The Gangaji Foundation recently invited me to write about my portrait of Gangaji. I immediately accepted - it is an honor to contribute to the website, and I knew it would be a good challenge to try to explain what painting the portrait meant to me. As I sat down to write, a longer story than I originally intended came out. I decided not to cut it down though, because it all feels interconnected in how I came to make the painting.
This portrait was actually my fourth attempt at painting Gangaji. The first time I painted her was about twelve years ago. I had many spiritual teachers at the time, and Gangaji was one of my favorites. I had the idea to paint all my teachers and hoped to receive their transmission in the process. I wrote Gangaji, requesting her permission to use an image of her from the internet. I thought it would be a long shot to hear back, but Gangaji mailed back a beautiful note saying she would be happy for me to paint her. I was very touched that she took the time to send a hand-written note.
In that series of portraits, I painted Nisargadatta (his wonderfully intense gaze first inspired the series), then Ramana, and then Gangaji. These were quick paintings, and my intention was to finish each within a week. However, I was unhappy with the way the paintings of Ramana and Gangaji turned out - they didn’t capture what I saw in them. After that, I lost interest in the series and wasn’t sure what to paint next. My usual, more narrative-style paintings were generally inspired by spiritual questions or experiences, but now nothing felt right.
I soon started having lucid dreams. It was thrilled to receive this gift, and used a couple dreams to ask and instantly perceived the answer to “What is death?” and “Who am I?” In another dream I asked what my next painting should be. Immediately I saw Joan of Arc burning at the stake. Upon waking it seemed overly melodramatic a subject, but I decided to go ahead and honor the dream, knowing the vision had shown some truth of myself. It wasn’t long before I recognized this was actually the perfect subject for me to do at that time, for while I painted it (and I did two versions), I started to experience an inner burning.
I hoped I had a new tool, and would be able to rely on lucid dreams to show me what to paint in the future. However, the next time I asked to see my future painting in a dream, I got a resounding “NO!” from this vast, frightening void. This happened a couple times, and I was very disturbed by those dreams. Soon, the lucid dreams stopped altogether. Not long after that, I became very sick with a mysterious illness, and was frightened and miserable. The sickness lasted many months, and sometimes I wondered if I could be near death. Spirituality seemed to have abandoned me, as I felt I had lost all my spiritual progress and might even die before reaching enlightenment, my greatest fear. When I had the energy, I did one more painting at that time, on the theme of dying into the light, but felt no joy while working on it. Painting now felt like a burden.
I decided I was no longer an artist
My health gradually got better, but painting became only more heavy and burdensome and I eventually quit painting completely. I decided I was no longer an artist – and perhaps never really was. I finally admitted that one reason I painted was that I wanted to be special, but since I wasn’t getting the recognition that I craved, the desire to paint dried up. This was a horrible revelation, but once I finally let my identity as an artist die, something freed up in me. I felt lighter and more at peace, realizing I didn’t need to paint or receive recognition to be happy. I came to recognize both my sickness and loss of identity as an artist were gifts, fierce grace burning through old, dead layers of conditioning, revealing my natural state as happiness.
The next couple years, I felt happier and open but also very confused. I knew I didn’t understand anything, except that both my spiritual and artistic paths had not worked out. It was in this state that suddenly, unexpectedly I was sparked by the inspiration to paint again. A beautiful thought appeared – the idea to paint large, close-up portraits, recognize the Self in each person I painted, and attempt to capture that essence with paint. Just the contemplation of this was truly exciting. When I actually began to paint, it was glorious. It was kind of like re-falling in love with an old ex, in a much deeper way than before. I was excited to paint every day. I also noticed, as I finished one painting and moved on to the next, that the paintings were maturing. With each painting it felt like I could go deeper than the previous. The idea of continually seeing deeper, with paint as my medium, thrilled me to the core. I recognized two vows that I would need to make to honor this new gift. First, I needed to accept that the desire to paint could leave at any time, and I vowed to be true, first and foremost, to the source of the calling. Second, I vowed to no longer seek any validation for my paintings. I knew I needed to be completely true to my own inner artistic wisdom.
