Lynn’s life has been marked by many reinventions so it was no surprise that after retirement, she took up painting, became a prolific artist, and came up with the idea to give her paintings, one by one, to individuals willing to donate $25 or more to a non-profit of their choice. She’s raised more than $65,000 over the last five and a half years!
Tell us a little about your background.
Got a year? Seriously, I grew up in a small town north of New York City.
As a child, my main entertainment was reading. I was that child whose mother, when I protested I had nothing to read would respond, “But we just gave you a stack of books as tall as you are for Christmas a week ago.” Even then, I was most interested in stories about real people, though I’d pretty much devour anything with words including catsup bottle labels and bus ads.
I went to college in Florida and was shocked to discover that there, unlike high school, you didn’t go to class every day. What the heck? We were paying a lot of money, so I took 20-22 credits a semester as I had no desire to play bridge all day. On the other hand, I found myself interested in everything and had no ambition to BE anything. I was fascinated by so many subjects, especially science, but was a lousy test taker so that didn’t work out.
I ended up graduating in three years because in the spring of my junior year, a music/education group called Up With People visited our campus and I fell in crazy love with it. I called my father and said, “Dad, I’m leaving college and going with this group, Up With People.” Instead of telling me I was not doing any such thing, he said, “You have been taking so many classes, go talk to your counselor. I bet you can graduate early.”
And so I did. I went to UCLA that summer to complete two courses, then joined Up With People, through which I sang and learned in 32 countries, stayed with dozens of families, and made friends whom, more than fifty years later, I remain intensely close to.
It’s also where I met my future husband (married 50 years in January 2019). We had our first child and took him on the road with us. The fact that he slept in dresser drawers and had no schedule whatsoever didn’t seem to hurt him. He grew up to be a school librarian/rock musician and a great guy. When he was about 18 months old, we left “the road,” and settled in Tucson, Arizona, a place I never grew accustomed to. Two more kids and a total of 23 years were spent there during which I enjoyed multiple careers, including photographer, children’s clothing designer/maker, freelance writer and public relations professional.
When our youngest graduated from college, we fled Arizona for North Idaho, then, once we had grandchildren in the Seattle area, moved here, where we remain.
While living in North Idaho, I again had several changes of career, but ended in corporate communications for a company making equipment for the telecommunications industry.
The thing I think is important for people to know is that I have lived my entire life without ambition. I’ve never been interested in climbing a ladder or reaching a ceiling, glass or otherwise. Or making lots of money. To me, the most important thing was to (mostly) enjoy what I was doing and on some level feel I was making a contribution, if not a difference. I used to joke that I was the only purposefully downwardly mobile person I knew. I never took a job because of the pay; I really didn’t care. I skipped around because I got bored so easily. When I learned the requirements of a job, figured it out, I was ready to move on. Once I was offered the position of vice president of community relations for a hospital company. When I turned it down, my friends thought I was nuts; but it made sense to me. As I told them, “It didn’t sound like it was going to be fun.”
I am not a person who does well with challenges or goals. I do my best work when my curiosity is piqued and I am given my head (and hopefully money to do what I want to do). Due to this attitude, I sometimes worked for myself (I’m a great boss, if I do say so myself), sometimes worked for companies, and sometimes combined the two. When I fell out of love with my work, I moved on.
My zigzag career path wouldn’t fit many, but it was perfect for me.
The last company I worked for faced major downsizing in the economic downturn. I stayed around for the first six layoffs, then took a voluntary layoff and, at the age of 58, went to graduate school to become a counselor. For reasons I won’t go into, although I loved the program, I left after a year and became a life coach, working on my own from home for three years. Loved it.
Then my daughter came to me with an idea for changing the landscape around holidays, making them more sustainable, better for people and planet. Celebrate Green®! was born on the strength of Green Halloween® which turned into a national program attempting to raise awareness about alternatives for healthier holidays.
We did that for seven years (without pay), writing a book, Celebrate Green!, appearing on TV around the country, etc. It was a lot of fun, but eventually we decided to close due primarily to some health issues.
At that point, I retired.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I have always embraced change. I love the new. I’m excited, not repelled or scared by it. My life has been all about change, so this last one, while unexpected, is just another step for me.
