Monday, October 19, 2009

The Red Curtain

Twenty-two years ago this month, October, 1987, I was visiting London.  A few days after my arrival, my mother had a stroke and was brain dead.  She was sixty-two and had been perfectly healthy. Yet I had had a premonition before leaving the country that I might never see her again, and had called her from Newark Airport just to say good-bye again.  
It was a Monday when she had the stroke, but I didn’t learn about it until the following Tuesday night because I hadn’t left the telephone number with anyone of where I would be staying, so no one was able to call me.  So that Monday, I was not aware of my mother’s death.  Not consciously, anyway.  But I had a dream.  And in that dream I was called.

I dreamed that I was called out onto a stage.  I was standing in the wings when my name was called.  It was a very loud call, more like a command, really, to come out and show myself.  I stood alone on the empty stage in front of a red curtain.  The lights were shining very brightly.  I didn’t know what was expected of me, what I was supposed to do.  So I just stood there, blinking in the silence. 

And then suddenly I was back in my studio in New York again, and one of my two goldfish had died.  They were both named George.  And one of the George fish was now floating lifelessly on the surface of the fish tank.  

The next night my sister had managed to find where I was and called me in London to give me the sad news.   I was in shock, of course, but part of me knew that I had realized my mother’s death at the moment it happened, because of the dream.  

I returned to the States as quickly as possible, and arrived in time for the funeral.  My mother was dead, but not the goldfish. Yet part of me had in fact died with my mother, and dreaming of the death of the goldfish was therefore completely symbolic and totally right.
The memory of being called to the stage, blinking in the bright lights before the red curtain, haunted me for years.  I think I knew it meant that now my mother was gone, I had to take center stage.  I had to tell my story.  I had to come out from the wings and reveal myself.  Reveal the truth of who I was.  Because it was time now.  Now that my mother was gone I could tell our secrets. 

It was still a dozen years before I began writing a memoir.  And for the longest time the title was A Mask With Wings, because I had been an actress when I was young.  I had worn a mask for the longest time.  But now I had been called out on stage to reveal myself.  It was time now.  It was okay now.

Twenty years later I found myself putting the Little Man in front of a red curtain.  There was no thought behind it at first.  Red is a common enough color for theatrical curtains, so there was nothing unusual in choosing it for his first backdrop.  It just seemed the right thing to do.  And for the next painting as well, and the one after that.  Because he was my motionless little model, completely happy and at home with whatever position I chose for him.  But now I think of it, red is also a symbol of the physical life.  The symbol of life, of the blood and passion of life, and of love.  Red, the blood of birth, the opposite of death. 

I had completed the memoir by the time I began painting the Little Man.  I had pulled the curtain aside.  I had told the story about my mother and me.  But the play must go on.  So the Little Man became a stand-in.  He would tell his story now.  I didn’t know what his story was, of course, so I had to make something up.  Or ask him what it was.  The first thing he did, the very first thing, was to pull the curtain aside.   

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

He Came Back

He Came Back

He came back.

Wrapped like a mummy.

Wrapped like the Tower of Pisa.

Wrapped like a giant bar of precious chocolate.

He came back.

Because I asked.  I asked to borrow him again.  I wanted to take more pictures.  I wanted to see his face again.  I didn’t know I would paint him again.  I don’t remember if I was even planning to paint him again.  I had no ideas for new paintings. 

But now he is back.  He seems full of expectancy.  Or is that me?  Is that what I’m seeing, my expectancy in him? Never mind.  He is here.

Because I asked.  I have no idea what we’ll do this time.  His return seems the important thing, for now.  His return. 

Years ago I was in a play called Return Trip.  I have forgotten what the return trip actually was, who came back or why they came back?  It wasn’t a very good play.  Yet I do believe in return trips.  I believe in revisiting the past, in going back to have another look.  So much is missed the first time.  Whether it’s a place, or a movie, or a song, or the past itself, in general or in particular.  Sometimes we have to go back in order to go forward.  Ask any memoir writer.

While the Little Man has been gone I’ve painted a door under water, the face of a goddess I once saw in a vision, peaches, pears, plums, strawberries, two cats, and a building in Manhattan.  I started a painting of a young woman stirring a pot in the kitchen over the stove.  It was my kitchen.  Quite a large canvas too, with the window and curtains behind her, but I never finished it.

I also started a small watercolor of one of the cats.  It’s not finished yet either, but it will be.

Then, I called the Little Man back.  The unfinished watercolor of the cat lies untouched on the drafting table.  I should finish her first.

