The Curative Act of Painting the Susquehanna
Jun 11, 2018 02:47PM ● Published by Erica Shames
Week #13: "Mr. and Mrs." location: near Otter Creek, York, Co. (This original painting was stolen Dec. '17 during an exhibit.)
By Erica L. Shames
Artist Diana Thomas’s goal was to bring structure to the creation of her art. So she set out on a year-long project.
“I wanted to make art occupy a more important position in my life,” the Columbia-based artist explained. “I thought if I got into a routine that would help me.”
That “routine” centered on an idea to paint the Susquehanna River every week for a year. “The idea had been in my mind for a long time,” she said. “I felt it was the time to do it.”
Outlining the processDiana purchased canvases, all measuring 12 x 4—the small size, she surmised would make the Herculean task seem more manageable. Diana also purchased four photo albums with sleeves to house photos of the river and cards documenting her thoughts and feelings.
“The river to me is a metaphor for a lot of different things,” she said. “To make myself spend time with the river offered lessons in the different colors and the way the river was moving. They were analogies for something I was trying to process in my own mind. And I could learn by simply looking at the river.”
Painting the river on a regular basis, Thomas says, was a cathartic process—just as learning to have a prayer or meditation time, or anything done to achieve inner growth. Sometimes Thomas would sketch at the river or write at the river. Both served as jumping off points to begin the artistic process of painting the river, for which she used acrylic and mixed media.
“I like to use modeling paste to give painting texture,” Diana explained. “Sometimes I like to add pressed leaves and other organic material. I also like to add a metallic flake to it—gilding material that you’d use for antiquing.”
One of the unexpected takeaways for Diana was the many facets of the river. “Depending on the color of the sky, and time of day, the water would change,” she learned. “That was part of what intrigued me about painting it.”
Tragedy strikesDiana’s oldest daughter from her first marriage had struggled for a “long time” with addiction to alcohol and opioids. She started to overuse. When it became too expensive to buy drugs legally, she turned to heroine. She was 41 when she died.
“It was shocking and yet we were almost always waiting [for it to happen],” recalls Diana. “It was always hanging in the background.”
Diana knew her daughter’s death wouldn’t end her painting odyssey, but that it was appropriate to stop for a time.
“I could graciously set [the painting] down, and that was perfectly normal and right,” she said. “And I knew that when I would pick it back up it would be different. But I never stopped photographing the river. I needed to go sit at the river and do nothing.”
Three weeks after Diana’s daughter died, her daughter’s partner died of an overdose. For the rest of the year, Diana says, she deeply grieved. She knew the process of painting was healing, and that it was appropriate to grieve and paint at the same time. After two months, Diana picked up a brush again. To catch up with the rigorous schedule of creating a painting every week, she allowed herself a new freedom.
“I painted whatever would minister to me in some way, and soothe me,” she explains. “It wasn’t a distraction; it felt like it was just part of the process of grieving. I kept thinking that from here on I was going to be a new color, and that I should explore new colors in my repertoire palette.”
Diana purchased paint in a deep blood-red color and an earthy green—opposites, she sees now. Her first effort back she called River of Tears.
“At the time, I don’t know that [the colors were] significant, but I knew they would work into how I was seeing things,” she said. “I felt like my perspective would be different looking at the river and looking at life.”
Life lessonsDiana said there was restfulness in the grief and sadness she experienced.
“I allowed that sadness, moved into it and through it without making it into something I was enduring or something that had to have an end. I didn’t want to put parameters around it. I just wanted to feel what I felt.”
And in the grief state Diana was reminded, while observing the river, of certain truths.
“Being at the river brought me back to the fact that life goes on, and things come in the flow that you don’t expect, and they don’t stay. It was a confirmation of things I already knew, and one that I needed. It felt peaceful and solid to have that confirmation.”
There was learning also, through the grief, of perspectives that could be shared with other families coping with similar losses.
“If you have to suddenly and harshly let go of a child, the process of grieving shouldn’t be pushed away,” she said. “Be with people you know you can be with, without having to explain anything. Be with quiet. Accept the pain that comes from loss; don’t run away from it. Honor that person by feeling deeply what you’ve lost. Don’t close yourself off from the things and people you love. If you can find an avenue—something you can get strength from—little by little you can get yourself well.”
Something to sayMidway through the project, Diana started to see that the river paintings had more to say as a group and organized them into an exhibit she titled “Current Color.”
“[The paintings] started to sing like a choir,” she reflects. “There was something important about them being together. I started to think, there’s got to be more reasons why I’m painting such a big series. Maybe these could speak for organizations that take care of the river.”
Diana contacted a number of river-oriented organizations, including the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership. The SGP worked with UPMC Susquehanna to set up “Current Color” as a 20-piece show of Diana’s river-inspired paintings in December 2017 at UPMC’s Williamsport facility. Misfortune struck again, however, when one of the paintings, Week #13, was stolen.
“It made me think of the loss of my daughter in the middle of making the art,” Diana said. “I can’t paint her back into existence. But I can make this work in a way that my life from here on out has something new. So this [experience] just becomes another piece of my ‘Current Color’ story.
“Do I want the painting back? Of course,” she continued. “It would please me greatly if I could appeal to the person to bring it back by asking them: why did you attach to that image so much that you took it?”