September 5, 2023

The Wisdom of Paint and Intuition

In 2022 I started working on a painting that was supposed to be about “rest.” Spoiler: it was not.

I take a personal retreat every spring. The main thing I do is paint, and every other retreat I’ve had serious thoughts to work through, so that’s usually the painting’s purpose. I’ll have a rough idea of the materials I’ll be using, because I can’t bring my entire art studio, but beyond that these are very much free form Catharis paintings.

Last summer things were great. Stressful, sure, but that’s just the season we were in. I thought. So when I started to paint, I decided my muse was going to be the concept of “rest.” After all, that’s what I was there to do. Rest is something I find difficult, and perhaps painting it would help me learn something.

I completed the majority of the first layer on that weekend retreat. It felt triumphant: “Check it out, this one isn’t depressing and scary to look at!” But when I got home, I didn’t know how to finish it. What was it saying? What did it need?

my attempt to paint 'rest' when there was none
my attempt to paint ‘rest’ when there was none

I had no idea.

This spring, I was wrapping up the final extrication of myself from a project I never should have agreed to. I was preparing for this year’s personal retreat (planned months before I knew what was happening, and somehow perfectly timed).

I started my usual preparation of analyzing what emotions I needed to unpack in order to select what art supplies would best unpack them, so I could pack them (the art supplies). I looked over at that painting, leaning against the wall of my studio, and I finally understood:

That painting knew what was happening a year ago, and it was trying to tell me.

I thought I was painting “rest” but I was actually painting turmoil. There was something under the water that I couldn’t see, but my psyche did. My gut knew. It wasn’t in my conscious awareness, but all the little pricks of discomfort at certain statements, or implications, the things I thought were nothing but made me really uncomfortable… I finally realized the anxiety I’d had was my body trying to warn me.

I have never had anxiety. It started last summer, and I thought it was caused by COVID. In reality, it was a sign I was on the wrong path, and I wasn’t listening. It took examples, warnings from friends, and finally a full week and hours of phone calls to people I respect before I was able to understand I had to walk away from something I’d poured my intensity, energy, and $100K worth of hours into.

My painting knew better than I did. It knew a year ago–I knew a year ago–deep down. When you’re too close to something, it’s hard to see clearly. I had to rely on the people around me, to borrow their eyes, until I could finally see with my own. Even then, it was only after I left that I finally understood.

Jim Carrey is right

The day I wrote this, I ran across a video about Jim Carrey’s painting practice (I highly recommend watching the whole video). In it, he says this:

“We really don’t know what a sculpture or a painting totally means… you think you do. Most of the time I start out with a plan, and then, you know, like a year later, I’ll realize that the painting was telling me what I needed to know about myself a year before.” – Jim Carrey, I Needed Color.

This gave me chills. I’ve been saying those exact words, and he is absolutely right. How is it that a canvas, a brush and colored adhesive allows expression of our deepest knowing, things we don’t even know we know? I don’t understand it, but I know it’s true.

letting the painting speak

On my retreat this year, I took the same painting with me, back to its origin. Untouched. I knew a few things:

  1. I had made a horrible mistake, then committed to it and ignored every warning.
  2. My painting from the year before was an indication that my gut knew all along, and I didn’t listen.
  3. I spend too much time in the weeds, and I was going to illustrate that.

The original painting, layer 1, was a grassy area with a pool below. In the midst of pouring hours into that project, a close friend had made a comment about me always being “in the weeds.” At the time, I had made a note to create a funny painting about that, because he was right. Now I understood that this tendency had hurt me, that was this painting, and it was not funny at all.

His comment had been made prior to my last retreat, so it’s possible that it influenced me, but not consciously. Again, this began as a freeform painting: I had been thinking about the positive concept of rest, there was a pool with cattails where I was staying–I started painting with chill colors and this is what came out. It had been so simple, until suddenly it wasn’t.

The first night of my retreat I couldn’t sleep. There was so much on my mind, so much tension wound up in my body, and I never know what to do with that. I hate it. I need an effing burning ceremony to let go of this shit…

the universe knows

The next day, after morning meditation, we read a poem about a “pool of discovery” with a “still point of knowing.” I still can’t read it without it blowing my mind.

