There is a secret back story about this piece I would like to share with you. It is the born again phoenix of an old painting that has been reworked in order to bring smiles and hope, rather than sorrow or regret.

Years ago, I painted a heart that was filled with jigsaw puzzle pieces representing all of my hopes and dreams for myself, and my family at that time in our lives. Each puzzle piece contained something that mattered hugely to me –  my husband, my children, our dogs, good health, family happiness, security, the potential of a new home. The heart was pierced with two arrows. On each feathered end were words: love, good fortune, health, and happiness. It made me smile to see this painting on my wall. It was my personalized vision board in heart formation; steering me through busy, often stressful years, reminding me to be grateful for what I had, and work toward what I wanted.

Perspective is everything, though. A family member, on viewing this painting for the first time, remarked that, to her, it appeared my heart was cracked and shattered. She didn’t see it as the puzzle pieces of my life fitting perfectly together. She thought I’d painted a broken heart to represent a troubled spirit. I laughed it off, as I am very used to people seeing my work differently than I do. We spoke of art being personal and so very much in the eye of the beholder, but her comment lodged somewhere in the very back corners of my mind.

Now, flash forward several years. I was unpacking boxes of carefully stored paintings after just arriving in my new house. Though this home was very nice, and I was grateful to be there; it was not the place I’d envisioned all those years ago for my growing family. My children had grown into adults, and my present now looked entirely different since my husband had unexpectedly passed away.  I was (and still am) very much grieving Tom’s absence, even while trying to navigate a mystery-filled future in a very new chapter.

One by one I unwrapped old friends; paintings that comprise a visual diary of my days. Here was my entry (my 15 year old self’s masterpiece!) into my very first art show. And here was the keen-eyed cougar I painted at age16 for the boy I would marry four years later. Here were the large fantasy scenes that portray reality vs. legend that have hung side by side on my living room walls for the last decade. Endearing portraits of my children when they were young, and my favorite, most treasured scene of Tom fishing on Perkins Lake at sunset. All of them made me smile, sometimes through a few welled up, nostalgia-filled tears, but smile.

And then, I unwrapped the puzzle piece heart.  I gazed at it, remembering all that it had meant to me, all those golden wishes for those I loved, and how things certainly did not turn out as I had hoped. All I could think of was that years-old comment lodged in the back of my mind, and I said out loud, “She was right!”. My heart was cracked and broken, and this painting did not make me smile; not even a little bit.

Obviously I could no longer have this painting on my wall. It was too personal to sell, so I took several photos of it, knowing that one day I’d appreciate it more than I could at that moment, and then set it aside to deal with later.

Grief comes and goes in cycles, like tides or waves. Sometimes I was on friendly terms with hope; sometimes not. On one of those darker days a few months later, I grabbed a bottle of black paint and repainted the jigsaw heart canvas. I covered all those pieces to represent all I was feeling at the time. It made me feel better. Seeing a black, blotted out space was much better, somehow, than seeing a broken heart representing what was.

On a better day, I began to reimagine what happens to a heart that has been shattered. Does it stay broken forever? Will it cautiously smooth over the deep cracks and heal itself? I knew nature abhors a vacuum, and even barren areas can sprout little green tendrils of growth after the most frigid of winters. These thoughts sent my artistic wheels spinning.

I sat down at my easel and randomly chose tubes of colors that just felt right. I had no idea what I was going to paint, but I knew the recipient of all that color was going to be the buried-in-black, old heart canvas. I discovered that I needed to paint what I wished for myself. I was going to create what I hoped my heart would someday become.

Ribbons of color and light gradually threaded their way around vibrant flowers and flourishing green things, bound in the same heart shape I had used before. Again, two arrows pierced the image; this time representing how my heart is everlastingly marked by first, finding forever love with a beautiful kindred spirit, and then, enduring his grievous loss. I did not add words to the fletching this time. Somehow it seemed best to just leave it all up to the powers that be to decide what to send me. It was enough that I could envision a blooming heart.

I’ve learned that heartbreak, no matter what they tell you, does not necessarily fade or go away with time, but you do somehow grow around it. Your shattered parts gingerly begin to merge around the hole in your center. Even while you are so shocked that you can’t believe your heart continues beating; you are silently, secretly, down deep, deep inside, growing new versions of you. It may take you quite some time to realize it, and even longer to get comfortable enough with it to recognize it, but you are continuing to grow in fresh directions. As trees do after a pruning; you will eventually send out tender shoots and delicate, new buds. You will bloom again.

At least that is what I am imagining for myself. This is my new, personalized vision board, still in heart formation.

Theresa Stahl (March, 2021)