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Conversations with a Blank Canvas

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Artist and arts psychotherapist Isa L. Levy presents her creative memoir, From Nowhere to Somewhere: Decades of Change & Transformation

In the summer of 2006, I was invited to exhibit a selection of my paintings at the Ben Uri Gallery in their Fortnight of Solo Artists, curated by Sarah Lightman. It was an opportunity for two emerging artists to exhibit their work in one day and then two others on the next day.

My Journey into Belonging is a theme that has haunted and inspired me all my life on the ever-evolving subject of identity.

Conception

I was delighted to have the opportunity to show my paintings as I was a fairly new artist on the scene and had only started painting in my early forties surprising myself with some 450 paintings, I say from ‘nowhere’, but I really had no words for the experience that changed my life and turned my grey world into colour.

Now I am pleased to say that I have found the words to illuminate my journey from a small baby, through toddlerhood, to adolescence, to a young adult woman, to a liberated woman through seven decades. In my creative memoir, Conversations with a Blank Canvas, I look back at my life through the eyes of a psychotherapist and cast an eye on how my Jewish heritage and personal life story has impacted me through the years of my evolution. I look at my roots, having been brought up in a tight-knit Jewish community in Cardiff, and how that affected me. My parents were founder members of the Reform Synagogue movement in 1948 – the year of my birth.

Mother

Some 72 years on I am able to wear the cloak of a non-conformist woman and appreciate my very different life journey as it played out for me and reveal how I faced my feelings of ‘not belonging’, head-on, over the years.

I see this journey of ‘not belonging’ as a very real problem for clients also, from wherever their background cultural heritage has had its roots. My intention in this memoir is to offer hope for healing and transformation to one’s authentic Self living true to one’s own inner voice rather than the programming of others’ expectations, if it doesn’t fit, which often leads to depression and anxiety.

I would like to share my story with you to illustrate how I transcended feelings of shame, abandonment and unworthiness to reach a state of ‘homecoming’. I reveal this process through images, poetry and words as I shed and re-form new evolutions to reach a state of ‘belonging’.

Memory to my Roots

I hope in the many aspects of this book to touch on the spiritual, therapeutic, psychological and creative evolution of a lost soul restored back to life. As we identify with a negative inner world our soul ‘dies’, but not quite.

In my very large 7’ x 5’ painting – ‘The Female Resurrection’ – I was coming to terms with the death of my mother and four other women also, some of them my own age, I was questioning how one could celebrate life, while at the same time experiencing a plethora of females around me dying; maybe a part of me was dying also; and at this same time I had inherited a very large 7’ x 5’ blank canvas – always wanting to work on a canvas that big – this was my opportunity.

I decided to put the female on the cross commemorating the female losses as a symbol of female suffering which resembled a crucifixion scene.

What my original concept did not envisage, was that the central figure would lose her head during the process of painting her and leave no room for me to rectify the problem; but once over the shock I could see that it had become a scene of transcendence, answering my original question –how can one hold suffering and celebration of life at the same time’ – she had resurrected. It was a miracle indeed; and so I called the painting the ‘Female Resurrection’ – a transcendent image of suffering and transformation.

Two in One

I think I was also marking a spiritual crossover in my life that linked many aspects of my Authentic Self that lay beyond words, but even so, this painting created tremendous guilt for me as I felt a traitor to my own cultural heritage – betraying my roots by putting myself (if you like – the central figure) replicating that of Jesus, on the cross; and as if that wasn’t upsetting enough, as I was researching the symbol of the cross, I found that the Aramaic root of Jesus; was Isa.

Oh my God !!!!!!

In this memoir I would like to share some of the evolutions I have lived through in the process of becoming my True Self, having started my life as a rank outsider in so many ways. Some of these evolutions included actor, artist, arts psychotherapist, lost child, lost adolescent and lost woman. In so doing, I reveal how I journeyed from a False Self to a more authentic one, a condition I see in my work as an arts psychotherapist, often thinly disguised beneath a veil of depression, anxiety and loneliness, or what I call the ‘blank canvas’, where words may not easily be found.

