I FOUND SAFETY AND SANITY IN ART

by Rosemary Ollison, Artist, Mother, Art Teacher, Ex-wife

Summer 2011

As I look back at my life, I can see that I have been looking for a safe place out of harm’s way since I was fifteen years old. My grandparents raised me; my grandfather was my source of safety and protection. He died when I was 15 years old and from that time until I was 41 years old I never felt safe. Safety to me was my grandfather, “Daddy Tump,” my big black Mandingo African king. I believed he could protect me from anything.

When I was 14 years old, black girls were being raped by white boys. One day I went to play with a friend who lived about two miles from me. We were playing and forgot the time. It got dark before I made it home. I saw the lights of a car approaching. As the car came near me, I got in the ditch hoping the car would pass by not noticing me. The car pulled up beside me and stopped. One of the boys told me that I was going to give them some black pussy. I had never been so frightened in my life. I knew that I was going to be raped and my grandfather was not there to save me. I looked in the car and saw five white boys. One of them recognized me and said, “That’s Tump Matheney’s gal, leave her alone.” Truly safety to me was my grandfather.

About six months after this incident, my dear grandfather died when I was 15 years old and from the time of his death until I was 41 years old, I never felt safe. After my grandfather died, my grandmother and I were kicked out of the house and we moved in with my uncle. We lived with him for nine months, and then moved to Milwaukee to live with my grandmother’s sister. There were 12 of us in the house, and the eight kids, including me, did all the housework. I worked hard because I was afraid of being kicked out with no place to live. When I was 18 years old, my uncle moved to Milwaukee and my grandmother and I went to live with him again. I stayed until I met my husband.

My husband was kind and provided for me for about a year and then the beatings started. I couldn’t understand the beatings because he was a good provider and I didn’t have to work. Soon I saw the pattern: he would beat me and then want to have sex. After a broken nose, three broken ribs, an injury to my spine, I had to leave or be killed. So after seven years, when I was 26, my son was five and my daughter three, we were alone. I had no financial problem because alimony and child support were taken from his check every week. He changed jobs and although he continued to pay child support, I had to get medical insurance and food stamps from welfare.

At 41 years old, I found myself alone, my children were 19 and 21 they left home. I was devastated and actually thought of killing myself.

Although I wasn’t raised with religion, I became a Christian at 19 years old when I got married. I took the Bible to be literal. The only reason I accepted religion was because I understood the Bible to say that I could be God’s friend and that he would hear my prayers and would answer my prayers. To me this meant that God and I would be communicating.

I had been praying to God for over 20 years, but had never heard from him. When I found myself alone at 41 I thought that this was the time for me to hear from God. I didn’t hear from God and my religion and my mind walked off and left me. I felt that God had abandoned me. I had served God faithfully for 22 years. I felt that I had given up everything for him and when I needed him the most, he refused to help me. I applied for disability and was denied and told that I didn’t qualify. I became angry at God and started to hate anyone or anything that determined if I qualified.

Praying to the wind.

I was angry at God, but I had no intention of leaving him. I screamed and argued with God for days and weeks, but it was like praying to the wind. All I wanted to know was if I should reapply for disability. I quoted Scriptures to God and accused him of not doing what he said he would do. I told God that I had been praying to him for 22 years and not once had I received a direct answer to one specific question I had asked him.

I looked at the letter that said I did not qualify for disability, but that I could apply again. I didn’t know what to do. I had two letters from doctors stating that I was not able to work. God didn’t answer my question, but as always there were humans who were more than willing to tell me what I should do. Friends told me that I should apply again. But that took time and I didn’t have time: I needed a place to live and food to eat. I could have gone to live with family members, but the Bible said that God would take care of me. And I thought that he owed me since I had slaved for him for 22 years. I had a working relationship with God, not a relationship based on love.

The next year, I heard from God! Something came over me and I was transferred to another dimension, a level of consciousness I had not experienced. Words were being written in my heart and mind. The voice in my heart and mind told me to get out of bed, go get the blue Bible that I never use, and to open it to the answer to my question. I obeyed and this is what I read: “And you banned my soul from welfare.” I was ecstatic, elated and overjoyed. I had heard from God! I could not believe it, God had heard me! Once I came down from heaven, I realized that God had revealed to me that I would not be getting welfare or disability.

On the road to safety and healing.

I was thankful that I had gone to MATC, 1980–1982, and had studied new math, English and early childhood development. I received my license to work with children. I was hired by a school for special children from infancy to age 16.

