Prayers in Paint

by Dawn Waters Baker

These past 16 months have been some of the hardest of my life. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Maybe you’ve felt that way too. I have talked to doctor and counselor friends who are seeing a significant rise in mental health across the board. Just this week I was so grateful to see Olympian Simone Biles take action to protect her mind, body, and heart. Better than any gold medal, she showed us what mental health looks like in the moment of greatest stress and pressure. What a courageous example. 

Last summer my local gallery closed due to Covid-19. I had a scheduled solo show with them in September, but by August they had to close early. I found myself picking up work and saying goodbye to dear friends. It wasn’t so much the gallery itself as it was the nine-year relationship that was gone (or at least changing). These gallery directors were mentors and friends. They saw Covid as an opportunity to retire early. I was happy for them because they had given so much to the city and to its artists. Yet, I found myself wondering if I would ever find something that special again. And, If I’m honest, my identity as an artist had been shaken. Who am I without a show to work towards? Will I be able to make up the loss with other galleries farther away? These all felt like lame questions at a time when the world was in such pain and turmoil. 

Beloved, oil on canvas, 48″ x 60″

The hardest part of this crazy year has been within my own family as my oldest daughters’ mental health became evident to us during isolation. She sank into a deep depression that led to other compulsive behaviors. We got her on anti-depressants, counseling, and off her phone – but with a tracking device. I’ve never monitored my kid this much even when she was a baby. It left me raw and humbled and mostly scared. I found myself waking up in the night worrying and praying. I saw my other twin daughters walking through anxiety that left them emotionally spent. They were angry and withdrawn or weepy and tired. I found myself asking God, “What’s happening to my children? Am I a weak mother? What can I do Lord? HELP!” and sometimes, if I’m perfectly honest, I just felt silence. 

I’ve always found that painting was a way to God for me. A way of prayer that had no words. In all this chaos it seemed to me that I was in the studio to pray with paint. Sometimes I would weep and at other times I would feel a great surge of energy to finish something. When I was tired, I would lay on the floor to take a short nap.  It seemed like the best way to stay sane. I don’t think I’ve ever prayed like I have this past year. I’m sure I’m not alone in that too. There are many out there praying through their hands in ways that only the body can communicate with God. Our weary flesh meets His knowing love. Little by little I began to feel that God was listening. Maybe more than listening. Leaning into me in ways I’ve not experienced before. I still can’t explain it; but I know it’s true.

Beloved detail

After a long time of this, I found new works coming out of my studio that wouldn’t have happened if I had been working towards a solo show. I know they could only have been painted in the slowness of time, through rough soul-words that can’t be fully articulated. These works were more intuitive (from my mind or my heart?) and seemed to come from a place that was speaking back to me. My own counselor suggested that I begin to see my painting time as a time of rest. There was no pressure. No client or gallery showing. Just an audience of one and that One called me His beloved. I spoke that over my own daughters at night as I lay in bed just as I heard it spoken over me. I believe it was through the paint that I began to really hear it.

Maybe you’re in a season of wilderness and loss. It’s hard to hear anything very well when you’re in that space. You’re so tired, thirsty and in need of help. Even words are heavy and burdensome. All I can do is just remind you that there are prayers for the empty. When we utter our groans, God fills us with Himself so that we might speak back not in words but in the things we make. I encourage you, if you are an artist, go into your studio and pray. Let your prayers come out of your hands. We were made to communicate, to be at one with the One. There is an assurance there, a holding, a tender wing over our trembling bodies. I found He doesn’t really give a lot of answers but that wasn’t what I needed anyway. I needed Him.

Please understand I am not trying to say tension will not be there or that we won’t have times of silence or ache. I’m not saying, “everything works out in the end.” Are we at the end yet? I don’t think so. What I am saying is that our idea of prayer needs to change as a space where God sits with us in all that tension and little by little, He fills us and gives us His own precious Self. My prayers become His words in me. I agree with Him in His love and power for me, for others, for my enemy. I see that my making gives me hope in a place of pain. Something happened that wasn’t there before. I sense God saying, “You can trust me…”

I love this poem from an anonymous poet that CS Lewis included in Letters to Malcom, Chiefly on Prayer 

 They tell me Lord, that when I seem
 To be in speech with you,
 Since but one voice is heard, it’s all a dream,
 One talker aping two.
 Sometimes it is, yet not as they
 Conceive it. Rather, I
 Seek in myself the things I hoped to say,
 But lo! My wells are dry.
 Then seeing me empty, you forsake
 The listener’s role and through 
 My dumb lips breath and into utterance wake
 The thoughts I never knew.
 And thus, you neither need reply
 Nor can; thus, while we seem
 Two talkers, thou are One forever, and I
 No dreamer, but thy dream.” 

Dawn Waters Baker was born and raised a Missionary Kid on the islands of the Philippines. She grew up under the shadow of an active volcano. In 1994 she moved to Dallas for college where she received her BA in Fine Arts from DBU, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 1998. Soon after she married a mathematician and they had three girls. In her free time, she likes to hike, travel to beautiful landscapes and teaches art in Dallas County Juvenile Detention Center once a week for incarcerated youth.

Follow her on Instagram @dawnwatersbaker

5 Responses to Prayers in Paint

  1. Your painting is awe-inspiring. The tree speaks to me of growth happening in not always kind conditions, and there is a rough beauty in that.

    • thank you Ruth. I love hearing your insight. There is beauty in the “making” and forming us.

  2. I love what you said about assurance holding and tenderness. Your statement about making as giving hope in place of pain
    Makes me understand just a little more what should happen when I create something. Like the tree in your painting
    It is rooted yet released in the now of its environment…thriving