Grieving the loss of her brother and mother was the catalyst for Amy to leave her lucrative career in graphic design and honor her calling as an artist and healer, and activist.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, the youngest of five children. Born at the end of the boomer generation in 1959. It was an era when my mother was able to be homemaker while my father provided for us through his work as a salesman. Being the baby of the family, and highly sensitive, I idolized my siblings and worked hard to please my parents. Although I was an honor student, there seemed to be an unspoken expectation that I would become a secretary, get married, and have babies like the women of my mother’s generation. That didn’t happen. I have never married and do not have children.
When I was a young teen, I started drawing the elephants and pirates from the “Draw Me” contests in the back of magazines in hopes of winning an art scholarship. I would painstakingly recreate them and show them to my mother but, sadly, she would say it was a gimmick. It wasn’t until my junior year that I took my first drawing class at our new high school. I was home.
I wanted to go to college but when my only brother Richard, the eldest child, dropped out in his senior year, my parents, who had helped him financially, were angry and my father declared to the rest of us girls: “If any of you kids wants to go to college, you’re on your own.” I was the only one at the time who wanted to go to college and didn’t know how that was going to happen.
In 1976, when I was finishing my junior year in high school, my parents made the startling decision to uproot us and move to Florida. I was the only one left in school, and was forced to move with them. Thankfully, a young couple who came to our house to play bridge with my parents offered to take me in for the remaining few months of my junior year. As it turned out, she was a visual artist and he, an industrial designer. I wrote to my parents and informed them that I was going to study art in college.
It was hard to leave my New England home but Florida offered educational opportunities that I couldn’t otherwise afford. I was awarded grants and waited tables while attending the local community college, completing an Associate degree in Fine Arts. After that I floundered for a few years. I was living with and engaged to a man who was ready to get married and start a family. I didn’t know what I wanted but I knew that I didn’t want that life. I was 22. Instead, I took “the road less traveled” to quote Robert Frost. A year later, I met a man who encouraged me to go back to school which I did, though the relationship eventually ended.
In 1983, I was still waiting tables and took out student loans to finance my education. I was excited to begin my Bachelor’s program in Fine Arts but, in my senior year, discovered the world of advertising. While working an internship at a local design firm, I learned the art of graphic design. Before computers, print materials were created by hand and I fell in love with the artistry of the craft. I was fed up with the restaurant scene, so this seemed an ideal path to follow.
After graduation, in 1986, I relocated to Southern California, where two of my sisters had settled. I was ready to get serious about a career although it was hard to leave my parents who were always nearby when I needed them between boyfriends and roommates. Two years later, they would join us in California—Mom needing to be near at least three of her “chicks.”
I didn’t plan well for the move. I had 300 bucks in my pocket along with student loans, credit card debt, a car payment, and no job—just a dream. I was financially destitute, living in a dingy studio apartment, working secretarial temp jobs, and one step away from homelessness, when I finally landed a job as a production artist at a design firm in South Pasadena. It was a high stress, fast-paced environment but I was learning a lot, working in my field, getting paid with steady raises, and had health insurance for the first time. I was 27 and on my way to “success.” So I thought. An easel with a blank canvas sat tucked in a corner of my apartment though at the time I didn’t have time to paint. Things were about to change, again.
When did you start to think about making a change?
The seeds for my next act were planted just two years later when I was 29. My brother Richard left home for college when I was seven but when I was sixteen, he became a mentor to me, taking notice of my early evolution as a young woman. We had always been close as a family especially during the 1980s when we were all young adults. Our family gathered yearly for Christmas or a special event, centered around my mother. I wrote often in my journals that if I had my family, I could survive anything.
On September 11, 1989 Richard died from AIDS. My mother flew to NYC and brought him back to Los Angeles that summer to care for him. Being present to his suffering and bearing witness to his death changed me. It was hard on all of us, but especially my mother. Nine months later, she died suddenly from heart failure when I was out of the country on vacation. I returned home the following day to find her gone. It was surreal and no words can really express the shock of having lost the two most significant people in my life in less than nine months. One of my best friends also died that year. Death was all around me. By the time I turned 30, money, success, all the things that I thought were important to me no longer were. I entered a very dark period in my life and was on a self-destructive path abusing alcohol and sex.
One drunken night, I returned to my apartment, picked up a paint brush, and started painting my heart on the canvas. Around that same time, a friend recommended a therapist who I believe helped save me from what would have been an early death, too. It’s why I believe so passionately in the power of art and listening to heal the wounded heart. I was still working at the design firm since I had to pay the rent and there was no one to support me. As I slowly emerged from the darkness, I began reading philosophy and discovered The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I embarked on an intellectual search for the meaning of life. Reading my brother’s journals, his spirit guided me in my search to answer: Who am I? What is my purpose? Why am I here?
Through my grieving process, I was awakening to a new way of seeing the world. I envisioned a simple life of art and service. I was sick of now meaningless deadlines and wanted to flee Southern California. My family had splintered under the weight of our grief and my father retired to San Diego. In 1993, at 33 and alone, I moved to Portland, Oregon to start my life anew. Again. I had no job. No family or friends waiting for me on the other end. It was a leap of faith but this time I had work experience and money saved so the transition wouldn’t be as traumatic as the move from Florida seven years prior. I had planned to become an art therapist and work with grieving people.
These were the seeds for my midlife next act eight years later. After arriving in Portland, I began researching art therapy courses and discovered that it was too soon for me emotionally. I was still too raw with my own grief to hold space for others. Out of this early exploration, I began sculpting as a prerequisite to the art therapy program and found a new love in the clay, one that continues today. I started a freelance graphic design business and was painting on the side. To fill my call to be of service, I volunteered with the local AIDS organization offering education and outreach, followed by eight years at The Dougy Center, the National Center for Grieving Children and Families.
