Paint Understands – Using Art to Express the Unbearable


If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint it.

– Edward Hopper

We tell small children to use their words. We want to teach them to express negative feelings verbally rather than through biting, scratching or kicking.

What do you do when words cannot adequately express the saddest parts of our hearts? When the darkness is so great you are swallowed in inky pain?

Give them paint, brushes or a lump of clay.

As an Artist, I’ve often struggled over my message and if it would be meaningful to anyone. I retreated to safe themes: flamboyant gardens and florals. Who doesn’t like flowers? But they were mute little bouquets – mine had nothing much to say.

At the end of 2012 my mother’s Avon lady found her in the driveway disoriented and unable to breathe. On the way to the ER Mom told me that she did not want to die this way. “Are you dying?” The child in me expected my mother to tell me what to do and how to do it. She has always been the Matriarch, the Oracle, Everything. Now I was speaking for her. They told us repeatedly that Mom was close to death. And each time they would intubate her and we’d wait for the next trauma.

My days were daily rounds of dropping children off with a babysitter, sitting in the icy ICU watching machines breathe for my elderly mother and wondering if this was what she was wrenching to make calls of life and death even those based on her own wishes. But I did – every day. Just when you think you could not take another bout of her dying – it would happen again. I felt like a warrior – defending my mother and speaking for her. I could not paint during this time but I sure did a lot of praying.

Mom slowly improved and they moved her to a rehab facility, I took a painting class. I was creatively stiff and needed the exercise. The instructor asked us to create a painting based on death. I was stunned. “C’mon” he said, “All Art is about Sex and Death, anyway!”

I stood silently in front of my canvas and wondered how to depict what little I knew of death. I recalled my mom in the ICU. I had wondered where “she” had been and what the experience might have been like for her. I thought of my Mom – so much had happened but death had not taken her from me. I sketched an image of Mom, colorless and intubated in a hospital bed. It was dramatic and certainly adquately gruesome but empty and superficial. I hadn’t painted the truth. I wanted to reach the essence of the strange place she might have been, in her fluid-filled and sedated state – the odd feeling of floating along hospital corridors wraith-like and wondering what you would discover at your destination. The struggle to find meaning in it all.

I flipped the canvas upside down and painted out the identifiable shapes and allowed the painting itself to tell me what it needed. Keep the hospital colors. Add the essence of a desert – a lonely place or a strange alien landscape. I tried to imagine where she might be. Where she might be going and where was I really? The paint, the nubby brushes and smudged pigments anchored me to my body. While my mind and heart we left to speak their truths and feelings. I created abstract paintings to speak the abstract feelings that can’t be contained in representational imagery.

Back in my studio I went on an emotional story-telling rampage of art-making. Through the pain I had found a new language in paint and found so many more ways to show the struggles and excitement about renewal.

Mom is in hospice now. We have been blessed with many chances to say good-bye and to speak deeply of life and death. It is such great luxury to know that there will be little unsaid.

And also liberating to find that art can speak for me. Paint understands – it tells that paint lifts the soul and finally while it speaks my truth to the world.

Have you used art to tell your story? Get some paint and use it to tell your story. It doesn’t have to be pretty.

Photo by Daniela Vladimirova

23 thoughts on “Paint Understands – Using Art to Express the Unbearable”

  1. Love your exploration of life and art making, Amantha. You are a wonderful story-teller. My natural drive is, and always has been, to explore human nature. I do it both through my painting and writing. Our craft chronicles and explores the human experience. Thank you for telling your story, as it helps me understand my own journey. God bless your Mother.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Michelle. I am glad you found it helpful in understanding your journey. I often feel conflicted exposing such details about my life out of fear that people will not relate to it.

      Visual art and the written word are both so different while the source of inspiration is the same. I find writing so much more challenging than painting – how about you?

