Valley Voices

Life, like art, is better when one’s mind is open to the possibilities

The hand of Dorris Woods of Fresno on a painting at Seago’s studio in Fresno on Monday, June 12, 2017. Retired educator Shirley Bruegman has realized she, too, can learn to paint.
The hand of Dorris Woods of Fresno on a painting at Seago’s studio in Fresno on Monday, June 12, 2017. Retired educator Shirley Bruegman has realized she, too, can learn to paint. Fresno Bee file

I’m discovering a little balance in one’s life is a good thing. Although I loved my years as an educator, releasing my “play by all the rules” behavior has me experiencing new things — most of them liberating and fun.

“So You Think You Can’t Paint” was the title of my latest retirement adventure. The course description stated for all levels — including beginners. I completed the enrollment form and sent my check. A few days later, I received an email outlining needed supplies for the first session.

Shirley Bruegman Fresno Bee file

Entering the unfamiliar surroundings of an art supply store, a nice young man asked if he could help. Relieved, I handed him my list. I was overwhelmed by the paint smells, shelves and aisles stacked with different types of tubes, jars, brushes, easels, and a large selection of canvases. The myriad of paint colors, e.g. wisteria and chartreuse, reminded me of the huge Crayola boxes I would get for my children at the beginning of each school year.

The class instructions also included the importance of bringing a water jar with lid. Please be prepared to take your dirty water home. For sentimental reasons, I had saved two Mason jars found in the cupboard of my mother’s kitchen while preparing her house for sale. They had no doubt originally contained green beans and tomatoes harvested from her backyard garden. I think she would be pleased knowing that one was about to be re-purposed.

Canvases under my arm and tubes of paint, brushes, and a jar thrown into my red Cornhusker tote, I was off for my first lesson. Among the classroom faces, I was excited to see an old friend. She had already spread newspapers on the table and, as she unloaded her large variety of painting tools, she motioned me to take the chair next to her and offered to share anything she had that my bare-bones tote didn’t include.

The instructor introduced himself and distributed a handout listing primary, secondary, and complimentary colors. Who would have thought to tone down a color, one only needed to mix it with a complement. Ten minutes into class and I had learned something I never knew. Most importantly, he lectured about the importance of being open-minded and letting imaginations soar. Those words were not unlike my last semester’s writing instructor who continually stated “you need to let go and dig deep.”

Abstract painting was the first of five painting styles we would learn. Sensing I had no idea where to start, the instructor walked to my table, leaned over, and whispered “Do not be afraid — just pick up a brush and start.” As we talked, I visualized a little painting that hangs on the wall by the backyard door. It is black and white with splotches of red. It definitely met definition of abstract. I chose a flat tipped brush, squeezed black paint onto it, and made the first stroke.

Each day the following week, it rested on the center island in my kitchen. I continued playing with it — a dab of paint here and there. Returning to class, I was proud to receive encouraging comments from classmates and ready to tackle the next assignment. No, it doesn’t look like the one hanging by my door. It’s mine and is an original.

Last week, I was in the waiting room of my doctor’s office and found myself walking around, looking at paintings hung on the walls. What was the artist trying to accomplish? What types of brushes were used to create those beautiful strokes? Yes, the class had taught me something new — learning to better appreciate art.

Continuing to learn is the best gift I can give myself at this stage of life. My next adventure will be involvement with Summer Arts hosted by Fresno State University. There are so many fascinating choices, all taught by well-known professors. I’m thinking about memoir writing or drawing outside of the box. Maybe I’ll enroll in both? Maybe you would like to join me?

Shirley A. Bruegman is retired vice chancellor of State Center Community College District. She can be reached at