Skip to main content

Personal Growth

Who Am I? Exhibition

Published onAug 24, 2020
Personal Growth

Personal Growth, 2016
Paul Cooley (American, b. 1989)
Mixed media on canvas
Acquisition to the Art on Campus Collection by Dsn S 145x, Diversity in Art, Spring 2016. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

Artist’s Interpretation

My painting Personal Growth was created during a transitional time in my life. I was struggling with feelings and emotions that go with personal growth; walking into uncharted territory and being extremely uncomfortable with that. The painting includes a series of very aggressive marks that I made while in a somewhat emotional head space. There are also a number of repeating sentences: “The more the merrier,” which mocks the irony that I’m aware of my silver lining. The “more” referring to personal growth the “merrier” mocking how I felt.

Paul Cooley


Like generations before me and generations to come, each human being arrives into a space – country, spirituality, culture, race, and socio-economic status – without our input. I was placed, “planted”, as the oldest daughter of married, heterosexual, white, Christian, Midwest public school teachers who became administrators. 

My life was a terra-cotta pot in an enchanted garden–rich soil, warmth, resources, community. On the surface, my life seemed ideal. Simply, absorb the nutrients provided; grow; flourish – be a thing of inspiration for others. Radiate: joy, peace, and hope.  Lift the spirits of others.  Pivot yourself toward the sun – seek and find ANY ray of sunshine. Meet all expectations with a smile on your face. “Grow violets” – I was told, sure, got it; “wait, no, not purple violets – let’s go with daises” – my pot adapted—OK daises, boring, white, daisies…

Adapt, adapt, adapt – I became the master of adaptation – my porous clay took in the air and energy around me and released to the world what I believed it required of me. I ignored anything, anyone, which did not align with this “sunny skies way of life.” When difficult experiences rocked my world, I began to feel the hairline cracks in the clay pot, long before they could seen – my first awareness of my isolation and fragility. In this awakened state, I began to question, search, and seek information in a new way. This shift away from the restraint of temperance, toward inclusion of all atmospheric phenomenon began as a slow churning inside, building, stirring a rage, which I could no longer ignore. Did I still enjoy feeling the sunshine? Of course. However, I experienced the chill of drizzle, sat in the unknown of thick fog and leaned into the quiet fear of the darkest, loneliest nights.  

The awareness meant I would no longer blindly follow others directives. I would tend to my needs. When I began sharing this authentic energy, my life changed forever. Many of the most prominent people in my life wanted, no, needed me to return to my former role in the garden. I am blessed by the life sustaining presence of those who stood beside me, nurturing me, while I simply survived.

Messages from the “garden” began with concern –“It’s not like you” to…”I’m worried about you”… moving onto manipulation – “We’ve done so much for you…” “Think about what that means for...” Landing in exile… “You told!” The volcanic explosion of emotion was shocking, confusing, and painful. Adapt, adapt, adapt…

The implosion was clear. I could no longer blindly follow directions. I must be my own gardener. I realized the focus needed to be the clay pot, not what the container could provide. The lava burned any underbrush left, rage and confusion drifted farther and farther away. Fighting through the ash – healthy life slowly emerged resilient.

None of us get to decide where we are planted; personal growth begins there. Change is a choice. Time to plant some yellow roses.

Michelle Roling
Senior Staff Therapist, Student Counseling Services


No comments here

Why not start the discussion?