The Little Man is back, and I’m painting the cat.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Before Little Man, there was just a lonely man / woman -- lost between dimensions

I had the brilliant idea to write about the Little Man back in January, probably because I hadn’t done any more paintings of him since the previous August. I thought he and I were finished, and I had shipped him back to his owner thousands of miles away. For a while afterwards I had painted fruit. Small canvases of small baskets filled with peaches or pears, or dark plums spread across a cloth. Perhaps I was looking for the “fruits” of Little Man.
Interestingly, the studio space that had suddenly materialized for me shortly before his arrival was now gone, lost before the last few canvases were painted. And now, without the space to display him, all but two of the paintings were stashed face-to-face in another room, out of sight and out of mind. The two that were on display were propped high on a molding in the room where I now had my easel, and in order to see them one had to look up, make a special effort, as it were.
The fruit paintings became smaller as I went on. From 12”x16”, they were now only 5”x7”. I am not a miniaturist. I don’t know why I went so small, except that to say that I was retreating inside myself. Again. It wasn’t long after that before I put the tubes of oil away in a box and gave away the old aluminum easel. Just put it out on the street. It was my first easel, the one I had begun painting on in 1979 when I took up oils. Since then I had had several fancy wooden easels, the Greenwich easel, it was called. But that was when I was painting all the time and had the space.

I think at times it is necessary to say that’s it, I’m done. It allows you space for a while. When the easel is there all the time staring at you and you don’t feel like working, you feel guilty. You feel like you should be painting. But when it’s not there, you don’t have to think about it. If you feel emptied out, the last thing you need is the sense that it’s time to get going again. Emptiness is a necessary stage. To feel barren is to feel like the winter earth. Perhaps not as cold and hard, but silently waiting for the spring all the same.
When the calendar swung into the New Year I was momentarily roused from my apathy. January does that to some of us. A new beginning and all. I had been reading a friend’s blog on blogspot and realized I could start a completely new blog site and all for free. The story of how I came to paint the Little Man suddenly began to spring forth. After the first posting I began to work on a second. The second never got posted. When I realized that #2 would come first, that people would be reading the story not from the beginning, I quickly lost heart.
I don’t know why I’m such a stickler for chronology, for things in their proper order, but it’s probably because I went through decades of utter confusion when I was very young. When I came to the writing of my memoir, Girl Under Water, and one of my advisors suggested being more creative with the ordering of events, I would have none of it. I could only cope with the laying out of each thing as it happened. I think that must be one of the reasons I enjoy the act of painting and drawing so much; there is no skipping about. You start with the first line, the first brush stroke, and continue on from there.
Somehow though, the life of Little Man and his Story, have enabled me to move beyond myself. Beyond my own conceptions of what I am capable of.

And then the winter turned out to be not so barren as all that. I bought a new easel made of wood. It was smaller and less sturdy as my old ones used to be, but it was perfect for my current setup. Along with the easel, a brief couple of months in the old studio opened up, and I mined a few images from my long ago past, a door opening under water which came to me in a dream, and the face of a goddess that came to me in a vision. It’s not the amount of output or even the quality that matters sometimes. All that matter is that one gets ticking again. For me, it was going backward before I could go forward again.
Geometric Symbols
Yet inasmuch as I am going forward, I am going backward still. I did not know until I began putting the slides together for the video, what the video would look like or how it would be. I certainly did not think it would revolve so much around the geometric forms I had done, beginning with the checkered cloth he was waving around in front of the red curtain near the beginning. But revolve it did, which has caused me in the week following the completion of the video to look back at my earlier work and see how I was picking up in a way, from where I left off decades ago.
The terms that are used nowadays such as “emerging artists,” “mid-career artists,” etc. do not apply to me, perhaps because I never looked at my art as a career, but as a way of life. I have not shown much of my work, but I was a working artist during the ’80s, earning my living from commissions of architectural renderings and portraits. Not having shows or being known can be a blessing in the sense that no one is watching or paying any attention. There is nothing to live up to or fret about except my own perceptions and where they are leading or not leading me to. 
One of the most interesting results of the Little Man series was how at the end, the last two canvases, numbers 13 and 14, contained geometric symbols. Not only contained them, but the canvases and the figure of the Little Man, were literally taken over by the shapes. 

It fascinated me. I didn’t realize at the time that I was picking up a thread I had left off years ago, re-engaging with a thought-form, as it were. I used to complain that I had painted myself into a corner in my relationships, getting myself into situations where there seemed no way out, or no good way out. But I found myself literally doing that in actual paintings as well.
When I painted 13 and 14, I had no idea they would end up being the last of the series. But there was no place to go afterwards. He had come to the end of that particular journey, just as I too, had come to the end of something. Once geometric shapes become a factor, they start to take over. It had happened to me before. I don’t do well with abstractions. 