I know that God sent me to those “special” children to start me on the road to safety and healing. I expected God to heal me by putting me in a safe place to make me feel safe and protected. Instead, God put me in a place where others needed to feel safe.

I was assigned to do art with toddlers by the head teacher at St. Francis Children Center for Brain Injured Children. I had been taught the importance of art and learned how to do projects with children. I soon came to realize that the only time I felt safe was when I was doing art with the toddlers. I had many art projects and my imagination went wild.

I observed other adults doing art with the children and saw how frustrated some of the children became when they were not allowed to have free expression. Some adults would actually take the child’s hand and maneuver it to get a desired result, and tell the child what they had done. These adults robbed the children of their creative freedom. And when kids didn’t want to get paint on their hands, one or two teacher’s aides actually tried to force them to paint just so their parents would be happy.

Some children could not stand to touch anything wet and wanted no part of getting paint all over their hands. I would put my hands in the paint and tell them it was fun and that it wouldn’t hurt them. I made art time fun. It was rewarding to see those children who once could not stand to touch paint become covered in paint, having fun and feeling safe even though it might have taken several weeks or even a month to get them to feel safe creating.

Safety in self-expression.

I have to laugh when I think of some of the little ones. There were those who wanted to eat the paint, to put it in their hair and just get into the paint. Even though it took patience, energy and a lot of cleaning up, it was worth it to see the children express themselves and to see what they created. I wanted them to know that they could express themselves and be safe in doing so.

Being told that I was doing a wonderful job by staff members and the children’s parents gave me confidence in my abilities. I no longer felt that I needed someone to take care of me. But when I was nearing my 50th birthday, someone lovingly and jokingly referred to me as being almost a half century old and that I had better hurry up and get a man before it was too late. The thought of being 50 got to me and one day I woke up feeling old. I feared being old and alone. So I tried to establish a relationship with a man who I had known for five years, but he did not want to make a commitment. The pain of rejection was too strong to repress. The past nine years working with the children had been almost pain free.

After his rejection, the “killer” physical and emotional pain was back for the first time since I left my husband. Off to the doctors I went. I got a bag of medicine for my emotional and physical pain, and more pills to counteract the side effects of the other medication. I also went for many hours of talk therapy for the next two years. I was diagnosed as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Cognitive Dissonance, Panic Attacks and Fibromyalgia.

After two years of talk therapy, I realized I needed more than general information from God. I needed to know what was in my heart and mind that caused me to suffer.

I looked back in my journals (which I had begun the night before my first job) and then, after reading Psalms Chapter 139 in the Bible, I came to appreciate that only God really knew me. I knew he knew me, but until then, I did not know that he would be interested in telling me about me personally. But when I read the last two verses (23 and 24) of Chapter 139, I received hope. The last two verses of the chapter read: “Search me Deity, and know my heart, test me and know my ideas.”

In desperation, I prayed to God to show me what was in my heart and mind that disturbed me and caused me so much physical and emotional pain. My disquieting thoughts were so many that I could not find peace.

Without talk therapy I believe I would not have recovered as soon and as successfully. I trust God implicitly. But I believe that he uses our own kind to help us.

One day, I remembered that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I went to a store and bought a sketch pad and magic markers. Back at home, I suddenly began to draw what was in my heart and mind that caused me emotional and physical pain. For the next year and a half, I continued to draw at home. As the images poured from my heart and mind, I couldn’t believe they came from a stream of my consciousness, which I believe God inspires. But I couldn’t believe that those distorted, perverted, vulgar, and sinful images represented what was in my mind and heart. No wonder I was in so much pain. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t dead.
My only hope for survival was to create.

When I was awake, I couldn’t stop drawing or painting. My creative juices were flowing like a swift and angry river washing away the anger, fear, shame, guilt and all that was inside me that was harming me. These images were so upsetting that, although I didn’t believe in suicide, I prayed to God to cause me to fall asleep in death. Before I went to bed at night I would make sure everything in my home was clean and in order. Then I would get in bed and fold my hands across my chest and pray not to wake up the next morning. When I woke up, I was sad. My only hope for survival was to create and create I did.

When I was creating I was satisfied, I was free, and I no longer just existed. I was no longer a walking dead woman hoping that someone would bury me. I was alive! I did not feel unsafe, worthless, hopeless, alone, sad, afraid, ashamed, guilty, down hearted, unloved, uncared for, doubtful, discontented, and the like. Above all, I felt love for my Creator and my fellow humans. My existence became gratifying. I can see the real me in my creative works.

My journey to enlightenment and recovery began when I started to create for myself.

