Some time ago, in a dream I saw a self-possessed pregnant African woman walking in open grassland, stop and stand poised as she watched a lioness approach her. The dream lioness carried her cub in her mouth, she seemed to want to show the expectant mother her instincts about birth and mothering. For an entire year (2015), I painted this rendition of “Listening” (oils, 48"x30") Not satisfied with the result, I started another version in 2016 which also did not convey the felt-image in my body, so I cut the canvas from the frame for a third try.
“With my eyes, I always paint very well
but with my hands I’m deficient."
--Käthe Kollwitz, German artist (1867-1945)(1)
I can relate to Kollwitz's frustration with the gap between what I see in my mind, what I feel in my heart, and what I am able to express on canvas. Before making another big painting, I am making a series of small experimental paintings to practice variations of landscape, lioness, and the woman. With each rendition, I enter the dream image, I embody each element in the painting: the lioness, the woman, the vast veld. In the most recent practice painting, I wanted the lioness to really “talk to” the woman, to roar about the power of birth and the responsibility of mothering. So in the small painting below (20" x 15.5") I took the cub out of her mouth and placed two cubs, walking with her, also listening.
I wonder what you feel when you see “Listening,” and what the lioness is saying to you. In the maze of Western birth culture, a cacophony of spoken and written words fills the mind to the brim and drowns out spacious bare moments needed to absorb, sort out, and reflect. Crowded words compete for understanding, often crowding out intimacy between speakers and listener. Amid the din and drone of rhetoric and clichés about birth routines, “choices” and plans, birth stories, and birth activism, is anyone really being still enough to listen deeply?
In the dreamscape of “Listening,” the backdrop of the veld mirrors inner solitude, the absence of distractions, and no place to run to. Everyone is trying to run fast from one’s own mind, from feeling unworthy, undeserving, from being judged even by one’s own self, and from the least bit of pain or uncertainty. Rajneesh asked, “How can you hide yourself from yourself? Even if you go to the moon, you are with yourself.” When coming face to face with the Lioness, there is nowhere to run to. In that attentive stillness, there is only listening. In listening with her whole body-mind, the woman feels the roar of nature’s message in every fiber of her being. The ferocity and knowing of the lioness is wordless, yet universal.
From time to time, I'll share my inner life from my easel on this blog. I invite you to send me your birth art, too, whether it is a clay sculpture, fabric art, or a painting. Tell me what inspired the work or where it is taking you. I will be opening a public Birth Art Gallery on my website in the future.
1 Prelinger, Elizabeth (1992). Käthe Kollwitz. New Haven and London: National Gallery of Art, Washington Yale University Press. p. 14.