My mother-in-law, the painter, first ever saw those eyes twelve years ago in a nursing home. The eyes told something, but the painter didn’t know what. She asked permission to take a photograph. The woman with the eyes agreed. She was old and feeble and almost forgotten. Now she had been seen.
There is a secret language of artists, the language that puts words and images to what is unseen, a recreation, making the person or idea alive in a different form. My mother-in-law sees the unseen life in things.
Twelve years after the photograph I climbed the stairs behind her toward the atelier, a white second floor studio with its large windows and canvases, white sink and dark bookshelf, a desk that belonged to a grandfather I never met. I turned and saw her there on the canvas, the softness of her skin, the deep pinks and plummed lines carved on her face. The startling blue eyes. I wanted to introduce myself.
My mother-in-law the painter spoke about the process of painting these large, living eyes: a step back, a consideration of the photograph’s perspective, the size of the canvas. The first sketches, up close, a step away to consider the thing again, a step forward, strokes of paint, steps back, again and again, over days and days until the woman’s eyes become alive once more. The floorboards between the canvas and the opposing wall have begun to show signs of wear, so often does she as painter make this walk.
There is an Amsterdam café called the Blauwe Theehuis, a round, 2 storied blue and white structure that resembles a nest, a 1937 wonder that sits in Vondelpark and receives its most visitors on the sunniest days of the year. It was there over a latte that I was having my first long conversation in fumbling Dutch. I had just agreed to speak to a conference about prayer to an audience of Dutch young professionals.
Prayer is a particular interest of mine, and also something with which I wrestle. You can say that prayer is something that is slowly recreating itself in me, a lifelong process I think, of seeing vibrant life in something that honestly once seemed homely and weak with a dry, sawdust taste. Something for nuns, grandmas, soldiers, or priests.
Weeks later I thought about my ‘yes’ with a beating heart. The audience would be young, hip, ambitious, and very motivated to do and work. How would a plea to pause and pray be received?
The image came. I was once again upstairs my mother-in-law’s atelier, eyeing the floorboards, looking for signs of wear. I was back with the muse, her eyes looking at us as my mother-in-law the painter spoke of the process of painting such a big, living painting.
Wearing out the floorboards between brushes of the paintbrush and stepping back getting perspective of the whole canvas. The knowledge of being seen.
Her work wouldn’t come to life without those steps. To see the whole canvas at once, to look the muse in the eyes to see if the painting is taking the life it was meant to have.
And that’s what I told them at the conference, with her eyes behind me on the huge canvas I had brought to the stage and my husband cheering me on in the wings. Do you work with joy and skill, the way a painter holds a paintbrush and makes careful strokes. But don’t forget to step back, crossing the floor to consider your whole work. No true masterpiece comes from work alone. Step back and look your Muse in the eyes. Then step forward and continue to create.
This is the role of prayer in our work.