Do you have Dangerous Friends?

Watch me paint Gator and Snake in under 2 minutes (time lapse)

Alligators live in the neighborhood lagoon behind our house. From time to time, the housing association hires someone to remove them, but they always come back. A few days ago I stood on my patio and took this picture of an unlikely pair of friends. Don’t worry, I didn’t get too close, and the gator was occupied, as you can see.

This sage advice isn’t very useful for the turtle, who doesn’t seem to be aware of his new friend coming up behind him.

Sometimes we’re just living our lives, going about our business, completely unaware of the dangers around us.

He looks friendly enough. See, he’s even smiling! Of course that could be in anticipation of devouring his new best buddy. I didn’t stick around to see how this situation was resolved. 😲

And just now I took this video from my patio. I was about to hit the publish button on this blog post when I decided to look out… and there he was! So, I’m adding this video footage of my morning friend. Notice the steamy fog rolling off the lagoon? After a heavy rain that has left everything still quite soggy, it’s going to be a hot one.

Do YOU have dangerous friends? Many of us have a hard time believing that someone we know can be abusive, but chances are, someone we encounter will lie to us, be unfair to us, or much worse. On the path to enlightenment (the journey to becoming our best self, and making a difference in the lives of others) we must be responsible in the company we keep. Dangerous friends can devour us, and keep us from the destiny we were meant to be a part of. We can’t serve others when we are served up as dinner!

Part of being a good steward of our gifts, talents, and abilities to contribute to a better world is to hold ourselves accountable in the relationships we have. We must be aware of the gators creeping up behind us. Though they may be smiling, they are not acting in our best interest, but are destroying us for their own benefit. Their actions may seem relatively harmless, but predators are certainly dangerous.

Perhaps a mild form of passive aggressive behavior is directed at us, an unkind word, a rude facial expression that is unintentionally or deliberately insulting, or simply a lack of support for the things that matter to us; and it seems like an overreaction to perceive these typical unpleasant or hurtful social exchanges as “dangerous”. But when our spirits are targeted bit by bit, the erosion is felt over time. Destroying our spirit can take months or years, but one day it may finally become obvious that a certain person or an overall toxic environment was dangerous.

Some gators may take their time, enjoying the hunt. Others may prey upon us suddenly, attempting to destroy us with a single coercion. The “gator” may be a government, an institution, an employer, or a mob. The gator may be your own family or friends. Anyone who doesn’t respect your freedom to make your own choices is potentially a dangerous friend.

Do you have dangerous friends? Look behind you before it’s too late. Dangerous friends may smile and tell us that their tyranny is for our own good, but we must never feed the gators. Staying strong for others means that we must protect ourselves. If we allow ourselves to be destroyed, who will help those who need us? We are all needed. YOU are needed.

Watch Trapper John catch a gator! I was filming the whole thing.

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Preparing the Way

First, the oil painting, then the story behind it… make sure you don’t miss a guidepost that could change your direction.

Watch me paint “Lenten Flower” in under a minute (time lapse)

"I mentioned earlier about learning something new, during our Easter experiences at our new Southern church ... I’d been focused on Lent being about the past- repenting, letting go, pledging to change. What I hadn’t spent much thought on is that when we let go of something it makes room for something new ... The depressing and sometimes challenging process of examining our lives and deciding what we need to change is only the beginning of the journey. We do this to prepare the way for something better, something new. It may require a leap of faith, and the journey is bittersweet, but the destination is beautiful."

- from the book "50 Oil Paintings Inspired by Savannah, Georgia" by artist Natalie Buske Thomas

Update to the above story…


The world has changed dramatically since I painted “Lenten Flower“. The reflective journey that millions of people take every year is now forced upon us, as the world remembers global events unfolding during the spring and Easter of 2020 that would alter the lives of nearly everyone on the planet. Because of this, the process of examining our lives and paving the way for positive change has become a universal challenge.


This could be nothing more than a temporary cultural fad and a sign of the times we live in… or, it could be much more. Are we entering an age of enlightenment? Possibly.


But regardless of what everyone else does, we are not a “collective” (who we are), but we can work collectively (what we do). As unique and wonderful individuals, we can focus on our personal journeys. And in doing so, we will then collectively elevate the whole.


Now, let’s grab a cuppa (coffee, tea, hot chocolate?) and reflect on how to prepare the way for change with a focused scientifically-measured plan. I can assure you that a serious effort works. No matter how intangible our goals may seem, we can find a way to measure our progress and hold ourselves accountable.

Oil painting "Lenten Flower" by artist Natalie Buske Thomas
"Lenten Flower" oil painting by artist Natalie Buske Thomas

Physical goals are often easily measured by numbers. Math doesn’t lie, but sometimes it doesn’t tell the full story, so always look at a variety of factors. We can measure body weight (weight gain, loss, or stable), body mass index, cholesterol levels, the amount of blood sugar in our blood, and much more. Harder to diagnose conditions such as allergies, eczema, and immune system disorders can be measured by keeping a diary of symptoms, and numbering the severity of each.


