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Eye of the Beholder

Artist Mary Gravelle guides others to self-discovery—with paint, paper and permission to be fully themselves.

 

"I give people full rein to paint something God-awful ugly," artist Mary Gravelle says with a laugh. Describing the process and intent of her "Wisdom Painting for Self-Discovery" workshops, she explains, "Being open to the process will bring out something of significance to the 'artist.' What it looks like to anyone else is not important."

Mary A. Gravelle poses with a wisdom painting on
an easel and paintbrushes, the tools of
transformation she uses in her workshops.

Having led creativity workshops across the country for 15 years, Gravelle moved to Silver City last October, showing her work at the Reese-Benton Gallery on Texas Street. Now the artist-in-residence at Gallery 400 in Silver City, Gravelle is offering workshops locally to help individuals discover their inner artists, to find what's at their soul's core and splash it out in paint, in full living color.

Anyone can do this kind of painting, she insists. The workshops are more about the participants discovering meaning and new modes of expression through the creation of art, than about the art itself.

"It's the reason I started painting, myself," Gravelle says. "I was around 40, and it was a time of huge personal change for me, and things just started coming out on the canvas."

Well, not literally canvas, as it turns out.

"I went out to Home Depot and bought masonite board and house paints," Gravelle says. Not knowing exactly what she wanted to paint, Gravelle says she "just had at it" and began painting without much thinking. The process, she says, was both healing and illuminating. "I needed to see those things in full color!"

She went on to explore in oil paints and acrylics, creating images that were almost dreamlike—putting together colors, symbols and images from photos—as the spirit moved her. She worked on canvas, but went back to boards, preferring their firm surface. "They can take whatever I dish out," she says with a mischievous smile.

A full 10 years after her first baby steps into painting, Gravelle went back to school to earn her associate's degree in fine art. "I needed some instruction," she says. "I wanted to be able to portray the things I saw inside myself and wanted to put out there in my paintings."

A native of Indiana, Gravelle spent most of the last 20-plus years in Connecticut, visiting the southwestern US for the first time just last fall. She lived for a short time in an intentional community of artists in Oracle, Ariz., where the sun-drenched skies broke her artist's heart open in a different way.

"All that light," she says. "It just blew me away!"

Since moving to Silver City, she says she's been inspired by New Mexico's skies, clouds and mountains, and has done a whole new series of landscape paintings.

 

Gravelle gears her wisdom-painting workshops for mid-lifers, folks in their 40s and 50s mostly, grown-ups who have spent much of their lives working for a living, building careers, raising families.

"In that age range, it suddenly hits them. They ask, 'Who am I?'" she says. Her students are almost exclusively female, women being more open to emotional work and self-discovery than men, she says. "They are willing to look at themselves and traverse the terrain, the inner landscape."

Gravelle sets the stage for a wisdom-painting workshop by placing the participants' easels in such a way that allows for group energy in the room, but maintains individual protected private space for each participant to create his or her own art — the grown-up workshop version of your third-grade teacher's instruction to "keep your eyes on your own paper."

"There are ground rules," Gravelle says. "There is no judging, no critiquing, of one another's work. I encourage them to use the session as a meditation."

The workshop always starts with silence, to allow the students to "fully arrive and become present," she says. Then the students introduce themselves and describe their workshop goals, what brought them there to paint. Gravelle then introduces them to the self-discovery process of wisdom painting.

"I ask them to ask themselves, 'What are you looking for? What are you afraid of?'" she explains. She asks "guiding questions," she says, "to keep the mind and expectations out of it."

Then she instructs participants in the mechanics—the paints and paper themselves, the process of painting. The students choose their brushes, make a small palette of colors from the bottles of tempera paints, and begin creating their artwork.

Gravelle admits it is harder for some than others to let go and allow paint to hit paper. "I know some people won't be open," she says, "but I encourage them with open-ended statements and questions." She says no participant has remained totally blocked, that all have been able to face the white paper before them and produce something of their own personal art from within.

 

Sometimes, Gravelle says, there have been tears in her classroom. How she responds depends on the student. "I don't want to interrupt their process and necessarily make them stop crying," Gravelle says of tearful participants. "I may say something to them to help them push through, or I may just stand by them for a while."

She stays clear of interpreting the artworks in a therapeutic or psychological manner. "It's not about that, and I'm not here to 'fix' them," she says of her students. "It's about helping them to open up and create their own personal art."

Some participants have taken her workshop more than once, challenging themselves to reach and express deeper levels within themselves.

And she recounts the interesting experience of having a husband-wife team take her workshop together. Painting at their own separate easels, without conversation and unable to see one another's works, they both painted flowers. "They were very similar images, and they even used a similar palette of colors," Gravelle says.

Helping her students unlock a door within them, enabling them to find joy in a new avenue of creativity or value themselves in a new way, is why Gravelle created wisdom painting.

"There have been several women who started up their own businesses after taking the workshop," she says. "It was like, once they could face a blank sheet of paper, they could go out and face life in the same way. That was very rewarding for me to see, that it could have that effect."

—Donna Clayton Lawder

 

Wisdom Painting for Self-Discovery is held on the third Sunday of the month at Gallery 400, 400 N. Arizona St., Silver City. The next workshop is on May 20, 1-4 p.m. A $35 fee includes all materials. For information, call (860) 888-6998 or see www.wisdompainting.com. Mary Gravelle's "Triangle Series" is on exhibit at The Hummingbird at the Silco Theater, 311 N. Bullard St., Silver City, and her "Oracle Landscape Series" currently is being shown at Gallery 400.

 

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