We all have to learn, at some point in our lives, to walk again. For some that process is figurative, for others it’s literal. For painter Roberta Twaddle, it was both.
Five years ago her husband, Jim, died. Last year she had hip replacement surgery. Following each, and still, she is learning a new way of being in the world.
A new show, Learning to Walk Again, which opened on October 1 at Partners Hall, depicts Twaddle’s journey from 2013 to 2018 through her paintings and reflective writings.
She began painting in 2008, first with watercolours and then acrylics, and later added some mixed media because she loves texture. She stopped painting for a time—the hip replacement surgery made painting awkward and painful. But when the Huntsville Art Society issued a call for its 2018 shows, she was compelled to apply.
“I’m fairly certain my husband was putting this idea in my head: ‘you’re going to do this, you’re going to apply for a show,'” she says. “And without even really thinking about it, before I could say to myself, ‘no, you’re not going to do this,’ I sent the application in…and I thought, ‘oh my god, now I’ve got to paint.'”
As you follow the paintings and writings around the room, they tell a story. First are those that got her back to painting—how she started again. Twaddle had numerous paintings that weren’t complete, or that she thought were finished but weren’t really, and so she began by finishing them. They fill most of one wall of the exhibition, along with a few new works.
Then she thought she might paint 15 canvases depicting her life. But that wasn’t working. Then, in her daily writings, she wrote something about stepping stones and thought ‘that’s it.’ Ten small paintings emerged.
But what to do with the others? Twaddle wanted to do something to invite viewers to enter the next phase of the story and she thought something representing a door would do the trick. So she selected a tall canvas and put on some music—Beethoven, a favourite of her and Jim’s—and she stood in front of the canvas and listened with her eyes closed. And then she did something she’s never done before. “I thought, ‘you just need an opening,'” she recalls. “I had to let go of the thought of what I was going to do. And I thought, well, Beethoven wrote gorgeous music and he couldn’t hear. What would happen if I closed my eyes and couldn’t see a thing?” She opened them only to drop the colours in, but the painting—done with just her hands and rags rather than brushes—was done entirely with her eyes closed. “I’m convinced I could never have painted that if I knew what I was doing.”
That invitation to enter leads to the final phase of paintings. Twaddle had five larger canvases that she felt could represent the five years since Jim had died. And each time she painted a large one, she decided she would paint one of those smaller canvases—the ones she had left over from the stepping stones—at the same time. Each uses the same colours but they couldn’t be more different. Twaddle soon realized why.
“The small ones are me on the outside, what I show to the world, who I think I am,” she says. “I’ve done all kinds of things to them—I’ve put marks on them, I’ve scraped paint off them to remove things—and to me that’s what I’m doing to release what’s inside.” The larger paintings represent her spirit on the inside.
The final painting, which stands alone, is “just me,” says Twaddle, adding that Jim would be 100 per cent behind her with this exhibition. “He always was.”
Twaddle has written short messages to accompany each painting, but they’re not an attempt to guide those who see them. She hopes people will respond to the paintings and words in a way that’s meaningful to them.
“I paint an inner landscape, not something you can see visually across the road,” she says. “Not everybody likes abstract, and that’s okay, and they all choose to see or take from the readings whatever it is that they want to. People will tell me what they see or what they feel, and I enjoy that conversation. That’s why I try not to put my direct thoughts into it. And if it encourages someone to look a bit deeper into their own life and the way they choose to do things or to be, that’s perhaps part of my story, too.”
Learning to Walk Again runs at Partners Hall at the Algonquin Theatre until October 31. There will be a reception on Saturday, October 13 from 1-3 p.m. Twaddle will give an artist’s talk at 2:00.
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