Past Imperfect

Many of us have traumatic, chaotic, unpleasant things in our background.  There are stories you will never know represented in every pew or bench of your church, in most of the vehicles parked at your grocery store, in the lines at the cash register.

Creative work, particularly writing, is one way of coming to terms with a difficult and painful past, perhaps even working toward healing by rewriting it and telling a different story, bringing order and beauty out of chaos and ashes.  This is an important theme in the movie  Saving Mr. Banks, about Pamela Travers and her Mary Poppins character and books.  I blogged about that here.  Little Women, Little House on the Prairie are two other popular childrens works that somewhat autobiographical, but have been sweetened up considerably for public consumption, and also, I imagine, as a form of therapeutic revision on the part of the authors.

Writing is the art I relate to best, so that is what I think of when I think about using the creative arts to revise and make peace with the past.  But I came across a painter today who uses her work the same way.

From a Southwest Art article (1997) on Painter Sandra Bierman, whose mother had schizophrenia, and whose childhoo was chaotic and difficult:

“Sandra Bierman’s larger-than-life paintings are powerful because she is unafraid of sharing her feelings. It is Bierman’s own joy over the birth of a grandchild we experience in Circle of Light. Likewise, we sense her sadness in the haunting blue tones of Mother Earth, which was painted as an outpouring of grief after her 23-year-old son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. “I didn’t know I was recording my feelings,” she says.  “But once I finished the painting I realized the woman carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders was me.”

Bierman has chosen to make relationships the focus of her art  because she lacked a secure, stable family life while growing up. “I guess I try to create my own Little House on the Prairie,” she says. Sad memories are turned into paintings with happier overtones. Though  The Bath may be a reminder of living in a cabin without water or electricity, its colors and bold shapes  translate into a beautiful wish for what might have been.

The one positive influence in Bierman’s life was her maternal grandmother, a large, nurturing woman of part Cherokee heritage who lived a difficult life. “She taught me how to sew and make things out of wood,” says Bierman. “She was a Mother Nature type. I don’t know if I would have survived without her.” ”

She doesn’t always repair the past in her paintings.  About Mother Earth she says,

“To me, this is my most important painting. I painted it 20 years ago when my college-age middle son was stricken with Schizophrenia and was hospitalized for a long time and not allowed visitors. Broken bones can be mended, but a broken mind is a permanent loss. This painting is an expressionistic portrayal of a mother facing the great loss of her child. She is feeling frightened and powerless at the prospects of the future.”

Her own mother had schizophrenia. Her parents divorced when she was four. She spent time in and out of foster homes. When she grew up she married, and her marriage ended in divorce, as did, for a time, her dreams of becoming an artist. She went to work to support her family. Later she remarried and was able to return to her vocation as an artist, where she created such beauty and warmth from so much pain.

You don’t have to be an artist, or a writer to produce beauty from the pain.  Compassion, hospitality, a listening ear, a strong voice, a shoulder, even survival are all magnificent monuments to overcoming.


She was also featured in The World & I, March 2000 issue, where there are six of her paintings reproduced (one is quite small).  I’m cataloguing my two years of back issues (I so regret the passing of this resource), which is where I came across her again.  If you saved any of these treasures and you want to use Bierman’s work for picture study a la Charlotte Mason, you might look use this issue as a resource.

You can see many more examples of her work here.



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