The Art of the Middle (...and Laura McCollough's Art and Faith Creative Retreats...}

This is how Italy greeted me. I literally stepped off the plane, dragging my carry-on, headed to the airport Sheraton hotel, and walked right across this stepping stone:

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Given the fact that I didn’t pick up a paintbrush until I was middle age - well past my mid-forties, and I am only now almost 52 - it can seem like a kind of miracle that I traveled to Bellagio, Italy to teach art last week! Consider this quote: “The great victory, which appears so simple today, was the result of a series of small victories that went unnoticed.”

As late as 2011, I discovered art as a means of processing life, of quieting the static in my mind, of clawing out of a dark place. So I made bad art, every day, for a long time. I posted heartfelt blog posts for a very long time - posts that were read by about 12 people.

More recently, I have had to let go of relationships, because there is a path set before me - on many levels - that I must pursue, for the sake of others who will come after me. There is a path of conviction, of living in authentic community, and a path of certainty of what “life in the middle” is to look like. There is an artistic path, a path of family (and even financial) restoration, and a path of very personal growth that has to be walked one step at a time, and it does consist of a series of small victories that not only go largely unnoticed: when they are noticed, they are often diminished by those who call themselves friends and should be genuinely celebrating them.

I can’t begin to tell you of the people (who I thought were friends) who made off-hand remarks about the fact that I posted much of my life, art, and thoughts to social media. “Whatever Sheila is up to, I am sure we will see it on Instagram…” {insert an eyeroll}

…not realizing that to share myself in that way was a very vulnerable and courageous thing for me to do; not realizing that there is no other way to build a creative business.

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I share all that by way of the “front door”, as my opening remarks, hoping that you will understand (if you don’t already) that to invest in your true, authentic gifts is important…but it isn’t easy. It can be a hard and sometimes lonely road. You need a creative community.

If you are at all struggling with the idea of 1. discovering what your real gifts are (as opposed to the way you wish you were gifted) or 2. giving your gifts the time and weight of attention and investment that they are worthy of, regardless of what others think, or 3. struggling to find your art AND FAITH creative tribe…

…may I encourage you to attend one of Laura McCollough’s Art and Faith Creative Retreats?

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Meet my friend Laura. (She isn’t that much taller than me. We were standing on the most beautiful cobblestone steps you’ve ever seen!)

At one of Laura’s “Art and Faith Creative Retreats”, it isn’t really about the art - though you’ll make art. It is more about the beautiful alchemy of stirring your own time, attention, investment, and intention together with beautiful scenery. It’s about taking that mixture, and adding in a dash of jet lag, and folding in the courage it took to even GET to where you are going. Then, it’s about throwing in scoops of new friendships and last of all, some paint. Then, you sit back and see what explodes!

 (Laura, speaking during one morning’s devotional)

(Laura, speaking during one morning’s devotional)

 (That warm feeling you get, when you see that someone has anticipated your arrival…)

(That warm feeling you get, when you see that someone has anticipated your arrival…)

Women who attend one of Laura’s creative retreats are lavished beyond all measure.

We were treated to meals by Italy’s top chef. We were treated to live music, the best gelatto, the best gardens, the most amazing vistas, invigorating walks, and relaxing boat rides on exquisite Lake Como.

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We saw Bellagio through the eyes of some of its people - we met some of Laura’s friends who live there. If there is a better way to really experience a place like Bellagio, I can’t imagine what it would be. There’s truly no one better than Laura McCollough to introduce you to Lake Como.

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Best of all, I got to experience it with my best friend, my boyfriend, and my pastor all rolled into one:

 (oh, hey…it’s just us…you know. We are so hurt and mad.)

(oh, hey…it’s just us…you know. We are so hurt and mad.)

 (that time at the Villa Carlotta, when we became a classic oil painting…)

(that time at the Villa Carlotta, when we became a classic oil painting…)

If you only have the time and resources for one “once-in-a-lifetime” - I would be remiss not to ask you to at least consider Laura’s “Art and Faith Creative Retreats”. (click the link to be taken to her FAQ page)

I will never forget last week. Coming home to my people was pure joy. But coming home to ordinary life was hard, you guys. Never have I ever been so lavished with beauty and joy and friendship.

 (this beautiful art studio made me weep…I will still cry over this spot, at the drop of a hat. The spirit of this room will haunt my heart forever - and I promise, that is not drama or overstatement. Something about standing here changed me.)

(this beautiful art studio made me weep…I will still cry over this spot, at the drop of a hat. The spirit of this room will haunt my heart forever - and I promise, that is not drama or overstatement. Something about standing here changed me.)

 The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord! I have had to let people go this year. But look what the Lord has done! Can you see me back there, waving at you in pure wonder and surprise?  The Lord does not take away, but what He does not give, more and better! And He will not take away, but what He will take what is left behind, and deepen it and sweeten it!

The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord! I have had to let people go this year. But look what the Lord has done! Can you see me back there, waving at you in pure wonder and surprise?

The Lord does not take away, but what He does not give, more and better! And He will not take away, but what He will take what is left behind, and deepen it and sweeten it!

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I taught an altered tin class, focusing on having fun with composition and atmospheric perspective. Another day, I taught a plein air class, breaking down some of the surrounding scenery into a do-able, manageable “art vocabulary”. Then, we all went for a walk, and when we arrived at our destination, we painted in our art journals:

 (my beautiful plein air class!)

(my beautiful plein air class!)

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Find and follow Laura McCollough on her blog, akissonthechic.com and on her IG @creativeretreats And by all means…please go to one of her retreats or workshops! But you have to follow her blog and/or IG feed to know what is on the horizon for you!

