Have you ever stared at a blank canvas? If you haven’t stared at an actual blank art canvas, think of the metaphor it represents for you. Were you excited or daunted? Were you feeling overwhelmed by the endless possibilities or liberated by its emptiness?

Before the start of Winter Break, I sent my Colorado Academy advanced painting students home with a couple of blank canvases and their toolkit of paints, knowing we were headed into remote learning after the break. Before we left the Ponzio Arts Center studio, we talked through how different it is for an artist to work in a studio alone, versus being surrounded by the buzz and inspiration of their peers and teacher in our shared studio. We discussed that the next couple of weeks were going to be very “real world,” for after high school and college, the enriching art co-op experience becomes rare. Artists and all creators, whether a designer, writer, or musician, are faced with the task to go it alone.

I challenged them to sink into the independence. As in the studio, I invited them to explore the processes of brainstorming, generating ideas, execution, self-motivation and direction, but this time alone.

Then, I made a deal with them: I, too, would take home a blank canvas. I swung by Michaels on my way home and purchased a very large canvas.

I set the canvas up on my easel and stared at it…for a full week. I have been teaching for thirteen years, and prior to teaching, I worked full-time as a painter, selling my work. Though I mix paint and do demonstrations for students on a daily basis now, I didn’t anticipate how this large blank canvas was going to make me feel.

As I sat there, I took a stroll down memory lane, and thought of the words of my college professors. Then, I thought of the discussions we have in the studio, artist-to-artist, artist-to-teacher, and teacher-to-teacher. What is working about this composition? What is not? What is it you want to say? What do you have to say to the world? What is most important to you? How can you help others see the world differently?

That canvas gave me a gift: the gift of reflection and time. As I stared at it, I thought of the past nine months of the pandemic, I thought of my family, I thought of political polarization, I thought of our planet, I thought of Breonna Taylor, and I thought of the mental health of our country’s young students trying to learn from home.

My canvas has now been three different paintings, each a new idea and a new layer of paint. First, it was a landscape from my childhood; then, it became an abstract that represents our country’s history. Now, it is a portrait of a leaf that fell in my yard last March. I’m not sure what will happen next. My advanced painters came back to campus with completed canvases. Now, I need to tell them that I did not meet the deadline I set for us, but that I went on an unexpected journey instead. I’ll ask them for an extension.