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By Melanie Lee
Author, “A Year In Sedona~Meeting The Muse At Wisdom’s Edge”

(February 12, 2018)


For all of us on the road to wisdom’s edge, there comes a moment when a crossroad is encountered. The question of how best to proceed arises, as we start to transform a disjointed, messy life colored by jumbled up, mindless and recycled past experiences, into something new, beautiful and different? An innovative abstract art experience called “A Beautiful Mess” turned out to be the answer for me and my husband Louis when we moved to Sedona. 

Initially I’d fretted mightily about the decision to jump into a life focused on creativity after reaching sixty, worried that all my artistic juices might have dried up along the way and I’d somehow  lost my chance to meet the muse again. But then I found a two-day  art workshop that would reveal how one might wrestle a chaotic cacophony of shape, line, space, texture and color – ‘a beautiful mess’ – into some kind of transcendent new order reflecting the subtext buried in one’s soul. Hmmmmm.

I realized that this was ad copy, almost certainly promising more than it could deliver. But I liked the fundamental idea of art as a way to pull together all the mussy, fussy parts of life into a beautiful new order. Like jazz, it might offer a way to experience life in a wider, totally unexpected but ultimately more satisfying and integrated context. Too, I was reminded of the writing workshops I’d taught years ago back in Santa Fe, same idea,  different medium, identical result. Free form, abstract, spontaneous, on the fly, something offering a way to get all your stuff down on the page, then going through it line by line to find a jewel, gem or treasure at wisdom’s edge. Writers had often been shocked to realize that a few well chosen editing techniques could lead to a discovery of new order, focus and purpose emerging from the original mess and chaos. It was like turning your own hard won truth into a piece of art and so this new/old approach seemed worth investigating.

On the appointed day, off we went to learn to tidy up our personal messes via the muse as abstract art. We met teacher Julie Bernstein Engelmann, who instructed us to look within to find an intention, a word or phrase, something that would lend inspiration and focus for our proposed paintings. I cast about, anxious to choose the right word. Imagine that! I made my living as a writer for years and still this made me nervous. One had to pick the right word to retain some sense of boundary, didn’t one? And what about the beautiful part? I didn’t want to celebrate something ugly, even though I’d learned in previous art classes that ‘ugly’ (likewise ‘beauty’) is in the eye of the beholder. I settled on ‘nourishment’, a concept that had always served me well in the inspiration department.

20180212_HeartinWaterbyMeleditedNext came a test of the courage to commit and I’m happy to say that contrary to my fear of making a big mess (yes, I know that was the point but….), the painting process was not difficult to grasp. Some messy blob-like images appeared as a result of a free form pouring exercise that involved my mixing and dribbling latex house paint on a primed canvas and, if I do say so myself, the initial results were impressive. I liked the dabs, doodles and dribbles that emerged, maybe a little naïve and tentative, but still quite acceptable attempts to mix colors directly on the painting surface. There were light pinks, various hues of green, warm yellow and soft blue tones, all producing an nebulous aura of a mysterious midnight garden in spring, basking under the light of a golden full moon. Fetching, I thought, patting myself on the back.

After the pouring we left our pieces to dry and set overnight, returning the next day for editing by giving our paintings a hearty structuring workout with a variety of brushes, soppy wet paper towels and acrylics applied sparingly for contour, shaping and form. The finished works took on line and definition, surprising many who’d thought they might not be able to identify anything remotely resembling their original concept. My painting appeared to be a garden, which I loved and yes, felt nourished by. Then a heart emerged, surrounded by hills and water as I dabbed and drew on lines, curves, shadows.

 On the other side of the room, Louis’ painting was emerging in a wild and woolly fashion. He called it Blue Tango and it looked almost exactly like one of those wildly colorful weather channel hurricane graphics, very powerful as the main spiral threw off an enormous cerise and funky energy twirling across the canvas. He was happy with it as were most of the people in the class, thrilled and amazed at what could happen when you meet the muse no holds barred. 

When we got home we decided to honor our meeting with the abstract art muse by turning half the garage into a rustic art studio. We’d learned plenty of new hands on techniques as well as how to embrace an intention to start a painting using our old but still beautiful and usable treasure trove of almost dried out tubes of paint, pencils, pens, pokers and pliers.  I pried open several creaky old toolboxes and dusted off a large collection of plastic mixing cups we’d saved for years, When Louis finished installing an entire wall of shelves to display and exhibit our artwork, the new studio took on a distinct sense of holy possibility and I set to work immediately, refining my Nourishment piece.

 Beholding our new creation, I think we both knew a true transformation had occurred, inside and out. Our truth had become our art. Though older and a little weathered (like us), our art supplies, shelves and folding tables were now primed to go another round. And (like us) they were ready and waiting to offer inspiration for the unexpected and unforeseen possibilities inherent in the beautiful messes we all experience as we begin our second lives.

Melanie Lee is an award-winning writer, editor, artist and author. Growing up in Texas, she read mostly biography and autobiography and dreamed of being a writer who could help inspire others to meet their muse by honoring beauty in everyday life. She holds degrees in languages and journalism and was a features editor and columnist, writing everything from lifestyle stories and business news to profiles of entrepreneurs, artists and inventors engaged in the creative pursuit of right livelihood. She lived for ten years in Northern New Mexico where she was creator and director of Sojourns Writing Workshops of Santa Fe.

At the second half of life she moved to Sedona with her husband Louis Michalski. She met her muse anew, took up painting, became a yoga teacher and avid hiker and wrote A Year in Sedona~Meeting the Muse at Wisdom’s Edge“,  available on or from the author. She can be contacted at 
P.O. Box 1419   Sedona, AZ  86339 or