Gratitude changes things.
That’s what Jenny Loughmiller discovered while creating one-of-a-kind paintings for 100 women in her life as an expression of gratitude.
The entire collection, called the Hundred Hearts Project, was exhibited at The Blue Lantern Coffee House in Lewiston during October’s ArtWalk. Loughmiller lives in The Dalles, but grew up visiting Lewiston regularly to see family.
The project began two years ago after several things in her life fell apart all at once. Loughmiller went into a deep depression and knew she needed to do something to climb her way out.
Influenced by artist Lori Portka, Loughmiller decided to paint her gratitude for people. But she got stuck — the scope was too big, she realized. So she gave herself some boundaries: every painting would be done on a square wooden panel, it would include a heart in some way and it would be focused on women who were living and had influenced her life in some way.
With that decided, the paintings began to come together. She did paintings for family and friends, but also for teachers and hairstylists — even bloggers she followed but didn’t know personally and public figures like Ani DiFranco and Ellen DeGeneres.
“Emotionally, it was just miraculous,” Loughmiller said. “The shift that started to happen was incredible.”
She saw that her life was filled with wonderful people and began to realize how good she had it. Sure, it’d be nice if there was a little more in the bank account, but her family had food on the table and a warm home to live in. She wondered, did they really need more than that?
“I was able to tease out all the things that were the good things rather than looking at the negative,” Loughmiller said.
As Loughmiller’s perspective changed, so did her family’s. When she began these paintings, her youngest child was four and her oldest was 13 and all three of them were very much a part of the process. The family now has a regular practice of ending their day with gratitude, and their family culture changed because they had better tools for navigating the ups and downs of life and relationships.
“We’re fluent in the language of gratitude and can see it in situations easily,” Loughmiller said.
The practice of gratitude seemed to rewire her brain, Loughmiller said. Her response to difficult situations has changed.
She recalled a chaotic day about a year ago when, within a couple hours time, she learned her family’s employment was up in the air and that a friend needed to stay with them for a time. It was a lot to process all at once. In the evening, she went to the table in her art studio and sat down, feeling unable to bring herself to a place of gratitude.
So she began with what she calls a “gratitude body scan,” a practice she’s turned to in “emergency situations.” She starts with her toes, naming what she was grateful for about them. For example, that she had all 10 of them, that the bones in them were all working and for how they help her balance. She moves on to the arches of her feet. And so on.
“By the time I get to my hips, I’m usually feeling pretty good,” Loughmiller said. “My feet are under me again, and I can look at the situation with fresh eyes.”
In this way, gratitude doesn’t change reality, but it changes the way she faces it and gives her a greater sense of stability and control. She has noticed she responds better to difficult or emotional situations.
“It truly feels like my brain is different now,” she said.
Gratitude also has changed her relationships. One of the women she wanted to express gratitude for was a family member whom she loves but has struggled with in the past. Because identifying what she was grateful for didn’t come as naturally, Loughmiller intuitively knew it was especially important to do it.
She allowed her thoughts to sit and percolate. She played with different ways of approaching the wood panel for painting, and as she did, she found a new perspective on this person.
“I could step into her skin a little bit. I could see that she was incredibly strong and brave and that she truly was doing the best she could,” Loughmiller said.
Seeing these things didn’t undo what had happened in the past, but it allowed Loughmiller to see her in a different way.
“By the end I felt nothing but gratitude and respect for her,” she said.
And the relationship changed because she had changed. It was easily the most transformative piece she created, she said.
It took Loughmiller two full years to create 100 pieces. Each one is accompanied by a letter that names who it is for, how the person has influenced her and what she is grateful for. The average painting took around 15 hours to complete.
Initially, her plan was to send each person their piece after they were all completed, but she realized it was powerful to see them all together. The collection will be touring for a couple years, after which each piece will be distributed to the individuals for whom they were painted.
Even after spending two years on the subject, gratitude is still hard for Loughmiller to describe.
“We know how it feels, but it’s hard to pin down,” she said.
While it’s related to thankfulness, it’s different. Thankfulness can almost be like lip service, she said, but gratitude is something deeper. It’s more about connection and relationships. And it’s different from happiness.
“I think happiness is a crock,” Loughmiller said. “It’s a false goal. Gratitude brings this deep sense of joy and fulfillment, and that’s better than happiness any day of the week.”
Which is why gratitude is something that can be practiced in places of grief or sadness. It allows people to experience sadness, but to keep their eyes open to the gems in that place, she said.
“It’s a tender way to hold hands with grief,” Loughmiller said.
With the Hundred Hearts Project complete, Loughmiller has moved on to a bigger project — The Million Hearts Project. In it, she invites groups and individuals to express gratitude for a person by decorating a heart, provided by the project, and writing about their gratitude. The goal is for the hearts to be put into collections and installed at locations all around the world. To date, she’s collected around 400 hearts, primarily through gratitude workshops done in schools. The public can find out how to participate by visiting www.millionheartsproject.org.
And whether a person is making a painting, decorating a heart or doing any number of other actions to express gratitude, Loughmiller emphasized that simply taking action to express gratitude is what matters.
“The process of saying thank you to 100 people in your life is transformative,” she said.
The entire Hundred Hearts Project can be seen online at www.hundredheartsproject.org. A set of 10 cards featuring paintings from the project are available online or at The Blue Lantern Coffee House in Lewiston for $15.