The Painting Spoke To Me

Every now and then a painting seems to arrive from nowhere.  It comes quickly, and seems to paint itself.  It is unlike any I’ve painted before.  It resists any changes and seems to say, “Back away from the painting!” when I approach.   This occurs whenever my art moves in a new direction.   So I wait.  I put it aside until I can understand how it relates to my prior work and what it is trying to say.

The painting below is a case in point.  It stayed in my studio for weeks, and I analyzed it regularly.  I saw a bold figure who reminded me of the ancient Kokopelli deity from Southwestern tribes.  Prominent among the Hopi and Zuni pueblos, the Kokopelli governed both fertility and trade—bringing children, but also stories and news from other communities to help link people.  My painting has mountains that look like those surrounding Santa Fe, a place I love.  The figure is rooted and rises into the sky, and its outstretched arm folds into the hills.  A feather hovers above, and the land below bubbles with life and energy.  The painting puzzled me.  I almost never paint figures.  Nor have I painted anything to suggest Southwestern folklore.  And yet, here was a stylized figure who seemed to share something— to offer a gift or pass along a legacy.

I thought about inheritances.  I reflected on my home, which is full of antique furniture and objects made by the hands of others.  They hold memories and stories of those who came before.  In my attempts to declutter, I am careful to guard certain pictures, paintings, photos, and papers which my sons may want from their childhood home.  Memorabilia from our family tree will become part of their lives.  In recent weeks, I have been impacted by news coverage on immigration.  I value the role immigrants played in my own life, and in all the ways they’ve shaped America’s history.   We humans are connected across cultures in so many ways.   Legacies abound….

Legacies from those who came before, and who continue to inform our lives.  Finally I understood what this painting was trying to capture.  I found early signs in my sketchbook journals and mark making, so it did not arrive “out of the blue.”  I named it Gifts Of Our Ancestors.  Soon after I titled it and put the image on my website, I sold it to another artist.  She said it resonated deeply for her since she owned many pieces of art handed down through the generations of her family.

I treasure the lesson of this painting:  to paint from the soul, always The more I put distractions aside and tap into my deepest emotions and insights—whether these are conscious or not—the more authentic my art becomes.

As I write this, I feel ancestors smile.


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Gifts Of Our Ancestors (40″ x 30″ Oil, cold wax, pastels on wood panel, SOLD)

Crossing the Border of Almost

Fog (metaphor for mystery)

saturates my pores, sends

an ancient message:  attend

 to the moment at hand.


I stand inside fog, realize

I am at a border, where past

blurs into memory, and

the future is unknowable.


Perhaps this is how refugees

feel—a deep longing tinged

with regret—as they journey

between here and there,


no longer where they were,

not yet where they will be.

They are time travelers, wary

and unsettled, mourning


what is lost to them, riding

uncertainty on fragile waves

of hope.  Fog whispers this,

reminds me that all of us live


our lives along borders—real

and imagined—caught on seams

or inside thespace between,

yearning, on the edge of almost.


Cynthia J. Lee

LEE_Crossing the Border of Almost

Crossing the Border of Almost (24 x 24, Oil, cold wax, pastels on wood panel)


Where Sea Becomes Air


Here, in this city on the bay,

the Pacific has wanderlust.

It rises, becomes air,

becomes cloud, saturating

my skin with salty mist.

I breathe fog, and watch

as it floats across waves,

climbs cliffs along the rocky

coast, hovers over rounded

Cyprus trees—immersing

everything in a particular

shade of grayed green.


I wonder if these ribbons

of fog are merely lost

or fallen clouds, awakening

to solid ground instead of sky.

Or maybe—like the ocean—

they are free spirits, choosing

a new journey, wisps of ocean-

cloud woven with laughter,

rolling softly in a playful dance

between earth and sky,

where sea becomes air.


Cynthia J. Lee

LEE_Where Sea Becomes Air

Where Sea Becomes Air (24 x 24, Oil, cold wax pastels on wood panel)


Stories the Fog Holds

I stand inside clouds on a San Francisco hill

tonight, and marvel at sights unseen:  blurry

halos of street lamps, hints of intersections,

furry skyscraper shapes lining the Bay.

Fog rolls in like the crest of a wave before

it dissolves against the shore, engulfing me

in a grayed greeting from the ocean nearby.