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And, for the hundredth time, a huge thank you to my sweetest friend Jeanne Oliver for making the connection between Laura’s heart and mine. (And for continuing to show me what is possible when I keep shaking off limitation, when I keep on going in spite of my critics, and risk everything to pursue the gift and call of God on my life…even when the stakes are real. I love you, friend!)

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I am told I will be teaching art again in this space. Can you even believe that?! And in other spaces, in other places! Maybe I will see you there, and we can encourage one another in this all-important middle place!

“Bella mezza eta!” - a toast, to our “beautiful middle age”!

The Ministry of Presence, Our Stories Matter, and Jeanne Oliver's New Book

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Two years ago, I was the first one of the two of us to visit my sweetest friend Jeanne Oliver.  (Read about it here.)  She invited me to be a part of her very first art workshop in her stunning new studio.

Jeanne lives in an absolutely beautiful part of Castle Rock, Colorado, in an absolutely beautiful home.  Jeanne has impeccable taste.  I will never stop bothering her to write a book on all things home and creative living.  She embodies the beauty of those concepts like no one else I know.

Then...Jeanne came to visit me.  Last week.

I, by contrast, live in a declining urban neighborhood.  I live in the kind of neighborhood where the houses are small and the cars are big, and the hubcaps are even bigger.  I live where you pass peonies and porch swings one minute, then peeling paint and an abandoned appliance the next.  I live where there is sometimes a steady thump thump of the bass in what can only best be described as mariachi-hip-hop-gansta music.

I live in what we affectionately call "the cul-de-sac"(I sometimes hashtag it the #cultesac, because I have a sick sense of humor, my husband is a pastor, and two of my four grown children ended up buying homes in the culdesac.  So we all live across the street and beside each other, and most people think that's weird.  But we like it just fine.) and every day, I reconcile the ugly-beautiful.

To say I am visual is an understatement.  To say that I am an intuitive artsy "feeler" is an even bigger understatement.

Seeing grand babies playing in their yards every single day is what is beautiful about where I  live.  And that is enough.  Seeing my neighbor's grand children playing in their yard every single day is another thing that is beautiful about where I live.  It also is enough.  Otherwise, my need for beauty in my surroundings is challenged to the core every single day.  I am forced, by nature of my environment, to see the beauty in all things eternal, not external.

I have always been very honest about this, and I am so glad for my own transparency.

Because sometimes an online friend becomes an in-real-life friend.  The best you can ever imagine.  And then you go to your online friend's house.  And then she comes to your house.  The kind of online friend whose home has been featured in books and magazines, comes to your house in the 'hood.  

::gulp::

But a real in-real-life friend comes to see you, and she does not bat an eye at what kind of neighborhood you live in, or what model car you drive.  She comes to snatch a few minutes of real, intentional presence with you.  No i-phone, no a-genda.

I share all this only because that is a small part of our story, and telling that story is so appropriate, given what it is that brought my dear friend Jeanne Oliver all the way from her beautiful Colorado home, to Nashville, TN, and then to Knoxville, TN and my home.

Our stories brought us together.  

 

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This is Jeanne's first book, released by Amazon, Barnes and Noble, published by Northlight books on July 4th.  It is all about using your stories to create a beautiful visual narrative - one that at the very least will be a joy to make, and at the most will bring healing and become a family heirloom.

Our stories matter.  So much.  No one could have written a book like this better than Jeanne, because she has a courage in telling her own stories, and a curiosity about the stories of others, that is authentic.

This book is beautifully photographed, and the art instruction is clear, step-by-step, and the philosophy contained inside its pages is contagious.  You will find yourself valuing your own narrative.  You will find yourself remembering things you thought you'd forgotten - and those things you remember will be some of the most important parts of your story.  The human mind is funny like that...we are good forgetters of what matters most.

 

Can I talk to you, just for a minute, about two things:  1.  How important it is to put yourself in the presence of incredible women, and 2.  The ministry of simply being present with others.  

It would have been so easy to cancel Jeanne's visit to my home.  I mean come on - let's be real.  You should see where I live.  

I could have come up with very legitimate reasons to decide against opening up the guest room, and instead make arrangements to just meet her for lunch, someplace halfway between here and her workshop/book signing in Nashville.   And I would not have been lying.  I could have said I wasn't well (I wasn't.  Menopause.  Bless.  Say no more.).  I could have said that unforeseen ministry-related things had come up (they had).  There were at least six "good" reasons I could have used to mask the simple fact that allowing my friend to come inside my space and my heart felt very vulnerable.

But I passionately believe in challenging my insecurities, and in putting myself in the presence of people who I know are amazing, and receiving an impartation of their courage and creativity.  Practicing that has changed my life.

I have been leaning into what many are calling "the ministry of presence".  For me, that means quieting my busy mind, quieting the self-talk, the insecure (or opinionated) monologue that can go on in my head when I am with others.  That means choosing vulnerability - looking a friend in the eyes and saying what is true.

Practicing that is changing me.

Also, I love her.  I love Jeanne.  So I had to, somehow, send her the message that I trust her, no matter what.

She could have left and said all sorts of things to others about me.  She could have drawn all sorts of conclusions, or made all sorts of judgements about everything she saw here.  But I trusted her (and her sweet husband Kelly) to love us as we are, and to look past what is not beautiful about where we live, and see what truly, truly is beautiful about where we live:  my lion-hearted, gorgeous husband, my daughters, my sons, my grands, our sweet homes, our gardens, our urban chickens (ha ha), our heart for our neighborhood, our heart for ministry, and the lives we have made here together on this here #cultesac.

That's a lot of beauty.  

That's my story, and I am sticking to it.