My Mother’s Art

Your creations can mean a lot more than you think

Off Loom Weaving by Patricia Holdaway, c. 1978

“It looks like something that used to be incredibly beautiful that a huge beast started to claw at,” my friend John said when he saw the new piece of art I was hanging on the wall in my college dorm room.  My mother had just mailed me one of her off-loom weavings, and I proudly hung it on the wall. Later, my roommate’s cat actually would pull out the lower-hanging clumps of yarn, thereby fulfilling John’s prophecy. Over the 35 years that I have had my mother’s weaving hanging on various walls, a total of five cats would at times rise to the occasion and pull a piece off.

Here I will recount the story about how I got this woven wall hanging, and how it reflects my mother’s inner doubt, as well as my own.  It is a sad story of one person not being able to overcome that doubt, and how I am driven to push on through my own self-doubt.  Maybe there is something here that can help you.

I grew up in Dallas Texas, and I can’t say I enjoyed it there, though it did provide a relatively stable environment for our family. My father’s job at the university permitted my mother to devote some of her time to artistic pursuits.

I remember I was four years old when I realized that my mother was exceptionally gifted at creating art.  She had a raw talent that diversified over the years and covered pencil, charcoal, pastels, paints, colored pencils, colored pens, fiber arts, and multi-media.  She would get started in a certain medium, make three or four pieces of completed art, each one grander and better than the one before, exhibiting tremendous potential, but then she would put that medium aside, perhaps never to come back to it again. 

When I was in high school, our family would vacation near Taos, New Mexico, where may father worked as a geologist for the summer, and the family would come out with him for several weeks.  Coming from Dallas, the Taos summers were like going to heaven – there would be a cooling thunder shower almost every afternoon, and in the evening the stars would come out like I had never seen before.  Those starry nights in northern New Mexico were definitely a factor in my decision to study astronomy in college.

During our summer days in New Mexico, we would go into Taos or Santa Fe and see the sights.  There were a lot of art galleries there, and they often had some cool works from up-and-coming artists. As we spent time perusing artistic creations I often thought that my mother’s work was as good as most of what I saw.

Feeling strongly about this, and as a 16-year-old know-it-all, I told my mother I thought she should do more with her art, and get her pieces into a gallery someplace – her work was as good as anything that I had seen, and better than most. I was not considering that she might have been in a lifelong internal battle with these issues , that she might be very sensitive indeed about it.  Well, she took it the wrong way. She became angry at me and I ended up feeling misunderstood and attacked for encouraging her to do what seemed so obvious to me was best.  I will never really understand what happened, or what she was feeling in those moments. Whatever reasons she had for “hiding her light under a bushel basket”, and not pushing to share her talents with the world, it seemed to me that she did not believe in herself and that she was rejecting me for encouraging her to. Our fight left me feeling very hurt. 

My great idea – that my mother could be a real artist – ended up leaving some scars in my mind and heart about making beautiful art.  And the worst part, in some ways, was that it felt that it seemed to be the reason for the cessation of my mother’s working in fiber art .  She would never do off-loom weaving again.  I have always carried some feelings of pain, confusion, resentment, and a terrible weight of responsibility. The incident was never discussed or resolved. 

When she sent me her premier wall hanging in the mail a few years after that, I received it with mixed emotions.  I thought it was beautiful, and I was proud to display it and even more proud to say that my mother had made this lovely object.  Yet, in my heart, I still carried the sting from that day only a few years earlier when it seemed that my mother refused to believe in her gift and turned against me at my suggestion that art was her calling and she could do great things with it.  I did not show this hurt – rather, I was ashamed of it.

And there is an interesting parallel in my life: even though I was clearly a gifted musician in my youth, my mother actively discouraged me from following my dream of playing music.  I now feel that she carried the pain of not following her dream and being frozen with self-doubt, and the embarrassment that her own son believed in her dream, when she herself could not.  I carried the pain of one felt he could see into the heart of another but was rejected. Unfortunately I also took on my mother’s self-doubt as my own.

Over the last 35 years, I have carried this wall hanging with me everywhere I have lived, but I did nothing to heal the wound I have carried in my heart.  My mother is long gone.  After she died I scoured the house looking for her hidden stash of masterpieces, but found nothing.  She had displayed two recently-completed portraits of proud Native Americans for everyone to see, and that was all.

