About a week ago, I drafted up a post about my most recent painting, "St Thecla and the Deer", which is currently in France for the Chimeria event, which opens early October. The painting was created specifically for this event, which is themed by life-affirming mythology. I was given permission to pursue a Christian subject, and I believe I was the only artist to do so, but only because my case for St Thecla was so impassioned.
However, the post I wrote up was blighted by frustration, like a bad Irish potato. I won't deny that the painting was probably one of my most frustrating creations and even my humanist friends pondered whether it was cursed. Everything that could go wrong certainly did so. But I came at it with a sense of blame, fingering every nearby element as to why things went wrong, when, in actuality, the problem lay in the painting's intent.
Let's start with the initial intent: St Thecla herself. St Thecla was an early Christian, a follower of St Paul. A member of the noble class in Turkey, Thecla overheard St Paul's gospel as she sat by a window in her home. Overcome by the Holy Spirit, she was so moved by the gospel of Christ that she denounced her engagement (she was a young girl with a hefty dowry) and chose instead to follow St Paul and the path of Christ. Her mother, furious, sent the authorities after her, and Thecla was arrested, her punishment being death by mauling of beasts. However, upon being thrust into a local coliseum ring, the female lions amongst the group of animals made a ring around her, protecting her, and her life was spared.
Thecla was not a wilting flower; being very beautiful, she was often accosted by men during her wanderings, and had no problem staving them off on her own, with little help from St Paul or her other companions. Intelligent, well spoken, and deeply committed to the cause of Christianity, St Paul assigned her an Abbey and she became the first Abbess. In her 80s, her Abbey was attacked by marauding Arabs, and she was able to stave them off and save the Abbey.
She was a popular saint up until the 10/11th centuries, when the Church felt she was an inappropriate female saint (versus, say, the Virgin Mary). She was too autonomous and headstrong of a figure, they felt, a poor role model for the weaker vessel, and she was wiped from Western gospels. If it weren't for the Orthodox church, she'd be a blip in Christian lore, but she remained a strong and steady saint in the eastern church, and in the last 50 years her cult has grown.
In Christian symbolism, the deer represents chastity. St Thecla took an oath of chastity, even cut off her hair as a symbolic gesture.
My painting represents the moment Thecla recognizes her calling. She holds a fallow deer in a field, with birch trees in the background and a large, looming cloud. She's mostly in shadow, the sunlight creeping up from behind her. Birch trees are not indigenous to Turkey, but I find them mysterious and interesting and fun to paint. There are brambles in the horizon that look a little like razor wire, representing her hardships to come, and the cloud veils the future. Her dress pattern vaguely resembles the female reproductive organs - I noticed this as I was painting it, it wasn't intended at first. All the things she sheds in life- marriage, children, dowry, family ties - these things were all that mattered to a young affluent woman of her culture, and she shed them all to serve the gospel of Christ. All the things that make her a pretty portrait are just an illusion. I intended to make the deer the most realistic part of the painting, even though it was the actual symbolic figure, in order to drive home the head-flip of fantasy and reality.
So this, in a nutshell, was the original intent of the painting.
I now see that the painting process was riddled with problems because my own state of mind was elsewhere, and that manifested as compositional mistakes, color palette problems, value issues, and finally actual weirdness like my brushes going missing (they were in a traveling case, and the thing disappeared for weeks, and popped back up literally an hour after completing the painting, in a bizarre location nowhere near my studio). The painting should have taken a few weeks to paint at the most, but it took nearly six months. While I was painting, I was dealing with the feels of closing my longtime gallery, detoxing off a medication I'd been on for years, having an Addisonian Crisis and hospitalized (adrenal failure), ending my tenure as a curator, moving my painting studio, fighting with the IRS over tax returns, and finding out our building was being sold. I also realized I couldn't travel to Sedan, France, to the opening of Chimeria, as my health won't allow it.
The frustration, disappointment, and sadness veiled the clear path of creation, making the painting process a very rocky road. My mind buzzed the entire time I worked. I made the weirdest rookie mistakes again and again, often winding up sanding down the results and starting over. The fact that the painting came together at all is a miracle, and really came down to the last few painting sessions, the last few glazes. In hindsight I can see all the missteps, but while I was in the thick of it, I was blinded by the things swirling around me, completely unable to connect with the painting until the very end.
Many of the things plaguing me at the time have since resolved themselves, or I've come to terms with. For me, the lesson of St Thecla was the reminder that there is a Bigger Picture; the tornadoes of Now don't represent the totality of a weather system, and even they have an expiration date. There's nothing wrong with disappointment or sadness, frustration, resentment: they're just feelings. But they can manifest themselves into a reality, gunking things up, especially if they manifest into the creative process. As I channeled all this into the painting sessions, I gave myself a far worse time than it could have been. And much worse, I missed out on the relationship I could have built with this painting.