The Story Behind A Certain Red Barn

Laura’s Red Barn

~ 30×40 acrylic on canvas

      Through wisdom is an house builded;

      and by understanding it is established:

      And by knowledge shall the chambers be filled

      with all precious and pleasant riches.

~Proverbs 24:2-3

 As those who read this blog may know, I was called to Florida back in late November due to my older sister’s illness and near death experience. 

 She is doing much better now, over four months since surgery. My family and I are so grateful for everyone’s prayers and contributions in large and small ways. 

 This post is lengthier than normal, as I’d like to illustrate some aspects of my painter’s life. And I’ve a longer than usual tale to tell. Painting this barn gave me another adventure – and that makes for a story. 

 My latest large work is special in several ways. Firstly, it is an acrylic painted on canvas, by request of the collector. Secondly, it was painted without reality – a creation from my mind, with the vague help of a couple photographs of other red barns in Vermont and a painting liked by the collector. Thirdly, finishing and selling this painting “on time” provided a “way of escape” and helped me attend a very interesting conference. 

 The story begins back in January 2012. A Vermont friend told someone he knew about this painting blog. I received an email and then a phone call from this interested art collector the day after my sister’s huge tumor surgery. I explained I was at the hospital, and my sister was still not out-of-the-woods. I had a long conversation with the collector but said I had no time or strength to paint a commissioned work at that time. 

 In late February, we visited some friends who gifted me with a large number of brand new acrylic/oil brushes. I was thrilled, but still didn’t feel able to attempt what I knew would require great effort, in a medium different from my usual watercolor. 

 Then the LORD provided a large wooden easel, loaned through the kind family of a deceased artist. I heard about this art estate sale providentially, and went to buy some paper. I began working on the portrait described in my previous blog post while trying to find a ride going north. A ride with an elderly gentleman fell through and so I was stuck in Florida for a little longer. 

 The day after completing Rebekah’s portrait with her Grandpa, I felt terribly deflated. This is not unusual after painting something difficult. My exhaustion and dark thoughts were also due to my displaced state, living out of a suitcase in a small apartment with both my mom and sister on a veritable shoestring. 

 My time in Florida had been well-spent, my sister was alive and healing, but I really wanted to return north to sort through what remained of my re-arranged life plans. I wanted to see my little niece back in Vermont, too. 

 I called a dear friend, a man who functions as one of my “surrogate fathers”, telling him I was without a new goal, felt blank about the future and lacked the ability to finance a trip back north. I didn’t really know what to do next and was crying when I asked for his counsel. He replied kindly, “you’re lacking a compass.” 

 A compass. Yes, that rang a bell. 

 I’d entered a twitter contest weeks earlier, offering free tickets to Donald Miller’s Storyline Conference. This conference had something to do with life-planning and storytelling/writing. I hadn’t won free tickets but they had put me on a mailing list and offered me a discount if I did register to attend. 

“Attend? How can I attend an expensive conference when I have just a few dollars to my name?” I thought, as emails explaining the purpose of the conference continued to arrive. 

 I’d been caring for my sister for months. After her surgery, my unpaid care-giving had not ceased. I was cooking up a storm because her weight had dropped from 230 to 105lbs. Her normal weight was 140lbs. She was a walking skeleton and I was in charge of making meals several times a day. 

 During the month of March I had gone for three weeks with exactly .21 cents in my purse. No debts, gladly, but it seemed quite impossible to go anywhere on that amount of money. A conference would require not just registration but lodging, travel and food expenses. I figured it would cost a total of $450 and sadly pushed it out of my mind…the Nashville idea was a big side jaunt. 

 But after speaking with my friend on the phone, it clicked. I needed to go to that conference. 

 The next day, Wednesday, April 11th, I looked up Belmont University online and had the strange feeling of seeing myself there. It was settled, I would try to go. No more gloom. I’d been praying fervently for direction to know the way to go and had been gifted with a new challenge. 

 I told my mom where I wanted to go and she wasn’t too pleased. That’s normal, new ideas and my crazy travel plans usually scare her. Time would cause her to see my perspective. I soon found a craigslist ride toward home with a graduate student and she began to feel better about my trip. 

