An image of the house my mom bought about a year ago has haunted me.
So I decided to paint it. It’s not yet done, but here is the progress over the last three days:
People have stopped asking me if I’ve ‘seen anything good lately.’ It has come to the attention of close friends and family that we do not share the same taste in movies. This is a hardship for my husband, because I’m in charge of the Netflix queue (I’d give him the password if he’d just ask for it). It’s also a problem for my mother who doesn’t have cable and is relegated to watching films I either check out from the library or have in my collection at home.
Take Michael Haneke’s THE SEVENTH CONTINENT. This is one of my top three favorite films. My mother detested it and my husband refuses to watch it. Maybe I shouldn’t have told him what it’s about (a middle-class family agrees to destroy all their belongings and commit suicide together). I get it. My husband doesn’t want to see a 10-year-old girl commit suicide. My mom was just annoyed that Haneke showed the family brushing their teeth on several occasions. Truth be told, I can barely watch the film. I feel sick halfway through and am exhausted and tear-stained once the final credits roll.
I took a course through Seattle’s TheFilmSchool in 2008 in which instructor (and film/story/character maven) Warren Etheredge asked his students to take a closer look at not only their favorite films, but favorite pieces of art, favorite books, favorite songs, even favorite examples of architecture. Come up with ten, he challenged, and you will start to see a theme. A “nugget,” as he called it, of what makes you tick. This (seemingly) simple exercise remains as one of the most important moments of self-examination not only in relation to why, how, and how best I can express myself through writing and painting, but how I function as a person and relate to others. I wonder if Warren knew he was doing all that?
In fact, it’s that ticking that feeds art. That ticking that is so simple, so purely the essence of you that it can be elusive in the same way that it’s difficult to describe a color to a blind person or define a truth like absolute zero.
I read somewhere the other day that art ‘bears the responsibility of being profound.’ That statement hurt my head for a few days. In my mind, art should flow, should move without responsibility. Fire doesn’t burn because it knows it will cook food or keep people warm, a river doesn’t run because it knows it can move a canoe southward. It just runs. If someone hops in a canoe and goes southward, so be it.
Now, I know what the word ‘profound’ means, but I actually had to look it up in the dictionary just to make sure I wasn’t missing something:
In 1995, I moved into an apartment with a broken window. Not shattered broken, broken as in it wouldn’t stay open. Whoever had lived there before had propped it open with a little 5″ x 7″ stretched canvas and forgotten it when they moved. My boyfriend (at the time) was a very gifted artist (probably still is)…so there were a few tubes of paint lying around. And that little blank canvas was like a siren; it called to me every time I walked through the room. Its modest span wasn’t threatening. I wondered what it would look like if I tried to paint something.
One afternoon, alone at the apartment, hopped up on coffee and stuck in the middle of a paper for my History of Western Dress class (the best history class I ever took, thank you Professor Sarah Nash Gates), I painted a nude woman on the tiny frame. It was a clumsy attempt, but so guileless, so removed from any sort of expectation of product, that I loved it dearly.
In the same Kamikaze style, a friend of mine recently took up painting, so she and I shared a bottle of Harbinger Rhone and spent an early evening painting in her waterfront apartment. It had been so long since we had really had a chance to ‘catch up.’ Have you ever noticed that, when you wait too long to ‘catch up,’ catching up can be really awkward? The beauty of chatting while each lost in our own canvas-focused labor was that words between us flowed like the paint from our brushes (and like the wine from the bottle). We chatted about everything under the sun–good movies we’d seen recently, books we’d read, the sinfully delicious crackers she’d put in a bowl that I couldn’t stop eating…
We also talked about the high expectations we (we=human beings) have for ourselves, as parents, as creative beings, as cogs in society. She (artfully!) shared that she was trying painting as an experiment in doing something from which she had absolutely no expectation of achievement.
I remember when I painted that first little figure how embarrassed I was. I wanted so much for it to be as good as my boyfriend’s paintings that hung on the walls of that apartment. I wanted to be a natural. In my twenties, I had this obsession with ‘earning’ the air that I breathed; I somehow felt that just being alive wasn’t an excuse for me to take up space. I owed something to the world and I was desperately searching for what that something would be.
What a block that search ultimately turned out to be. Every painting was a scene from Dr. Faustus…on one shoulder, a tiny angel urged me to let myself go and lose myself in the shapes and the process and the smell of the paints (even though I work in acrylics–which smell a lot like a wet dog), while some tiny asshole on my other shoulder was micro-managing every stroke, chanting paralyzing statements like ‘why bother’ and ‘who do you think you are?’
Somewhere along the way, the little angel won the argument, though the devil still makes an appearance at least once or twice per piece, usually in the middle of any given painting. My work has improved as a result of my learning to give that little devil the finger. They’re freer, less self-conscious. And I still use painting as a sort of therapy, as the one thing that I can always be certain of knowing that the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ done or undone, is often just one stroke of white, one slash of darkness, one serendipitous move that feels very much like love.
To this day I have the little 5″ x 7″ painting of the nude woman in my bathroom. Now that I’m thinking about it, I have to say that I find it very fitting that one of the greatest joys of my life all started with a stuffy 450-square-foot apartment and a window that wouldn’t stay open on its own. That little canvas let just the right amount of air in, just as the act of painting now lets just the right amount of an ‘entitlement’ to the air we breathe in for me.
On one last note, my friend’s painting, which so beautifully over the three hours we painted together morphed from a reclining nude figure into, when the canvas was turned horizontally, a serene hilly landscape with a rising moon, was absolutely beautiful.
Is there something to the fact that, as self-taught artists, we both started with nude figures? Maybe those first canvases were symbolic of the stripping of and baring of our psyches and our souls?
Or maybe it’s just fun to paint naked ladies.
Here is the piece I started at her apartment, in its varying stages:
Day 4 – Finished: