The End by Sally Heppner

Thank you, Leigh, for teaching me that sometimes you have to destroy the best part of a painting to make it work. 

Thank you, Gina, Dave, and Annalena, for this gift of time in your mother's studio to paint, to grieve, and to continue my inquiry about death and our connection to the life force of this natural world.

Thank you all for taking the time out of your days to read my musings and look at my work.


Separation and belonging by Sally Heppner

The late John O’Donohue tells a story in his book, Anam Cara about death that resonates very much:

I like to imagine that death is about rebirth. The soul is now free in a new world where there is no more separation or shadow or tears. A friend of mine lost a son who was twenty-six years of age. I was at the funeral. Her other children were all there as the coffin was lowered into the grave. A terrible wail of sadness rose up from the brothers and sisters. She put her arms around them and said, “Ná bigí  ag caoineadh, níl tada dhó thios ansin ach amháin an clúdach a bhí air”—that is, “Let ye not be crying because there is nothing of him down there, only the covering that was on him in this life.” It is a lovely thought, a recognition that the body was merely covering and the soul is now freed for the eternal.

He goes on to state:

It is a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here. […] We are here. We are wildly and dangerously free. The more lonely side of being here is our separation in the world. When you live in a body you are separate from every other object and person. Many of our attempts to pray, to love, and to create are secret attempts at transfiguring that separation in order to build bridges outward so that others can reach us and we can reach them. At death, this physical separation is broken. The soul is released from its particular and exclusive location in this body. The soul then comes in to a free and fluent universe of spiritual belonging.

These guys have been keeping me company during my attempts.

Hard work by Sally Heppner

There’s a quote by Matisse in the kitchen of this little casita. I remember it was in the little painting shed when I was here working with Leigh before. Now it even has more paint splattered on it and is barely readable. I’ve found this quote to be a good reminder and very true:

Truth + Reality in art do not arise until you no longer understand what you are doing and are capable of, but nevertheless sense a power that grows in proportion to your resistance.
                                                                   –Henri Matisse

I’ve been thinking as I work how difficult painting can be. It’s probably the most difficult task I have ever set before myself—but also the most rewarding, except for parenting. Both involve constant evaluation and decision-making; both involve a giving up of yourself and your own desires to something beyond your understanding at the time. Sometimes it is easier to just hike up the tallest rock in the world. 

Love strikes again by Sally Heppner

I know what you’re thinking but it’s not that kind, though that would be nice.

I’m talking human kindness—that kind of love. Let me explain:

Yesterday I was invited to travel to San Sabastian Bernal with my new friends, Carol and Gracie. Bernal was designated by the Mexican government as a Pueblo Mágico in 2005. This is an initiative led by Mexico's Secretariat of Tourism to promote a series of towns around the country that offer visitors a “magical” experience—by reason of their natural beauty, cultural riches, or historical relevance and is supposed to help broaden Mexico’s tourism beyond sun and beaches. Aside from the hype, Bernal truly is magical.

Overlooking Bernal is Peña de Bernal. I’ve heard conflicting statistics about Peña de BernaI: First that it’s the third tallest rock in the world, following Gibralter, then Ayers. But then I found an article about a new study led by researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico released in 2013 that stated Peña de Bernal is actually the tallest freestanding rock in the world at 1,421 feet (433 meters). Gibralter is 1,398 feet (426 meters).

I had to climb it and I had to take Michael and Ben. Of course I couldn’t climb to the top—that takes a qualified rock climber. We drove up as far as we could go, then started following the crowd up the rocky path, past the baños, vendors, eateries, and trash receptacles. I felt like I was on my own Mexican Camino de Santiago. Up we went. I registered our little party of three in a small shack, and then continued on. As we clambered up the steep rocky steps, the crowd grew thinner and I lost my companions. High up on the side of the mountain, there was a flat rock that might do—an alter of sorts. I could leave Ben’s and Michael’s ashes there, but something tugged at me to keep climbing. I could see people high up on the side of a ridge. Up steep steps and a sign: Peligro! Valore su Vida. Danger. Value your life. Of course, the perfect place for my son, and I’m pretty sure Ben too. I carefully climbed out on the (luckily) dry, smooth, rock to an outcropping and sat with my son and my friend, interspersing their ashes high up on the side of this magical place.

I didn’t cry. I felt peace, sadness, and deep, deep loss. But I didn’t cry. As I turned to leave this aerie high up on the side of Peña Bernal, a young woman who must have been watching me looked up at me with tenderness and smiled. It reminded me of the strong, strong love I sensed after Michael died; how I realized it is why we are here; it is the god we try to explain, the essence of our existence. I broke. I sobbed as I crawled my way across the slick rock. Then, as I stumbled down past the danger sign, a young man reached out and took my hand to help me down the steep slope to the path. Love.

