I am a Welsh painter and adjunct instructor in the Art Department at Lake Tahoe Community College. My work has always been focused on the human form as an expression of the psyche, and I feel particularly drawn to portraiture. Since the presidential election, I have felt compelled to contribute in some way to the growing voice of protest. We are in the midst of a great societal and global paradigm shift, and I feel that the role of artists is to use this negative energy as a catalyst for creativity. The tremendous upsurge in artistic expression related to current events has been something of a consolation for me, amid the chaos and trauma brought to us by news agencies and social media at a dizzying pace since January.
The helplessness and shock I experienced after the election triggered a cycle of creativity I haven’t experienced since I was a student. I picked up an old canvas, and started to paint with no clear intention, just an energy. Two hours later, a larger than life Albert Einstein was looking down at me, his eyes expressing a knowing sadness and concern. I knew then that I needed to gather together a community of artists to speak out with the skills that we have, to contribute in the only way we know how.
We called ourselves the Tahoe Activist Artists, and began to meet every month to discuss how we were processing our responses to current events. We wanted our art to contribute to a wider circle of compassion, instead of feeding the divisiveness that is tearing apart our society, both here in the US, and abroad. A decision was made: In order to connect with the wider world and our community, we needed to organize a public event. “We the People: Tahoe Artists Visualize a World of Conversation and Connection” is our first project. We decided to incorporate the “March for Compassion” into the event to allow the Tahoe community to express their hopes, fears, anger and solutions to the rapidly shifting reality we find ourselves in.
All artists are donating a percentage of their profits to charities and causes that they feel connected to. We believe that leading by example is a way we can begin to effect positive change, and that by acting in opposition to the greed that motivates our current leadership, we can take a step towards a future we want to see.
After Albert Einstein ‘appeared’ in my studio, I decided to build on my theme with Marie Curie. These giant portraits of humanitarian scientists had a profound impact on me. I read books about them feverishly, watched documentaries and listened to podcasts in the car. I knew then that I wanted to expand my subject to civil rights activists, and champions of positive change in all walks of life.
Marie Curie (2017)
Oil on Canvas
40 x 40"
When I’m researching my subjects, studying their faces for hours upon hours to capture them in oil paint, I feel a connection to them beyond appearances. It’s as if I start to feel them in my mind and body as the brush moves over the canvas. I dream about them. I once woke up in the night calling Malala’s name.
The paintings even start to communicate with each other. A wordless dialogue seems to transpire when I put them side-by-side, traversing time and space to engage each other. Harriet Tubman and Kathleen Cleaver appear to converse in the studio after my working day is over, as I sit back and ponder.
Harriet Tubman and Kathleen Cleaver conversing in the studio
My decision to paint the ‘Pietà’ came after reading a piece by George Saunders on the role of artists at times like these. He said that “the people making a lot of these Trump initiatives don’t seem able to imagine the actual victims of their programs….So those of us who are in the arts or in journalism can do some work to put real people on the other end of this thing.” (Vox.com, interview with Alexander Bisley)
Compassionem (Pieta) (2017)
Oil on Canvas
40 x 60"
The war in Syria and the effect it is having on a whole generation of children was calling to my artistic mind. I too found it incredibly difficult to look at the images of suffering children. Hearing about them wandering unaccompanied around Europe, having escaped the horrors of war in Syria without their parents, was devastating. The feeling of helplessness at not being able to do anything apart from donate money with my daughter made me want to turn away from the pictures.
It was then that I started to understand what I needed to do. I needed to connect with one individual, instead of millions. Then, maybe I could start to move. As a parent, I can’t fly into war zones to physically be there to connect with the people I want to paint, so I have to use the internet instead. This window on the world has revolutionized the information we have access to now, but I feel it has also desensitized us. We are bombarded with terrifying and traumatic images so often, that we have to emotionally detach to an extent. Sadly, this has led to a cold attitude to refugees, compounded by fear.
I contacted the photojournalist, Manu Brabo, to see if I could use one of his photographs for a painting. He said yes, please do anything to help these people. As a direct witness to the atrocities of war, photographers like Manu are doing one of the most difficult jobs in the world. As heartbreaking as it was for me to paint the Pietà, the reality is that I was working in my lovely studio in California. No bombs were likely to rip apart my house. No militia was likely to beat down my door.
‘Pietà’ is Latin for ‘Pity’, and is the traditional name for a representation in art of the Virgin Mary mourning over the body of the dead Christ, usually shown held on her lap. Michelangelo famously carved a Pietà from marble in his early career. I am not a religious person, but I am a passionate art historian. The moment I saw Manu’s image, I knew this was my way to honor the suffering of this Syrian man who I had never met. Perhaps then, even one person who is hostile to refugees entering their community might see things differently.
By painting him, holding the body of his dead son, I felt connected to him in a way that was beyond witnessing. I felt like I was channeling his pain through my own body. I had to keep wiping tears away because I couldn’t see what I was doing.
I knew that in order to protect my own emotional health, I needed to work on another portrait simultaneously. I decided to paint Malala Yousafzai. Her benevolence, courage and sparkling intellect radiated through my studio as I worked on her. She was my counterbalance, and gave me the strength to finish the Pietà. It took two solid months of work, and is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever painted.
Malala Yousafzai (2017)
Oil on Canvas
40 x 40"
I changed the name of the Pietà, after learning the difference between pity, empathy and compassion. Pity is when you see someone’s pain, but it remains distant. Empathy is feeling someone else’s suffering. Compassion is feeling what the other person is feeling, and doing something about it. It is translating empathy in action. So the Pietà became, ‘Compassionem’ – Compassion.
Reading about the people I paint is making me want to be a better person. I am approaching these paintings with ‘Shoshin’. Shoshin is a Zen Buddhist concept, which means "beginner's mind". It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject.
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."
~ Shunryu Suzuki
It is my hope that my work sparks a desire in others to learn, be curious, and be willing to listen without judgment. It is an ongoing learning process for me, one that I am committed to, but takes a lifetime to attain.