I walk, and wonder at fog as metaphor,

its meaning to humans over time.

What is inside these grounded clouds? 

What is hidden to us?   Neither future

nor past is seen, every possibility just

out of reach, all history shrouded.


There is only now, only this moment

in this place. Without a visible world,

 does imagination grow wider…deeper?  


 The night air is still, dense with mystery,

as if the answers to all our questions are

here— sotto voce and sub rosa—-vague

whispers in mist I cannot understand.

Inside this fog I feel a multitude of stories,

told and untold, can almost hear wispy

voices from yesterday and tomorrow,

trying to share wisdom and cautionary

tales, folding softly in and out of time.


Cynthia J. Lee

LEE_Stories the Fog Holds

Stories the Fog Holds (24 x 24 (Oil, cold wax, pastels on wood panel)













Sunsets in the Sand

White sand, soft as talcum powder,

so different from the coarse grains

of Lake Michigan.  Gulf waters glint

and glitter, and my soul keeps time

to waves as they break the shore.

Birds on thin stilts yield a path as I near,

and pelicans overhead cast pterodactyl

shadows.  I watch one fold its wings,

become an exclamation point

in a racing dive toward a surprised

fish, then return to the sky with a full

orange grin.  I am giddy as a child

watching fireworks, seeing this cartoon

creature—its body borrowed from

a prehistoric time—turn sleek,

powerful, graceful in an instant.

Here there are many reminders

of primordial Earth:  an ancient ocean

surrenders its pulverized flora and fauna.

Shell fragments on the shore hold all

the colors of a Florida sunset, millennia

of days ending, hardened into bone,

forged in coral, lavender and pink.


Later in the week I lunch at a revolving

restaurant, fifteen stories high.  Islands lace

the intercostals, bend under the weight

of skyscrapers.  A flock of pelicans flies

past at eye level, and suddenly I long

for wet sand between my toes, yearn

to be far from this steel structure with its

birds’ eye view, where I can see for miles

but cannot feel a pelican’s shadow, or know

that sunsets are scattered in the sand.

Cynthia J Lee

Gulf Coast Beach_email 2

Gulf Coast Beach, Florida (16 x 20, Oil, cold wax, sand, charcoal on wood)

Mountain Soul

Mountain Soul

Here in the mountains even roots climb

with energy that is male, active.  I am edgy

and on guard, a stark contrast to the serenity

of these woods. Light and shadow part

the trees, and I open to the wind’s soft breath,

the rustling sway of branches. They are

counterpoint to danger I feel on the periphery:

a fall down the steep incline, an encounter

with a sharp-toothed or slithering creature

whose habitat I invade.


Trees blur, and I cannot see the path’s end.

All around I sense others who traveled this

ground.  How many remain on the forest floor

after danger became real, became death?


My buffered life and its illusions of control

are no help to me in this untamed place.

Basic skills to survive are not in my suburban

bag of tricks.  Those survivors who journeyed

here humble me now.  I feel their hands steady

me, help to push against blue-gray smoke

of my own mortality. I hear their voices urging

me to take a deep breath, savor this moment

in space and time, let the mountains’ vast energy

flow through me and into the sky’s waiting arms.


Cynthia J. Lee

Mountain Soul (email) 2

Mountain Soul (20 x 16, Oil, cold wax, mica, charcoal, marble dust on wood)


Passing Signs

I hike the Smoky Mountains, that misty purple

roller coaster laced with silent reminders

of life before, layer upon layer rising into

this ancient forest. Ochre pervades my pores—

pigment of ancestors, formed of iron oxide

hurled from the planet’s core.  It is early autumn

and I am ochre, searching for magnetic north.

I feel ghostly markings along this trail, maps

I cannot read, illusive blueprints to tell

a traveler where to turn left or right, where

to find water or a place to rest for the night.

I am red ochre lines on a rock. A stacking

of stones, branches crossed beside the path.

Signs to say:  Others were here. Go this way.

I am handprints on an ancient cave wall,

a squiggly line, a series of dots made

in charcoal from a safe fire’s embers—

an affirmation in ash, that a soul, like me,

once journeyed here, then moved on.

Cynthia J. Lee

Mountain Tapestry-email

Mountain Tapestry (16 x 16, Oil, cold wax, marble dust, mica flakes on wood)