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Her Mona Lisa Moment

She'd always hoped her art would someday hang in the Louvre–and it did, in unlikely fashion.

By Cindy Barnwell, Savannah, Georgia

As appeared in

To anyone else, it was just a plain white cotton tote bag, but to me, it was a canvas for my latest masterpiece. I laid it flat on the six-foot-long wooden table in my artist’s studio–my sun-drenched kitchen.

With one hand I held down a corner of the bag and with the other dipped my brush in a swirl of acrylic paint and touched it to the canvas. Slowly an image took shape. Waves crashing on a sandy beach, seagulls hovering above, fishing for a meal.

I put down my brush and rubbed my neck. Painting these bags was hard work, but I enjoyed it. And my friends and family loved the bags. “I get tons of compliments on mine,” my mother-inlaw told me. “People are always asking where they can buy one.”

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Those weren’t quite the accolades I’d dreamed of when I first picked up a paintbrush as a kid. I used to aim higher. A lot higher. I wanted my work to appear in the Louvre Museum in Paris, right next to the Mona Lisa herself. But even then, I knew what a wild dream it was.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t tell anybody–not even the Lord–about it. One of da Vinci’s earliest works was bought by the Duke of Milan. My earliest works were displayed on the refrigerator. Clearly I had a ways to catch up if I wanted to join the likes of van Gogh, Renoir and Leonardo.

My parents encouraged my interest, and paid for art lessons. In high school, I joined an art club, and showed my work along with other local artists at the old Georgia Railroad train sheds in an exhibition honoring Savannah’s songwriting legend Johnny Mercer.

I started college and majored in fine art, took classes in drawing and design. But the farthest I ever traveled was New York City. The Louvre might as well have been on another planet.

Then–well, my priorities changed. I met and fell in love with Charlie. After we got married, I left school. For a while, I took a break from art. Making a home together was more important. Art supplies didn’t fit into our budget.

When I finally picked up a brush again, I was rusty. I tried a landscape but it was flat. Things in the foreground were the same size as in the background. I’d lost the ability to show perspective.

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I threw down my brush in frustration. Maybe I’d never really had any talent at all. Forget the Louvre, my work wasn’t good enough to hang in our living room.

Charlie turned me around. “You have a talent,” he told me. “Keep painting.” He helped me find room in our budget for paints and brushes. One day, walking through town, I spotted some giant white scallop shells in a store window. They were five inches across, imported from Japan.

What an interesting canvas they could be! I bought a few and began painting them. In Savannah, there was no shortage of inspiration: the sun rising over the beaches and the marshes, the shrimp boats coming in, the stately Southern homes framed by the gnarled branches of ancient live oaks.

Charlie took some of my pieces in to the electric company where he worked. He came home with the proudest smile. “The guys want to order them for their wives,” he told me.

It’s not the Louvre, I thought, but it’s something.

Lately I’d been painting these bags. It wasn’t a money-making venture–I barely covered the cost of materials. But seeing others appreciate my art made me feel good.

This one, the beach scene, was going to a friend of my mother-in-law’s. When it dried, I brought it over to my mother-in-law. “I just know my friend will love it,” she said.