 My older sister made some remark about my wanting to go, “just to meet Donald Miller.” “No, I’m going because the conference is about living a better story, a more meaningful story, and you know very well that is what my life has always been about”, I retorted. My sisters each tend to give me a hard time. 

 I’d read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz a couple years ago, thanks to my younger sister. And she had sent my older sister the gift of his subsequent book, Searching For God Knows What. I’d been reading and enjoying it immensely. I could use a conference of like-minded folks who think outside the normal box! 

 But how do I afford a trip to Nashville? There were still book illustrations to draw. The portrait was finished but immediate payment was not assured for either of these jobs. 

 Then I remembered my Vermont collector and her request for a large acrylic. She told me that indeed, she was still very interested in having me paint her a red barn. 

 I normally work from my own photograph references. Florida’s palm trees don’t resemble Vermont’s hardwoods but perhaps I could use one of my previous works, maybe change the season a bit. I suggested this painting, below, November, Snow Like Wool, in summertime.

 The kind and generous lady, Shauna, who had seen my need for an easel, now lent me her acrylic paints so I could try them out. 

 I painted a small 8×10, below. This is a great example of what I paint when having no reference – it lacked strength and simplicity and the sky was too….dark. I was struggling with the new media. Watercolor painting doesn’t require mixing in white pigment – the white of the paper is used and values are lightened with water. 

 This mock-up was not acceptable to me or my collector.

 I tried again. This simplified structure looked much better to me. I emailed a photo to my interested collector and she replied, “I love it! Please don’t change a thing! You are amazing I can’t wait to see it!” 

 That’s exactly what an artist loves to hear. Now I happily had something clear to work toward…

 I reminded her this was merely a small 6×8 mock-up. I needed to enlarge and copy it in the 30×40 size. This would be no small feat. I paint well, small. Large works require…true grit and a LOT more work. 

 It was now Tuesday, April 17th. The pre-registration deadline for the May 6-7 Nashville conference was April 26th…the ball was rolling, time ticking by, but I still figured it could be done. I asked our Father in heaven for help…

 The large white canvas stared at me for a few hours, but I dug in and began, first scaling the dimensions, then doing a pencil drawing and some under-painting.

 My older sister insists on photographing me when I look my worst. Seems she’s never camera happy when I actually look decent. Here I am with my mom, complaining about her taking pictures with me in my large baggy shirt, turned inside out:

 After about a week of work, Monday dawned very clear, but windy. Because of the acrylic paint’s toxicity and smell, I decided to work strictly outdoors. 

For six hours the canvas caught the wind and blew the easel toward me. I continued painting, holding down the easel with my right hand and painting with my left. My right index finger is still hurting from doing this, a month later. 

 Sometimes the wind blew the palette out of my hand or off the table. 

 My sister came outside and offered advice, “Why don’t you just quit?” “No! I can’t quit, I have to get this done!” was my insistent reply. 

 I have been called stubborn several times in my life. I prefer to think it’s simply the quality of determination. I’ve been stubborn on plenty of occasions in the past, but you don’t go anywhere by quitting. 

 My sister had a doctor’s appointment the next day and I couldn’t paint again until Wednesday, so Monday was a key day. I wanted to send the collector a photo of the partially completed work for her comments, approval or disapproval. 

 We lived near a convenience store and people were always passing by our apartment on foot, on the sidewalk. They would see me working at my easel and stop to talk about the painting. Usually I told them I couldn’t stop because the wet paint was drying up very fast in the heat. Sometimes I did stop and talk. 

 One man murmured, “Do you know your shirt is on inside-out?” “Yes”, I told him, “I did that on purpose because I don’t have a painting smock. If I get paint on me, it won’t matter so much because it will only affect the wrong side of the shirt.” “Oh, I see,” he replied. “I thought you might want to know.” 

 I was painting intently and knew I looked like a wreck, but I didn’t care. The world fades when I paint. I had hope the painting would be finished soon. 

 The email to my collector that night was titled, “Almost finished Painting”:

 But finishing was a long way off. 

 Often, in life, we feel we are “done” too – ready for the next step, the next position, the next role. But our Father knows best. He keeps us on the easel until He has made a complete work and we’re fully furnished for the next season in life. 

 My siblings and mom have been awfully kind to try to give me space and put up with me over the years. They have learned not to talk to me or interrupt my focus. I have a really super, supportive family. When I’m working on something important, I think about it in my free time, during meals and at night. It’s annoying. I wake up struggling for the right color, or trying to fix certain areas. 

 An elderly black couple went by me that day, walking very slowly together down the avenue. They praised my painting and the wife said carefully with her soft southern drawl, “It takes persistence to get what you want.” Her words were prophetic, but I didn’t realize it then. 

 This was what I came up with after Wednesday:

 “Is the house pink,” my collector asked. She was correct, I’d tried to improve the painting but after working several hours it actually looked worse! The sky had gotten patchy and I didn’t like the changes in the woods on the left of the painting. 

 A man visiting our neighbors was pretty surprised when he saw me re-painting the sky, with the canvas upside-down. “Do you paint upside down, too?” he asked. “You make it look so easy, I think I’ll try it.” “Yes, I may make it look easy”, I agreed, “but I’ve been doing this for thirty years now.” 

 I actually wound up re-painting that sky four different times. Two colors of blue were mixed to obtain the right shade and either I’d damaged it so it was splotchy or it looked too dark or garishly bright. Having just the right shade of blue mattered. 

 On Thursday I tried again, removing the shadow on the top of the barn, adding a shadow next to the barn and changing the color of the house. The bushes and windows on the house began to look over-painted. It seemed the more detail I added, the worse things got. Now it looked stiff:

 Again, my collector wrote me a terse statement from her blackberry, “still looks pink.” Strangely, the Storyline registration deadline for the needed discount was initially Thursday, but changed to Friday, April 27th, which comforted me immensely. I tried again to take any “pink” out of the house color:

 "She’s a bridezilla of the art commission world!”, my older sister exclaimed, watching and hearing me struggle, tiring and going through the process of sending photos and emails, asking for comments and receiving them. 

 My family likes to “defend” me if they feel my work is wrongly criticized and sometimes I really feel pressure, rather than support, from all sides… 

 Normally, I paint what I’m asked to paint or what is agreed upon on paper and there are few changes discussed afterward. Once I did remove a Giraffe tongue from a painting, but watercolor just isn’t a medium from which you can remove elements. It’s not given to being easily changed. 

 But I asked for her opinion and comments. 

 It was difficult, to be so close to completing the painting and yet so very far away. It’s interesting, in life too, we often tend to feel we’re doing just fine. It takes the comments of others for us to see we really DO need to make some changes or improvements. 

 I spent a long time Friday morning, studying the photographs of paintings she’d sent of barn styles she liked. Then, I tried one last time to paint something that would satisfy her desires as well as my own. 

 I changed the barn roof, removed the top window, shortened the house, repainted the bushes, changed the entire front of the barn and house – painting over the careful hours of work I’d previously done…the result was a much stronger piece of art. 

 “No, she’s not a bridezilla, she is 100% right“, I told my sister. I really do desire my collectors to be very satisfied and happy with their purchase. After all, it was going on her wall not mine! 

 Now a simpler look, I sent off a photo hoping for a reply:

 A ball field had requested my sister provide entertainment for “Faith Night” at the local stadium. So mom, my sister and I went to sing the first stanza of “God Bless America” in-between the 7th innings. 

 I felt very worn that night, blankly staring at the little men tossing the ball back and forth. I wasn’t really paying attention to the game. 

 The mail had yielded no promised envelope and the deadline for my conference was hours away. I questioned whether I was doing the right thing in trying so hard to go in the direction of Tennessee. I felt like I was trying to push walls down, put there for a reason. “Lord, do you not want me to go?” was my cry.

 “Death of a Vision” is when you are given hope that something glorious is going to happen, but then those hopes are dashed. I was experiencing this now, thinking I had striven in vain and somehow I was not going to be able to go to Tennessee after all. 

 A little voice inside told me, “it’s not over yet”. At 10:40 pm that night, a voice over the phone assured me that she did like and want what I had worked so hard to produce! 