The night previous to our trek to Bernal, as I was walking I noticed a gathering of people outside a home. When I had passed earlier in the day, two men were inside, joking and happy, engrossed in something. As I walked by about four hours later there was a truck stopped outside in the middle of the road, a big black car behind it, and a crowd of grief-stricken people gathered around. Somebody pulled a stretcher out, then a coffin. I stopped for as long as I could but didn’t want to intrude, so continued on my way, a deep sadness engulfing me—remembering the shock of Michael’s death and how our little family gathered on the front porch as dozens of neighbors and friends made their way over to grieve with us, an impromptu wake. This morning, on my way to meet my ride to Bernal, I noticed a few of the crowd still sitting outside, this time in folding chairs, the wake continuing. Wanting to convey the love I felt, I walked up to the nearest group of people and said in my inelegant and imperfect Spanish that I was sorry for their death and that I loved them. They cried and held my hand. Love.

Dispersal by Sally Heppner

The past two days I’ve been working on a set of paintings by pushing four panels of paper tightly together and painting as one painting, then separating them so they may stand alone compositionally. In the end, I put them together again to make sure they work together or separately.

I awoke this morning with the realization that this latest set of paintings is about more than I originally intended. It’s reminiscent of David Eagleman’s short story, Search, in his book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. I highly recommend you get the book but I’ll condense here. The story begins:

In the moment of transition between life and death, only one thing changes: you lose the momentum of the biochemical cycles that keep the machinery running […] At that moment, the atoms begin to drift apart, no longer enslaved to the goals of keeping up a human form […] As you degrade, your atoms become incorporated into new constellations: the leaf of a staghorn fern, a speckled snail shell, a kernel of maize, a beetle’s mandible, a waxen bloodroot, a ptarmigan’s tail feather. But as it turns out your thousand trillion trillion atoms were not an accidental collection: each was labeled as composing you and continues to be so wherever it goes. So you’re not gone, you’re simply taking on different forms.

Eagleman goes on to state how wonderful this new state is; you are everywhere at once, “ruffling your grasses and bending your pine branch and flexing an egret’s wings while pushing a crab toward the surface through coruscating shafts of light.” But once every few millennia, all your atoms grow tired of being in constant flux and pull together again out of nostalgia in search of something they once knew. "The Reunion is warm and heartening for a while, but it isn’t long before they begin to miss their freedom," start to suffer a claustrophobia while in their human form, and disperse yet again to “ascend mountains, wander the seas, and conquer the air, seeking to recapture the limitlessness they once knew.”

Lluvia by Sally Heppner

The word in Spanish for rain is lluvia. It’s a happier word than rain, don’t you think?  I stepped out of a building last night to discover pouring, neck-drenching, street-flooding rain. Yet as I walked home I found myself smiling. It wasn’t the cold rain I’m used to in Portland, the bone-chilling, sprint-dousing endless grey-sky rain. This is lluvia that refreshes, which I know keeps these lovely gardens green, where I know I will wake up to a blue sky in the morning. I found myself laughing as I walked home in this rain. It is so very different from that which I am accustomed. It makes me wonder about happiness and what we slowly accept as okay when, if we would only allow ourselves a change of scenery once in a while, we could wake up to blue skies every morning.

mamas and cubs by Sally Heppner

It's mothers day today and I've been thinking of my friend, Jen, who lost her beautiful son, Ben, this past September. He was an exquisite actor both on and off stage. I've know Jen for a long time and watched with admiration as she raised Ben and his brother, Brian. Sometimes she would have to gather her little family together, pick them up by the napes of their necks, and move on to protect them from harm; always with humor, strength, and endless love.

I've also been thinking about my man-cub, Michael, and am missing him very much this day. I have to say, I am eternally grateful for Alison, Rachel, and Corey, my other now-grown cubs, who are the brightest lights in my life.

…some college party, of course!

…some college party, of course!

Jazz by Sally Heppner

Before I left Portland I heard an interview with a jazz pianist on the radio. I wish I could remember his name but I was driving and distracted. I do remember that it was International Jazz Day and I do remember something he said: Jazz is universal because it involves improvisation and we all improvise every day.  A conversation is an improvisation if you think about it.

By the end of the day yesterday I was covered in paint up to my shoulders, had forgotten to eat since breakfast, and left the milk out on the counter. All because of a conversation. The two side-by-side paintings kept up their banter, pushing each other to better places. The conversation between the three of us was quite exhilarating. One resolved itself with a stack (thanks Corey), the other with tears.

As I worked with the two, I would turn for calm to my landscape. If you can call it calm. That's the one that caused the paint up to my shoulders. I do believe it's time to move on.

Meditation by Sally Heppner

Tuesday’s paintings were not good but that’s ok. It’s what painting is all about—working through the bad stuff, seeing it, and then letting it go. It’s so much like psychology. Good mental health practice involves seeing your shit then getting rid of it without taking it out on others.