It was announced we would have a burning ceremony in the evening. That has never happened while I’ve been there.

After the afternoon meditation we read a poem about seeing “through the weeds.” Honoring feelings, without getting stuck.

W H A T.

I went back to my room and looked at this painting with weeds, and a pool of knowing, and thought about honoring my intuition that had tried to warn me. How I hadn’t listened. How I never had time to stop to listen. There was a lot of anger too. This entire year has been a grieving process, and when I was finally able to see what a fool I’d been… I was deep in the anger phase at that time. I never know what phase will be next, but painting helps me acknowledge and honor whatever stage I’m in. So that’s what I did.

Weeds mixed media painting by Sarah M. Schumacher
what I really needed to paint


I added and painted the weeds, that are so very specific, and yet represent so much more. A tendency I need to be careful with, a warning about everyone who would reap the rewards without doing any of the work.


I left the pool in the center as it was, because it was right all along. That was the epicenter, the still place I should have sat with. I should have asked those questions and let them fall, then been open to the answers, no matter how much they hurt. I separated the pool from the weeds above, from the dirty water below. This is my space. This is the blue sky. This is where I go in meditation, the years-long practice I neglected when I needed it the most. It can’t be touched or contaminated. It’s always there, and I’ve learned never to neglect it again.


The original turbulence in the water below was just a hint of what was about to happen, and this is where I put my anger on the canvas. I drew trash in the water, each murky item representative of something I’d missed. A warning of what happens when ego is the driver. Then I covered it up. I couldn’t see it then, I don’t want to see it now. It will forever be a warning to what happens when you don’t have an epicenter of truth, when you refuse to listen, when you prioritize the wrong things.


The white lines in the pool are reflections on the water. I often have to add elements because they feel right, because the painting needs it. I have ideas, but I don’t have a clear understanding of what these mean yet, and I don’t want to ascribe something to them, because they might need another year. Maybe this painting has something more to teach me.

stories are complicated

You could see this hanging on a wall and think wow, that’s cool, beautiful, intriguing… without this story, you’d have no idea what it took to get here. But when I unpack it, it’s a universe inside a canvas. It’s complicated. It’s messy. Like people.

I’m reminded of these words by a favorite human, Propaganda, in his song It’s Complicated:

We are often our own demise

And I am becoming procrastination

But you are so often so wrong about you and you don’t even know it

Self-identified as particleboard, paper maché, duct taped

And you are wrong, and right, and confused

It’s complicated, but so is a star

A flower, a quasar, a friendship, a marriage

May we be refuge for the complicated

Paintings are my refuge for the complicated. It’s why my earlier pieces are so dark. When I first started painting, it was because I had to find somewhere to put these emotions. I am not, have never been at home in this body, and this energy has to go somewhere. The only place I can put it is on a canvas.

Paintings are a witness to what it means to be human. To be complicated. I know this, and yet it always surprises me what comes out of my head and my hands. What it means, how it heals. Writing has always been my primary form of processing, but painting connects my head with my hands in a way I can’t explain. It’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s a testament to what I’ve been through. What I’ve lost, what I learned, and how I will never be the same person I was before.


We were instructed to write everything we wanted to let go of for the burning ceremony. I filled that sheet completely. I planned to take a photo to remember what I was letting go of, but I forgot, and I think it’s better that way. The irony is not lost on me.

After we watched the ashes blow away, the final poem we read together was about gratitude for our stories, then letting them go, letting go of the hold they have on us, free to write the next story with the lessons we’d learned. At the end of all of this, that’s all we can do. It’s what life is. It sucks, but we pick ourselves up, we move on, and maybe we can pass these lessons on. My lesson was to never doubt what I know deep down, and the only way to hear it is to STOP, to rest, to be, to listen… to myself. There’s so much wrapped up in that, but it’s a start.

May we all find the thing that allows us to express ourselves fully, to let go and move on. May we all have the courage to listen to the wisdom of our body, to trust our intuition, to sit with the questions even when we fear the answers.

view painting

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