 I prayed one final time with my mom and sister, then by faith registered to attend Storyline at 11:46 pm, just 14 minutes ahead of the deadline…

 One final change was made to the painting, the windows were removed on the little red shed. But it wasn’t yet complete, it still needed two coats of varnish. 

 Monday was terribly windy and the leaves blowing around would not do for drying varnish. Tuesday was a hot 85 degrees outside. With rain expected I took the painting to a friend’s shed. 

 While the varnish dried, I tried hard once more to find affordable lodging in Nashville. A hostel? Couchsurfers? When Shauna arrived to pick up the loaned easel, she admired my painting, heard I still needed a place to stay and offered to call her old friend, Sharon. Suddenly, a room and transportation were offered to me, free of charge! 

 That evening, another great difficulty arose, leading me to question once more the idea of heading north. But through this circumstance, we learned a friend was driving three hours north to Orlando on Thursday May 3rd, where I needed to catch an 11pm bus toward Atlanta, to connect for Nashville… 

 The next day the barn painting was shipped north and on Thursday I joyfully headed for the bus station with the kind assistance of Orlando friends. 

 And so, I actually did make the Storyline Conference and was wonderfully home to Vermont in time to celebrate my little niece’s birthday. 

 Extra note: Storyline was fun! If you ever have a chance to go, do it! 

 This conference was designed to help people analyze their lives and perhaps help them step outside the normal 9-5 grind to do instead what they really enjoy. To seek purpose and vision that lead to being and doing something with intrinsic value, something beautiful, creative and glorious. Things that, if they were to look back at the end of their lives, bring joy from an eternal perspective. 

 We covered the topic of roles and editing extraneous ones, so you become more effective at what you are designed and called to be. Unload before you reload. 

 I’m still filling out a map of the positive and negative turns in my life – times when life changed and there was no going back – finding redemptive value for each negative. 

 We laughed a lot. Don is a very funny man with a great speaking voice. His many faceted brain is like a pomegranate and he makes you feel comfortable, like you’ve known him a long time. He made me feel more enthused about having been through so many great conflicts in just the past few years. 

 I was challenged with the idea that going through hard times is the only thing that grows and changes our character. 

 I needed to be reminded. My heart has grown a bit tired and worn from the strain of life and I felt a lot better from just attending. Don and his interesting guests also reminded everyone that our lives are meant for BIG things, meaningful things. To love and be loved. 

 He gave concepts to think on, based on how movies are scripted to develop. I have a few new words in my vocabulary – “inciting” is one of them, “protagonist” is another. 

 I have often made analogies about how we grow, change and bear fruit in life using lessons from gardening and painting. I’ve learned so much from working in these two areas and have thought about writing a book about the similarities. Loving analogies, seeing life from the perspective of story was really fascinating! 

 This barn will always be a special painting to me. A gift, from my Father in heaven. My favorite hymn says, “Hast thou not seen, how thy desires e’er have been, granted in what He ordaineth?” 

‘Tis true. 

 With love from your painting friend, 



 “Cause me to hear thy lovingkindness in the morning; for in thee do I trust: cause me to know the way wherein I should walk; for I lift up my soul unto thee.Deliver me, O LORD, from mine enemies: I flee unto thee to hide me. Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God: thy spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness.” ~ Psalm 143:8-10 

 Addendum: After the conference ended, I was also very glad to visit Nancy Campbell, her beautiful family and helpers just west of Nashville. Nancy compiles, edits and helps write and distribute Above Rubies, a magazine designed to encourage and strengthen families across the world. Although I’ve never married and had my own family, I helped illustrate for this fine magazine and gave it to others for many years. It shares a perspective which has brought a huge blessing to many lives. 

 This short visit was another great present resulting from pressing on when all hope seemed lost! As my craigslist ride from Nashville to New Jersey didn’t actually work out, a dear old family friend graciously provided a ride directly home, twenty-one hours to Vermont. 

 Some would say “the Universe” helped me. But I know better. Our Father in heaven was caring for me, as He always does. All good things come from His hand!
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