In my current home of 15 years, I had the art hanging in a place where nobody could see it, as if I was embarrassed to even have it.  I have not curated it well.  It is dusty, and I never tried to replace the big fluffy chunks of yarn that various cats have pulled off.

Last month, my friend Tabitha was over at Kalimba Magic headquarters (ie, my house, which is about 30% home and 70% Kalimba Magic at this point).  She found that woven wall hanging and asked “WHAT is THIS?”  I began telling her the story of my mother’s art… and then I went beyond the sanitized version I usually told.  I shared with Tabitha about the falling out with my mother over my suggestion that she follow her dream of being an artist, and this big unresolved hurt for me.  The strange thing is that I had never before connected all the dots until that day.  I never made the connection between the fight with my mother, carrying the wall hanging around for 35 years, and carrying a wounded heart for even longer.

Then Tabitha began to work her magic: “This is SO BEAUTIFUL!  And so is your story.  You don’t have to carry that pain around anymore.  Bring this out for the world to see.  Oh look, it goes right here on the wall in your studio – the paint is even the perfect color for it!  Bring this out into the light of day…it’s time to heal this old business.”

And here it is.  Let me explore this piece of art in its own right.  It is just WILD! 

My mother loved all things natural, all things Native American, and to a lesser extent, all things African.  She herself was not culturally connected with these various traditions, but in looking at her art, she seemed to seek – and to achieve – some sort of spiritual unity with these traditions.  The art looks Native American, and it looks African.  I can see the sun setting with a bird flying across it.  I can see the layered hills.  I can see and feel wildness.  I can feel a vibrant emotional connection in this art, but there is no real connection to the cultures it references – it is a projection of my mother’s conception of these cultures onto the canvas of her art, reaching out to the world to share how she felt.  Only the world has never seen it – until now.

And that is where this art connects with my psyche.  I am not an African, and I am not culturally connected with Africa, but I love African music.  My tendency is to not try to reproduce real African music, but to go for my conception of what African music is about.  Just as my mother’s art says more about who she was than it does about Native American or African art, so my kalimba music says more about who I am than it does about African culture.

I am my mother’s son.  The way she did art is not all that different from the way I do music.

But there is another sort of connection here.  Just as my mother carried the burden of believing that she was not good enough, a message she took on while growing up, so I have carried the burden that I was not good enough (in music) and that my mother did not believe in me (as a musician).

There – I said it.  Painful, blunt, embarrassing.  And true. 

I have worked hard.  I have produced much.  How else could I write dozens of kalimba books over 11 years?  But my essential art – the music I was born to create – I feel has largely eluded me.  I sit in front of the recording console, and I have to admit that more often than not the biggest feeling in my heart is fear of failure.

My mother is gone.  I cannot hold her and tell her how much I believe in her.  I cannot be held by her, and she cannot tell me that she believes in me.  But I can forgive her.  And I can project her forgiveness to me from the Great Unknown.  I believed in my mother.  I no longer need to carry the burden of believing that my mother did not believe in me concerning the one thing that I really wanted to do. 

In my heart, I see us meeting.  All that was not understood between us is forgiven.  There is nothing here but love, traveling both ways, back and forth through time, back and forth from her to me. 

I am proud to display my mother’s beautiful art – her personal gift to me and to the world – in my home studio.  This is a symbol that even when we don’t really believe in ourselves, if we have a gift, wonderful things can still come out of us.

Just think what can be done by those who have learned to quiet the negative voices and fears and forge ahead.

I should add that my mother was by no means a bad mother.  She was generally kind and loving, and she was smart and tough and righteously indignant.  When it came to academic things and science in particular, my mother was very proud of me, and supported me as well as any mother might – science just happened to be something I was really good at. But I didn’t really care that much about it.

Now… music, kalimba, karimba, mbira?  These are things that I care about.  And things that I believe I was put on earth to make a difference over.

Now, when I see my mother’s art on the wall, I have re-mythologized it to stand for what can come out of the imagination and heart of one person who loves a culture that is not their own.  It is a symbol of the beauty we can create even when we have doubts.  And now it is a reminder that it is never too late to address old wounds and get past doubts and fears.

And it is just plain beautiful and gives me joy to be reminded that I knew the person who created it.

And to you: create, and bestow your creations as gifts.  For you don’t know the meaning your creations or gifts will have in the hearts of others, even long after you are gone.

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