For a while I have been silent, watching myself try a new kind of life, observing what emerged, not sure what to say. Finally in the last couple of weeks things have settled enough for me to write about this part of my passage.
For the first time in many years, when the school year began I was not there. I was, instead, on the beach, drenched in bright light, wrapped in blue water, eating local shrimp. A few weeks later I realized I have not retired; I have resigned from my teaching job and gone to work full time as an artist.
For a long time I didn’t paint. I did chores. I worked on farm buildings. I tried to refind myself. A week long study session at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, initially, just further confused me. In that intense week, paid for by the National Endowment for the Arts, I lived in a beautiful small apartment in the buzzing, humming hub of Chicago, walking daily to my studio behind the museum.
Once there, I would internally rebel. I don’t work well in an urban studio, cut off from nature. This stuff doesn’t come out of my head. It comes out of a dance with the natural world. And since the death of my mother I had not painted. So, with the sole assignment of feeding my soul for a week, and exploring art, I would jump up from my easel and go look at something in the museum for a while, then go back and kick it around.
Finally, one morning I walked down the street to a strange storefront where dusty fabrics were sold. Amid the bronze satins and leopard prints I found a transluscent fabric, dotted with tiny spots– like stippled painted marks. I took it back to the studio. In my overnight kit there was one of those traveling sewing kits with needles and thread. I started creating a fabric sculpture.
For some reason, I wanted this to describe my re-emergence– a piece about my mother, found dead, too soon, and unexpectedly. I recreated her hand, as I found it in death, and remembered it in life. Very soft. Beautiful. Turned in upon itself. Passing from materiality to immateriality. In the hour in which I sat with her body I studied and held her hand. That hand I know so well. I can’t remember so many things about my father, dead now for 37 years, but I can see his hands with perfect clarity. Once I complained to Mom that my hands were so ugly, but, she said, they can do anything. Always hers were beautiful.
So I made this piece. I avoided painting. Finally, as the week drew to a close I realized I had kept myself from taking any benefit from a brilliant painting exploration by obsessing instead over this sculpture. So I asked my instructor to look at some images of my work from the last couple of years and talk to me. He was a brilliantly fluid young man. He could spin out a rapid fire line of discourse about the work that was as evanescent as champagne bubbles. I tried to capture, in my notes, the essence of what he said. Like he was channeling some spirit from the other side, he was almost unconscious of the content of what he was saying. I asked him to repeat something and he looked shocked, saying he had no idea what he’d said… it was already gone. But I dutifully did the best I could to write it down against a time when I might be able to use it.
When I returned home to my own studio I struggled with the words of advice he’d given me. First, I recognized that both my instructors made work I didn’t understand or particularly appreciate. They had MFA seals of approval from vaunted institutions. One made all gray minimalist paintings, for which he had airtight arguments. The other revered the work of Jacques-Louis David, and did reiterations of David in hot pink. These two facts were sufficient to cause me to take their advice with a grain of salt. How relevant could it be to me, a naturalist who loves to render. But, beyond what they themselves made, there was some serious wisdom.
It took me three months to find the central message I most needed to hear in all the notes I took. The message was– do what makes you different and do it a lot. So that is what I have been testing. In the last couple of weeks I have discovered that time-freedom allows me to get lost in a piece and give it the kind of obsessive attention that feels right to me. There is no deadline. There is no schedule. There is just me, paint and discovery. Suddenly I am in love with working again.
The new pieces are small and experimental. Until I find my sea legs there is no need to shout my message on a large scale. I had piles of small stretchers made so I can explore. The background music is often the French Suites by Bach, played so many times it’s starting to take on the familiarity of pop music. And lots of Latin Jazz. These intricate musical pieces parallel what’s happening on the surface of my canvas. There is point and counterpoint. There is intricate afro-latin rhythm. It’s all pixilated, stippled, dappled light and shadow. It is time to say what I can say, in the clearest voice I can muster, and to do what makes me different and do it a lot.