Today I want to tell you about a friend of mine who passed away ten days ago. If you didn’t know her, I have a feeling you will find her story inspiring. If you did know her, then together let’s take a moment to remember her and celebrate her amazing art and resilient spirit.
This is one of Karen’s recent works. It is titled “Welcome To My Garden.” I remember talking to Karen about this piece quite a lot. It was a challenge for Karen in many ways. First, it was very difficult for her to create. She had been losing control over her coordination quite rapidly as her disease took its toll on her. You see, since she was diagnosed at age two, Karen had struggled with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Even though her body had severe limitations, Karen’s mind was always sharp as a tack, up until the last weeks of her life.
The first time I met Karen was at a Vegas Artists Guild meeting. She delivered to me her classic signature intro with a punchline, “I’m Karen Wheeler. I used to be Karen Walker, until, you know…”
I’ve witnessed a whole range of reactions to this same joke of hers over the years. I began to see it as a valuable litmus test. Karen would carefully gage a person’s reaction to it and from that determine whether or not the person was going to be able to “get her” or not. She wasn’t looking for shock, ridicule or pity, she was looking for what anyone might look for in a potential friend: mutual respect, the ability to use humor to lift another person’s spirit, and empathy. I don’t remember how I reacted, but I must have passed, because from that day on, we both always looked forward to spending time in each other’s company.
Karen’s “garden” was her creative life. It was an emotionally complex place. In it there was pain and struggle, but there was also a wealth of laughter and beauty. She taught me so much over the years about interdependency. She never had a choice like I did. She always needed other people to help her survive. For a long time I thought I didn’t need anyone else and that I could do everything I needed to do all on my own. She showed me all I was missing out on by living my life this way. She showed me that it was okay, even required, to need and expect the help of others, be it friends, a caretaker or an entire community.
When Karen’s beloved and loyal live-in caretaker passed away several years ago, I could see that her life was dramatically changed. He was irreplaceable. She struggled with new limitations imposed on her already restricted activities and freedoms. She was not able to spend the wee hours of the night painting anymore. It was late at night when she had always felt the most inspired. She wasn’t able to attend as many community events, like art shows and rock concerts. These limitations deeply impacted her happiness and external sources of inspiration. She hungered for conversation with like-minded people and most devastatingly, she stopped creating art for several years.
This is when I like to think that I helped her. I knew that her needs were far beyond what I alone could provide. Her large community of friends became a small trusted group. She was in a vulnerable situation and much of what I did for her, was simply to listen to her without judgment and without trying to “fix it” all. We talked a lot about ways she could start creating art again. We both knew that it would provide her with healing. She had to come to terms with the fact that her work may not be as perfect as she wanted it to be. She had to face this and create anyway, just for the sake of expressing what was hurting on the inside.
The art Karen created during this time is extraordinary to me. The way she picked herself up again through the healing power of art will forever inspire me and the work I do. She drew from symbols with deep personal reverence. In her piece “Moon Child” she draws herself as a wolf-headed woman trapped in the trunk of a bare leafless tree. The scene takes place under the light of a full and powerful moon. It is a giant beacon of light providing illumination and hope on a dark and twisted environment. (Click the image to read Karen’s own words written about the piece on her website).
My hope is that Karen’s story will inspire you to create and share your creations with courage. Living a vitalized creative life is more than making images that you think others will applaud or want to buy to decorate their homes with. The person who lives a creative life, creates from a place of vulnerability and courage. They dig into what they want transformed about their life and they expose it to themselves and the world. They lay it out and look at it. They learn from it, and in this act of revelation, they invariably touch the lives of others. We are all interdependent on one another in this healing creative process.
A few weeks before Karen passed away she met with her fellowship of artists known as “The Spirit of Art.” Karen was planning a new show in honor of member Roberto Rico who passed away last winter. Karen was feeling positive about the upcoming show at North Las Vegas City Hall scheduled for September 2018. She was also excited about a new piece she had been working on. Karen’s family will be hosting a Celebration of Life event on Friday, July 20th. I will post the details once I receive them.
Sending out much light, love and encouragement to you all.
Your Creativity Coach,
Bonnie Kelso is a Creativity Coach who uses Creating as a healing modality. She is the author of Vitalize Your Creative Life an interactive workbook which helps people connect to their creative inner child. She also facilitates creativity workshops and classes. She is the creator of the ABCs of Conscious Creating, a guided self-study program that delves deeper into the spiritual realm of your unique creative potential.