I remember the day I first painted women dancing together. I was 22 years old. I can feel it as if it was yesterday.
I was living in an apartment in the Castro district in San Francisco with my friend I met at art college, Norma Jeanne Maloney. We were both artists with a passion. I couldn’t afford to stay at school because income from my mother’s previous marriage prevented me from getting financial aid. The first year I had scholarships to contribute and then a whole bunch of debt. But after that, there literally was not enough resources to attend. Even with me working at Macy’s Department Store followed by a gig at a corporate job I could not go to college. One of those hard stop awakenings followed by ‘now what’…
But…I knew I still wanted to be an artist. I literally didn’t know how. Don’t you go to school to be an artist? I quit art school and started working full-time in corporate. Dang. I put my paints away for a while.
When Norma Jeanne and I decided to be roommates our whole apartment was really an art studio, and for a time, a cafe and tattoo shop. And the site of the first class I ever hosted.
I was struggling to find my own voice. Norma Jeanne was still in school and was working as a sign painter and tattoo artist. I was working in the computer industry. Then one day it came to me, the most obvious and gorgeous thing, that Sue Hoya Sellars could come and teach us. Sue, had been in my life since before I was born, and was my art teacher, along with my mother Caron. Throughout my whole life, I spent time in creativity with Sue, she was the mother of my heart. Why should it stop now? Indeed, it was a bit of a wild idea, but Sue said yes!
Sue lived a few hours away in Mendocino but she loved coming to the city to continue her studies with the first personal computers and digital drawing boards. She also enjoyed going to the museum with me and my friends. So, I got a group of friends together along with Norma Jeanne and we figured out a price, and before we knew it, Sue was coming to teach us. I can see all of us girls painting on the floor of our apartment. This was the first class I organized, there were around 5-7 of us on any given week. It is a beautiful memory. I got to give Sue the money. I got to host my first class. And I got to paint my first painting.
That first night when Sue asked me what I wanted to paint I said, Women Dancing Together Outside Under the Full Moon at the Beach. Of course! Haha! The above painting would become one of my very first fully completed paintings that I was proud of. We played music, danced, drank wine and painted. Then late at night, we would head to Sparky’s pizza or The Bagdad Cafe or Cafe San Marcos for food and conversation. These were alive and lovely times. Sue would at times bring baby goats with her, for real, into our apartment. I remember the time we brought the baby goat into the Bearded Lady. I miss San Francisco and those days.
I can remember the struggle to paint what I felt and saw even now. As well as the joy I felt at trying to paint something from my heart, instead of something outside of me. I felt such a sense of accomplishment!
The photo above lives in my first portfolio. It says “Sister, We come from a place in the sea. When the moon is full we dance to be free”. This is a quote from a song my cousin Bridget wrote for her friend Amy. When Bridget lived in the city we had such a blast too – she played this song on guitar and I know it inspired this first painting. I was raised with Bridget as my sister. Here we are with my Aunt Janet in Arcata, California a few years ago. Janet is also an amazing artist, and Bridget’s daughter Maia is an artist, who is working with us at Musea to bring you the Museum Exhibits!
When I think of that time, I feel nostalgic, okay, even a little weepy. I miss Sue, I miss Norma Jeanne, I miss the San Francisco I used to know so well. I am still friends with Norma Jeanne, and I will introduce you to her at some point. She is an incredible sign-painter in Texas now, but rumor has it that she will come and teach us lettering at some point! We both dream of educating others in the arts.
Here’s Norma Jeanne below – we have remained friends since then, and we continue to have a soul connection. She is the one who hand-painted the original Cosmic Cowgirls sign! You can see her art here.
Back to San Francisco…
It would not be too long before I was feeling the stress and non-joy hours of the corporate gig. I was making good money but not enough to afford school other than one class at a time, that was so expensive and my results were questionable. And honestly, the experience didn’t provide ENOUGH for me to feel how I felt when I painted with Sue. I was already drawn by making my own images instead of duplicating images outside of me. This was a totally different experience than trying to copy nature as it was. No one at art school told me to look within….that all the images are inside that I really wanted.
