For everyone of us is made of stardust, the breath of brilliance.
“We Are But Stardust” – Ardith Goodwin
Ardith Goodwin’s paintings are filled with stardust and the breath of brilliance. It is in the colors, the contrasts, the swirls, and the eyes. It is in the stories her paintings tell and the feelings they bring. Paintings filled with layers of joy and pain, details and spontaneity, symbols, words and abstraction. All from a woman who has survived disability, depression, and desertion.
From pain, heartache, and recovery, Goodwin has created what she calls “The Land of Ardithian,” where beauty and meaning come from the the lines that cross each canvas. Lines fractured like the degenerative spine that once left her disabled, like the shattered discs that forced her to give up her teaching career. Lines full of the joy of movement from someone who now dances again, like the bright colors rising from the shadows in her paintings.
“There are some days I feel like my head is going to explode,” says Goodwin, who uses journals, sketchbooks and lists to help her process. “I see the world as a kaleidoscope through pieces and parts, and when I paint I am fully engaged and all of my cells are buzzing. I love the way my brain works, but there are so many ideas going in so many different directions and it is hard to keep up. I am making up for lost time when there was so much I couldn’t do.”
Goodwin’s sweatshirts and jeans are spattered with paint. Her kitchen table is covered with brushes, sketches, boxes of oil pastels and bowls filled with tubes of acrylic colors. Coffee mugs hold colored pencils and measuring cups are filled with cloudy, gray water. Paintings lean on easels in front of windows and colored glass bottles line the window sills. Madeleine Peyroux plays on the radio and, above the skylights, the wind sings in the trees.
Goodwin’s favorite place to paint is on 40 wooded acres of magnolias, scrub oaks and bay trees where her husband, William, built a house from the recycled materials that he finds. “I love it here and have the freedom to let loose,” she says. “I am inspired by the way the lights rise and flood through the trees and the crazy animals that run by. I once caught a baby squirrel falling mid-air. All of that translates. There is something magical about this place and what my husband has built out of it.”
She paints every day, working on six to 10 paintings at a time. Paintings start with a pencil sketch or a few written words. “Sometimes I know exactly what I need to paint or I will see a character,” she says. “Other times I play to see where it goes. My sketchbook is my playground and I take the freedom of it to the canvas. I break everything apart. Look at the house across the street. I see it in linear lines, shadow and light with yellow dots and pops of orange. I can turn those into abstract pieces and emulate that on canvas.”
Goodwin was an award-winning elementary school teacher in 2003, when a genetic degenerative disc disease forced her to leave daily classroom duties and go on disability. “When your spine is off, your gait is off. When your gait is off your joints wear out. At age 23, I had a ruptured L5S1 (vertebrae). I was active and played sports, but the neurosurgeon said I had the spine of an 83-year-old. My disc shattered in my sleep and I had three surgeries in one year. I was asthmatic and sick and had to quit teaching altogether in 2008.
“I am grateful for disability because it gave me time to heal and get well,” she says. “My spine was shot, I had a partial knee replacement, my ankle was reconstructed, and I have a plate in my neck. I was on 14 different medicines and morphine every day.”
Doctor visits, hospitals and appointments became all she knew. She kept hearing, ‘You are meant for greater things and I will use you if you are open for it,” but depression and anxiety led her away from that voice.
“I carried around ‘ick’ like a wet blanket,” she says.
Goodwin went to the library to figure out what to do with her time and found a book on watercolors. “I found I have a gift for painting and was attracted to the flow of watercolors and the capture of transparent light,” she says. “It gave me an outlet to play and have joy and a purpose again.” She also found a neurosurgeon who repaired her lower back and learned to manage the pain with “serenity” and understand how much to push herself. “I never guessed I would be well enough to do what I am doing now,” she says. For the past three years she has been back in the classroom teaching art at St. Paul’s Episcopal School.
Goodwin learned that her gifts and living in the moment are her identity, not her tragedies. Her first husband walked out on Christmas Eve when her son, James, was 5 and that hat led to alcohol addiction. “My world and happy family were crushed and I didn’t handle it well,” she says “I went through detox and treatment centers and learned it wasn’t the alcohol I depended on, but to be needed,” she says. “I need people to feed me that I am enough. It wasn’t about the substance, it was about me being whole.” She was hospitalized for depression during that time.
“It was crazy, deep shit, but I now understand my value as a human and my faith played a huge role in that. I don’t struggle with darkness like I did, but I walk this beautifully balanced life now,” she says.