When we measure our progress scientifically, we achieve objectivity. We become an observer, a witness, and an analyst who studies our own lives in order to create positive change. When we start with a physical goal, it is easier to see how to address our intellectual and spiritual needs.


After a physical goal is set (perhaps a simple plan to get more vitamin D from the sun into your week by committing to 15 minutes outdoors every day for six weeks?), you can then decide how to measure your progress, such as keeping a diary and assigning a number from 1-5 of how strongly you experience symptoms such as skin problems, fatigue or depression (whatever pertains to your situation). This process of setting a goal and measuring it can then be applied to intellectual and spiritual goals as well.


But what if we don’t know what we want to change? Then that’s where we start. Our goal could be “discover what I’d like to do to expand my thinking”. We could commit to spending 15 minutes a day browsing through books, articles, and blogs, looking for ideas for what we’d like to study. Try this search string: “interesting topics to learn about”. If truly serious about enlightenment, we’ll find our passion.


When we discover a path we’d like to explore, then the process for intellectual change is similar to a physical journey. Set a measurable goal. Use math as much as possible. For example, “I’m taking a 6 week course”, or “I’m spending 30 minutes a day reading about this subject”.


Keep a diary to measure progress that is less tangible, such as how much energy you feel at the end of the day when you commit to expanding your thinking (assign an energy number, from 1-5). Journal your progress: how is expanding your mind in one small way leading you to new ways of thinking in bigger ways?


Spiritual change can follow this same pattern: explore what we want to change, create a way to measure our progress, analyze our journey. The good news is, once we are practiced and disciplined in this type of reflection, we do it intuitively. We don’t need to measure, track, or record our progress. It is simply how we live.


Some of us arrive at this place after life-changing trauma. Others are “born older”, wise souls from birth. But many just have to find their way. Regardless of when we start, or how many times we must begin anew, the journey is for each of us, uniquely and wonderfully ours.


Reflection doesn’t mean condemnation, but forgiveness, mercy, and letting go of the past. Judgement is unproductive; examination is helpful. Change your words, change your life. All of these things sound like cliques, but these are concepts that work.


That’s why people say the same things. Not only do these methods work, but our journey never ends. No matter how enlightened we are, we can always be “more”. And from time to time, the words from others will hit us at the exact moment when we are ready to being a new quest toward positive change.


Maybe that day is today. Do something good for yourself. When you push toward bigger things, you bring all of us with you. Whatever your heart desires, I wish you success and happiness.

Painting Allegories

Allegorical paintings represent abstract concepts through pictorial symbols and extended metaphors. Artists paint one thing, while meaning another, or might literally paint allegories- as in, the painting depicts well known literary allegories. In which case, perhaps the art is a “double” allegory. Allegories are stories and symbols of moral importance, generalized truth, messages of warning or encouragement, and philosophy found in writing, theater, and art.

Narrow Way” was inspired by the allegory of a narrow difficult road to spiritual enlightenment and true happiness, while the road to destruction is wide and easy. The addition of an apple tree that produces poisonous fruit on one side, and life-sustaining fruit on the other was my own artist contribution and alludes to another well known metaphor for “good and evil”, “temptation”, and “free will”. Abstract concepts, conveyed through symbols and extended metaphors, may push an artist to paint in a different style.

Rather than painting a more natural incline in the two roads using perspective, skewing, distortion, and variation of hues, the paths are painted nearly flat, as if pictures on a map. A break from traditional techniques and approaches tells the viewer that this is a different type of painting. Why is it different? What does it mean? In this way, the artist succeeds in the goal of an allegorical painting: inspire the viewer to ponder the meaning of the art.

Narrow Way” is an allegory representing generalized truth about the human condition (the difficulty man sometimes has in choosing good over evil, resisting temptation). This type of allegory is shared by diverse scholars, playwrights, screenwriters, artists, musicians, educators, and leaders of world religions. While likely in disagreement about the analysis, moral responsibilities, or solutions, generalized truth itself is fairly universally accepted. In the next painting, “Predator and Prey Alike“, the allegory is philosophical, moving beyond generalized truth.

Predator and Prey Alike” depends heavily on painting techniques to convey action.  The extended metaphor is philosophical, proposing that the animal kingdom is treated equally by God, regardless of whether an animal is the king of beasts or his helpless prey, and the same is true of mankind. In the circle of life, all will die. None will reign forever. This allegory represents the concept that no human is higher than another in the eyes of God. All will eventually meet the same end. Tyrants with power to enslave others and their downtrodden peasants alike will meet the same fate.

Painting a generalized truth metaphor (like “Narrow Way“) may be depicted by a clean simple composition, while painting a philosophical allegory (like “Predator and Prey Alike“) may be represented with a complicated composition, containing many subjects, action, and busy storytelling elements. Of course those rules are made to be broken. When I throw out suggestions and strategies, they are merely meant as ideas; sharing what I’ve experienced in my own work.

In this last example of an allegorical painting, “Armor of God“, the intention is to provide a meaningful experience to the viewer. Painting for emotional impact relies on powerful contrasts and bold lines. The oils go from the darkest darks to the lightest lights, and the only spark of color is through the gold armor and radiant light. This painting relies on illusion to create a suspenseful and stirring composition.