Once the humanness disappears, I get lost. 

And yet there is such a need to go beyond the “normal” world, to try and visualize something deeper, more penetrating. More of what living in a multi-dimensional world might look like. 


Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Journey of Little Man

I created this video slide show from the 14 paintings and 1 drawing I did of Little Man in 2008.

There are actually only 14 completed canvases in the series so far, and what you see in the video are many close-ups and details of them.  I also thought to photograph several canvases in the process of their creation, which is why you will see a few of them in different stages   of development. If I had known at the time that I would be making such a slide show, I would have photographed them all in their different stages....

Two of the canvases, the one of him looking in the mirror and the one of him in the rose garden, went through many changes.  Unfortunately, the one of him in the rose garden -- before it became whitened and more ethereal, was photographed with my cell phone so is not a very clear picture.  The one of him looking in the mirror went through three stages. First he saw unadulterated pure love and beauty. Then he saw fear. And then in the last, he saw beauty and hope. It is the same canvas, just photographed at different stages of development.

And how handy these photos have come in now!

Perhaps what is most poignant to me about this process of creating the video, was how I have come to better understand my own work, the message I was seeking to convey.  Because in the last two canvases there suddenly appear these geometric shapes which intuitively I knew were important, just as I knew the clocks were important.  And I knew why I was putting the geometric shapes in, but I didn't know how they related to the earlier canvas when he is on the stage waving that checkered piece of fabric around.

And now it is more clear to me than ever that when I paint, I am giving myself messages, telling myself things...  that I may not even know at the time.  But painting, along with everything else that it is, is also a way of revealing what is going on in one's subconscious.  So, while I knew that the geometric shapes were a way to show how he was traveling to another dimension, I wasn't sure I had conveyed it very well.  But in the movement of the slide show, with the ability to cut back and go forward again, and show close-ups, I feel like I was able to make sense of it better.  To pull together the idea of Time, and the "crossings" and the idea of a different dimension as portrayed by geometric shapes.

This series has been so gratifying to me on many levels.  For starters, I hadn't painted in oil for many years, and the Little Man inspired me to take it up again.  And secondly, when I sort of stopped painting, or I should say, slowed down in my output, one reason was because I had begun going into geometric shapes with the figures...  and while it made sense to me, I didn't think the paintings were very good. Or, let's say I didn't know where I was going with them.  So I left off for 20 years!

But now it makes sense to me again.

In the 1980s I began painting what I called, Journey to the Deep.  The culmination of that was Girl Under Water, which became the title of my memoir.  Writing a memoir is another sort of journey, of course.  And now that is done, I am able to paint again, to continue where I left off, and to see where I am more clearly.  The Little Man series has evolved to become a way of seeing myself better -- through him.  I never saw him as an inanimate object.  He was always full of life for me.  His story continues. 

Thursday, September 17, 2009

2. Little Man Speaks

Stories. I think I’ve always painted stories. The first time I painted something to any acclaim was when I was in fifth grade and made a picture at school of a tree and a rock and flowers and grass and the sun shining brightly. They all had faces. They were all communicating with one another—flirting would be more like it. The flowers were smiling at the tree while the rock looked on jealously as he wanted the flowers to look at him, and the sun looked out at the viewer and winked.

Pictures have always spoken to me, taking me inside them, making me part of their world. I’m sure this is why I have no interest in much of abstract art other than an appreciation for form and color. I enjoy statements as much as the next person I suppose, but I soon move on. I’m certain this is because I need the picture to involve me somehow. To take me somewhere. To allow me to feel more than an indirect appreciation for artistry and execution. I want to experience the life of a painting. I want the artist to engage me.

I am easily engaged. I think it is because everything speaks to me. The fancy name for it is anthropomorphism, assigning human characteristics to non-humans and objects. I think this quality is attributed more to primitive peoples and children, but I for one have never outgrown it, nor would I wish to. One of the most important qualities anyone can have is relatedness. Relating to one’s surroundings, relating to others, relating to oneself. I have been accused of living in my own world, but what artist or writer hasn’t? Obviously I relate to the outer world as well, or I wouldn’t be posting blogs….

As Stuart Wilde says, “everything emits a feeling.” We know now that everything is energy, everything is vibration—even thoughts. To have one’s feeling centers open is to be able to feel, sense, all that you come in contact with.

