Monday, October 19, 2009
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.
Wrapped like a mummy.
Wrapped like a giant bar of precious chocolate.
He came back.
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.
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.
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
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.
Once the humanness disappears, I get lost.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
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
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
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
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.