I needed to meditate. Yesterday morning I went up on the roof with my cup of café con leche, sat on the lovely blue concrete bench under the arbor behind the hammock, tucked my legs under me and tried to empty my mind. It maybe worked for about 30 seconds; I saw bright oranges and blues behind my eyelids, soft, like a Rothko painting. But then my silly mind tucked back in with its silly thoughts. When I opened my eyes I noticed a compelling little succulent next to me in a pot. As I went to get my drawing book, I noticed two small Seussian cacti calling to me from the edge of the garden. As I drew their intertwining shapes and funny little dots, I realized that I was lost in the moment without anything flooding my mind except what these funny little twins had to tell me. I was meditating.

An Argument by Sally Heppner

I love working in Leigh’s studio. There’s room to spread out, good light, and I can’t get away from my paintings. It reminds me of when I was living at the Rasumussen, the small apartment where I lived when I came to work with Leigh in 2008. After “boot camp” with her, I returned and built a sheetrock wall attached to the existing lath and plaster in my living room where I could tack up large canvases and paint. It wasn’t Mexico and I didn’t have nearly as much room then but having my work staring me in the face every time I turned around made me pick up my brushes more often. Now, as then, my paintings won’t leave me alone. Right now the two are fighting. Perhaps I just need to let them work it out and when I wake up in the morning they will have resolved their issues.

I remember Leigh saying I had to stop being nice. When I awoke this morning my paintings hadn’t resolved their argument, so I had to step in and fight back. I’m going to go against my resolve and show you the discussion. I can’t explain it any other way. I think I’ll go paint a landscape for a while. 

Woodshedding by Sally Heppner

After a long week and a long journey, my shuttle van pulled up early Saturday morning at around 12:15 a.m. Jose and Delia, gracious as could be, had patiently waited for my late arrival. As caretakers of this lovely oasis, they greeted me and re-acquainted me with Leigh’s casita and Casa Duende.

As I walked into Leigh’s empty painting studio, I felt a strong sense of emptiness and loss. Tears filled my eyes and I tried to explain to Delia in my long-forgotten Spanish the grief I was feeling. Where was Leigh? Seven years ago she greeted me with her warm smile, beautiful work covering the walls of her studio, both brimming with life. Now she is gone and there are empty white walls.

Saturday morning I awoke to the sounds of birds chirping, the propane truck blaring music, dogs barking, church bells chiming—the sounds of Mexico I so love. (Jose mentioned that Sunday, and every Sunday throughout May, fireworks will awaken me around 5 a.m. in celebration of Fiesta de las Cruces—it is true, it happened this morning!) I was hungry but before going in search of breakfast, needed to poke around the casa a bit first. As I walked into the larger casa, Casa Duende, I smiled. There were Leigh’s paintings! I remember her telling me of a man standing in front of one of her paintings for a long, long time in a gallery during one of her openings. She came up to him and he said, “Will this painting ever let me go?” I see why he said that. Leigh’s paintings and the joy that shone through her face were what drew me to her in the first place. I had to learn from her. I’m hoping she will be here to teach me still.

I feel a great responsibility before me. While flying here Friday night I realized I am about to “woodshed,” a term I learned from my jazz musician sons, Michael and Corey, whose practice of woodshedding made them each very accomplished improvisational artists. It means more than just practicing. It’s recognition of the need to sequester oneself to dig into the difficult aspects of one’s craft. It’s a time of discipline and focus. I had the silly idea on the flight here of not looking at any clocks, not thinking about numbers of any kind, not looking at the news or the internet, and shutting off all outside communication. But after thinking about it more last night, I realize I don’t need to sequester quite so much; I’m here and alone with a bit of a sprained foot to keep me from wandering too far afield on these cobblestoned streets. I’m ready to take on my task.  

Many of you know that my painting spirit has been blocked since Michael died. It’s why I wanted to come and work with Leigh in 2013, to have her help me again find my purpose in painting. I knew she could. But then I discovered she was gone too and a whole new grief set in. I’ve been reading Leigh’s book, How Painting Holds Me to the Earth. In the chapter about The Hidden Blessing of Blocks, she states:

Another paralysis-breaker is to paint or write or dance before you know what you want to say or do. One brushstroke or movement after the next will eventually start to shape itself into something that will interest you and keep you involved. It’s part of a re-entry path, a way to do an end-run around your resistance and begin again. It’s important, however, not to share this fresh-start material with anyone. Let the material percolate, and shelter your creative process during this period. Remember that we work beyond our own understanding at times and it’s irrelevant whether you like what’s happening or not. Just do it.

I began this morning by tacking up two large canvases and smothering them with gesso. After they dry, I will begin to paint. I know not what just yet but I do know for some reason that it’s important I have two paintings working together and separate. I also know I will begin with large swaths of color that will probably be covered up later. I will hate what I do at times; other times I will love it. I probably won’t show you just yet and I will not try to judge it myself. That will come later after I’ve let this work I’m about to do percolate. For now I will just do it. 

Que hasta,



A request by Sally Heppner

Before I go, will you help me please? My work will continue my inquiry about death and life and the interconnections of the two. I would like suggestions of what to read and work to explore.

To start with, my daughter, Alison, suggested In Search of Duende by Federico Garcia Lorca. 

Do you have any suggestions? Please comment. Thanks!