  2. Since you and I last spoke, I’ve been telling a lot of clients if words are not how they feel like expressing themselves, then they should be turning to their art. As you know, I deal with helping these folks build their businesses, but most of them freak out at the idea of having to post up on their blogs with diatribes about their life experiences. Instead, I’ve learned that sharing the art in a deliberate and meaningful way can have as much impact if not more than the words they may right.

    Of course, there are methods to all of this, but I’m really starting to get the feeling that the world needs more visual story telling from creatives, like you.

    Ironically, I’m surprised you don’t have your own image up here to share with this story.

    1. You bring up some excellent points, Dave. Interestingly, my MFA from the School of Visual Arts is from their Illustration as Visual Essay Program. I can easily start applying those skills to my abstract work. Hmmm… I think you’re going to need to send me an invoice.

      It is a weird thing that creating art can be so personal and the act of making it public and putting it out there can feel very strange at first. Once you get used to that, actually telling a story plainly in words is another hurdle. Either way, we have to be willing to be hurt – but those fears are more often in our heads, I think.

      Thanks so very much, Dave.

  3. Amantha, this is profoundly beautiful and emotional. It’s amazing how art can swoop in and help us to express when words escape us. Thank you for sharing your story and your art with the world.

  4. This is a beautiful and inspiring story Amantha. I can definitely identify myself and my process with it. It feels so genuine and makes me want to run home to make more none-representative art!

  5. Wow what a story. You really got me to tears. But I cry for all stuff mother and baby related.
    Really loved it Amantha. We don’t often realize that we are not the only ones struggling through life.
    I’m glad everything is better and that this experience helped you to express yourself on a deeper level as an artist.

    1. Isn’t it often hard to remember that everyone has their burdens? But also through it all, we also find that so very many people are kind and helpful. The dark times do often point us to the kindest of people ultimately.

      I’m so glad you were touched by my story. Thank you so much.

  6. Hey Amantha,
    That is a great article, I can even call it a work of art. Writing is also a form of art, isn’t it?
    I paint too, whenever I’m very sad or very happy. I’m not good at it, just use my hand to put whatever is in my heart. But I could never have said it all so beautifully.
    I love this article! Thank you. :)

    1. Nimisha,

      Thank you for your comments. I am so glad you enjoyed my story. I am glad to hear that you also use paint to express your heart. It must be beautiful because it is true to your spirit.

  7. Really nice piece, Amantha. Particularly the last line. And your responses to the comments here are so thoughtful and shine a light on part of you I didn’t know before.

    1. Oh, Melanie. Thank you so much. I appreciate your reading this and for your commenting. I think words are sometimes so nerve-wracking to use because they are so SPECIFIC – in person, I can make jokes and hide behind a jack-o-lantern smile. In person silliness rules – it is less intimidating. But alone with art or words – oh, that is a different story. A great many heartfelt thanks to you.

    1. This is wonderful, James! Just try it. You don’t really even need a lot of supplies to start. Really, you could just grab some paper and a pencil (or a pen) and start making marks. It ALL counts. The best piece of material you have is inside of you – the art supplies are like the words.

      And don’t judge what you make. Just have at it! Good luck.

  8. I can really relate to this and send you deep blessings for your experience with your mum. Sometimes I can find the words sometimes my paintbrush can soothe rage and express better. Since my daughters death nearly five years ago I have started painting in a more intuitive expressive way..its really helped.

  9. Wow, Amntha!!! As someone who uses words and movement to paint the picture, you drew me in completely to your story. I agree…there are certain things we either haven’t invented the vocabulary for or don’t have access to, or are just not the way we interact with the world. Beautifully done. And…I’m glad you achieved wholeness with your mother.

  10. Amantha, I am new to this blog and I just loved this post of yours. It revels in its vulnerability and its open-hearted sharing of what you must have gone through and even go through to this very day. I loved the emotional depth of this article and it was like following you down the river of your recovery process through art. Sharing it :)

    PS – The link to your site in your author box does not work for me. Gives me a 404 Page Not Found. Looking at the link, I think you should remove the /index.html from it and that should fix it.

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