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self-portrait
by annie danberg

I had just finished three days of painting as if in a trance at a Painting Experience retreat. I had been washing out my brushes when I suddenly saw my reflection in the mirror. ”Where am I in all this?”, I asked. I started with one sheet of paper and quickly had to add two more. Before long, I was faced with a slightly larger-than-life sized picture of my body. I happily painted my favorite pale greens and blues in the background. My beloved dog and cat leapt into my arms while red veins unfurled from my heart binding my life to theirs.

I noticed I had a desire to paint bones - specifically, my leg bones. I’ve never had an easy time with my legs. As an infant I had corrective surgery done and sharp burning pain in my legs often kept me up at night as a child. Most of all, I hated their short, stubby forms.

I painted my leg bones along with a construction like assortment of clamps, pins, saws and wire. A dark shivery feeling, like stepping into a long abandoned house crept upon me. A chill like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard traveled through my lower legs and I felt nauseous. I surrendered to these feelings and let them move my hand and brush. In the trembling jumble of chaotic black and ochre lines, I touched some primal fear as I let the colors flow onto the paper. For the first time in my life I let myself emotionally inhabit my legs.

Little did I know that this was only the beginning of consciously entering the dark territory of my self-loathing and physical pain. I spent the whole summer painting this self-portrait. Each time I entered the territory tentatively, only to be swept up in a flood of color, form and emotion. And each time waves of feeling washed me clean of painful memories and concepts I had carried about my body for so long.

Towards the end of the summer, I had nowhere else to go but to address my face. The face was one of the first things I painted and it had always troubled me. It was too perfect - I hated it. This face was unperturbed and unreflective of all the trials the rest of my being had gone through. It looked like a mask I presented to the world rather than the face of a living, feeling, and vulnerable woman.

In the Painting Experience we are encouraged to use destructive impulses creatively. Rather than just obliterate the source of discomfort, we are asked to enter it. Using the smallest of brushes, I began to paint cracks in my face. I felt all of my anger channeled laser-like through the hairs of that tiny brush. Painting those cracks was extremely satisfying and the mask was starting to break up. Then I painted black hands wielding long sharp knives. Claws grew from a large black hand that held my head and pierced my skin. I was feeling all of the ways I had ever hated myself. The blood flowed generously and so did my tears. A brittle veneer was falling away with each stroke.

When I was done, I saw that the mask was broken, yet a powerful gaze remained. Despite the bloodied face, the intensity of the eyes continued to show through. Now, she looked like a fierce warrior whose eyes were circled by thick red lines while a large crack in her forehead opened into deep blue space. I became a warrior who faced her pain and learned to love her body as it is.

Annie Danberg is a painter, graphic designer and facilitator of the Painting Experience process residing in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Painting Experience will be held near Asheville at Kanuga retreat center in April. Please see processarts.com or call 888-639-8569 for details.
[ annie@processarts.com ]

Western North Carolina Woman Magazine
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