Thursday, June 13

The Crestone Eagle is a nonprofit monthly newspaper serving Crestone and the San Luis Valley

Who We Are: Teresa Dunwell

An artist’s path to acceptance and hope

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Teresa Dunwell’s earliest awareness that it’s okay for something beautiful not to last was as a young child when her mother allowed her to paint murals on the walls of the family’s home. Mother and daughter were both in love with color and her mother would periodically repaint the walls in vivid hues: emerald green or tiger lily orange to contrast with royal blue furniture. 

Teresa’s work Sacred Dance is one of many abstracts she has created. 

Each time before she did, little Teresa was free to first cover the walls with murals. She painted wildly colorful flowers, rainbows, birds — anything from nature — her other lifelong passion. Knowing her murals would disappear, she accepted that the joy of making them was all that mattered. Many years later, life would hand Teresa another experience of impermanence, this time one that would utterly transform both her inner and outer world.

Right after Teresa and her husband, Jon’s, son, Sean Keith, was born, Teresa felt her infant giving her the message that he wouldn’t live to age 5. For the next four years, she wrestled with holding that awareness while loving and raising her sensitive, but healthy, young son and his older sister. After Sean turned 4, she became anxious. Through intensive prayer, she finally surrendered Sean to God’s will, accepting that, as the poet Kahlil Gibran put it, “Your children are not your children…And though they are with you, they belong not to you.”

Not long afterward the family planned a sailing vacation on a Nebraska lake with a group of close friends. A week before they left, Sean looked up at his mother. “When will the walls of the house come down, Mommy?,” he asked. She assured him their house would be fine.

At the lake on a beautiful sunny day, Teresa and a friend’s young daughter were standing on a small cliff watching Sean and a friend happily playing in the sand about 15 feet below. Without warning, the entire cliff face broke off, tons of dirt collapsing onto the beach below and burying Sean. The friend’s daughter, with Teresa, flew off the cliff and was also buried — Teresa was far enough away and unhurt. A few strands of the daughter’s blond hair were visible and the adults were able to dig her out safely. But Sean, under eight feet of dirt, did not survive. Suddenly his question about the walls had new meaning. Teresa understood that, in some way, he had known he would soon leave. 

Sean’s last moment, looking up at at Teresa.

Her whole reality shifted. “I knew nothing would ever be the same,” she said. And she knew it would be difficult for others to understand her experience of it. Yet, although they were left with grief and loss, Teresa and Jon eventually perceived on a deep level the lesson of their son’s death.  “He was here to teach us about impermanence, but even more so, how precious life is and to live life to the fullest — moment to moment,” she said. “It’s so simple and yet so profound, this innocence and joy as love.” 

Teresa’s art, always an expression of her connection with nature and beauty, and her awareness of realms beyond the material, began to reflect even more the intersection of her spiritual and human journey. One form of this became the memorial icon, a painting conveying the spirit of a person who has died. Its aim, the artist says, is to provide the bereaved with a beautiful, tangible focus for remembrance, healing, and hope.

Growing up in Albuquerque until age 6, and then Kansas City, Missouri, Teresa delighted in drawing, painting, and making things, encouraged by her mother’s strong interest in culture and art. As a teen, she abandoned the Catholic Church’s dogma while embracing its focus on service. She also cherished its mystical elements, over the years interweaving them with an understanding of universal truths from various wisdom traditions, especially contemplative paths.

College followed at Adams State University in Alamosa, where an uncle lived. There she met Jon Dunwell, and they were married in 1971. In an era of resistance to the status quo and with trust in life but no expectations, Teresa and Jon left college after a year. They moved to Boulder, then Louisville, and later Lafayette, Colorado. Teresa worked in graphic art, had a daughter, and the family became immersed in a close, supportive community.

Open to new ways of employing color, she apprenticed with the Hungarian-born visionary artist, Marika Popovits, who later settled in Crestone. From Marika, Teresa learned the Renaissance painting technique with which she creates her own paints by mixing powdered pigment with egg yolk and varnish. On board or canvas, she applies numerous thin, transparent layers of color, producing an exquisite luminosity, as if lit from within. “Something really clicked in me with this technique. It felt ancient, like I had done it before,” she said. She was using the technique when she realized that a painting she was working on was of Sean’s spirit — free and pure. It was the first memorial icon.

Teresa and Jon had two more daughters. She became a Reiki master and practiced other intuitive and energy work. Along with memorial icons, she produced large, richly colored abstracted paintings that were exhibited in galleries and featured in a book, Vision, Passion & Purpose: Artists as World Changers, by Renee Phillips. Teresa co-founded Bereavement Artists of Denver, with artists creating memorial art in a variety of mediums. 

In 2014, she and Jon purchased an RV, sold their condo and everything in it, and spent the next seven years traveling, mostly around the Southwest, with summers in Crestone and stretches of winter on the Texas Gulf Coast. From that experience came the realization that, as she put it, “We’re all more alike than we are different. We are interconnected by love. We’re all a unique, expressive, and creative fractal of the divine.”

When Teresa and Jon decided it was time to settle in one place, they chose Crestone with its deep quiet, natural beauty, and sense of community. Reflecting on her path and the gifts of her son’s short life, she said, “There’s so much mystery and grace. There’s a knowing, and it’s absolutely to trust that knowing because it has not steered me wrong. The gift of Sean’s living and dying has informed the very core of my being.”

Teresa’s work can be viewed at www.livingworksstudio.com

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