Going With the Flow

Flow Rider550

Need to absorb an important life lesson? Get it down on paper. I painted this watercolor to remind myself of the ease that comes with surrendering to the flow of life. For as long as I can remember, I have tried to manipulate events to get what I wanted. Career planning seemed a crucial part of directing my path as an artist. This process seemed to be working until the recession hit eight years ago. At that time, I couldn’t get an art director to look at my portfolio to save my life. Even my portrait commissions dried up. It became clear that all the listing, visualizing and pushing toward my goals wasn’t helping them to materialize.

During that frustrating time, the assurance in Matthew 6:33 came to me. “But you seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all of these things shall be added to you.” Translation: the Divine takes care of His children. For this to occur, all that’s required is to draw near to Him. After that, all of our other needs will be met. This was radical thinking for a wheel gripper like me, but I felt defeated enough to try it. Relaxing my hold and shifting my focus meant living where God lives – in the now.

Being in the now, means no longer trying to make things happen. I began letting problems work themselves out. I stopped trying to pry open doors that were nailed shut and began walking through the doors that were open. I discovered allowing God to be in control feels much better than trying to force solutions. To my surprise, my artistry was pulled in a direction that I never conceived of. I began writing (something I’d never done before) and illustrating a blog that now runs in the Huffington Post. My next step is to compile my posts into a book. It’s an undertaking that never would have come to me if I were still clinging to my “five year plan.”

Today the original “Going With the Flow” painting hangs in my studio.  It calls to mind the acronym for FROG – Fully Relying On God. I need to be reminded daily of the power of surrender. My little frog rider illustrates that truth perfectly. Like me, she has learned that it’s a waste of time to try and redirect the energy of life. Not only is the present moment missed but you’re too preoccupied to notice the gifts that lie around the bend. Relax and enjoy the ride. The current will take you to places that struggle never could.

Karli

My friend Karli was happy to model for the fairy in my painting.

Frog

The frog is based on this photograph by Gigi Embrechts.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

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Why Worry?

Why Worry?I’ve spent a good amount of my time on Earth fretting.  A defense developed in childhood, worry was my talisman, my rabbit’s foot. I believed it kept me safe. Delving into my spiritual yearning has brought me to a place of openness and questioning.
What if life happens just the way it’s supposed too?
What if everything appears exactly when we need it?
What if inside each problem is a lesson that is a gift to help us navigate through life?
What if following our heart is following God’s guidance?
What if being open to how are longings are realized, leaves God the space to out dream us?
I’ve learned when I’m trusting, and being myself as fully as possible, everything in my life reflects this by falling into place easily, often miraculously.
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As usual, the characters in this illustration are based on real children. I got to know Riley and her brother Nick on my walks through our neighborhood with my dog.

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The Sheltie in the art is my nephew Jeff’s puppy, Jake. His ears make him look like he’s ready to take flight.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

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In Art and Life: Perfectionism is the Enemy

I Heart the Moon 12014 © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

I Heart the Moon 12014 © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Perfectionism is the enemy in art – and just about everything.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve developed a pattern of procrastination when I begin a new illustration. I circle over my Arche’s hot-pressed watercolor paper like a hawk stuck on repeat. I think about it, plan out my method of approach, resolve to zero in on it and then am interrupted. It’s always something that is a faux “can’t wait” situation. What is this? I’m an artist. Isn’t painting supposed to be my passion? Why am I so easily pulled off course? Next, I berate myself for becoming distracted and vow to start my image first thing…tomorrow.

After about two weeks of this push and pull, I finally force myself to begin. I sit down, grip the pencil tightly and have my eyes inches from the paper to begin the preliminary drawing. It must be perfect. I must be perfect. No wonder I have trouble getting started. I’ve discovered that in pursuing flawlessness I was perfecting the joy and life right out of my art.

