I became a furniture painter to heal
I joined Big Blue Trunk nearly two months ago as its Furniture Painting Manager, after experiencing a traumatic loss at the start of the year.
I am a writer and I have always turned to the written word to make sense of the world. But for the first time in my life, even after writing about the experience, I felt unmoored. I often felt like my body was in one place and my mind in another. My heart struggled to bring all of me back together and to hold me in one, safe space.
For months, I redecorated or spent everyday sprucing up parts of my home. I walked or jogged. I did arts and crafts with my 4-year old. I cooked. I could not sit still because in the stillness, the pain I’d pushed in surfaced all too clearly.
But the restlessness wasn’t healthy either. I realised I needed to do something with my hands.
I needed rituals and tasks that were paradoxically complex and simple; mundane yet aesthetically pleasing. I needed to keep learning, but lean back on what I knew, or could surmise intuitively.
That’s when I chanced upon the rich hues and bright colours of Big Blue Trunk at Cluny Court and before I knew it, there I was, prepping a piece of furniture for a makeover.
That first piece, and the pieces that came thereafter, became the basis of a new ritual in my life. I come to the store, don my apron, pick up my clean washcloths and try to understand what is in front of me. What has happened here? Does this piece have finishes like shellac, varnish or lacquer? Will the tannins of the wood bleed through if I just go ahead and apply the first coat of Chalk Paint®? Does this piece need a radical rebirth, or does its owner merely want to touch it up so it can gleam in its home instead of looking like a forgotten shadow of itself?
And then, as most of you would know, the work begins. That work involves wiping and cleaning the furniture to remove all the dust, dirt and debris that has accumulated over months or years. Then the piece might need sanding or priming. And then it needs to be painted and waxed or lacquered. For a while, everything else recedes into the background. There is just you and that piece of furniture, which you can see transformed in your mind.
I’m not alone in feeling that this work is ritually healing.
Tola Adefioye, a biomedical scientist and founder of Old Old Wood, describes how restoring is a “form of therapy”. He adds, “...wood always reinvents itself. For what I was going through at the time, I needed to reinvent myself - my studio was my safe space.”
With the pandemic now raging for nearly two years, many of us have had to shelter in place. We haven’t traveled. Reinventing our home without literally overhauling it, has been a big part of how we’ve all survived and even thrived at this time.
But the road to painting as therapy isn’t clear-cut. It begins with apprehension. I’ve heard many of you say:
“I’ve never done this before.”
“I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve been watching lots of videos!”
“I’m going to try and see what happens. You might see me again, a lot.”
“Do I need that? I’m not sure what I need. I’ll see how this goes.”
Less than a week goes by and many of you return. But now, you’ve changed imperceptibly. Most of you have this brightness in your eyes and we can even catch a smile veiled by the mask. You show us “before” and “after” photos. Solid wood antiques, worn out Ikea side cabinets, or simple and functional contemporary pieces have been transformed.
Your pieces are dressed in Chateau Grey or Aubusson Blue. Some of you take a leap and go with Emperor’s Silk (that red!) or Tilton. Now you’re back and you want to venture further out into unknown territory. What about the ombre technique, a wash, or gilding with metal leaf?
That’s when I started hearing the word I’d been saying to myself over the preceding months.
And much of this has to do with the fact that we can begin our projects without feeling as if our lives depend upon us getting this right from the get-go. It’s okay to make mistakes. Mistakes can be undone. It’s okay to begin with one idea and find that you’ve ended up elsewhere by the end. That means even you can surprise yourself. It’s okay if your painting project hasn’t changed lives, built empires or companies. It has changed you and your family. It has changed what home feels like. All radical transformations begin with seemingly insignificant, small steps.
Plenty of experts have written on how the very steps involved in creative work are cognitively and emotionally positive. You go from “preparation, incubation, illumination to verification.”
Translated: you prep your piece; you save several ideas on what you’d like to do; you get an “aha” moment on what’s going to work; you get it done and you’re absolutely overjoyed!
Not all of you are going to venture into chalk painting your furniture because you’re looking for a way to feel centred, grounded and calm. Sometimes you simply need to fix up some pieces and do up your home. But I have no doubt that most of you will emerge from the experience of painting furniture feeling a sense of transformation that can only be described as healing.
So keep experimenting, taking little steps into the unknown and share your adventures with us so that our little community of furniture painters can grow.
- Vinita Ramani
Mom, published author and furniture painting artist-in-training