“I struggle with how much of my journey I share publicly,” she says. “I once shared it all of the time because it was part of my identity. It’s not my identity anymore, but it gave me a sixth sense to read people and pick up on their little shifts and energy cues.” She says meeting people who are struggling makes the connection stronger because, “People are hurting and need hope.”
“People who are struggling get the faces with the broken lines and say it hits them in the gut,” she says, of her paintings. “They see the beauty through it. People who aren’t dealing with brokenness or feel whole ask me why I don’t paint faces smooth.”
In the “Land of Ardithian,” symbols of her past are painted into her stories, in the exposed spines and the crowns. But her life has changed and so have the symbols. “I think the crowns represent my son’s childhood that was taken from him before the divorce, and how it had wrecked him before we met my second husband, Bill. James didn’t have the chance to be a prince in his own little world. Now it means, ‘Wear your own crown and be who you are.’”
“Seeing Ardith evolve and knowing her story makes her work more understandable,” says artist and collector Susan Wertelecki. “It is more than a painting. It transcends the medium and evokes feelings in the viewer. It is in the eyes in her figures. You see the soul of her characters. Some are sad, accepting the burden of what lies before them, but they all draw you in. I wonder what her paintings think and I want to crawl in them and know more about their story. Her world is a happy place, even when the eyes she paints are sad.”
Goodwin is giving more time to writing and teaching IMPACT workshops across the country, taking each artist’s style rather than teaching it from a demonstration. “I have a developmental program called ‘Framework’ that combines a technical framework of painting elements with a personal framework based around your fascinations with life and who you are called to be. What attracts your attention is the magic key to creating a visual or written voice and unlocking creative potential. It is cool to watch light bulbs go off.”
“Ardith is very honest about who she is and her students trust her and know that they are safe,” says Felicia Olds, the high school art teacher at St. Paul’s. “She is a big kid and her classes are an environment of creativity and lifting each other up. She is loud and constantly giggling. She is a bubbling light that is contagious and brings out the best of everyone. Ardith is always covered in paint and nothing is unpainted around her. Her new shoes will be painted the next time you see her. She is her own three-ring circus, but I can tell the kids who were her students. They are expressive, fearless, confident and open.”
Goodwin comes from a family of professional clowns she describes as “weirdly creative,” but never thought of being a painter. “Creative writing is what comes naturally to me. In third grade I won a gold ribbon for a shape poem because I curved the lines and wrote the poem to fit the lines,” she says. “I wrote a story about Vampspyfly, a conjoined vampire, spider, and fly. I have missed creative writing as much as I love painting.”
Each of Goodwin’s paintings tells a story. “The Bone People” with exposed ribs and spines and skulls in pink and orange hats are “protectors of the weak, and especially loathe those who are unkind,” she says. Many of the characters in her paintings will be in her children’s book, “The Fantastical Characters from the Land of Ardithian” with her paintings and poems. “The children’s book is about illusion. We are fabulous, but we put on masks that hide who we really are.”
She is also working on the “Found Baby” project. “I found a doll faced down in dirt with roots growing out of her body and she was painted blue. The next day I saw a peach foot sticking out of the ground. Another doll. I called her Found Friend. Then I found little miss Ely Echo and started a photographic blog to tell the story of the dolls,” she says.
“There was a murder and the dolls hold the keys to the murder, so they were destroyed. I stopped at Chapter 13 and one day I have to go back and finish.”
“Writing or painting, if I didn’t create, I would go mad,” Goodwin says. “They have both helped me recover and they gave me my light back. I came off of disability and the medicines and this miracle fuels my inspiration to do my part in making this world a more beautiful, productive place.”
“Ardith’s spirit is like the Energizer Bunny. She swirls in colors and realms of joy and creativity and just keeps going,” says Nancy Raia, Community Outreach Director at the Eastern Shore Art Center. “No matter that she’s in pain or tired, she gets up and goes and goes. She is so grateful that she’s well enough to create that she exudes happiness while slinging her paint. She uses every minute to share her vision and her stories through her art. People are drawn to her enthusiasm for life.”
Goodwin’s enthusiasm and energy are contagious, even through her paintings and stories. The colors and eyes draw the viewer in, but it is the lines — straight, broken, feathered, swished and swirled — that give Goodwin her direction and each its life. Lines that connect the past with the present and show that life is beautiful, no matter the struggles.
“Life is short, and I know that I may not have tomorrow, so this is the time to speak the truth and find the beauty in this world,” she says. “I am better than I have ever been in my life.”
For more information about Ardith, her art and writing, and how to buy her work, visit her website, www.ArdithGoodwin.com.
Gallery photos by Michelle Stancil, Catt Sirten and Lynn Oldshue