“It’s very important to enjoy what you’re doing or else you are always going to procrastinate.” – James Altucher

The more I’ve evolved as a person, the more I’ve embraced my humanity and know many of my character defects are simply survival skills gone awry. Unbeknownst to me, the more I accepted myself, the tighter I gripped my paintbrushes. Losing the enjoyment of my craft, made me wonder what would happen if I painted with abandon. Would it bring back the pleasure and make my artwork come alive? I was ready to experiment. The above piece, I Heart the Moon is the result. I had labored over an earlier version of it in 2012. That one took me six weeks to complete. The new interpretation took two weeks, and l loved painting it. I let the watercolor swirl and land where it wanted to. Unrestricted, filling in the details with colored pencil was no longer drudgery but fun. I felt free. Procrastination didn’t mean I was lazy or a failure. It was just signaling to me that my method wasn’t working.

I Heart the Moon © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

I Heart the Moon 2012 © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Next, I decided to post both pictures on Facebook and take a vote to see which illustration my followers preferred. I was happy to know the new rendering was the favorite, but it wasn’t unanimous like I thought it would be. Some still liked the one that I had done in my “being perfect” stage. Did that mean I was wrong about my up-tightness transferring itself to my art? I don’t think so. What it did confirm is there is an audience for every phase of my work, something  I’m particularly grateful for.

“Safety is all well and good: I prefer freedom.” – E.B. White

My art and it’s process are a metaphor for my life. When I pay attention to both, so much is revealed to me. Holding back who I am in any area, not only does a disservice to myself, but to the world too. Dumbing down the “gift of me” is something I learned in childhood. It kept me off the radar of unsafe people. It took years of unraveling before I felt secure enough to risk living uncensored. Letting go, something I resisted, has ended up bringing me great rewards. The truth of who we are is revealed in every spontaneous action we take.  And for me, hiding is no longer an option. I know too much.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

I Once Knew a Girl who Gave Up Thinking…

Metamorphosis

The mind is a complete idiot. – Dr. David R. Hawkins M.D., PhD.

I have a young friend who never ceases to amaze me. When Andrea and I first met, I took her soft-spokeness as mousy. Inside and out, she seemed pretty ordinary. It didn’t take long for me to realize behind her quiet demeanor, was a girl of fire and determination.

When Lent rolled around a few years back, Andrea’s priest told the congregation it wasn’t always necessary to give something up as a sacrifice. When preparing for Easter, he suggested that instead of depravation, Lent could be observed by taking on a practice that would be a blessing to the observer. Gathering with a group to study scripture or meditating each morning could also be a way to revere this high, holy time. And that’s when it hit Andrea, she would give up thinking for Lent.

When she first told me her idea I laughed. Give up thinking for Lent? How could that be possible? Don’t we need our thoughts to help move us through life? No, what Andrea was talking about was obsessive thinking. You know, the kind of thinking that gives you no rest. The kind of thinking that analyzes and tries to control every aspect of your life.

The last seven years had been rough for her. Pregnant at 17, she married her son’s father only to divorce him two years later because of a mental illness and drug abuse. After that, Andrea felt she had no choice but to move back home to her parents’ with their son Adrian. Living with a critical and condescending mother was less than ideal, but she needed help with her little boy. She saw no other way to keep her full-time job while working on a college degree.

Fear loomed large in Andrea’s life. She felt stuck and wondered if she would ever be able to give Adrian the life he deserved. Her ex-husband’s instability constantly disappointed them. Recently, he had checked himself into rehab, yet again, but she didn’t have much hope for a positive outcome. The gears in her brain turned around the clock with “what ifs.”

It was during this time the brilliant idea to give up thinking for Lent came to Andrea. She quickly learned she had to pay constant attention to her thoughts if she were going to be successful. In particular, her drive to work always signaled the wheels of her obsession to begin rolling. An hour later, when she pulled into the parking lot, she couldn’t even remember the route she took, her mind was so consumed. To unhook she began practicing being present by noticing her surroundings.