What is your next act?
My next act came to fruition in 2001, at 41, when I answered my soul calling to work professionally as an artist and healer. Once I stepped onto this path my life opened in new ways, most profoundly during a ten-day training with environmentalist Joanna Macy when I had a life-changing mystical experience. When I returned home, I founded Sacred Art Studio and have dedicated my life and work to the healing of the earth.
As a contemporary sacred artist and spiritual activist, I draw inspiration from all our faith traditions and the wisdom of our earth-honoring ancestors. My artwork, public installations, ceremonies, speaking, workshops, and writing are meant to inspire and awaken hearts to the sacredness of the creation, our interconnectedness in the life web, and to raise awareness of endangered species. I’ve exhibited my art around the Pacific Northwest and my work resides in many private collections. I’ve also had the joy of creating numerous paintings, mandalas, and sculptures on commission.
In 2004, I returned to school and completed my Masters Degree in Spiritual Traditions & Ethics. I’m also a certified Spiritual Director and have studied shamanism with teachers both locally and in Peru. I’ve also had the honor of being invited to speak by local communities about my art and grief journey and have presented at conferences around the interrelationship between art, religion/spirituality, and the ecological crisis.
I believe that during this evolutionary time, we are called to co-create a new collective “story” for living in reciprocity with the living earth and with each other if we are to co-create a sustainable future. My work is a contribution and a prayer toward this transformative vision. I am blessed to be doing what it is that I love and to live a life of meaning and purpose.
Why did you choose this next act?
By the late 90s, my graphic design business had exploded and I was doing work for high-tech companies such as Intel and hp. I refer to that period as the “balls to the walls” era and was putting in 60-70 hours a week, rushing from one deadline to the next. By the time the dot.com boom crashed in 2000, I was managing several other designers and grossing over $250,000 a year. I had a big bank account but at the end of the day, I wasn’t happy. Our culture was telling me I was a “success” but I knew in my heart this wasn’t what I was meant to be doing with my life though I was still making art “on the side” and volunteering at the Dougy Center.
Around the same time as the crash, there was another loss in my life that triggered the grief that I had been unable to fully process a decade earlier. This initiated me in a deeper spiritual awakening that propelled me towards this next act. I believe it has been my soul’s evolution to follow this path. Everything, including the losses in my life, has led me to awaken to my purpose in this life. So, I don’t know that I chose it so much as I continued to answer the call of my soul and follow the path to discover where it would lead next. There really was no other option.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
I was fortunate to have substantial savings from the high-tech years, so I had the financial means to step back from any urgency to generate income and take the time to consider my next steps. At the start of 2001, I began working with a life coach who guided me and helped shape how I wanted to live this next chapter of my life as an artist and healer.
The launch for this next act was in the form of an art installation I created around the paintings and sculptures that I had been making over the years, ones that emerged through my grief. The event, Art with Heart: A Journey of Healing and Hope, that August was a powerful evening for me and for all those who attended. Friends, colleagues, one of my sisters, and even my father (who was in town from California) attended. A friend performed an expressive dance piece symbolic of my transformation through loss and attendees were then invited to plant seeds in container representing the seeds for my future. This vision included leading workshops for women in grief called Healing HeARTs. It was a profound healing to be witnessed by others and gave me courage to move forward into this next act.
What challenges did you encounter?
It’s challenging when people, mostly strangers, question my decision as to how “practical” it was to make a living as an artist. This was true especially at the beginning when I didn’t have a large body of work and wasn’t quite clear on the direction of my work. This would change after the events of 9/11 and the training with Joanna Macy that opened my work to the larger ecological and spiritual crises of our time. Because I haven’t followed a traditional art career path by seeking gallery representation, another challenge has been getting my work seen but technology and social media have helped make it possible to reach a larger audience.
Were there times when you thought about giving up? What/who kept you going?
There have been times over the past 15 years, especially during the recession, that I questioned Spirit and considered going back to graphic design full time. So, it hasn’t always been easy but I piece together a modest living from various streams and live simply. When I am immersed in a painting, a commission, or holding space for people in grief, I feel that divine connection come through me and know that I am exactly where I meant to be. Also, my love for the earth as well as my grief over all that we are losing keeps me going on this path. We only have this one wild, beautiful planet and am committed to doing what I can to protect what remains.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Great question. When I was young my father would said to me, “Amy, you won’t be successful in business (or otherwise) because you’re too sensitive.” The question is: How do we define success? I’ve learned that being an introvert, sensitive, and deep feeling is an asset to our world, not a hindrance. Without my art, I don’t know that I would still be here and am grateful for the courage and wisdom that has emerged out of my suffering. I am stronger than I knew.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
No, although I wish I had the tools as a young woman to process my grief instead of numbing out but, otherwise, I feel that everything in my life has led me to where I am now.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife? Or an art career?
Don’t wait to follow your heart. We only get one twirl around the dance floor of life and it is over way too soon. Go for it!
Only follow an art career if you can’t not make art. This is an all-consuming passion and often a lonely path that one is called to without guarantees of financial success. We’re all creative and I am passionate about the healing power of art. In my workshops, I encourage participants to reclaim the artist within, but an art career is not for everyone. On the other hand, if you feel the call, I say leap and trust!
What resources do you recommend?
Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet by Matthew Fox
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams
Rev. Matthew Fox, founder of Creation Spirituality
Spiritual Artist Alex Grey
Alyson Stanfield, Art Biz Coach
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
I’m currently working on a spiritual memoir of my journey and the role art plays in our healing and evolution. Who knows where that might lead?
Contact Amy Livingstone, MA at firstname.lastname@example.org