Dear Artist,

Imagine creating a perfect work of art at age 23, and then presenting it to humanity in new interpretations over your lifetime, alongside an assured and evolving artistic voice. Imagine presenting this perfect work again at 78, with an ever-deepening message, with a renewed thumping of human truth that comes with the reappraisal of age, to a gob-smacked and tear-wet audience. Imagine doing it after surviving a near-fatal brain aneurysm, so that you had to learn all over again, how to do everything you have done. Last Sunday, as the special guest of singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, Joni Mitchell took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival for the first time since 1967. For the first time since her aneurysm. As part of a full set of her career-spanning material, Mitchell sang her dirge to life, “Both Sides Now.” By Monday morning, a kind of emotional earthquake had shuddered across the hearts of the internet.

Self Portrait, circa 1968-71 Watercolour, pen and ink on paper by Joni Mitchell (b. 1943) Mitchell attended the Alberta College of Art in 1964, before dropping out.

Self-Portrait, circa 1968-71
Watercolour, pen and ink on paper
by Joni Mitchell (b. 1943)
Mitchell attended the Alberta College of Art in 1964, but dropped out after a year, citing the school’s emphasis on technical skill over creativity.

“Back then [in 1966, when ‘Both Sides Now’ was first released], some critics scoffed at the lyrics’ presumptive wisdom,” wrote critic Lindsay Zoladz for The New York Times. “What could a girl in her 20s possibly know about both sides of life? But over the years, the song has revealed itself to contain fathomless depths that have only been audible in later interpretations.” At 56, Mitchell re-recorded it with a 70-piece orchestra. Zoladz describes her voice on that recording as “deeper, elegiac and elegantly weary.” Now, with the artist at 78, the profundity of this work has squashed, in six minutes, any remaining dispute about its omniscient power. Critics are calling it the “definitive version” of the song; and “crushing.” The ephemeral and collective human recognition spurred by the live performance, then the dissemination of that performance online, has achieved a miraculous un-numbing of every soul it has touched.

Neil Young, circa 1968-71 Watercolour, pen and ink on paper by Joni Mitchell (b. 1943)

Neil Young, circa 1968-71
Watercolour, pen and ink on paper
by Joni Mitchell (b. 1943)

“Your truth should be so pure that it lifts a person’s soul to the heights,” said guru Yogi Bhajan. Artists who are able to capture it effectively begin with their own. “There are things to confess that enrich the world,” said Joni Mitchell. This honesty is translated with an aesthetic finesse appropriate for the chosen medium. Since she was a little girl, Joni had wanted to be a painter, but found herself “derailed by circumstance.” She became instead, first, a voice of her generation. Now, she is a seminal jewel in the canon of song. And a painter. “I sing my sorrow,” she said. “And I paint my joy.”



Dining Room, Laurel Canyon, circa 1968-71 by Joni Mitchell Part of a book of watercolours and poems Mitchell gifted to 100 of her closest friends in 1971 called, "The Christmas Book." The book was republished in 2019 by Canongate as "Morning Glory on the Vine."

Dining Room, Laurel Canyon, circa 1968-71
by Joni Mitchell
Part of a book of watercolours and poems Mitchell gifted to 100 of her closest friends in 1971 called “The Christmas Book.” The book was republished in 2019 as “Morning Glory on the Vine,” by Canongate Books.

PS: “We didn’t live in the time of Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Beethoven. But we live in the time of Joni Mitchell.” (Brandi Carlile)

Esoterica: When Joni Mitchell was nine, she contracted polio. After recovery, she taught herself how to walk again. In 2015, after her brain aneurysm, Mitchell again taught herself to walk. As a tween, she had taught herself to play the guitar from a Pete Seeger songbook. With her left hand weakened, she devised daring alternate tunings, which led to innovative voicings, and intuitive approaches to harmony and song structure. Among her awards and recognitions, Mitchell is ranked #72 on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest guitarists of all time. As part of her set on Sunday, she performed an instrumental of her song “Just Like This Train,” from her 1974 album ‘Court and Spark.’ Perhaps it is simply impossible for this artist to not be honest – to not tell the truth – and this is what is felt when one experiences her art. “Truth has no finality to it. It is not something to be held on to. Truth is discovered minute to minute or not at all.” (Adyashanti)


“I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all.” (Joni Mitchell, from “Both Sides Now”)




  1. Thank you, Sara, beautiful. I did not know her story so now my life is enriched because of your sharing. You have given us all so many gifts in your writings, and stories, and images along with your Dad.

    • Dabney, that is so true!!! Robert and Sara’s truths/gifts have enriched and enlightened us. Pointed us to a deeper understanding. They are a boundless treasure. So too Joni Mitchell.

