Bloomin' Alley by Victoria Morris Ekelund
Last night I went to an art show. It's something I don't do enough these days, which is a shame. It would really help my overall state of being because looking at beautiful artwork is invigorating to my soul.
The artist, Victoria, is a friend I haven't seen for several years. We've each aged a bit and her art has likewise ripened—both in skill and depth of feeling. She has also grown bold in her subject matter—painting the rawness of real faces as well as the beauty of nature in pleine aire landscapes.
What strikes me most about her current show is her series on urban alleys—many pieces of the one that runs behind her house in an older Denver neighborhood. Personally, I've never been a fan of alleys as a source of visual appeal. They're a kind of dead place where things get thrown away or stashed or stolen or lost, but not a place of beauty. Not, at least, until seen through the artist's eye.
Rendered in oil on canvas, these alleys become a highly focused slice of often-hidden reality. "I see them as a metaphor of my own soul growth process," says Victoria. "You know, looking behind the pretty mask at the front of the house, stripping down to what's really going on out back."
And what's going on in her alleys is surprisingly colorful, hopeful, even whimsical. There's life happening here. Perhaps an old car being brought back to life or a fresh coat of paint on a worn garage door. Light plays on myriad surfaces. Splashes of water reflect deep blue hues at twilight. Hollyhocks grow vigorously against bits of fence. And a little white West Highland Terrier runs full speed between bright pink blossoms and big beige dumpsters.
Yet, there is a bleakness to these alleys that makes me seek the restful peace of a winter landscape or the brilliant image of yellow black-eyed Susans on a background of shady-blue leaves. I need the visual relief from the starkness of what is—no matter how you frame it—a place of loss.
"My husband won't go alley-hopping with me," explains Victoria. "I guess it's a personal thing with me. It seems to make him sad to see things in decay."
I get that. The grief journey is a bit like walking the alleyways of life and it takes courage to do it. It's a voyage that even the most sympathetic of friends or family are likely to decline sharing, even with the promise of new life at the end. Ultimately, it's a solo trip because we are the ones who must do the work of self-examination and reframing what has been lost. If a ray of sunshine flickers in our alley, we have to find it ourselves.
And that's what Victoria does. What I love about her alleys is her relentless attention to what is colorful and healthy and full of life—even in the midst of the detritus. Flowers bloom red, purple recycle bins stand in stark contrast to their surroundings, a child's toy gleams brightly in the summer sun. We may see these images or not. It depends on where we focus our attention.
Grief is like that, too. The beauty of the process is truly in the experience of the beholder. Like Victoria's husband, refusing to explore alleyways because he finds them depressing, we may decide that grief is a horrible state to be avoided at all costs. We don't go there, and yet we know that the alley exists, running between the structures of our life, waiting until we have the courage to look.
And once we do look, what do we see? Perhaps it's not all bad. The light shines in the alley just as surely as it shines in the front yard. All kinds of little critters run through it. The lines and shapes can be quite pleasing to the eye if we don't give them meaning beyond their reality.
If we gaze with a curious heart, what at first appears desolate can become a place of hope because most alleys are open at both ends. You don't have to get stuck there. An alley is a way through that eventually leads to the street where new life is happening. Yes, it can be very useful to observe the alley. But it is even more important to find the glimmers of hope and let the signs of life call you back to the front of the house where you can live what may now be a more authentic life because of what you allowed yourself to discover out back.
I think the real key to finding beauty in the alleyways is to bring some with you. Always on the lookout for an inspiring image, Victoria doesn't venture out unprepared. She takes her camera or her paints with her. She brings her artist's eye to bear on the scene. She possesses an inner sense of beauty that attunes her to the interplay of line and light, shade and shape that others less observant might not notice. And once found, the image is encouraged to feed her soul as well as that of her patrons.
As I have walked through my personal alley of grief, I have been aware of an almost desperate need for the balance of beautiful surroundings. I have had to quite literally reframe my physical environment so I could endure the emotional bleakness I often felt.
Almost immediately after my husband's death, I bought new bedroom furniture and finished the remodeling projects we had begun together. My home became my sanctuary—not just as a place of safety but, more importantly, as a place where I could relish the lovely way the sun plays through the skylights or rejoice in how perfectly the inside wall paint complements the natural colors of trees that peak in every window.
I notice that beauty in a person, place, or thing has a calming effect—as if the essence of beauty is a quality of soul that reminds me to choose life because I contain life. So that's what I'm doing.
These days I feel a bit like that little Westie running for all he's worth down Victoria's alley. I don't get the sense that he is running away from anything. Even in the midst of a bleak place that may depress some people, he is just darn happy to be alive. Me, too!
Victoria's show runs through Sunday, November 6 at the Littleton Art Museum. Here is a link to the slide show of the exhibition. All of her artwork is for sale.