied for having continued their passion, while I had left art on the backburner. I felt more useful learning Italian, welcoming the first generation Latin@ students to the pseudo-ivy leagues, and wondering which white person came up with the alternative to the “brownie”: a “blondie”. The only art class I took was a 2D design course. We had students from the Olin school of Engineering in our class, The things they knew about cropping and negative space intimidated me. People in Boston took art seriously.

The only time I impressed my classmates was during our typography section. I could meticulously copy any font that I saw perfectly, while the Olin students slaved away at creating stencils to trace. For my final project, I presented a painting I’d done of the countries that mattered to me and the phrases I associated with them. The endearing greeting “cou cou”! hovered above France. I researched font styles and replicated them. One Olin student shook his head in disbelief at my perfect, free-handed letters, saying “I don’t understand how you do that so well, without a stencil or anything!”. I beamed inside. For once, I had beat the Northeastern, elitist, academic environment that had kicked my ass for 4 years.

It wasn’t until a year and a half later that I painted anything. After a trip to the art galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with my mom, I was inspired to paint again. I loved how the artists transformed simple, burnt orange adobe houses into colorful structures. I understood why painters flocked to that chilly desert. The lighting from the vast blue sky lit everything up in a particular way, just as the light shines here in Nicaragua. I remember bursting into to the Blick Art store near the Boston Symphony building on a freezing January day, scouting out an acrylic paint set that I could finally put to use. I sat in my freezing, poorly insulated apartment in Roxbury with the light streaming in, as if to remind me of the light that had inspired me to paint. I painted two adobe houses on canvas and mailed them to my mom. A few months later, I painted a VW beetle driving into the distance and sent it to my Aunt Monica in San Antonio. That year as a teacher was exhausting for me, but I felt so at peace and in my element when I painted.

Now, I’m in Nicaragua, and I’ve painted three portraits. I’m no longer replicating art work, but painting the Nicaraguans I meet. My first portrait was of my friend Doña Abigail, who paints piggy banks in the park. I couldn’t get over how majestic she looked in the photo I’d taken of her, holding her brush to her Piggy Bank. I had thought about painting her for a while, but I was nervous to paint a human. I’d never painted a portrait before. Sure enough, I proved to myself that I could do it. I realized that I had my own style. As long as the eyes were just right, I told myself, the painting would come together. I gave Abigail the painting. Her reaction? “I’m scared. I don’t know what to say! Wow”. She ended up keeping the painting in a bag next to her on her bench, eagerly showing it to her many friends who would pass by for the next couple of days.

Abigail, my first portrait. Photo by the author.
Abigail, my first portrait. Photo by the author.

The next portrait was of my friend Doris’ daughter, Elena, for her birthday. This painting was a bit more challenging for me, but only because I felt pressured to make it look great for her special day. Also, her face was slightly tilted, which was a challenged that I overcame by consistently trying to see the picture in quadrants and to focus on the shapes and shades. I’ve trained myself to paint shades and shapes, instead of telling myself things like “ok, this is a nose. Paint a nose”. I’ve realized how subjective painting can be. After this painting, my mom urged me to keep painting because I have a unique style. I love using the bright, vibrant colors I’m immersed in each day, whether I’m walking to buy rice and beans or looking at a palm tree from my backyard. It’s still funny for me to think that I actually live in a place with palm trees.

Elena.
Elena, my second portrait. Photo by the author.

So, now does painting make me happy? Yes. It takes me to the present and keeps me there. Being present is such an important part of the day. Ever since reading The Power of Now, I’ve realized how much I used to worry about the past and future. Painting grounds me in the now. For mental health’s sake, everyone needs one thing that grounds them in the now. When we’re present, we worry less about other things or other people outside our control. When I concentrate on painting, I feel as if I’m in control. While I like to get things done right, painting reminds me me that it’s okay to make mistakes. I’ve adopted acrylics instead of oils because like oils, you can paint over your mistakes. Unlike oils, acrylics dry faster. You can also dilute them with water to create a watercolor effect. I like to have a blend of light, watered down strokes of the background with the precise strokes required to paint the eyes.

You may have noticed that while I have claimed painting as something for myself, I still give away all of my work. Logistically, it makes sense. I don’t want to worry about packing all of my paintings when I move. I’m a nomad. I’m always thinking of keeping only what I need. What I need is the experience of painting, not so much the result. Yes, I still paint to make other people happy, but now it’s more so that they can share in my joy and frustrations. Sharing these key human emotions was the most important reason for showing people my first drawings of Mickey Mouse in the first place.

What place has art had in your life?

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