This time I heard Gangaji at a much deeper level
A few years after I started painting again, a dear friend lost someone very close to her. I sent her a link to Gangaji’s satsang compilation, Facing Death, which had been a favorite of mine years before. I also decided to re-watch it, since it had been many years since I’d seen the compilation. This time I heard Gangaji at a much deeper level and was completely blown away. I recognized she was my true teacher, that in some way she had been all along. The next year I managed to find myself face to face with her at a small group retreat in Ashland. She asked me what I wanted and I said clarity. When she asked me where I would find clarity, my mind stopped and I immediately recognized clarity to be everywhere. How to describe that experience? I can’t conceptualize or describe it, but something shifted when I sat with her, and since then a deepening has been happening.
Back home, I remembered the letter Gangaji had sent me granting permission to paint her, and decided to try painting her a second time, this time as a gift for her. I also just wanted to stare into her face more, and try to capture that experience I had had with her on retreat. I found a photograph from the internet to work from, but soon after starting the portrait realized that it wasn’t the right photo to use and was also too low-resolution for the kind of painting I now wanted to do. I contacted Gangaji, reminding her of my request from years before, and asked if she could provide a better resolution photograph than the ones available online. She agreed, and Harriet emailed some photos I could use. I knew the photograph that would be best when I saw it - Gangaji is looking right at the viewer, with such depth and love in her eyes. (Thank you to whoever took the photograph.)*
A lot more challenging than I was expecting
Using that photo, I then tried to paint her once again, but it proved to be a lot more challenging than I was expecting. After a few months I sadly accepted that the painting was not ever going to be good enough to send to her. The portrait was far from capturing her, and the texture was already too thick. It was very painful to let that painting go, but eventually I saw that the humbling was good for me. I had approached the painting in an unwise way – I had placed too much emphasis on how it would look in the end. Even though the painting itself was a failure, I knew that the process had still been a gift.
I returned to my large faces, but I also didn’t want to give up on painting Gangaji, and decided this year to try once more, now for the fourth time. Again, I found painting her both immensely challenging and rewarding. For much of this painting, it seemed like there was a very strong possibility it would be yet another failure. Attempting to capture her seemed so elusive, and I painted many layers over the canvas as slowly but surely the portrait seemed to be getting closer. However, just when I thought I was starting to capture her, I would see the painting in new lighting or just in a deeper way, and would see that no, in fact I was far from it. Another challenge also appeared - as I kept painting, the texture started to look clumpy and became more difficult to work with. I realized I could never make the texture beautiful, at least by conventional standards; regardless, I didn’t/couldn’t quit, and instead continued on, working with the texture as it was, even though it seemed likely another lost cause. However, I didn’t feel like I had a choice this time – I was compelled to work on the portrait even knowing it would probably not work out. It didn’t make any sense, but I have learned that sometimes in painting, when a process doesn’t make any rational sense, but we are drawn to do it anyway, that’s when the magic can happen. And I just had so much joy painting her. Even when I had fear or sorrow with the thought that yet another portrait of her would probably not work out, joy, love, and deep gratitude were always the roots of the experience painting her.
Painting Gangaji was such a gift
The portrait eventually came to its own conclusion, where the texture was certainly unusual, and I saw how I could have painted it better, but the portrait worked in a way. How to make a portrait that captures the light, the love and the vastness that shines through Gangaji's image? It’s impossible, because the depth is endless. However, just to capture a glimmer of that - how exciting!
When the time came to send the painting to Gangaji, I was definitely a little nervous. I knew there was a possibility she may not like the painting, as the texture is so unusual, and I could imagine her thinking it was ugly and perhaps not even want the painting. I knew that if Gangaji didn’t like the painting I would find that very painful indeed, but I also promised it would not let me resort to self-doubt, as huge a challenge as that would be. However, it turned out I didn’t need to be challenged in that way, because when I heard from her, she told me that she thinks the painting is beautiful and that the texture adds to the depth. What a happy outcome! And what joy to know that right now the portrait is somewhere in the Gangaji Foundation.
Painting Gangaji was such a gift. She helped me recognize more and more that the light I see in her is also the same light within and throughout (but what a beautiful, crystal clear reflection she offers!) My gratitude for her and for this precious sangha is endless.
Thanks for listening to my story. If you are curious to see photographs of my other portraits or older paintings, my website is susanhwatson.com.
*Original photo by Dhruva Baumbach