What is your next act?
Over the last six years, I’ve become an artist. It was not intentional. While I’ve always been crafty, I was told at a young age that I should pursue something other than art. I thought people were born artists; I didn’t realize that art is a skill. And like anything, some people are better naturally at it than others, but the fact is, for most, it just takes practice.
I took a yearlong online art class that was perfect for me because you could go at your own pace, no one cared what you were doing and you could share with others in the class around the world. Or not.
I fell in love with painting women’s faces from the first. I was painting every day, all day. I admit, I became addicted to painting and as a result accumulated lots of paintings. But I didn’t want them. I felt (and feel) absolutely no ownership. I’m not interested in the end result. For me the process is absolutely everything.
Because I have always been a reader and writer, fascinated by words, I loved the idea of combining words with paintings. At the beginning, I took quotes from long dead people so there would be no copyright issues. But after a few months of that I thought to myself, “I’m a writer, I’ll make up my own.”
I always finish a painting before adding words, but I don’t, as many assume, look at the painting and try to come up with words that fit it. Quite the opposite, just as I paint in a very random way, so I go into a box in which I keep a large assortment of words and pick some out. Whatever catches my eye or grabs me in some way. Once I’ve got maybe a dozen words laid out, I start to put them together in my mind. Sometimes I end up using one word from the group, sometimes more, sometimes none. Seeing them though, acts as a catalyst helping me to come up with an idea.
I admit that I’m not always certain what the phrase means! Sometimes it doesn’t seem to go with the painting at all. But once I’ve decided to use it, I don’t worry. One of the fascinating parts of this adventure is how others interpret my words in ways I never thought of. And I have yet to have a painting that has mystified the crowd. Someone always understands even if I don’t.
I’ve always been technologically minded (I also do a lot of digital art work) and did a lot of marketing online when I was working with my daughter. So, toward the end of the first year of making art, I had the idea to give away my paintings (for a donation of $25 or more to any non-profit or person in need) to the first person to claim each on my Facebook page. I had no idea whether anyone would want my art, but it was better than watching the stack of paintings grow.
Fortunately for me, the idea took off and I have put out a painting almost every day for more than five years, at least 1,000 pieces.
I’m also a writer for Syndrome, the online women’s satire/humor magazine, and was asked to write a piece about my artmaking for them (read it here). A freelance writer saw that piece and asked to interview me for the Inspired Life column of the Washington Post. That article appeared in December of 2019 and introduced some new people to my art, which is always exciting.
How supportive were your family and friends?
Well, strange as it appears, the best support imaginable sounds like absolutely no support to others. I don’t need or want people telling me how great I am or how much they like what I do. For me, the value in what I do, as I said before, is the privilege of the process. That is where I receive my joy and my validation. Once a painting is finished, its value is nil. I don’t see it as a reflection of me, or of my artistic growth. It’s just something I poured myself into and now it’s done. It’s nice that other people appreciate what I do, but it doesn’t affect me one way or the other. I don’t judge my own work and when others do, good or bad, it barely registers.
One thing that’s been fascinating to me as I’ve pursued this passion, is how, for the most part, the pieces I really love and relate to are the least likely to affect other people. Quite often, I verge on withholding a painting because I don’t like it or can’t relate or the words are meaningless to me; those are the ones grabbed up within five seconds of my posting!
I do like it when my famously taciturn husband proudly tells someone we’ve just met, “My wife is an artist. She gives away all her paintings for a donation to non-profits or people in need, on Facebook. She’s raised more than $65,000 over the last five and a half years. Want to follow her on Facebook?”
Now that’s true love.
What challenges did you encounter?
