When I was a young woman, walking down the street deep in thought, a man I did not know would say to me, "Smile, it can't be that bad..."
"Why would a pretty girl like you look so unhappy?"
It happened quite a bit.
If you are a woman, I'm willing to bet it has happened to you - a stranger has told you to smile.
No matter what those individual men on the street are thinking, what they are doing is overstepping a boundary in order to remind a woman that she is secondary - a decoration designed for the pleasure and comfort of others - that her emotions, and indeed her body, do not actually belong to her.
I don't know what it is like to be a young woman right now.
Is it any better?
I honestly don't know, but I know that women my age and older have been absolutely saturated with the idea that we do not belong to ourselves. We receive this message from our families, our friends, our churches, the media, our loved ones and our enemies. It can take a long, long time to unravel it and figure out a way to be with it.
I'm thinking about this because sometimes, people would like for my paintings to smile.
When I was in high school, I wrote a poem that won first place in a contest. Along with the other winning poems, It was posted in the hallway.
I did well in art, English, and typing. Otherwise, my high school academic career was a little wobbly. So, whenever I achieved any sort of accolade in the arts or language arts, it felt good, like maybe I wasn't a complete academic failure.
One day, I came down the hallway to see my high school principal reading my poem on the wall. As I approached him he said, "Why does it have to be so sad?"
It's really sad, became a critique I became accostomed to hearing about my work.
(My MFA thesis advisor has a forever place in my heart for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being the time she responded to that statement with, "It's not sad, it's poignant.")
Recently, a conversation about my paintings reminded me how often my work meets with this response and how, just like all those years ago in my high school hallway, I never have a good response to that response.
I believe when you make art, when you create something, you express what's in your heart.
You give language to something that doesn't have language.
And I am aware that I rarely make paintings that look joyful or happy.
And I am aware that some viewers are troubled by this.
Does it mean that I am an unhappy person?
What exactly am I trying to say with all this sadness?
I never stand at my easel or sit at my keyboard and think, "I'm going to make something sad now."
But it's okay with me if the women in my paintings are sad.
And my art does reveal something about me. It gives voice to the otherwise hidden. I suppose there is a sort of seriousness about that.
But is it unhappiness?
Once, a friend unexpectedly asked me, "Are you happy?"
I just sat there staring at the friend.
I had no idea how to answer that question.
There are many things about my life about which I am deeply grateful. I have a good sense of humor and I value it. I laugh often and I have fun.
Is that happy?
There are also many situations in my life and the world about which I am deeply sorrowful. I think about those things a lot and sometimes feel overwhelmed by them.
Is that sad?
I tend toward seriousness. I like my conversations heavy. It's the natural lean of my personality.
I have a hard time with small talk.
I can sit with you all day and discuss the nature of God or who we are and what we might be doing here, but walking into a room full of people I don't know and mingling around trying to think of light things to say is incredibly draining to me.
There is a lot of pressure on us, particularly women, to exude happiness, to stay positive, to express optimism.
From an early age, it's clear to us that our emotions - especially sorrow and anxiety - especially anger or malaise - cause others to feel uncomfortable.
We're taught that we're in some way responsible for the emotions of others, that it is our job as women to be beautiful and soft and easy-going and up-lifting.
And even after we figure out that is, in fact, not true and not our job, we are still often met with the idea that we should shun negativity and repeat mantras of happiness and turn a blind eye to suffering lest we make it grow larger.
But I believe we were born for one another.
I believe turning a blind eye to suffering is immoral.
We do ourselves a disservice when we embrace positivity culture at the exclusion of a full range of emotion.
Burying emotion and spiritually side-stepping pain does much more damage to us as individuals and a community than entertaining so-called negative thoughts.
We were not born to pursue personal happiness at all costs, and I resist the dictate to keep my thoughts positive.
I would rather be a whole person.
On occasion, my heart is filled with wonder and bliss. Often, it is bruised or broken.
This is reflected in my prayers, and my paintings are prayers.
The thing about art is, it happens in the space between you and me. The artist brings what she brings and the viewer brings what she brings. No two people will ever view a piece of art (or read a novel) the same way.
So what you see when you look at one of my paintings is the energy of my heart but it is also the energy of yours.
The making of it and the viewing of it.
And healing is wholeness.
My paintings don't seek to convey happiness.
If they seek anything, it is peace.
And peace is the acceptance of what is.
Peace is the understanding that no matter what is, God is with us in it.
We are loved in it.
We are loved through joy and pleasure and we are loved through pain and suffering.
What I wish for my work, for anything I say or do or create, is to convey that understanding.
Whatever you feel when you look at my paintings is yours to feel and it is good.
Whatever I feel when I make them is mine to feel.
The paintings are vessels and I hope that love flows through them.
But love is not always happy.
I sell my paintings and I make paintings specifically for other people.
What I hope they carry for you is the same sort of medicine they carry for me.
The understanding that God sees all parts of you, knows everything there is to know about you and loves you completely, abundantly, forever.
These paintings are a conversation with God and God is Love.
Love never tells you to be other than what you were born to be.
Love never asks you to wear a mask or choke back your truth or defer to someone else as your inner authority.
Love meets you where you are and embraces all of you.
Maybe one day I will complete a painting and step back and look at her and think she looks joyous or even whimsical, but I'm not striving for that.
What I usually see when I look at my paintings is a flicker of honesty and the liberation of something that once was hidden, made visible.
What do you see?