  2. Thank you, Sara, for your words, truly crafted from your heart. TRUTH. What a title. Each time I watch a clip of Joni in performance at Newport Folk Festival I feel such intensity in my body and the tears flow. Joni is the embodiment of vulnerability and is still showing up in life as she is. This is life in all its beauty and messiness. May we all surrender to the great unknown and find comfort in uncertainty.

  3. What a beautiful ode to one of the greatest. Thanks for this. I ‘came of age’ (whatever the heck that means) with Joni Mitchell and I remember de-tuning my guitar to DADGAD to figure out her chords. She was – and is – a true luminary.

  4. I have received The Painter’s Key in the past , but have received nothing for a number of months. When I tried to subscribe again, I can’t, because the service already has my e-mail.

    How can I continue to receive letters from you? Thank you.

  5. We all have songs in our lives that trigger chills. This was my first and I still remember it. I can’t have been more than six years old. It still does it for me! Thank you. :)

  6. Oh…your writing about this absolutely incredible artist was so perfect! I loved how the songs went viral immediately! Just incredible! Xoxo

  7. Ronaldo Norden on

    A beautiful message, a beautiful artist, Joni Mitchell. Giving some kind of inspiration to all the aging artists of which l am, as we continue to follow our calling. Ronaldo Norden

  8. The wariness in her voice adds to the loveliness of this song and it’s ability to touch the heart. At 72, my art has changed from my earlier works. Like the wrinkles on my face, my art describes the roads and paths I have taken off the main. No, I can’t scramble up trees and leap over rocks like a 12-year-old, but my heart still leaps and scrambles when I see my beloved husband and embrace my wonderful friends.

  9. Diana Hilliard on

    Saw Joni for the first time when she played a free concert at Western University. I can still see her swaying in her blue velvet gown… When Blue came out, I would go to the university library , take it down to a listening area, and play it over and over. I wore out two copies and a cassette of the album. She’s been the soundtrack of much of my life. Thanks for posting this.

  10. Thank you, Sara!
    She lit my way forward through many years of pleasure and pain. We are the same age and still she perfectly defines the journey.

  11. Sara thank you so much!
    Since the 70s I have a veneration for Joni Mitchell. Surreal as it is, I hardly memorized her tunes but never I forgot the impact of her voce dancing in the air, her charisma, her uniqueness. Joni impersonates the fine and introvert part of my generation. And now not even two bars and I am in tears!

  12. Stew Turcotte on

    I had a moment in the fall of 1971. Having traveled in Europe and North Africa for nearly nine months, I had followed the careers of Crosby and Nash and their concert successes so we purchased tickets for a show at the Queen E in Vancouver. The air was electric, they started their second set with Woodstock and the audience went wild. Suddenly, the curtains parted and Joni Mitchell came out in a long, sky blue dress that, with her long blonde hair, made her look like she floated over the stage. Beautiful couldn’t cover it. She stopped their song and started to sing Woodstock a cappella. Crosby and Nash were as transfixed as all of us and finally were able to join in. It was the most captivating and emotional concert I have seen until her singing with Brandi Carlisle. I love her two dimensional artworks as well, she really captures the soul. Thanks, Sara.

  13. My first thought: what you were there? I’m SO jealous. Then a reminder that I’ve been meaning to search for it on the web. (Should have scrolled down a little farther to find the link there, ). Then, a few minutes later I’m back here, tear-soaked, to express my gratitude for having pointed me to that special moment.

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Featured Workshop

Permission to Paint Expressively Series (Session 2)
August 22, 2022 to August 25, 2022

image002 (1)Permission to Paint Expressively Series   Session 2 

August 22-25, 2022 

Join Ellie Harold for “Expressive Painting: Making Your  Marks.”  With a focus on intuitive mark-making, this workshop is designed to facilitate a fuller expression of your deepest and most essential artist Self. Content, process and lightly structured exercises give you permission to create the art that wants to be made by you in the safe space of Ellie’s studio and the fresh air and cool light of northern Michigan near Sleeping Bear Dunes. You’ll return home with a specific art “care plan” to assure support for “Making Your  Marks” in the world. Details and registration at

 (Live Oak), 2021
24 x 24 inches
Fluid acrylic on canvas

Featured Artist

As I examine my subject, I pull the colors out and reduce the lines. I take from the most interesting areas, placing sections into a cohesive composition of lines and areas of visual interest. I am currently working on a tree bark series examining the details of diseased areas, breaks, patterns, and scars. My goal is to create an interpretation of the way I respond emotionally to my subjects through the use of color and line. The tree bark series is an autobiographical metaphor to express the experience of childhood abuse, recovery, and victory.