Millie Pete is going blind. My 82-year-old mother was diagnosed with macular degeneration two months ago, and the condition is quickly taking away her vision because of damage to her retina.
As an artist, this has posed a serious challenge to her lifestyle, since the result of the condition is the inability to see detail or recognize faces. As the daughter of this artist, I have come to realize these past few weeks that is was through her art that I learned my most important life lessons:
• Shadows. My mother taught me never to use black when shading paintings. Instead you use complimentary colors to show depth to an object. As a child I saw shadows as dark places to avoid, but Millie Pete allowed me to see they are never as black as they seem, and that shadows actually help enhance the world around you.
• Begin small. When starting any drawing, you begin with small strokes that, over time, will make a bigger picture. In life we tend to look toward people with established relationships or careers as role models, yet we forget how long it took them to reach that point in their life. Knowing the small steps we take are not wasted and contribute to our larger success can allow us to relax enough to enjoy each of those moments.
• Work with oils. My mother’s favorite medium was oil paint. Since oil paints take weeks and sometimes months to dry, Millie Pete was able to change elements within the painting over the course of many days before it was complete. This allowed her the opportunity to put her brush down and walk away for a time in order to get a fresh perspective upon her return to the canvas.
For me I know that you never attempt to do anything perfect the first time, and a fresh eye always makes a situation better.
• When finished with one project, begin another. My mother’s home, as well as my own, is filled with paintings Millie Pete created. Her life was not dedicated to just one piece. Instead she always wanted to try new scenes, new mediums, or new canvas sizes.
This taught me that life is not one journey, but many. The only constant in life is you, and you should always be ready to complete one experience and set off to own another.
• Your work is more valuable when you’re gone. As an art teacher, my mother taught me not only art technique but also art history. She would often laugh at the fact famous artists were more valuable dead than alive, since these same masters struggled with poverty while creating their best work.
What I took away from those stories is the idea that passion is always better than profit, and your life’s work should be about what you leave behind for others.
• Keep going. Perhaps the biggest life lesson I have learned through my mother’s art is the fact it doesn’t stop, despite the fact she has now lost her vision. In a corner of my mother’s home stands a brand new painting of a man’s silhouette. She explained to me it was the image she now sees when looking at my brother.
My mother’s determination to continue to live life, and express it in art, shows that no matter what obstacle you have to endure, you simply keep moving forward.
No one wants to see their parents grow old. It’s as if their grey, wrinkles, and slow pace are constant reminders that the safety of our childhood is really over. I know my mother is afraid of her weakening body, but she still has something familiar to lean on, art.
Art has been her best friend and closest confidant throughout her life. In its ear is where she whispers her deepest fears and darkest thoughts and in return, it has taught her about life’s never-ending beauty.
And by being the daughter of this beautiful artist, I can make sure these lessons I’ve learned from her live on as long as her art.
Melissa Carter is also a writer for Huffington Post. She broke ground as the first out lesbian radio personality on a major station in Atlanta and was one of the few out morning show personalities in the country. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCarter