If you haven’t read the first post about this, scroll down to that post and read it first so this one will make sense to you.
Monday morning, I woke to the sounds of birds chirping in the bushes outside my room and the dull roar of waves crashing along the cliffside below. I looked at the schedule for this painting workshop I signed up for and it was 10am to noon, 4pm to 6pm and 8 to 10pm every day. “Yipes” I thought. This was going to be more intense than I expected but I guess they need that much time if they’re teaching two dozen people how to paint. I showered and made my way down to breakfast, choosing to sit back at the wooden countertop and bench that looked over the ocean to avoid potential awkward conversation with others.
As I walked through the property and up to a bridge that goes over a stream to connect the two sides of land, it felt, I don’t know, kind of symbolic to cross a bridge to a side where you get to experience a new part of you. I immediately shook my head and planned to never say that out loud because it sounded like “hippie talk” and that wasn’t me. I joined the others in a large dome tent near the cliffside where we were protected from the cold and damp, but could hear the waves crashing outside. I was excited and a little nervous as I walked in, grabbed a stool, and sat in a circle with the others who were also here to learn this skill.
As one of our instructors started talking, I realized this wasn’t a class where we were going to learn techniques on how to paint. “WHAT did I get myself into?” I said to myself again, trying not to giggle. The instruction was to paint what you feel. “Wait. How do I paint what I feel when I don’t know how to paint?” I thought. There were several tubs of water color on tables behind our painting area, which were individual spots with poster-sized paper taped up to the inside walls of the dome tent. We each had several size paint brushes at our station but the paint was on the tables behind it so you could walk away from your painting and think about what you were doing. Seeing it from afar may change how you feel and physically removing yourself from standing right in front of it helps with those feelings.
Let me get this straight. No instruction, paint what you feel. Uh…got it.
I decided to paint my favorite tropical vacation spot Wil and I go to every year because it makes me really happy. Happy is good! I started with the water, blending colors together that I could see in my mind of that warm ocean I love to swim in and watch sunsets over. Blue is my favorite color so it made me really happy to start with that. I then (awkwardly) added some beach, some rocks, and some palm trees, laughing at my inability to draw or paint any perspective whatsoever. I decided to fill the sky with one of the beautiful, colorful sunsets I would see every evening when we are there. And that’s when I started to figure out why we were doing this the way we were doing it.
In my 17 years as a hairdresser, I only told a handful of my clients that I’m colorblind. I’m sure that’s a scary thing for your hairdresser who’s about to color your hair to say to you, but I only told those people because our conversation had somehow led to it. I was great at doing shades of blonde because I didn’t have a problem seeing that. But shades of red were very scary to me, so I stuck completely to the numbers on the color tubes and a chart from the manufacturer I was trained on in school. I could trust myself to do those colors correctly on paper but never by what I saw. Same with cool tone browns. They just looked green to me but that’s not what the client saw, and they were always very happy when I finished, so it was fine. Here, I’m about to paint a sunset, which has multiple colors and shades, by choosing base colors and mixing them together without a label. Scary.
I walked up to the table of paints and asked an instructor what one color was because it was a weird one I couldn’t see well. She said it was a burnt brick red. Awesome. I dipped my brush in it, and walked over and brushed it across my skyline. I stopped, horrified. It looked pink to me. Like, magenta pink. I asked the girl painting next to me what color it was and she said a dark brownish red. WHAT?! I stood there for several minutes, angry that I asked someone else to tell me what the color looked like. Then it hit me like a ton of (magenta) bricks that this was about trusting myself. Trusting that the colors I choose to make the beautiful sunset I see every time I’m there to be what I SEE, not what I think others see. Hello, first lesson in trust. I see what you did there. The finished result was a perfect sunset (in my eyes) and perfect blues in the ocean, silly looking palm trees, rocks, and a beach that kind of looked like something a fourth grader would paint, but that’s okay. The completed painting made me very happy because for the first time ever, I trusted myself to do what I wanted with color, and that felt pretty great.
We had a long break between our afternoon sessions, with lunch happening in the middle of it. I decided to take a detour and go on a little hike up the canyon along the stream the bridge crosses over. It was really pretty but I felt nervous being there alone with all the places you could lose your footing and fall. I cautiously made my way through for about 20 minutes and decided to go back for lunch. Not feeling very social, I ended up taking my meal to my room. I ate, napped, and went back to the painting workshop. This became my routine for three days. But each time I went back to paint, I was painting what began as some sort of landscape scenery that I would start without thinking, take a step back, and realize the things I was creating were symbols of things in my life. Water was always in the painting because it felt calm to me, and huge redwood trees would symbolize me and others I cared about; strong, solid, and able to withstand the fires that could and would sweep in. I stood back from one particular painting and just stared at it for several minutes. What I wanted to add was a volcano but it didn’t seem right surrounded by all the pretty trees and wildflowers I’d just created along a river. One instructor came over and stood next to me, both of us looking at my painting. She asked what I felt like adding to it and I said a volcano but it didn’t seem right. She said a volcano is a very powerful thing and I should add it if I feel like it. And then I became a crying mess. There have been relationships in my life that felt like a volcano; volatile, unpredictable, unsafe. Over time, I would physically be removed from them, thinking I was protecting myself. But standing there afraid to paint an angry, erupting mountain that I didn’t want anywhere near me and all that felt calm, I understood how being physically away from these people did not help me get past the feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and mistrust of those past relationships. I painted my volcano and everything around it became symbols of my feelings. UGH. I was an emotional mess as I finished this painting. I ate a very small lunch in my room, and then took a long nap. After that though, I began to feel a lot better than I had in days.
Since I was feeling better emotionally, I took more chances and parked myself in different areas during mealtimes. At each meal, I’d end up talking with someone new. Well, new to me anyway. Pretty much everyone I had encountered had been to Esalen before so I was the newbie. I heard really wonderful stories from men and women, most of them older than me and of course, more experienced at this place than me. I was beginning to see what I thought were a bunch of “hippies” were actually people a lot like me. People who wanted a break, wanted to learn something new about themselves which, it turns out, is what all of their workshops are about. They were all just people who had found a place where they could express themselves. It was like therapy but in nature, which was exactly why I had this strong sense of wanting to go there in the first place.
That afternoon and all the next day, I ended up painting a large sunflower. Again, I hadn’t set out to make this but when I stood in front of that blank piece of paper, that’s what I started to paint. I grabbed a wooden stool (and a palette of the paints I was using with my tiny brush) and spent hours working on it. It felt very meditative to me. When I was done, I stood back and looked at it. The whole thing looked very happy and peaceful to me. It felt really good that I created this thing that taught me about patience, about putting thought and care into something just for me and not worrying about perfection.
I looked back through all the paintings I had done over the week and saw it as a story of things in my life that made me the person I am today. Clearly, the person who hadn’t faced a lot of feelings I thought I had moved past, and that’s why I had been feeling unhappy and trapped for the past several months.
I cleaned up my supplies, walked out of the tent and over that bridge, and headed back to my room for one the most restful nights of sleep I’d had in months.