The sound of police helicopters overhead should have been alarming, but I didn’t need to turn on the TV to know what was happening outside my door. We were in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, George Floyd had just been strangled to death, and my Brooklyn community was reeling with a mix of anger, anxiety, exasperation, and grief. People had taken to the streets in protest. The air was filled with tension, and I needed an escape.
During the previous decade, I would have meditated. Just after my college graduation in 2009, I got hooked on a 21-day challenge using daily meditations and thought-provoking journal prompts. They turned me on to the power of getting quiet and sitting in stillness. But now, with everything going on in the world, my meditation practice was increasingly difficult to access. I couldn’t stay still or slow my racing thoughts. My go-to guided meditations—the ones I had always relied on to help me tap into that inner well of calm—weren’t working, either. Eventually, I gave up trying.
There were many days when the thought of going outside—of masking up to brave the threat of COVID-19 and facing the intensity of the protests in the streets—seemed like too much. But on those rare occasions when I did feel up for it, I’d walk to Prospect Park. Strolling past refurbished brownstones and people in masks walking their dogs, I started noticing furniture with “Free” signs attached. Strewn along the curbs in this gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, I’d find slabs of wood, tables, cabinets, and bookshelves—each item made me feel it could be turned into something beautiful. I figured since I was spending so much time at home, why not see what I could create out of others’ trash?
I’ve always loved to paint, but I’ve mostly worked on canvas. As I thought about how to transform the found wooden pieces, a friend told me about a technique that would enable me to create faux marble designs with acrylic paint and resin—a material that hardens to a clear, glossy finish. I watched YouTube tutorials and was instantly intrigued. The first time I played with my new skills on a scrap of wood, I dropped the colors on and used my hair dryer to make the paint move. I immediately fell in love. I knew this technique would help me create designs that look as fluid and free-flowing as the process itself.
I moved on from painting that first random piece of wood to working on coasters, bookshelves, and coffee tables. Every night, I’d start painting around 10 p.m., when the horns, sirens, and choppers finally stopped and the quiet hum of the city descended on my little apartment. I’d light a candle and put on some music—meditative chimes or healing sounds, sometimes Jhené Aiko—and paint, often until 2 or 3 in the morning. In the flow of painting, I found a freedom that felt even deeper than what I’d ever experienced while meditating.
As I worked with the resin, watching it move as if it had a mind of its own, it felt like Spirit took over. I let everything go—my own anxiety, anger, and desire to make sense of all that was happening in the world—and I allowed this process of creating to heal me. Painting became a reminder to flow and be free, and to let things fall into place as they should without trying to force anything. My creativity was revealing me to myself. Through my art—what I now consider a moving meditation every bit as powerful as other forms of the practice—Spirit was guiding me to become more awakened.
There’s a Wayne Dyer quote I’ve always loved: “Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change.” I was doing this on my walks—seeing other people’s trash as new treasure. Transforming these pieces was also changing how I saw the world around me. I was no longer focusing on the darkness—the impacts of the pandemic, the death, the political unrest, and the polarization of this country’s citizens. Rather, my art was inspiring me to look for the light.
I started noticing the creativity pouring out of so many others in my community who were also scared and grieving. I started feeling more hopeful that we would not only come through this horrific time, but that we’d end up in a better place. And I started to understand the importance of this shift in perspective. After all, there’s always going to be something: Disease. Death. Injustice. The key is moving the energy that these things stir up in you. For some, it’s yoga. For others, it’s meditation. For me, it’s art.
The work I’m proudest of is a piano that was put on display at Hudson Yards in New York City in late 2020. I was chosen to transform it for an art installation organized by Sing for Hope, a nonprofit that places painted instruments in places across the city to uplift, unite, and heal communities.
As I worked on this piece, I slipped into that familiar, meditative flow I’d come to rely on to help me through challenging times. Just a few months later, I watched Broadway stars, Juilliard artists, and inner-city children play my piano, which was placed with the intention of creating a spark of hope for New Yorkers. It’s been a privilege to see my art doing the same for others as it’s done for me: reminding us that joy is possible, even in the darkest times.
Danielle M. Chéry is an artist in New York City. Learn more at dmcoriginalart.com.