 In the first two decades, I describe what conditions contributed to my False Self and how in the next two decades I take on the role of ‘actor in both my personal and professional life while connecting to my True Self in my fifth decade while facing an actual blank canvas in my studio – a process that finally led to my signature painting ‘The Female Resurrection’.

In my Prism-A Self-Portrait

Connecting with my creative self-expression has held my sanity in check throughout the decades, although I cannot deny how difficult this journey has been. I describe how, during my fifth decade, I paint some 450 paintings, without having had any prior art experience. How in my early 60s I complete a Masters Degree in Arts and Psychotherapy, without an A-Level to my name, having failed academically throughout my schooling; and how I have a whole new career as an Arts Psychotherapist in my seventh decade. In my eighth decade, I end up back on stage in a musical production based on Susie Orbach’s book Fat is A Feminist Issue, and receive an invitation from my local MP to sing a song in Parliament I wrote some 50 years ago on the subject of the climate crisis, although having no conscious idea at the time that this subject would become a future emergency.

Conversations with A Blank Canvas is a story about change and evolution in which I strive to offer motivation and hope for healing and transformation to others. In brief, you could say that it’s a celebration of life, complexity and freedom.

Female Resurrection

In coming to terms with the trauma in my own personal and cultural history I can find my voice at long last when for so long the authentic me had been invisible and silenced in the effort to fit in and belong within the cultural and female roles expected of me, and yet not being able to do so.

All the feelings, true and false, are held within the fabric of the ‘blank canvas’. However, I never compromised my life in this respect and this book shows my unique journey to live my authentic life, although against the tide, especially at the time of my birth just after the Second World War. I hope to pass on how I crossed the frontier of negative belief structures, often played out in the shape of depression and anxiety, disconnection and loneliness; a feeling of deeply held unworthiness at the core of my being that led to such low self-esteem and lack of confidence. I show how I lived through, developed and transcended my personal history by eventually accepting and releasing my emotionally impoverished and strangulated True Self from invisibility.

Through sharing my life story I hope that my insight and understanding can be of help to readers on what might lie hidden behind the guise of their own ‘blank canvasses’.

Walking Meditation

I am compelled to share this so that others might find the courage to lead more authentic lives, with more insight into their own inner landscapes and what feels authentic for them, rather than habitually recreate the lives that others expect of them or they of themselves, without reflection. This is becoming ever more vital with the ‘selfie’ epidemic of fabricated, superficial false images, based on how you look, leading a younger generation to feel increasingly at sea, insecure, disconnected and isolated from their ‘true selves,’ where all the positive self-empowerment lies and in the process, creates a pursuit of something that doesn’t exist and an increase in mental health problems on an epidemic scale.

I identify as a Jew ancestrally, culturally and creatively through my Eastern European roots; in particular the Eastern European artists of the early and mid-twentieth century. I identify as a ‘survivor’ of the inter-generational trauma that links me to my personal heritage; in the grandparents I never knew, my parents who loved in the wake of their un-expressed traumas and all the ‘victims’ of abusive regimes of power where the lessons of the Holocaust remain un-learned. I identify as a Jew belonging to a family of ‘not belonging’ – I remain a ‘wandering Jew’ to any label that restricts personal journeying and discovery that could upset the status quo of a fundamentalist and rigid system of control whether it be religious, spiritual, racial, familial, relational or political.

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Isa L. Levy is an artist, actress and arts psychotherapist.
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Ralph
Ralph
14 days ago

Fascinating. Would love to see the paintings close up. I’m a little credulous about the notions of authenticity expressed here but there’s a wonderful sense of development and expression.

Ralph
Ralph
14 days ago

How can I be the first to comment when I’ve already commented?

harvey
harvey
11 days ago

 I want to tell you how much I resonated with your 
early sense of inadequacy, your non-belonging, and the search for 
authenticity. In fact the word ‘authenticity’ has been one of the key 
words of my life. Like you I am the wandering (wondering?) Jew who has 
been nourished at the various oases of my life. In my case it has been 
the medium of poetry that has offered my healing. Thank you so much for 
your work. I love the richness of the colour and the bold imagery.

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