Andrea quickly discovered there was so much beauty in her daily drive she had never been aware of. It was spring. The flowers were blooming and everything was fresh and new. And the birds! She had never noticed the riot of their chirping. She began seeing hawks everywhere. She couldn’t believe she’d been so locked inside her mind that their majesty had gone unnoticed.

The more Andrea let go by staying in the now, the more she saw that everything she was fixated on resolved itself on its own. Maybe by relaxing her grip she was actually allowing God to work things out more quickly.

All will be revealed – not all will be figured out.– Mary Karr

I too have been held hostage by my brain. As of late, not knowing where my career as an author/illustrator is going has been weighing heavy on my mind. The publishing industry was turned upside down by the 2008 financial collapse and left me on the outside looking in. With the invention of electronic readers, the industry is now reworking itself in a way that makes sense with today’s technology. That means it’s harder than ever to get an editor to even glance at a submission. What to do? What to do? Should I continue to search for an agent, publisher or self-publish?

Lucky for me Lent is here and reminded me of Andrea and her bright idea. I took a cue from her and consciously gave up my need to analyze and force a solution. The moment I surrendered my thinking, peace washed over me and was immediately followed by the ding of an an email in my inbox. It was a note from a film company that wants to make a short documentary about my art. How cool is that? And with my mind out of the way, who knows what other miracles wil manifest in my life. That Andrea is a genius.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Time Well Spent

Time together is time well spent,  And time with our children is heaven sent. – Author unknown, found on a vintage sampler

In the above painting, which is more endearing, the fairy or her habitat? No question in my mind, I pick the fairy. Of course, it would be fun to discover the magic of her home, but she, herself, is what would ultimately charm me. I found life imitating art while visiting my daughter in Vermont.

We had been planning my October trip for months. Five days with my Bridget in a land of eclectic shops and bistros at the base of foothills woven with color. We had every day brimming with activities. I couldn’t wait to get there and begin our adventure. The first two days went according to plan. And then on day 3 it happened, without warning,  my back went out. Moment by moment, the pain worsened as we scrambled to get an appointment with a doctor on a Friday afternoon. We were lucky to find a chiropractor who squeezed me in. I did feel better after her adjustments but was advised to take it easy for the rest of my stay. Both Bridget and I were disappointed we had to cancel most of our plans (although, in retrospect, we really just felt bad for each other.) So that afternoon instead of taking her rescue dog on a hike to the reservoir we went to a movie.

Saturday we managed to browse a few shops before my back insisted we return home and ice it. That evening we had no choice but to stay in and watch a movie and sip some wine. But do you know what? We had a blast. We came to the realization the whole point of my trip was for us to be together. Sure Vermont is a beautiful place to explore but it doesn’t hold a candle to the pleasure of my daughter’s company. That night as I lay in bed my heart echoed the words of Kitty Carlisle Hart, “Each morning I wake up and say, ‘Dear Lord, I don’t want anything better; just send me more of the same.'”

Always my muse, Bridget modeled for the above illustration at age 10.

Always my muse, Bridget modeled for the above illustration at age 10.

Bridget and Nelson - a moment captured on my trip.

Bridget and Nelson – a moment captured on my trip.

All text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

www.sueshanahan.com

Falling Leaves and Letting Go

“When I was willing to let go of what I wanted, I received what was truly mine. I’ve  realized the latter is always the greater gift. – Anita Moorjani

Autumn is here, my favorite time of year. I love how the leaves burn with color and the bite of Canadian air. Listen closely and you can almost hear the laughter of fairies twirling in leaves carried by the wind. In one week, I fly from Chicago to visit my daughter in Vermont. Since girlhood I’ve dreamt of seeing the changing colors of fall in New England. A dream I cling to so tightly, I’m filled with anxiety. What if I miss it like I did three years ago? On that visit the leaves had barely begun to change and rain dumped gloom on every day. For the last two weeks, I’ve been panicking as I watch the foliage in my neighborhood become more colorful each day. What if all the leaves have blown off the trees by the time I get out East? That’s when the thought, “frustration comes from thinking things should be different when they’re already perfect,” hit me. It stopped me in my tracks. The only way to see that perfection is to loosen my grip and be in the now. By worrying about how the trees are going to look next week, I miss how they look right now, in my own back yard.

