It’s Never Too Late…

Wende Lewis | October 21, 2019

     Very like the resolutions written for the New Year, the list of things you plan to do in retirement is often overly ambitious fiction that you delude yourself into believing you will accomplish.

     My list was small. Write that novel. Get back to painting.

     The novel has been begun and trashed a few times, but I have fulfilled the second half of my list in a way I never could have imagined or, actually, even thought possible.

     All through childhood I was taking piano, flute, and singing in the church choir. As a student in middle school, I participated in both art and music. I was in the Folk Singing Club (that dates me, huh) and was president of the Art Club.  I started playing the bagpipes. But in High School came the great reckoning. I had to choose. There were not sufficient elective class spaces to indulge in both. Music won, and, sadly, my love of drawing and painting went on a far back burner. Oh, I still drew in notebooks throughout high school and college, worked on pictures in the pastels I already had, etc., but these are two fairly expensive pastimes or career pursuits. There was no money for buying canvases and paints if I was going to be taking voice lessons and buying music.

     When my kids were in school full time, I joined the Bayberry Garden Club in Brielle, NJ. It was there that I met Nancy Craw, a retired art teacher and former owner of an art school in Montclair.  She and I started the Junior Garden Club for children in 4th – 8th grade, and it was while working together on children’s projects that she revived my art. She helped teach me and let me work in the fabulous studio which encompassed her whole basement. Nancy worked in every medium on every kind of surface.  She did portraits, she painted in Japanese and Chinese styles on silk. She painted still life and birds and landscapes, in oils, acrylics, watercolors. And she wrote cookbooks, non-fiction and was a master gardener.  She and her husband had owned a newspaper. Nancy was truly a marvel and Renaissance woman, and it was through her that I started buying acrylics and brushes and found a woodworking company in Vermont to send me raw boxes and turned bowls.  I painted them with flowers, copied Japanese and Chinese masters from Nancy’s books onto them, copied Christmas card pictures onto them, and sold the boxes and bowls at craft sales in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I would paint into the wee hours of the night if I got started on something. Talk about mindfulness. I was absorbed.

     But then I got a job as the Youth Director at church which included conducting the church children’s choir, and another job teaching voice lessons at a music school, and yet a third managing a large community choir. And there were no longer enough hours in the day, and I could no longer work into the night and get up for my day jobs. So, I boxed up the paints and stored the paper and canvases in the closet. I would pull them out for a specific project, a personal request of a friend, about every few months or so and sometimes only once a year. 

     At some point about 10 years ago, my mother found the need for a cane but was reluctant to use one. So I asked her if she would use one if I made it for her. She promised she would. So I had a cane made in a hexagonal form out of maple with a walnut handle, and I painted cherry branches and blossoms all up and down the sides.  This was the first time my new husband, Richard, saw what I could do. He started encouraging me to paint more. But I was working more than full time and still, the paints were packed away again. I promised him I would paint more when I retired.

     I had always been intrigued by Icons, religious paintings of the stories of the saints  (odd for a Lutheran, I know). I had a good friend, Mary Ryan, who collected antique icons and I would sit and look at them every time I was at her house. I was fascinated by the way the light seems to come from within instead of being reflected from an outside source. I couldn’t imagine how the writer (that’s what an iconographer does, “write” the painting) did that. Richard and I spent an entire day, one time, at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, and I bought a book called “A Brush with God” but I could not follow the directions at all.

     I had given up ever learning how to “write” an icon, when I stumbled across an advertisement for an upcoming iconography workshop at the Franciscan Spirituality Center in LaCrosse, WI, while googling something else, and was immediately sparked. I was on the phone with them at 9 am promptly the next morning and signed up for my first workshop there with Master Iconographer Phil Zimmerman. Phil has been painting icons for over 50 years, having studied with a master iconographer starting at age 12. And I was hooked.  The absorption into the painting is more than mindfulness, it is prayerfulness. Icon writing is one long prayer. Additionally, very like copying the Chinese and Japanese masters of my prior painting, painting in the style of the Byzantine master iconographers is so satisfying. It is a disciplined form that will take the rest of my life to improve, and I will never become a master starting this late in life, but I have wonderful role models and teachers in my fellow students as well, some of whom have been studying with Phil for as many as 30 years. I have been studying with Phil now for 2 ½ years and been to 6 workshops. I went this June on an Iconography trip to study in Greece, and we spent 11 days traveling the country, walking from museum to church to monastery to convent (6-7 miles a day of walking up and down hills) to see the work of the masters of the past.

     It is never too late to start something different. It is never too late to study and learn. It is important to keep the promises we make to ourselves and to express ourselves creatively. It keeps our brain working when we use our imagination. It keeps our brain working when we concentrate and are singlemindedly attentive to what we are doing and are fully present in our art. And for me, I get to have that “brush with God” while I do it.

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