SSA Associate, Monica Nelson, Talks About Her Painting

January 20, 2015

I was fortunate to be accepted into an art education course at the University of Victoria last year. The program was very rigid, however, and I looked forward to my final project. One day, while hunting for the material I’d envisioned as my backdrop, I wandered over to the totem being carved on campus. I’d gone there often but this time, I looked into the nearby container of scraps labeled ‘firewood’. As I casually dug through the box of discarded pieces I suddenly caught my breath. A piece of wood torn on one end but otherwise rectangular was radiating out such a beautiful flow of lines and colours I could barely contain my excitement.

What a gift! I rejoiced in finding this ‘pearl’ and literally hugged the rough piece of wood all the way home. The long awaited project I’d intended to make was now irrelevant. I felt such a strong compulsion to create Our Lady of Guadalupe that even the course had become secondary.

I’ve always been drawn to Our Lady of Guadalupe but I needed to re-acquaint myself with her story before attempting the daunting task of re-creating her image. The more I read and re-read the stories the more sure I felt about doing this. I prayed to Our Lady that I would honour her with this work despite my limited talents, and be able to depict her true beauty in the message of Love she carried.

OLG closeupAfter many failed attempts at several transfer processes, the reality needed to be faced that I would actually have to draw her image!  I am in awe of those who can draw as my own creations are usually limited to looking contorted or deformed. And now I had to put a pencil onto this beautiful piece of wood, with its deep and bending grooves. But I continued to pray, developed a tactic and finally got on with it.

As soon as I started, another very important choice had to be made. Was Our Lady’s image to be superimposed onto the wood or was this meant to be something new? Our Lady’s image faces left but to place her in that direction was counter-intuitive to the wood. The grooves flowed powerfully to the right as did the amazing array of colours. Our Lady would be opposing nature rather than in harmony.

I thought of the brutality of my Christian faith in its treatment of First Nations people. This was Huu-Mass (Nuu-chah-nulth), a western red cedar dating back to 1448 (from a note by the totem). Although I’d been gifted with this material on which to honour Our Lady, all around me I saw the destruction of God’s creation, millennia lived in a misguided understanding of ‘Dominion.’  Was this then what I really was called to do in the making of the image? I couldn’t bear to! So the process took a more organic form while still intimately connected to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The materials used were limited; pencil, coloured pencils and acrylics. The colours of her robes were slightly altered and Juan Diego became the round, green earth Our Lady lightly rests upon. I placed her on the far right edge of the wood rather than in the centre, and on the side that was torn.

The maguey (agave) aura which reveals her holiness is on this broken side but I floundered when painting the inner side. Again, a decision for change. Then suddenly I thought of Our Lady bringing Light into the world. Of course, have her reflect light! So the glow of heaven is joined with the goodness of the earth (agave) to create her aura on the two sides.

My Catholic religion is often conscripted. Perhaps it needs to be for its survival, but faith must also be free to grow in each and every person. If all the windows and doors are shut, how can the spirit breathe? Our Lady of Guadalupe made herself present to Juan Diego and later to the bishop and his advisors on a simple tilma made from cactus fibres. The Divine is always with us, we just have to ‘see.’ And what beautiful serendipity; after her robes were painted I read that Juan had noticed Our Lady appeared pregnant when she revealed herself to him. When I looked again at the wood, I noticed how she was positioned right at the place where the wood curved to the side, creating quite unintentionally, a bump on her stomach!

I keep Our Lady close to me. She’s been moved multiple times around my living space along with an image of someone whose strong faith was a guide for me in the few years of knowing him before his death. Our Lady’s presence helped me in the process of  ‘re-Membering’ that part of myself and I know they both watch over me now, more than my limited understanding could ever comprehend.

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