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Painting and healing 

Sandee Washington invites me into her dining room and points to a wooden chair by the window. "This is the first piece I made, and I wanted to keep it, because I was coming alive--do you see?" she says. The chair is painted blue and there's a crescent moon on the seat, an albatross on the middle rail of the back and a blue heron on one of the front legs. Each of these images has a private and deeply personal meaning for Washington, so the chair has become more than a piece of painted furniture. It's a visual representation of where she was spiritually when she left her job as director of Crisis Intervention in Raleigh. There she dealt every day with instances of domestic violence, sexual assault and child sexual abuse. Although she loved her staff and her clients, the job was taking its toll on her emotional energy.

In addition, she was raising three young children, which could have been a full-time job in itself. And she was helping to care for a friend with AIDS who was becoming very sick.

Two days before her friend died, he told her to quit her job and make art her vocation. It was a huge step--and a very scary one for Washington, a super-responsible woman driven since childhood by a desire to help others and to heal the wounds and rifts in the world around her. But she did it. She quit her job and began to paint for a living.

At first her focus was on murals and furniture privately commissioned by friends who had seen her work, such as the storytelling stool that opened up to hold books and the huge flowers she had painted on her own dining room walls. She painted some chairs and sold them through Zola Craft Gallery in Durham. She painted murals at Durham's E.K. Powe Elementary School and at Busy Street, a children's museum. Commissions poured in, and soon she had all the work she could handle.

Her art is mostly in other people's homes, since Washington keeps very little of what she makes. People come to her with ideas for a piece of furniture, often a gift to a loved one, and she discusses with them what sort of images would best represent the person for whom the piece is being painted. If she's dealing directly with clients who want custom-decorated furniture, she gets to know them and find out what connects them to life. Her murals often contain poems, fragments of poems, words or sayings that are particularly important to the person for whom the painting is being done. Kids sometimes want a bird painted over the window in their rooms, or a frog or snake painted in their closet so that when they turn on the light, the animal seems to come to life. Whatever the children feel would make the room uniquely theirs, Washington paints. And her works are not limited to children's rooms. She encourages people to look at their homes as sacred space, as an expression of themselves, and she helps them find the colors, words, images and pieces of furniture that will help that living space most accurately represent them.

Washington moved to Durham 16 years ago, worked as a chaplain at Duke Medical Center for several years, and then moved away. Durham stayed on her mind, however, and five years ago she moved into the house she now occupies on Burch Avenue. With degrees in theology, psychology and counseling, she integrated herself into the neighborhood, serving as president of the neighborhood association and writing grants. Currently she's on the Durham police chief's commission on homicides, Strategies to Abate and Reduce Senseless Violence (STARS), working to reduce the occurrence of homicides in the city she now calls home. She also works as an investigator for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, researching the histories of people coming to trial who might receive a death sentence and the backgrounds of the people on death row. In speaking about her work with the CDPL, she unconsciously slips into art terms: "I'm framing their lives for the juries, helping the judges and juries to see the big picture--a person, not just a case," she says. Her work brings together the two things Washington loves most: her art and being involved with people.

Washington's fascination with people and with art grew out of her work as a counselor, as she realized from her own experience how much the colors and objects that made up her immediate environment affected her emotionally. When she first moved into the house on Burch Avenue, for example, she painted the living room walls a pale pink that looked almost off-white. And for a while, that color worked for her. But more recently, she was inspired to paint the walls a rich old-gold color that made her art collection stand out brilliantly. Now the room has new warmth and vivacity. It's a much better match for the person Sandee Washington has become since giving herself wholeheartedly to the work that she loves. The chairs by her front door were once pink, but she painted them a sharp apple-green that weathered to a blue-green, which she finds very satisfying. "Color represents something that is going on in you," she says, "And you need certain colors at certain times."

A self-taught artist, Washington took on mural-painting when she realized that she was good at drawing people and movement. She did a mural on West Chapel Hill Street of Chuck Davis and the African-American Dance Ensemble. Her current commission--and it's a big one--is to paint a mural of sports "greats" on the walls of Seasoned Ticket, a new sports museum and restaurant at South Court (diagonally across from South Square) scheduled to open March 1. Washington expects the painting to take about four to six weeks, and she's ready and eager to begin. She likes to tackle one project at a time, finish it and then go on to the next.

I asked her if she had any advice for people who are moving into new living spaces or who want to redecorate their homes to reflect a more personalized view of themselves and their lifestyles. She's only half-joking when she says, "Tell them to call me."

However, since her schedule doesn't permit her to advise everyone in the Triangle, she has some general advice: "Go to an art museum or a store that sells art prints and find one that speaks to you visually. You may not know what there is about the print that affects you, you'll just know that it does. If you can buy the print, do so--and build a room around the colors in it. If you can't buy the painting or print that you like, get a fan deck and select the colors from it that speak to you. And go slowly, because decorating is a process. You'll change--and the colors around you will need to change from time to time as well." EndBlock

More by Carol Wills


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