by Lynn S. Schwebach
Every so often, you meet someone whose philosophy on life causes you to pause and reflect, leading you ask yourself if you’re living out your life in a meaningful, truthful way.
This type of introspection seems to especially haunt artists and those who find meaning through careers that don’t deliver monthly paychecks. They seek to make a life centered on their creative impulses, yet somehow struggle to leave traditional lifestyles to simply live for the satisfaction of doing what they love.
Bonnie Lebesch is no longer haunted by that impulse – she does only what gives her joy.
On a cloudless, Colorado day in May, Lebesch opened her door and ushered me into her Fort Collins residence. I heard calm music coming from somewhere on the second floor; as if entering a gallery, dim lighting illuminated paintings and prints lining the walls.
“The layout of the apartment is a bit unusual,” she explained.
But it works nicely for an artist. The lower level consists of her office and her “gallery of sorts.”
“This is from the Chinese medicinal herbs series,” she explained as I stood in front of an abstract. As she said the word “herbs,” I noticed that the enlarged shapes looked like plant-like substances.
She told me about her process in creating this series. She would go to an herbalist in Seattle where she was living at the time, and get mixtures of different medicinal herbs. Then she would scan them into her computer, manipulate the image in Photoshop, enlarge it, and print it out. After doing a series of these prints, she eventually removed the physical shapes of the leaves, capturing the energy they left behind by painting over that energy – but the painting process would come some years later.
“Through the photographic series, I discovered that this artwork affects the energy in a room,” she said. “I consciously work to bring something beneficial to the space.”
How she discovered this art-energy connection changed her life, and perhaps, even saved it.
Lebesch had contracted with a Chinese Medicine School in Seattle to hang some of these prints for 6 months in their treatment rooms. Soon after, she received a call from the school. One print in room 4 was causing complaints from the treatment providers: the image was emitting “disruptive” energy, or energy that opposed calming and grounding space. This print caused so much repulsion and negativity that the practitioners were unable to take their patients’ pulse, or Chi.
In Chinese medicine, the herb holds the necessary quality to treat a condition. Lebesch discovered that the herb portrayed on this print was known to be an antidote used for anger management problems.
She was stunned, realizing that art could shift energy in space. At that point, she redirected her efforts to focus only on images of beneficial herbs.
For reference, Lebesch used texts like the I Ching and the Dao De Jing, to author phrases such as “Dissolving the nets of calamity and confusion.” She would then give the phrase to an herbalist who would combine beneficial herbs to match the phrase.
But before completing her healing series of prints, Lebesch became very ill.
She had spent years in both corporate and academic environments, working as a graphic designer, video installation artist, user interface designer, and professor in an Art and Design program. She worked for companies such as Adobe and Microsoft Corp. But in 2007, all of that came to a screeching halt when her lymphatic system virtually stopped. Her body swelled and retained water, and initially she was diagnosed with lymphadema, an obstruction or blockage of her lymph vessels, vessels that normally drain fluid from tissues throughout the body.
She literally couldn’t move, and spent days doing nothing. Her emotions went into overdrive. Western medicine doctors couldn’t help her, and she doubted the diagnosis.
“It was a horrible time. I literally wanted to die. I thought okay, my time is up, just let me go. I would try going on short walks, and see people doing what I used to be able to do, and it would send me into a tailspin.”
This went on for nearly two years, when one day she had an epiphany. She would stop focusing only on negative aspects, and try to do something every day that brought her joy.
She could no longer sit for long periods of time at the computer, but she could manage a paintbrush.
Around this time she had also started seeing an energy healer, trying to apply some of what she had learned from her herbal photographic print series to heal herself. Removing the blocked fluid from her lymphatic system became a priority.
One day in a parking lot of a clinic she saw Scotch Thistle growing. This was the plant that the energy healer told her held the energetic antidote of the poison that was in her body.
Unsure of exactly what to do with it, she picked some of the plant and went home. The idea of creating art with it came to her, and she again put it on a scanner and made a print. But the first print was harsh like the plant, with thistles, and in a dark color.
Slowly over time, she kept recreating the print and noticed that the colors she chose became softer and lighter. The final images, now mounted to wood panels hanging in her living room, looked like soft blue and red pastels.
“The series got softer and softer as this thorny thing – the toxins – started to leave my body,” she explained.
Around this time she also did some of her own medical research, and along with a naturopathic doctor, came up with a different diagnosis: a rare form of a mixed connective tissue disease. It is believed that an underlying cause of the disease is extreme stress on the body.
As the prints became softer and lighter, she began to feel better, and regained more mobility and her swelling diminished. Her herbal art had again exhibited significance beyond what she expected.
She knew that if she were to keep living, she would have to follow her bliss, and this involved giving up the corporate life and high stress technology jobs. An art studio became available in Seattle, and, although still recuperating, Lebesch took the plunge.
Because computer work still caused her pain, she simply hung scrap paper on the studios walls, bought some latex paint, and stood before the paper with paintbrush in hand. Thoughts and ideas came to her, and she started painting. Soon she would add acrylics to hone the fine details.
When she looked at what she was creating, she again saw organic shapes taking form. To this day, she doesn’t plan what she paints, but simply lets ideas move from her thoughts through her paintbrush and on to paper, canvas, or wood panel.
She continues to use forms from nature, but instead of photographing them, she paints images grounded in the energy they contain.
And using what she has learned from her own experience and Chinese medicine, she has started to take part in wellness programs and retreats. Most recently, she traveled to Belize with a group of Fort Collins practitioners to conduct workshops and guided meditations on drawing mandalas.
The participants didn’t have any background in art, but what they created, Lebesch said in her characteristic relaxed demeanor, was “incredible.”
To see more art by Bonnie Lebesch, visit her website at www.bonnnielebesch.com