from the archives: meeting my mud mothers in the healing circle
in august 2021, i was commissioned to paint one of my largest works to date: two panels measuring 78 in x 98 in each. it took me until may of 2022 to start it, but i’m glad i waited until then to complete it; i couldn’t have had the experience i did creating it over two days without the transformative inner work Toni Cade Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters has been leading me through both in and outside of the studio. the title of the piece references the role of the Mud Mothers in Bambara’s novel as well as Minnie’s observations about Velma’s willingness and desire for healing and wholeness. the following is a brief essay i’ve written about the piece that i hope will give viewers contextual insight into its creation from my perspective; it is my hope that sharing my undoing and narrative about the piece holds a welcoming space for others as they are faced with whatever conscious and subconscious reactions the painting surfaces within them; however, at the very least, it’s a note for my archives.
i started reading Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters two months ago. it’s a book I find myself having to read slowly; i read small segments at a time, often re-reading several passages before moving on to the rest, pausing at times for a few days to a week before picking it up again. for me, it’s a work that must be ingested slowly, and my brain and nervous system require time to absorb and process both the material and the reactions it triggers within me. it’s a fictional story that rings true to aspects of my own lived experiences and healing journey. i have yet to finish the whole book, because certain quotes from the first three chapters still have a grip on me.
“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well”?”
“I like to caution folks, that’s all.” said Minnie, interrupting her humming to sign and say it, the song buzzing right on. “No sense us wasting each other’s time, sweetheart.” The song running its own course up and under the words, up under Velma’s hospital gown, notes pressing against her skin and Velma steeling herself against intrusion. “A lot of weight when you’re well. Now you just hold that thought.”
The Infirmary staff, lounging in the rear of the treatment room, leaned away from the walls to grunt approval, though many privately thought this was one helluva way to conduct a healing.
“Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”
“Take away the miseries and you take away some folks’ reason for living. Their conversation piece anyway.”
“I can feel, sweetheart, that you’re not quite ready to dump the shit, Minnie Ransom said, her next few words drowned out by the gasps, the rib nudges against starchy jackets, and shuffling of feet. “…got to give it all up, the pain, the hurt, the anger and make room for lovely things to rush in and fill you full. Nature abhors a so-called vacuum, don’t you know?” She waited till she got a nod out of Velma. “But you want to stomp around a little more in the mud puddle, I see, like a little kid, you come into the warm and be done with the mud. Nothing wrong with that,” she said pleasantly…
in my studio, i have a small altar. every time i paint now, i light three candles; one for my inner child/teen/young adult self and subconscious mind, one for the Creator/Spirit i try to maintain a connection to despite my divorce from organized religion, and the third for the ancestors i know the names of and the ones i don’t. in front of the altar, i maintain a vase of fresh flowers from the market or, now that it’s summertime, from the raised beds of wildflowers growing in our backyard. the flowers are for my great-grandmother Addie Belle Lilly who maintained a garden of many flowers, but pink rose bushes were her favorites, and my grandmother Glendola Charlene Mills who deserved softer places to land and rounded edges to navigate, and for myself; i need their colors and vibrancy, but also their wild unfolding.
i asked my ancestors in my maternal lineage to paint with me so my emotional release and healing could also be theirs, and they did. i brought my inner child, who wasn’t allowed to be emotionally expressive, into the healing circle with me and held space for her to dance, like the ushers used to do for me in church when my feet and tongue would catch fire. i brought all of myself forward and laid bare my deepest desire to be really, truly, well on the 13-foot altar stretched above me. i felt every mother in my lineage working in tandem to pull each other out of the mud with the structure, placement, and direction of every mark and line on the canvas, layer after layer after layer. the breakthrough came and our cellular memory is renewing itself in the past, present, and future. now we can carry the weight of wholeness.