The Artist Who Painted Her Life

Art & Life Retrospective - Knopf 1969-2011

The Artist Who Painted Her Life by Diane Knopf

Diane Knopf


Late in 2010, at the age of 59, I was told I was cancer free, and for the first time in my life I was pain free from a chronic illness, Crohn’s Disease that had plagued me since birth. In gratitude, I had the overwhelming desire to give something back to this wonderful world. My art and the life lessons that had taught me how to cope and enjoy life no matter what, were the two most valuable things I had to offer. But how to begin?

In 2011 I met woman in the UCLA Medical Center surgical waiting room. I was waiting for my older son to come out of brain surgery and she was waiting to hear whether her husband would ever walk again. We traded life stories trying to distract and encourage each other. Hearing that I was an artist, she grabbed her ipad to see my website. She asked me about this painting and that and while explaining them events in my life tumbled forth.

“You ought to write an autobiography.” she suggested.

“But I’ve already painted one.” I replied. And then it hit me “Oh my God, that’s brilliant. I never heard of an art book like that!” It had never occurred to me to publish an art book that spoke more to life lessons than to art and yet her idea was the perfect venue for me to give back.

My mind raced as I listed the ways I could share my life:

1. I could offer a positive way for others to approach health problems and deep loss. 2. I could de-mystify art and the creative process. 3. I could share my joy of life. 4. I could expose my art work so that it may inspire other artists. 5. I could offer hope when all seemed hopeless. 6. I could campaign for trust to defeat fear. 7. And I could honor the need I had to contribute after all I had gained from others.

My son’s surgery was a success. The woman’s husband would walk again. And it seemed I would be writing an autobiography with my art.

It is my hope that this book will help those of you who have been living with a chronic illness find a way to gain valuable insights from your suffering that will enrich your quality of life. To become a student of life rather than a victim. For those of you who have been diagnosed with cancer, I sincerely hope that you will be able to see past the fear to your strength and the strength so abundant offered by your loved ones, and sometimes even strangers. And, for those of you who have or are suffering through a divorce, I hope this book encourages you to continue to live with an open heart, honor the connection you once shared and move on. I encourage you to take the high road and pray (in your own way) for a loving future for your ex-spouse and yourself rather than wallow in anger and in the past. For those who have lost a loved one, know you are strong enough to mourn and live to hold that person alive in your heart, giving both your lives meaning. If the words in this book can help you believe that even the worst experiences are rich with gifts that can make your life better, then I have accomplished my goal.

As an artist, I now understand that art is not a lofty process. It is just one of the ways human beings play on this earth. If reading the explanation of my creative process enables you to enjoy art, rather than feel mystified by it, then this book has made art more accessible. And for that, I am grateful.


The Girls, 2001

Oil, acrylic, conte, pastel, ink, and charcoal on canvas, 60”x 48”

Collection of the artist

METADATA “The Girls”

“The Girls” was taken from a photo of women synchronize swimmers. In this particular case their heads were just above water. As you might imagine from the candid, forthcoming way I write this book, my friends and I do not edit much when sharing our feelings and experiences. I saw the underwater “dance” as a metaphor. Each girl friend was a dancer navigating their way through marriage. Our role as confidents acted like life preservers for each other, keeping our heads barely above water. I was grateful for that support.

In the painting, each woman’s body is unique, a different shape, attitude, strength and style which celebrated their individuality. As I painted them I thought of my many friends; Kristen’s gesture, Nancy’s flair for the dramatic, etc. Yet they were all wearing the same bathing suite, united. At times I would let myself lose track of whose foot belonged where, blending their individuality into sameness. At one point I literally had to count how many feet I had painted, and found that there were eleven. That required editing.

I used drawing media such as pastel and conte along with the paint, striving to keep the gestures spontaneous and avoid the figures becoming static. The color that surrounded the women could not be the same as the negative space between them. It was “them” together floating in the environment. Had I slipped the same color as the background between them, they would lose connection. This choice I did not fully understand when I painted it. However, my artistic instinct is boss while I paint. It usually knows the color, treatment and composition way before I become aware of the reason. In fact, it wasn’t until this moment, as I recall what it felt like to paint this piece, that I understand the need was to hold the women together to communicate “being afloat in unity”.

The water line and the treatment of the reflection was my address to the state of distortion in my home life. Unstable, constantly wavering, painfully reflective, often obliterating the sense of self. The division between the two worlds was an abrupt boundary. I even knew to turn the painting upside down to paint the reflection, essentially creating a separate painting on the same canvas.

As I painted the reflection, I allowed my hand to distort size, shape, and placement of the different arms, legs, and bodies. This surreal, wavering world was the one I was negotiating through when I was not keeping myself entertained and distracted. The light that obliterates some of the figures and the water line reminded me of that frightening moment when you’re driving and look through your dirty windshield and suddenly the sun shines through it and blinds you. An adrenaline rush.

I used iridescent metallic paint in the reflection. This was not a choice I would have made years ago as a serious LA artist. Back then I had adhered to tabus echoing around the art world. But as I turned fifty in Sonoma County, an internal confidence grew side by side with irreverence. My art was becoming an unbridled extension of myself. If I felt like using glitter or children’s stickers, well, so be it.

This underwater painting was one of several in a series that resonated for me because I could see how my whole life I had been afflicted with pain, like being in a restricted, constricted environment. Like being underwater and having to hold your breath. Yet, like my illness, the limitations also allowed me to negotiate through that environment in my own special way. As a child I had to come to terms with being attacked by pain at any moment, yet still found ways to be glad I was alive. Swimming underwater with my girlfriend next door, we used to pretend that we could fly and the bottom of the pool was the earth and the water was the sky. We flew for hours in that pool.

And many years later, having lived half a century, I finally recognized that my inner child had found remarkable ways to deal with adversity. I admired that little girl in the pool. The entire underwater series was, in essence, a tribute to the child who taught me how to cope. I fell in love with her...learning to love myself.