Breakthrough

I continued to take my medication and see my talk therapist. But my breakthrough came when a friend of mine, Tony Fikes, saw my art and asked me what I was going to do with it. I told him “nothing,” and he said he didn’t know anything about art but that it looked like I was an artist. He said he would find someone who knew about art and have them come over to take a look at my work. He brought Evelyn Patricia Terry to my apartment and she curated my first exhibition at Uhlein Hall at UW Milwaukee. She selected 40 drawings.

The principal and several of the teachers from work came to the opening reception at UWM. They were aware of my feelings about getting old and the problems I was experiencing. They encouraged me and assured me that I was an artist. The director of the school framed three of my very large (about 40×60) paintings and displayed them in the hallway of the school. I created an image with a poem and used it to frame the children’s pictures. The parents loved it and asked for more of my creations.

I had so much love and appreciation from my coworkers and parents and especially my children who gave to me what I gave to them, safety. I treasure those 18 years I spent on my job. How thankful I am that God in his wisdom forced me to go to work. I never thought I could work and make my own money and take care of myself. All of my life until age 41, I depended on someone to do for me what I thought I couldn’t do for myself. I became like some of the children who said: “I will do it myself.” I became able to say I will do it myself. After two years of talk therapy, the doctor released me from that therapy and kept me on medication for three more years. Then he slowly withdrew me from all medication except for a pill once a day for Fibromyalgia. Now I am hardly ever in physical pain and I am almost never aware of emotional pain, and when I begin to feel emotional pain, I know what to do to end it.

As time passed, I became more comfortable with my creations. Art kept me alive and sane. Not only was my art helping me, but it was having an affect on others in a positive way. I showed my work in a few more art shows, but I did not seek a career as an artist at that time. It was sufficient that I was being saved by using my creative gift and giving joy to a few.

And I grew more aware of how art was improving my life. For years, I figuratively and literally had lived in a black and white world. Then the images I created became more colorful. I painted all my furniture and covered my pillows with bright colors. I had no color scheme or plan, but as I looked at the chaos (art supplies, fabrics and frames) around me, I cried and lamented the loss of my black and white world. In fact, I wrote my very first poem lamenting the loss of my black and white apartment of order.

I discovered that writing poetry from my heart and mind elevated me to a beautiful romantic state of being. When I read the poems, I feel like I am dancing with the words. It is like stepping out of an airplane window onto a cloud where I recline and am rocked back and forth by the hand of God while angels sing in perfect melody and heavenly air blows on me, refreshing every fraction of my being.

My first poem:

Here in my paradise
“Me, myself and I
we don’t have a lot of
shoulds and should nots

We are free
We explore
We create
We enjoy

We don’t have no gray areas
We are all black and white
We are happy

We do not feel worthless and confused
We enjoy me, myself and I
We are free to be who we are

We talk to our God and he to us
We are safe because in him we trust
He teaches us the way and we go

What joy!
What pleasure!
What happiness!
Me myself and I have in our paradise

Please don’t make us leave
We don’t want to go
It is cold out there in a world we do not know

Please don’t make us go
Please! Please! Please!
Please don’t make us go

My paradise, My paradise, My paradise
Why was I told to destroy you

Me, myself and I, we are lost without you
Even though we can see the rainbow
We are damaged from the storm

Rainbow, Rainbow, Rainbow
Where is your pot of gold

Me, myself and I
We see your colors
But we are now confused
We are color blind

Now that you have taken away our black and white world
Please make us understand your colors so grand

It has been a L-O-N-G time
In my world of black and white
After seeing the colors we want to go out
The storm is over! Praise our God!

Me, myself and I
We want to go out
Into the world of colors
Now we can see the rainbow
Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!

It has been such a L-O-N-G time
But the storm is over
The rainbow has appeared

As a seed we were happy
Me, myself and I
In our black and white world

As our world begins to open, as we begin to sprout, to come out
The dark black cold clouds and the storm frighten us
We were afraid we did not want to come out

We begged; please don’t make us go.
Don’t make us go into a cold and angry world we do not know
Me, myself and I, we were afraid
we did not want to leave our black and white world

But in love our God forced us to GROW
Just as a seed comes forth from
the dark and rich soil, sprouts, grows and blossoms
Me, myself and I, we have busted forth only to realize that we are a
beautiful ROSE and our black and white world was not paradise at all
just the soil we were planted in so as to grow into the beautiful ROSE
that we have become!!!

Back to top
Back to The Artist in Us

Last edited by patricia obletz. Based on work by Tyler Schuster.  Page last modified on June 30, 2017

Legal Information |  Designed and built by Emergency Digital. | Hosted by Steadfast Networks