“The gift of life gives you the greatest opportunity to live and the chance to rise above any situation. With a hopeful attitude, you can overcome any struggle.”
Lailah Gifty Akita
At the start of April 2017, I felt on top of the world as an artist. I was getting ready for my first major solo art exhibit at the Memphis Botanic Gardens. I had 18 pieces of art ready to hang. I was featured on a radio talk show to promote my art exhibit, email blasts were being sent out to thousands all over the city of Memphis, my art show was featured as “a thing to do in the 901.” I felt like I was on top of the world and my future life as an artist was launching in a major way. It took me about 3 to 4 hours to hang my paintings the day before the exhibit launched. I wanted to make sure everything was perfect. I wanted it to have a high visual impact that could stop people and make them gaze longer, and I wanted to highlight my very best and who I was as a person. I have never been a person to seek out approval from other people. Other’s opinions of me never mattered much in my world. I always knew what I stood for, who I was in my soul and in my heart, and what I could accomplish if my fear didn’t hinder my momentum. I needed only one person’s approval and opinion, my mother’s, and oh did she approve. My mother had a perfect eye for design. She recognized authentic art and individuality. I suppose she raised her children to not care much for others’ opinions but to pursue what we desired most. She was the only person I would consult with on new art ideas. She was the first person I would show new work to and she had to be there while I hung my art. She was my personal guide and consultant. My first major solo exhibit was as much hers as it was mine. I knew she had been waiting for this moment since she discovered I was born with an artistic gift. She had been waiting for this moment since I was in a highchair. The exhibit launched, and my art reception was here. My mom talked with every person who came. I, the artist should have, and maybe I did by the end of the night, but my mother greeted every person who walked through the door and spent at least 10 minutes talking with them. She was always a people person. I was never a people person. She could carry on a conversation with someone she never knew and would genuinely get to know them. I would much rather watch people from across the room and read their body language to see if they had a genuine interest and then I would approach them. It was a successful evening and for a person who didn’t care much for others’ approval I was approved, and it felt amazing. Two days later my mom had a massive stroke and as quickly as my success was taking off it came to a screeching halt. I didn’t care that I had art on display anywhere. I didn’t care that I was able to juggle a full-time job successfully and a full-time art job successfully. I didn’t care about anything. My mom was fighting for her life and the following 10 to 12 months were hell. She died twice and both times was revived after 10 minutes of doctors and nurses pounding on her chest. She would improve dramatically, only to nearly die again days later. Every improvement brought 5 more obstacles that set her back even more. Then the reality set in, she wasn’t going to get better. She was going to live in a wheelchair, with a feeding tube, with a trach, with chronic pneumonia and it changed me; having to accept that truth altered my soul, my personality, my heart and my drive and motivation at everything I did. In other words, I didn’t care about anything anymore. I didn’t care if I was successful and moving up in my career. I didn’t care if I became a well-known artist. I didn’t care if I flipped burgers or if I became a business owner. Unfortunately, I still lack the motivation I had. I am not sure I will ever get it back. All of the passion I put into my career and art just disappeared. Life soon went from making it a “success journey” to just surviving. Even though my passion and motivation disappeared I didn’t stop. I kept on doing what I did. I was on autopilot and I was still performing at work. My art; however, stopped. I made sales on my work, I did a few commissions, but my creative drive was gone. Then I realized my mom was not just my support and guide, she was my muse. What does an artist do when they lose their muse? Now, my mom is 110% mentally sharp and driven, and everyday she amazes me. She has adapted and has learned to live with a wheelchair, with a feeding tube and a trach. She lives gracefully, always polite and thanking her nurses. She is a graceful example in a mean, dark and materialistic world. She maybe mad but instead of yelling and screaming and being bitter and resentful she smiles and shares wisdom with her daughters on how to forgive and let go of ways others have hurt us in the past. She walks with true divine mercy and a true touch from the Lord that I get to experience every time I am with her. It is the most special life experience I believe I will have. People talk about how they feel God when their babies are born and grow. It is the same feeling at the end when loved ones slowly deteriorate and die. I am choosing to find the beauty and the silent miracles in this process so I am not resentful, angry and depressed. So where do I go from here? I haven’t sold a piece of art in over 6 months. I have barely wanted to pick up a paint brush. Before, I could sit and paint a large 48 x 48 landscape and find God in every stroke I made. Now I am a bit sad when I paint, mostly because I am still mourning a life that I once had, a life my family once had. Although my mom is alive, the life we had is dead. My art has changed along with what I find important in life. I have never been an abstract artist but the few paintings I have been able to do have been abstract. They have winding lines, contrasting colors, fluid motion. When I completed them, it made me think of my mom’s brain trauma from the stroke. Doctors said, at the beginning, it would be difficult to tell how much my mom would improve because when there was damage to the brain certain areas or pathways die but the brain can create new pathways to transmit messages and it relearns how to communicate with the body. In time we would see how well new pathways would form in my mom’s brain. What she would be able to relearn and what she would not be able to regain. The more I learned about brain trauma and strokes the more I began feeling that creative flame I had before. Art has always been about relaying emotions and invoking feelings in the viewer. Art has always influenced our brains, made us have specific thoughts and feelings. My art is currently evolving. We all evolve as people. Sometimes evolution comes from natural progression, other times it comes from rising above traumatic situations. This new art and new style I create is directly related to the jumbled-up feelings I have in my heart. There is no rhyme or reason to the art. There is no clear image in these paintings. They are hazy, they are contrasting, they are empty in some places and full in another. They are a true expression of the mess I feel daily. This is my Mrs. Mary collection. It is named after my mother. I want to hold onto these moments to remind myself, in 20 years, the lessons I learned, the grace my mother displayed and the hope, compassion and forgiveness she taught me.