On Moving Forward

“Always” oil and cold wax medium painting on Arches oil paper mounted to cradled birch panel 8”x10”

“Always” oil and cold wax medium painting on Arches oil paper mounted to cradled birch panel 8”x10”

Do you ever watch or listen to TED Talks? A few days ago I came across a TED Talk with Nora McInerny. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon it, but it was so powerful and meaningful to me. Her talk is about “moving on” from grief. Moving on, she says, implies that we should get over our grief and leave the person we’ve lost behind us. Instead, she asserts that when someone loses somebody important to them the person they’ve lost is still very much a part of their lives and we don’t ever move on from them, we “move forward with them.” Our lives become changed but their presence still exists in our everyday life.

I feel this, I live this, every day as I become more confident calling myself an artist in this world. I don’t talk about my “why” much, even though I know it’s important for an artist to communicate that. I don’t talk about it because my “why” has a foundation in death and loss, and death and loss make people uncomfortable—even though experiencing it is inevitable. If you’ve followed me for awhile, you’ve heard me talking about my best friend Tracy before and maybe this is the point where you’ll tune out disinterested but I’m going to keep going because she’s been on my mind lately.

I know that probably sounds odd to you that my “why” has roots in loss an death since my paintings are so colorful and my main subject matter, flowers, are so joyful and full of life—but the reason I exist as an artist in this world right now is because Tracy’s death over four years ago became a crash course in our impermanence and the power of now for me.

You see, I’ve always known that someday I would be a fine artist. That my answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” has always been “an artist.” But I really didn’t know what that looked like and always thought it was somewhere in the future. I felt completely comfortable being a Graphic Designer, a full-time mom who occasionally drew a picture, painted a painting, did a craft with my sons or decorated a cake to scratch my creative itch. My talents weren’t going to disintegrate magically—they would be waiting for me when I was ready for them.

But when this person so dear to me was taken from me by cancer, I found myself navigating really painful grief for the first time. Tracy was an insanely creative person and was always gently nudging me and was excited to hear about my ideas and creative whims. She was so encouraging but also very patient with me as she watched these whims fizzle and fade. She modeled creativity in all aspects of her life—she was a creative director for a fortune 500 company who always had side projects going. Every detail of her beautiful home and her wardrobe was meticulously designed and curated. She had a personal brand before personal brand was a household term.

When she died I felt the loss of my best friend, sure, but I also grieved the loss of her creativity—the world had lost someone who was making it more beautiful through her work and that was an awakening call for my own creativity. I realized that our time on this earth is finite and unpredictable and my time to share my talents with the world is not sometime in the future, it is now.

After she passed away, I began creating and exploring all sort of creative pursuits and started to incorporate making art into my daily life. In all that creation and exploration I not only found a creative release but I also found a powerful source of healing. Whenever I’m in a creative space I honestly feel a calming presence, a meditation, and I believe she is with me–not in a “I’m going to go paint so I can spend time with the spirit of my dead friend” sort of way but in a quiet homage to the fact that I am here, on this Earth, still able to create and able to share. I create in memory of her and in honor of my talents that I am meant to share. As she honored hers, I now honor mine.

I sent this little commission out into the world last week. I really love painting commissioned work for people even though the pressure is a little amped up compared to just painting whatever I want to paint and then putting it out into the world, but this one was special. You see, Tracy’s husband contacted me out of the blue back in May to ask me to paint a commission for his mother as a gift. He wanted it to be peonies because a love for peonies was something that Tracy and his mom have in common. So I dug out their wedding photos and looked at her wedding bouquet, all peonies, as inspiration but I also infused little bits of her, mostly through color, which was so important to her. In these white and pink and hot pink peonies are little bits of orange and light blue and gray, finished with a silver frame—anyone who knows Tracy can associate these colors to her. It was so lovely to think about of these little details about her and I was acutely aware of both her presence while I was painting but also about of how I am moving forward, as an artist, always with her at my side.

It is lovely and I am grateful.

Tracy’s wedding day with her beautiful peony bouquet (that’s me on the left of her in the picture) and Tracy with my oldest son Sam, age two at the time, who was the ring bearer.

Tracy’s wedding day with her beautiful peony bouquet (that’s me on the left of her in the picture) and Tracy with my oldest son Sam, age two at the time, who was the ring bearer.

Jennifer Stefanek