A Small Price to Pay for a Life Lived Fully

17 May 2012

As an artist, I often feel that I am more sensitive than others, or perhaps I am more in touch because I need to be so that my work will flow genuinely from my heart and allow me to respond from a deeper place. That is one of the reasons that I faced my fear and started painting in front of large crowds of people, culminating last week at my sweet twenty year old "nephew" Ryan's funeral. He died living his passion, rock climbing. As soon as I heard of his death, I knew what I had to do, although I did resist the thought for about a day. There were around a thousand people who were going to watch my memorial painting come to life at the service. All grieving. I asked God for the strength and ability to do this, and do it well.

Memorial portrait painting of Ryan Thomas Wahl by Shen.
Memorial portrait painting of Ryan Thomas Wahl by Shen.
The painting was so scary for me because I did not rely on a projector to project a photo of Ryan onto the canvas as I have done for many years in the past with great success. I have tried to keep my drawing skills up to speed, often making drawings and projecting those instead. Many artists feel that working in the latter manner is more pure but I say do whatever works for you. I do my thing, you do yours. Just try to be authentic and keep growing through the journey. With that in mind, I felt like more of my perception of Ryan would be seen if I drew him from my heart instead of with a projected image of him, though I did look at a photo for reference.

I felt like painting raw, slapping on the paint, especially after I heard my friend (who has been more like a sister to me) weep when she viewed her beautiful son's body in the casket. So I did, with a bit of reckless abandon--but not too much. I need to keep a certain level of control to do justice to this homage that was coming together before everyone's eyes.

Every time I turned around, the crowd of people who loved and wanted to celebrate Ryan's life grew. I felt like people were counting on me, and a bit of pressure built up. But I just had to trust and let the outcome go. Trust that the years of drawing experiments and sketchbook exercises and explorations taught me something. Trust that I didn't need to actually see the color wheel that I usually carry with me almost everywhere I go and had forgotten in my packing rush because I could see it in my mind. Trust that my vision would reflect Ryan, his faith, and his love for the natural and outdoors. And most of all trust that people would be touched even if I blew it--because I was really nervous about finishing on time. I only had three hours and the piece was 3 x 4 feet, which is a pretty large piece for me.

Turns out I didn't finish it on time but after the burial I came back to the church to finish it up. It wasn't exactly what I had in my mind when I began, but I just let it come naturally, and I'm inspired by the end result. It was the most difficult and important painting that I have ever attempted, and after having heard reports that the painting brought many people joy and comfort--and knowing that the painting hangs in the home of his parents and siblings to always remind them of his incredible spirit, passion, and purpose--I know it was worth the effort. But what I didn't realize was that I would have the chance to grow and learn from the process as well.

Art has the ability to help people see things in an entirely different way. That is a true gift that I can give to myself and to the world around me in the only way that I can. And here is a quote that I would have included in Ryan's painting if I had heard it sooner by the  famous mountaineer Willy Unsel:

Death is a small price to pay for a life lived fully.

In loving memory of Ryan Thomas Wahl.


Shen loves making the flat surface of a painting or drawing come to life. A professional artist and entrepreneur for more than 25 years, she lives to discover new techniques, mix media, and make difficult concepts simple! You will often find her painting live at events of all kinds to "wow" her audience. Her work has been collected by celebrities, corporations, and galleries spanning the globe. She is also an art instructor and keynote speaker, speaking to artists about how to market themselves in new, fun, and creative ways. Shen lives in Vail, Colorado, with her husband and three beautiful daughters. More of Shen's work may be viewed on her website.

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MrShinobi wrote
on 19 May 2012 9:33 AM

This is a beautiful memorial to your nephew and I can tell it really comes from your heart.  You have a wonderful way of expressing his life fully lived.  Wish I could see it in person.  Peace.


chris greene wrote
on 19 May 2012 9:46 AM

   What a wonderful memorial and gift to the bereaved family! Artists think outside the box in creative ways.