By Alexis Marie Chute
An excerpt from Expecting Sunshine: A Journey of Grief, Healing, and Pregnancy after Loss
I watched Hannah work in the art studio in our basement for months while my fingers itched for my paint-en-crusted brushes, for blank canvas, paper, pens, and unnumbered hours spent in trancelike meditation of material, texture, line weight, flow, and color. I missed the magic of the first brushstroke, the ugly underpainting, experimentation, and the happy accident. I wished to work late into the night, the shifting shadows the only revelers in time’s eclipse as I lost myself and found myself and lost myself again and again in the work.
When we moved into our new house six months after Zachary died, Aaron and I fixed the basement and set it up as a studio. It was a bright, south-facing space, a walkout with one wall of large windows that funneled the sunshine. We set up my tall wooden easel in a nook by the windows, a space I shared with a blue tub of splintery building blocks, an A-frame easel for Han- nah, and a plastic kid’s drafting table I’d found at a garage sale for five dollars.
I sewed together canvas and plastic-lined painter’s drop cloths and spread them across the floor to catch careless drips. Aaron built a long rectangular table out of three smaller tables for Han- nah and me to share. I covered it with a piece of white waterproof fabric intended for the seat cushions of motorboats. Random storage units surrounded our table and easels in which I tidied my supplies into well-organized white boxes, all clearly labeled. I did everything but make art.
After setting up the studio I intended to paint right away, but my Year of Distraction demanded other priorities. I found my commercial photography business the ideal escape to drown in without it seeming suspicious. Art was dangerous. Creativity set wild in me painful secrets best suffocated beneath the surface. If I surrendered myself unguarded to its processes, I might have acknowledged the sharp regret that I did not die in Zachary’s place, and the even-more-terrifying reality in that, spiritually speaking, I had.
In putting the hectic pace of my Year of Distraction behind me, I gradually began to putter in the studio, creativity stirring, yet I was tentative and did not know where to start. In the meantime, Hannah used the space well. I gave her plastic yogurt lids where I squirted blobs of washable gouache and then let her be free, within reason. Hannah usually painted on a long rectangular piece of paper I tore from a roll on her easel. She stood on a chair and mixed her paint into a puddle of swamp-water brown, making a few graphic strokes before painting her nails, then the palms of her hands, and eventually the tops of her feet in a clever deception that looked like shoes.
My brushes, on the other hand, sat dry and bristling until one afternoon when I dunked a select few into an old peanut butter container filled with water. Mixing my colors was seductive. They slipped around on my palette and blurred into one another. The actions of my hands, the mixing, stirring, color-pairing, were automatic from years of practice and instinctually pleasurable. Han- nah clamored for my attention, hanging on me and pulling my spotted paint apron o my hips. I set her up with paints and paper of her own at the table beside me.
Back before my canvas, I worked intuitively. I chose translucent gold, copper, and titanium-white acrylics and wedged open a can of the tea-biscuit tan we had used to paint the main floor of our house. A gloss and self-leveling gel allowed the hues to spread in wave-like stripes with each brushstroke across the three-foot- by-three-foot primed canvas. e marks stretched like the horizon with an area of warm sunbeam-gold clumped gracefully in small mounds. Turning the canvas ninety degrees, I let the copper drip downward, peachy undertones and flecks of gold trailing behind. e copper created perfect circles as it fell onto the floor at my feet.
My nerves gradually thinned themselves like spilling paint, relieved from the tension of containment, like my sorrows, however briefly allowed to flow. I changed brushes from a fine tip to a bulbous commercial brush I had owned for ten years, which was now stained with deep, crunchy rust on the silver buckle holding its bristles. Changing plans thoughtlessly, I used a paint roller for a time before returning to detail with a medium-spread white bristle.
“Mary Had a Little Lamb” began on our children’s playlist, and I hummed along with Hannah as she sang. Barney was up next with the cleanup song. Then “Yankee Doodle.” I painted without a plan, without a concept or direction; I didn’t need one—hadn’t ever needed one, really. My gestures became a rhythm, which became a dance, my feet shuffling and smearing the drips beneath my toes as I worked.
Eventually Hannah needed attention. She was cold, having tossed her out t an hour before, and was only in her diaper and painted wardrobe. Her chest was covered with greenish-blue squiggles. The fronts of her legs right down to her toes were also adorned in cryptic patterns. The paint was dry and flaky and pulled at her skin. I carried her to the bath, where the water be-came a swirl of color that slipped down the drain without fuss.
“Hi, Hannah! Hi, Mommy!” Aaron said when he arrived home from work.
“Read to me!” Hannah thrust a book into his hands before he had a chance to remove his winter jacket. They sat on the stairs while Aaron’s deep voice humorously animated a few stories in a Fancy Nancy anthology. I slipped into the studio and stood a few paces back from my painting, which was drying in the corner. I watched it as if it were slowly slinking along like the clouds, and in some ways it was. Its edges became the border of my vision, and the colors vibrated.
Outside the studio windows the sapphire sky had slipped into caramel; cloudless, silent, and smooth. It told no story of time. The sky was ageless, but I was not. One year was spent, but I looked older by two. In my painting I had added layer upon layer of pigment, some thick, others a wash. The canvas was rich and labored over—in some places begrudgingly, in others with textured grace.
About the Author:
Alexis Marie Chute is an award-winning writer, artist and filmmaker and has set herself apart for her bereavement advocacy. She is a leading expert in creativity and healing. She has become an advocate in supporting and educating others on how to process their grief in creative and authentic ways, promoting healing through the arts and sharing stories in community. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and photography from the University of Alberta, and her Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Chute is a highly regarded public speaker and has traveled around the world presenting on art, writing, and the healing capacities of creativity. Her documentary film, also called Expecting Sunshine, subtitled, “The truth about pregnancy after loss” follows her second pregnancy after loss. She is widely published in anthologies and magazines, and her artwork has been exhibited internationally with critical acclaim. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with her husband and their three living children.
Expecting Sunshine: A Journey of Grief, Healing and Pregnancy After Loss will be available on April 2017 through She Writes Press wherever books are sold. Learn more about her book and documentary, Expecting Sunshine: The Truth About Pregnancy After Loss, at www.ExpectingSunshine.com.
Connect with Alexis Marie Chute on Facebook, LinkedIn Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube, and at www.AlexisMarieChute.com, www.ExpectingSunshine.com, www.WantedChosenPlanned.com, www.AlexisMarieArt.com, and www.AlexisMarieWrites.com.