At first I was going to have a lot of rules. For instance, I was going to put limits on where people donated. What if someone wanted to donate to the KKK??? Then I decided the heck with it. Let’s see what happens. I ended up having to put two “rules” in place. One is based on the fact that some people were taking many paintings, and I wanted others to have a chance, so I instituted a rule that if you have taken a painting within a week, you need to wait 24 hours to see if someone else claims it. Secondly, because I pay for postage, I don’t mail outside of the U.S.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I’m not so sure I learned so much as that I solidified my knowledge of myself. I’ve always known that I do my best when given my head and allowed to do it my way. A bunch of rules, “have to’s,” expectations, and judgments have never worked to encourage me. I’m a creative thinker, a problem solver, and once I latch onto something, I become obsessed. Until I’m not. What has surprised me a bit about what I’ve been doing is that I’ve stuck with it for so long. But what helps that is that I can form it any way I want. No one is FORCING me to give away a painting a day. I’m not in a competition to be sure I do it daily. So if I feel like not painting or not giving, I don’t. On the other side of the coin is that I’ve learned that I can connect with people with my paintings and my words and while on some level I still feel like a bit of a fraud, I can’t argue with the reality of how people respond to my “play.”
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Nope, this unfolded in the most fascinating and miraculous way. If I had tried to force it, I know it wouldn’t have happened. This is how I operate. I get an idea and go for it without thinking or having a lot of angst around it. If it works, great! If it fails, great! More ideas always are around the corner.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
I think if you are bored or unhappy in your life, and you don’t want to be, it’s up to you to figure out what needs to happen. My approach may be completely wrong for another. Each of us has to find out own path. For some people, talking to a life coach or career coach can be life changing. For others, it’s simply a matter of doing. Others require a lot of support. (I’m lucky, I never did. I just went for it and waited to see how it played out). So I guess the first thing is to come up with ideas for your perfect life, then start to put the pieces together.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing artistic endeavors?
When it comes to art, I’m very fortunate in that I don’t need or want to make money at it. There certainly are artists who have an income from it, but it generally takes doing many other things than art. I used to be a freelance writer. I would estimate that I spent 25% of my time writing and 75% marketing. I think that most “successful” artists today would tell you a similar tale. Being an artist is like being an actor. You can say that’s what you are, but waiting tables is what you do to support that. If it were me and I did want to make a living at it, I would spend a lot of time talking to artists about how they are making it. Then I would decide if I were really willing to do everything it takes—teaching classes, selling my art on items, participating a LOT in social media, etc. If so, I’d go for it. If not, I’d have it as a sideline/lifeline.
What resources do you recommend?
Remembering that art is a skill, I would first do a search online for classes that would fit my specific interests.
I started with a class called Lifebook with Tamara LaPorte (check out www.willowing.org). This is a yearlong series of classes taught by a variety of teachers. It also has an emphasis on personal growth if this is your thing.
Two other yearlong series I’ve taken are both great and again, you expose yourself to a variety of teachers. One with Let’s Face it put together by Kara Bullock (www.KaraBullockArt.com) and the other is Olga Furman’s Paint Your Heart and Soul (www.OlgaFurmanArt.com).
Some individual teachers from whom I took online classes also offer in-person classes around the world. It’s important that you find someone whose style you like, so if you’re interested in abstract landscape, for instance, search on that term. But here are some individual teachers I have taken classes from and recommend:
Jeanne Oliver www.jeanneoliver.com
Jane Davenport www.janedavenport.com
Ivette Newport www.ivynewport.com
Annie Hamman www.anniehamman.com
Gillian Lee Smith http://www.gillianleesmithartschool.com/
Ardith Goodwin https://www.ardithgoodwin.com/workshops
Tricia Dewey https://www.triciadewey.com/
Yuri Malkov https://photo2paint.com/
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
I never say never. And I never look ahead. As far as I’m concerned, all I have is today. I live in and appreciate the moment.
Connect with Lynn Colwell:
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/lynncolwell
Online shop: www.1-lynn-colwell.pixels.com
I was fortunate to have been a sorority pledge with Lynn. She has always been an extraordinarily unique woman. To have “found” her after many years is my blessing. I have some art, redecorates my bathroom around her gorgeous shower curtain, and never leave home without her bag.
Thanks Susan. Hoping to see you SOON! Appreciate your support as always.
What a fascinating read! Love Lynn’s approach to life! Feeling energized and inspired.
Thank you Mary. It’s exciting to know I have inspired you. Go and do!
Such an inspiration!! I love the way Lynn thinks! When I grow up, I want to be just like Lynn!! (I’m 65, will I ever grow up?)
Thank you Pam. To quote Peter Pan, “If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up, not me!” Dignity is not a word I have any use for. And if I could climb a tree today, I definitely would!