So, back to the Little Man. How I became involved with him is also the story of how I came to take up painting in oil again after a lapse of many, many years. It began with a college reunion. With being middle-aged and suddenly your classmates from college start to die off. It’s your youth evaporating in flames. Even though you know theoretically that you haven’t been exactly young for quite some time, it doesn’t matter when you’re around those you were young with. For they hold the memories of you at eighteen and nineteen, just as you hold it for them, and as long as they are around you will be remembered when you were on that precious cusp of adulthood.

I was actually not in touch with any of my former college classmates at Carnegie-Mellon. I had only gone for two years before leaving to study in London, and hadn’t been in touch with anyone since the 1970s. But now there was a movement afoot among those who were still in contact with each other, to find out who else was still alive and where were they? I was contacted. I was easy to find because I had posted a website the year before. And along with the sudden and unexpected flurry of communiqués of my former classmates from forty years ago, was an email from an upper-classman who happened to love art and was disappointed to hear that I had given up painting. Never mind that I explained I had taken up writing and loved writing and had, just had to write a memoir. He still said he was sad.

Well, as I said earlier, I am easily engaged. Tell me enough times how sorry you are that I no longer paint, and I’ll paint again! The only trouble was, I didn’t know what to paint. Just because I no longer painted in oils didn’t mean that I had totally given up sketching. I also still did watercolors, even if only sporadically. But oils are different. They require far more of a commitment. An oil painting is serious. Aside for the outlay of money in supplies, it’s a statement of how you see yourself as an artist. I thought I had put it all behind me.

So I wrote back to my friend, asking him if he had any ideas on what I should paint? The lapse over many years had caused that part of my imagination to fall asleep. In the old days, the days when I worked feverishly to bring to life the thoughts and ideas consuming me, subject matter tumbled out of my brain almost faster than I could keep up with it. One image led to another, and another after that, because the images responded to each other. If one canvas presented a question, the next canvas would try to come up with an answer. And so on it went. But as I said, those days were long gone.

He started sending me pictures. Photos of the view from his terrace. Photos of objects around his house. This was actually an excellent idea, because at that point I had lived in the same apartment, the same neighborhood for fifteen years and had long ago stopped finding either one fascinating. Which is another way of saying that my surroundings did not inspire me. I had stopped seeing them.

Among the photos he sent were those of the wooden figure he called Little Man. His expression was carved in wood, yet it didn’t seem set, it seemed to change according to the light, to the angle of vision. And right away I knew that I could paint him. It was like he was calling out to me. Like I had to paint him.

I said to my friend,
“Can I borrow your Little Man?”

Thursday, January 8, 2009

1. Arrival

He arrived one day in an oblong cardboard box delivered by UPS. I cut the tape with a matte knife and lifted out a rather heavy and very bulky swath of coarse burlap. He was bundled like a newborn. Or an object d'art. Yet he was neither new nor particularly “artistic” looking. I carefully unwrapped his swaddling cloth and found his right arm had become unattached to the rest of him. The arm easily popped back into its socket. I stood the Little Man on the drafting table, all nineteen inches of him. That was his name, Little Man.

At first I thought of calling him something else. Adolphus, for instance. The name Adolphus sprang to mind even before I realized it had the word “doll” in it. He was made of light-colored wood with a yellowish tinge. There were scuff marks and cracks on his chest. In fact there were tiny hairline cracks and nicks in various places all over his body. His hair was brown paint, parted neatly in the middle and showing definite white patches where the paint had chipped. Poor Adolphus! What have you been through?

He was smiling at me. The most endearing smile. Actually, it was more the shadow of a smile. Or a half-smile. A sad smile I thought, the more I looked at him. Or maybe it was the expression in his eyes, which were large and gray, outlined in black almost like Egyptian eyes. Yes, he was as serene as an ancient Egyptian statue. Two graceful, shaded curves for a brow gave him such a peaceful look. That and a high unlined smooth forehead. I had been told he was from South America. Argentina? Peru? Venezuela maybe? Where a tourist from one of the cruise ships spotted him in an outdoor market in Caracas? He stood out among the painted bowls, silver vases and copper trinkets, and was taken to Miami, where he was sold in a flea market. That much I knew was true.
I took him by the hands. He could move his arms up and down, out and in, and bend them at the elbows. His hands turned also. And his head, though his face never changed. He greeted the world with the same half-smile every day, and never sat down, for his legs were as straight and unbending as tree trunks. I said, What shall I do with you? He held his hands out to me. A sweet, supplicating gesture.

I clipped a large sheet of good Italian paper to my drawing board and gathered some pencils and my kneading eraser.

The drawing went quickly.
I stopped when the light faded.