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Transformation Through Visual Experiences: Accepting Loss With Art

Updated: Mar 13

"It wasn’t until October 2022, 10 months after my mom passed away, that I said goodbye. I went on a 6-day silent retreat at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center. There I lived the meaning of the Enso (Zen circle of togetherness) through daily meditation and reflection. Three Ensos came to life in the form of art: Grief, Calm, and Saying Goodbye."


This is my story of transformation: from grief to calm to saying goodbye.


 

My mom passed away December 2022 after a long battle with dementia. We were so busy taking care of her, and making care plans, then funeral arrangements during that time. It became factual and mechanical. Like a news story: “My mom passed away about a year ago after a long battle with dementia.”


Then sadly her husband passed just three months later. Again, a flurry of arrangements for the funeral, double internment, estate sale, and a celebration of life. And then my beloved mother-in-law passed just a few months after that.


In October 2022, 10 months after mom died, I was able to say goodbye. The Crestone Mountain Zen Center was gracious enough to offer an artist residency for me: A small cabin with just enough room to set up.


 

Crestone Mountain Zen Center is located in Southern Colorado above the San Luis Valley on the western slope of Crestone Peak. Zen Practice is the craft of mind and body realized through the experience of stillness and nonduality. Our effort is to make Zen Buddhist teachings conceptually, emotionally, and practically accessible to contemporary Western practitioners. Guests are left alone to meditate, hike, and pray. They served three delicious family-style meals each day, our only chance to interact.

Margo Thomas Cabin Zen Center
My cabin at the Zen Center
Margo Thomas San Luis Valley
View of San Luis Valley

There I sat in my little cabin, looking out the window at a pretty boring view of the San Luis Valley. As I participated in meditation and fiddled around with my art supplies, I drew a blank. I mean, was I going to paint THIS scene? Which I did. And it turned out OK. But not inspirational.


 

Then, I noticed a photo on the wall of my cabin. It was of an Enso (the Zen circle of togetherness).

A plan was forming! I thought "certainly there has been a lot of togetherness over our shared grief!" And the first Enso came to life: Grief. Teardrops and all.


Notice the horizon line. That was indeed influenced by my San Luis Valley view.


This painting is intended to feel disturbing and complex. Yet I used calming colors. To demonstrate that grief also contains hope of a peaceful tomorrow.


Margo Thomas Enso Grief
Enso: Grief

Margo Thomas Enso Calm
Enso: Calm

The morning prayer bell woke us up around 5am. We all congregated in the Zendo for morning meditation and the Buddhist ceremony, Zazen. The first time I attended was in the evening. There we were, a small group of people staying at the Zen center and the monks. Zazen took place in their beautiful Zendo building. We sat motionlessly for 40 minutes.


 

This is not a guided practice. Instead, it provides healing energy to go deep. Which is what I did fairly easily. I know sitting completely motionless for such a long time may seem impossible. But in that environment it was easy! A calm I've never known. Oh Calm!!! Yes, that shall be my next Enso!!

On the fifth day of the retreat, I visited the nearby Karmapa Stupa after a long hike. It was a beautiful day and I looked forward to sitting peacefully. There was just one other woman there. She appeared to be crying and praying at the same time. I tried not to look. But I just had to watch her! I thought "she must be saying goodbye to a loved one."


Wait a second, I could do that too! "Mom, I love you. I miss you. Thanks for the inspiration. Sorry, so sorry, you suffered for so long. Ummmm Goodbye." No tears, just a peace and knowing.


I wondered what I could do as a tribute to her. My mom was a devout Catholic. Her lifelong advise was "Keep The Faith." I made a promise to her: return to the Catholic faith. When I came home, I joined the local parish and have begun attending church. My third and final Enso came into focus: Saying Goodbye.

Margo Thomas Saying Goodbye Enso
Enso: Saying Goodbye

The three Ensos are 18x24" oil paintings on canvas and not for sale, but can be viewed by appointment only.


Margo held a reception at 4pm on December 3rd to discuss art and transformation. The solo show ran through December at the Vail Public Library. The exhibit included her three Ensos and additional transformational pieces of art created right here in our valley.


 

More about the Enso


Photo Attribution: Spoktu, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zazen_bell_with_Enso_in_Background.jpg





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Linda Fox
Linda Fox
May 17

Dear Margo,

You are not only a beautiful person, but a great writer and artist and this expression of your journey was touching and heartfelt. Thanks for doing of the work of putting that all together and sharing it.

I too was brought into the fold of so many emotions and a place to relax, reflect, feel and cry for a time and to let go from the heart.

Many thanks,

Love, Linda

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Ed Williams
Ed Williams
Nov 21, 2022

Very lovely and heart felt, I could feel your mother next to me, thank you so much for this. I love you sweetheart and ”keep the faith 🙏”

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