I’m reminded of the new PC I bought ten years ago, which I thought was a disaster at the time. After having to call customer service over ten times in three weeks, about one malfunction after another, I was certain I had a lemon. I wanted a new computer but was told I only had a two week warranty. What? I couldn’t believe it. To add to my frustration customer service was in a different part of the world. Each time I called I talked to a different operator who had no real authority to help me. With persistence I finally was able to connect with someone in management who agreed to allow me to return my computer. I shipped it back that day. After that the only thing for me to do was buy a Mac, something I had resisted for years. I vaguely knew my way around Windows and the thought of learning a new operating system overwhelmed me. As it turns out the way my brain and a Mac works are simpatico. Purchasing that dysfunctional PC turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me in my career as an artist. All the support and guidance I’ve gotten from the trainers at the Apple Store opened up my world and the floodgates of creativity. What seemed like a tragedy, in reality, was perfection unfolding.

It’s safe to trust the flow of life. Circumstances may not always seem ideal. Be open to perfect looking different than you imagined. Incidentally, my previously wash-out trip to Vermont held tons of beauty. I suspect I would have been aware of so much more if I hadn’t been so attached to my agenda and resistant to the flow of life. And as American mythologist Joseph Campbell pointed out, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.” And what lies in wait is always a gift.

The models who helped bring the above illustration to life. We had so much fun that day.

The models I photographed who helped bring the above illustration to life. We had so much fun that day.

A photo from my previous trip to Vermont. I was so sure the fall colors were a bust.

A shot from my previous trip to Vermont. I was so sure the autumn colors were a complete bust but my photograph tells a different story.

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All text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

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Ready to Let Go

And why are children the most beautiful flowers of all? Because they allow themselves to be who they are. Without agendas, they flourish in the now. Whether the sun shines or buckets of rain pour, it’s a good day. We are all born with a sense of wonder,  but it soon fades. We learn not to trust our own nature. It happens to some earlier than others, but it’s rarely escaped. This lack of trust is the root of why we think we have to control every aspect of our lives. It’s not only self-defeating but futile. I’ve spent years praying for my hands to unclasp the control I hold so tightly. I have come a long way. I’ve discovered that I don’t know what is best for others or myself. I am open to what life brings me – most times.

 An area I’ve found impossible to loosen my grip on is my creative process. I have a schedule in my mind that I’m never able to adhere to. Always pushing, I resist any interruption in my work flow. When something does get me off track, the wheels of reprimand begin turning in my brain. Why do I hold on so tightly? Because my creativity burns like a fire in me. I’ve guarded and protected it my whole life. I’m afraid to let it run its own course. If I do that, will it eventually die away?

 Matthew 6:34 reads, “Therefore do not worry for tomorrow; for tomorrow will look after its own.” Does that mean if I let go, my commissions will be completed in perfect timing? Have my attempts to direct the flow actually interfered with the Creator’s plan? Why am I so insistent that illustrating is a 9 to 5 job anyway? My attempts to manage only seem to bring frustration.

 I am ready to take a leap of faith and live like a child. That means being immersed in the now and turning my creative undertakings completely over to God. I’ve done that in other areas of my life. Remembering the peace of being guided makes this leap less scary. I’ve learned life works itself out and to count on the missing pieces coming to me. Stress is a sure sign I’ve taken control back. What spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle shared in a lecture makes good sense to me, “Enjoy the doing in the now. With the enjoyment of the doing also comes the power that flows into it. Enjoy the energy that flows into the doing and it becomes empowered. And then the goal looks after itself.”

 Yes, I’m ready to let go. If flowers and children blossom at exactly the right time, then my paintings will too.

 Is there anything you cling too?

Aine, my little muse.

Aine, my little muse.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

 www.sueshanahan.com