When I was 24 I was outta there. I left my high heels and my high-paying job, my hot lovers and I headed for the hills. Instead of just painting women dancing in the moonlight, I wanted to BE that free woman dancing in the moonlight. I had been working in personal computers, so I was also starting a writing practice – daily – and have kept it going all these years. I am 50 now ya’ll!
Here are me and Sue. This was the day we were digging clay. She wanted me to train in many mediums. Clay, paint, drawing, wood, metal and also milking goats! I began to work on my very first art show that I would work on for over a year. It was such a big idea – Sue told me that we are putting a show together. I never would have thought of that. She gave me a context for working and developing. And she took the time, the real devoted time for me to learn.
But there was still a really big problem – I didn’t know ‘really’ how to paint. I laugh now, but it was rather serious. I tried and tried to paint what Sue was showing me but I couldn’t get it. Honest to goodness, I was ready to quit. I didn’t show promise or have talent. That first painting of the Dance to be Free a few years before was all I had to show.
I was about ready to quit and I almost felt relief. Because the pressure to be a good artist was so strong. I was surrounded by talent and I could not find my own line. The day I painted the image below, Called Mother Mary Christ, a Black Madonna was my breakthrough. I will never forget that moment either. Sue said – “Let’s just try one more thing together….” and she floated that water and those colors onto the background – it is her background. I made a few single brown strokes into the wet paint and there she was….the Divine Mother had emerged. I was so proud. This image was life-saving for me and is THE image that made me stay with being a painter.
The powerful feeling of painting the feminine encourages me to keep teaching others today. I knew how long I had worked at art with very little success. I also knew how good it felt to be able to make a painting that felt like me after all that time. I wanted to give this experience to others.
As for the Black Madonna here, at the time I didn’t really know much about the Divine Feminine – at all – but Sue had told me we came from Africa originally. It only made sense to my 24-year-old mind that the Mother who gives birth to the golden child, was brown – I can see the color of brown I mixed swirling before my eyes in the sunshine that day. So not only did this painting create a breakthrough in what I thought I could do with art – but also in my spirituality. This is THE painting when my relationship with the feminine would begin to bloom.
What you see in the paintings, began to become my life. A life of women, art, freedom, running naked in the hills, howling at the full moon and finding my voice, my own line quality and curve, and my art. I had my first sold-out show a year or two later. The birth of Intentional Creativity, in a way, came out of those dancing women and this Mother. With support from Sue, my mom Caron, and my first husband, who actually painted the dove in this painting. He had learned that bird from his mother. And I still draw and paint that bird to this day.
I often think about what might have happened if I didn’t return to study with Sue. Now thousands of classes later after that first class and tens of thousands of students later, and over 28 years later I am still painting those women dancing. Throughout the years I have painted different versions of dancing people on murals, on business cards, greeting cards, book covers, posters, in my first Coloring Book, Color of Woman, for the logo of the First Congregational church of Oakland, the cover of Alice Walker’s book, Hard Times Require Furious Dancing. What a joy it is to create women dancing together, and at times, more than women show up!
Have you ever painted a group of dancing people – well you can on Friday with me. I will show you three ways to approach it and then color it with paint!
The recent image I made of the ‘Many Muses’ has become a beloved image here at Musea Center for Intentional Creativity. For artists and non-artists – it is truly empowering to CREATE and SHOW an image of connection and community.
Growing older has gifts. A perspective arises which allows for a wide arc of where you have been and where you can go next.
Whatever you do, may you make art, if art calls to you. Art and beauty call to me…
There are some hard days ahead for me and I know it. Making art is what heals me and makes me able to be present with what is at hand. The memory of my early work and sharing them with you today is a gift. Thank you for listening and viewing the images. I am grateful.
Sending love from my heart to yours, from our table to yours…