Dragging My Baggage into Paradise by Jane Orleman

Published: November 2, 2020

Categories: Artist Stories | Artists | Featured

Jane Orleman, author of Telling Secrets: An Artist’s Journey Through Childhood Trauma, tells the story of how, through therapy and art, she came to terms with her childhood experiences of sexual assault and domestic violence.

As a child, I promised myself that I would leave the dark place our family called home. Dreaming that happiness was possible, I set out on a journey to make a better life for myself.  Now I live in a house surrounded by good vibrations! Travelers from all over the world come to walk around Dick & Jane’s Spot. My husband, Dick Elliott, and I created our home in the spirit of fun with an abundance of love, of each other, of art and of life.

At forty-eight years of age, I was living the life of an artist, a life beyond my wildest childhood dreams. However, the childhood anxieties still clung to me. I fell into a deep funk, unable to enjoy life. I had lost the drive to paint and become trapped in a cycle of endless games of solitaire, smoking cigarettes, and reading a novel a day.

My mother’s death in 1990 freed me to explore what I was holding so tightly inside. I began Jungian-based therapy which led to deep immersion into my childhood. I had gone to counseling many times over the years when overwhelmed by inner turmoil. I thought of my troubles as a garbage can full of unwanted painful memories. Memories I refused to think about. This time I was determined to go beyond “putting a lid on it.”  Now was the time to let the memories fill my dreams, paint them, talk about them, and to share them openly so they would lose their power over me forever. I needed to use my creative energy to transform that garbage and forge connections to my spiritual center.

5 years old when I testified in court

When I was four years old, my mother left me with the husband of her best friend. He was to baby-sit his two daughters and me while the women went blueberry picking. He molested me during naptime. As Momma and I walked home later, she knelt down on the sidewalk and asked me if he had touched me. Even my four-year-old mind wondered, “If she knew to ask that question, why did she leave me there?” I testified in court. He was convicted and spent the next five years in prison.

My earliest memories are of being molested. Between the years of three and twelve this happened often. When I was twelve, I told a Sunday school teacher and the sexual assaults stopped. The family violence continued. Rarely did a day go by when my father didn’t beat one of us kids or my mom. After leaving home, I assumed the attitude that this had all happened in a now dead past.

Painting the images helped me to accept the importance of those memories and to embrace them as a source of my strength.

During the decade that I immersed myself in this work, several voices emerged to express different aspects my experience. I think of them as the child, the protector and the healer. The size of the canvas, choice of colors, and texture of the paint all played a part in expressing the narrative.

Many of the early paintings were in the child’s voice, telling what happened. All of these voices and ways of painting were with me throughout the process. I would choose a canvas and ask myself, “What do I need to know?”

If Looks Could Kill begins a series of small images done from a child’s point of view. Dr. W suggested that I think, feel, or act like a child at some point during the next week. Of course I immediately translated that to “paint like a child.” I found my smallest canvas and decided that she would do a family portrait. In this scene, my father’s feet are huge and menacing because he is about to start kicking. Even though the brother, who’s under attack, was a horrible bully, I wanted to protect him and destroy my father.

During the second year of therapy, stronger emotions led to more explosive use of paint. A knife stands out in my family memories. My oldest brother threw it at me, hitting me between the eyes, luckily landing handle first. I had the same knife within an inch of my father’s back before I stopped myself. That knife made other memorable appearances, never quite drawing blood. When clearing out my mother’s home, I couldn’t resist keeping “the knife”. It became my palette knife and its pent up energy was released in painting!

I Feel was completed in forty-five minutes. It was the first time I painted with the family butcher knife. As I worked I became engulfed in a state of euphoria.
For a child who has been abused, survival often depends on the ability to not feel the pain, both physical and emotional. However, it seems that one’s feelings are all connected. As the pain is stuffed in a box, so is the pleasure. And when the shame is hidden away, the ability to feel pride is taken, too. In opening Pandora’s Box, my first feeling was absolute fear. The second feeling was delight-delight to be feeling so afraid.

Going Under is an image of the night that I nearly drown myself by drunkenly swimming far out into the lake. I was only eighteen and had been suicidal for five years. It was a turning point in my life when I finally became aware that I needed to get a grip on life before I lost it. Changing my ways was not easy or quick. I knew that my heavy drinking obscured the boundary between to be or not to be. I had to quit drinking and begin to believe I could find a better life for myself.

Paintings often emerged to reflect my calmer more contemplative state of mind. These images, in a voice I thought of as of the healer, led me toward a much needed spiritual connection.

The Healing Dream came to me the day I picked out my first car. At 51 years of age, I decided to learn to drive. It is a decision that seemed to have appeared out of the blue as though some long forgotten part of me had awakened. The fear of driving was so deeply embedded that I was no longer conscious of it as a problem. Driving became a metaphor for taking responsibility for my life. It gave me a freedom and confidence that fills me with pleasure.

During the 90s, I created over 350 paintings focused on personal childhood trauma. Many were explicit expressions of the rapes, rage and violence. I felt driven to speak out and share the work through exhibits. In 1992, the Ellensburg Community Art Gallery (now Gallery One) had the courage to hang the first exhibit.  To bare my soul in the small community where I live was terrifying and rewarding. The art carried a message that needed to be heard and this valley was ready to embrace it. Therapy groups arrived from Yakima, Wenatchee, and Spokane. Over 100 people a day viewed the exhibit, including judges and lawyers who later told me it changed the way juries viewed child abuse cases in our county.

The reception of the work gave me impetus to do talks with trauma survivors as well as with sexual offenders. As the work evolved, I continued to share it with over 20 solo exhibits, primarily in university galleries. My childhood experiences are not unique. Viewers shared their secret traumas with me and with each other. Change through art happens, on a personal level and societal level. The first step in stopping the crimes against ourselves and our children is to speak our truths. Writing allowed me to share the work with a larger audience. In 1998 The Paul Allen Foundation awarded the Child Welfare League of America $100,000 to publish my book, Telling Secrets: An Artist’s Journey Through Childhood Trauma.

I am thankful to say that my brothers and I were determined to break the chain of alcoholism, domestic violence, and sexual assault that had plagued our family for generations. Amazingly each of us found partners whose love helped us to overcome our painful upbringing. Dick stood shoulder to shoulder with me throughout the years of therapy, helping me haul and hang art and listening to me talk about my pain-filled childhood. His upbringing was one of church, baseball and family gatherings.

When one member of a family engages in therapy, everyone learns. Together we found strength and meaning in the struggle to understand and to accept my family. We found that strength and search for meaning carried over as we dealt with Dick’s extended illnesses and his death twelve years ago. Yes, it was the heaviest of traumas, but so full of love, shared with family, friends and community that I continue to feel an unshakable sense of inner peace.

Dragging My Baggage into Paradisewas completed 15 years after the publication of my book. It makes me smile to see the strength and confidence I show in managing that bag of woe. Since 2000, I have been painting mural sized canvases expressing my reflections on life, love, time, space and eternity. 

Jane Orleman was born in upstate New York during WWII. Leaving home at 18, she wandered around the country attending universities in New York, Florida, Oregon, and Washington. After eleven years and many major changes, she finally discovered her calling. Jane received a degree in art from Central Washington University where she met her husband, Richard Elliott. They dedicated their lives to art, each following their own path. Together they created Dick and Jane’s Spot, where Jane continues to maintain, expand, and create new yard art.