Lessons From Lilith

Lessons From Lilith

Sometimes painting is excruciatingly intimate. Through the process of creating I am often forced to engage with aspects of myself that I would rather look away from. More than that, the final product is at times something that feels so personally connected that sharing it publicly can feel like I am sharing some of the most fragile or unbearable parts of myself with anyone who has eyes.

My last painting “Self Portrait as Lilith” is an acute example of this. Here I am, naked, bony, wild, legs spread. It feels horrific and shameful on some levels. What is my aim in painting something like this? Why not paint her with someone else’s face and do away with the personal connection?

I understand reality through the Tantric lens of macrocosm/microcosm – what exists in the universe exists in me. Through depicting myself as deity/daemon/archetype I grab hold of a strong thread of understanding that harnesses a certain power in the painting. I take something that is supposedly external and connect to how it exists internally. It is one thing to meditate on an entity/energy. It is another to find that it has your face and to connect to how it lives in and embodies you. It creates a current that I can feed into my work.

"Self Portrait as Lilith", wax and oil paint on wood panel, 36"x24", 2014

“Self Portrait as Lilith”, wax and oil paint on wood panel, 36″x24″, 2014

The process never stays on the canvas, either. In my weeks of painting myself of Lilith I got to engage in many experiences that taught me about what she is. Historically Lilith is a curious one, as she is depicted as a demon, a class of demons, the first woman, a divine entity that was born spontaneously out of the void and a sort of conjoined twin with Adam depending on what source you consult. Whoa, talk about a spectrum of appearances!

How this played out in my weeks communing with her was I encountered many misunderstandings and questions to my intent both with myself and from others. Who am I really? How do I deal with myself as I fluctuate between my most loving expressions and my most despicable? Like with Lilith, I had to question if I was woman or monster, dangerous or pure. And all of the questions and emotion get bound up in the paint, held there to reflect on.

This is her story lived through my life. And in the final product of the painting no questions have been answered – which seems to be Lilith’s teaching. Who do you think she is? Just who do you think you are? How you view yourself or the creature in the painting may depend on which story you choose. Or can both sides of the story be true? Or is it neither? It is in these questions (or perhaps in the inability to come to a final answer) that we get to meet her.

In this, the feeling of shame, vulnerability and fear of judgement that I feel in sharing this painting are perhaps part of her story as well. Are we feeling a bit misunderstood? Unsure if we will be worshiped or demonized by those around us? The line blurs between my personal process and the lived understanding of Lilith’s energy. And always the end goal of the painting is to get that energy and message into the image in order to offer you your own piece of understanding and interaction with her. Then the work might go beyond what is personally transformative to me and be something that may be collectively transformative.

That is my goal, at least. And so when my good friend and fellow creatrix Samantha Bryan offered to write about her impression of the painting I jumped on the chance to have some external reflections. I look forward to posting her response in a few days. And in the meantime, do you have your own thoughts and feelings about Lilith, this painting or this process? I would love for you to share them with me here.


  1. Nadine W. Harmon

    Thank you for sharing. One of my favorite batiks is one that my daughter Rebecca K. Hyland gave me. It is her version of Lilith. Although Rebecca batiked this years ago it is still fresh, I have it hanging in one of my bathrooms where I can see it every day. Another favorite is a ‘take’ on Matisse’s Odalisque avec magnolias, only mine has hydrangeas and African animals and designs because of my work in Africa. When I write I hope to create images as fresh and original as yours and Rebecca’s. My Rebecca died June 7, 2014. Yesterday her friends held a memorial for her called “Rebecca’s Last Show.” Rebecca painted more than one thousand paintings during her lifetime( counting only those now in her studio.) She sold many and also shared with friends. She began painting when she was five and almost every day thereafter. Thanks, again, for being so honest and sharing. As I walk through my house I remember those treasured days with Rebecca. Tomorrow I’ll celebrate my ninetieth birthday. Sincerely, Nadine P.S. My Georgia O’Keefe and Zelda Fitzgerald poems were published in WWR.

  2. T.A.

    It’s a haunting painting. I like that the face is partially turned and that the figure is covering herself and yet is so starkly bare. It’s a small detail, but I’m left wondering the name of the book that the foot is on, and maybe that would be obvious to me if I knew more about the historic Lilith, but I’m ignorant on that front. The wings are pretty amazing, but the landscape seems fluid and desolate. Even though I haven’t seen you in twenty years, if I walked by this in a museum, I’d immediately stop and know it was you. I know nothing about the historic Lilith and am not an expert on art, but those are my impressions … thanks for sharing some insights behind the painting, and you should be proud of this amazing work.

  3. K Lenore Siner

    Tom,thank you for such a thoughtful response. A word about the books – as a writer of course this is something you thought about! They weren’t intended to be specific texts. It’s more a metaphor that she transcends (literally is above) the kind of knowledge that can be found in books or that she transcends definition.

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