Thursday, January 28, 2016

Texture Experiments

At long last, I returned to my easel today.  I did not, at first, start with paint though.  I had an old painting that was a little flat and stormy green and rusty orange strange colors that I decided to renovate by adding some texture.  So I glued on some swatches of material and parts of a vinyl window shade. I then changed the color scheme to something much more upbeat, with oranges, pinks, magentas, and lilacs.  As a final addition, I added a bit of sand from the garden and let a gentle rain fall on it for a minute or so.

I'm not sure if it's all the experimenting with texture options, or simply dancing around the kitchen during a happy painting pause, but I like this version much better.

Texture Experiments
acrylic, fabric, vinyl, and sand on canvas
16" x 20"

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Kitty Character Sketches

Simon very politely arranged himself  to nap on the (not flattering) cartoon of himself. He may have a career ahead as a kitty model.

Friday, January 8, 2016

On Meditation: The View of Rage Mountain

For the last month, I've been dedicating anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes a day to meditation practice. Sometimes I follow a recorded guided meditation; sometimes I sit on my own. Sometimes I sit with my eyes open, but more often with my eyes closed. Sometimes my left foot falls asleep and sometimes I can work with that without moving and sometimes I quietly shift position and spend some time noticing the blood rushing back into that foot. Sometimes the cats rub against me or sit with me in solidarity.  Sometimes, I almost fall asleep and come back to myself as my posture is collapsing. Sometimes I can focus on my breath comfortably for long chunks of times, counting my breaths from one to five over and over. Other times I realize that my autopilot counting has misfired and I'm on six or seven; once I drifted so far off course that I didn't realize until I hit seventeen, so busy was I with the other thoughts I was simultaneously exploring, the bass line forgotten because of a temporarily more absorbing treble clef.

As a writer with interests in philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, character, art, creativity, and social, environmental and biological sciences, mediation crosses over into most of my fields of interests. You could make a fair argument that many of my hobbies over the years have elements of meditation, from obvious choices like yoga and distance running to the long open highway of road trips or a particular mind flow while painting. If, like me, you have a busy brain, finding ways to let it settle and turn down the excess noise is a welcome respite.  And yet this is the first time I've been consistent about meditating.  In our world of productivity, sitting around and doing, well, nothing, seemed like something I already did too much of.  Despite all the numerous well-publicized benefits, and my own positive experiences, on some level it felt counter-intuitive.

acrylic on canvas board
The brain is always wandering from thought to thought, reviewing the past, experiencing and sorting emotions, planning the future, wrestling with problems from the personal to the professional.
Stepping back and stopping to watch the parade of activity can be illuminating.

Recently, I had the experience of becoming overly impatient for the meditation to end.  As it turned out, there was cause for this, as I'd set my alarm incorrectly and so it hadn't gone off. It wasn't just that it felt like I was sitting for a longer time; I actually had been.  But behind my closed eyes, I didn't know that, and I just assumed it was my busy brain being uncomfortable with the extra space. I became more anxious for it to be over, to get back to my usual living. Soon enough, it became clear just why I wanted out: I could see a nasty storm of self-loathing coming down the pike to get me. The thoughts that I had an increasingly hard time of letting go of, of just letting them pass through, were mostly of myself screaming at myself on how I couldn't do anything right (starting with meditation) and I should just suck it up and learn to deal with discomfort and if I couldn't even meditate, cascaded into a longer and excruciatingly detailed listing of every possible wrong move in my history and projected on into a future riddled with failure. As I described it to my sister in an email, it was Rage Mountain, with accompanying visuals not unlike the Bald Mountain scenes of Disney's Fantasia.

Rage Mountain was a view unexpected.  Knowing intellectually that you sometimes do something (awareness of my overly loud inner critic is not news) is different from sitting ringside and watching it in action with such explosive venom, of feeling both sides of the equation, the vicious anger and the crippling shame. It became easier to see them, that is, myself, with compassion, something I was not as aware that I needed more of from myself.

Starting meditation, I thought it would be a way to calm my mind and find more focus and balance. And in even such a short period of time, I am finding that the case. A center calm feels more available than it has in other times in my life, tied as it is to the consistent necessity of breathing.  I didn't anticipate the arising of harder moments of emotions -- rage, grief -- and yet, there is relief in seeing them clearly, letting them be heard and scream themselves out until the quiet metronome of the breath returns.

Free Guided Meditations (UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Cartoon Fun

Here's how I got over the hump of too long away from anything arty: a Sharpie, some good thick paper, and acrylic paint.  Voila!  Strange colorful cartoons were born.

Fancy a Bite? (with the bluebird of happiness)
Vicious Owl

Friday, September 25, 2015


You know when you're reading through FaceBook statuses and someone you only sort of a knew a long time ago has a long complicated status full of characters and overrun with amused comments and questions, including one that says -- "that sounds the the beginning of a short story!" -- and you think, huh, yeah, it does...

So that happened to me recently, and thanks to a little too much chocolate ice cream for breakfast,  I decided to go ahead and write a short story.  See "Candyland" below.  I incorporated parts of the original status and various comments from others as well.

If you need writing prompt, start scanning FaceBook.  Truth is stranger than fiction -- and can inspire fiction.



Two weeks ago, while at the liquor store a mile south of my house, I grabbed a bottle of wine and got in line to pay for it. The first things I noticed about the young woman in front of me was she was pretty, unusually animated and very chatty. As she was talking to the cashier, she kept moving her fingers in and out of the ends of her hair, twisting a curl of brunette hair around her forefinger and then letting it unspool. She quizzed the cashier about good local microbrews and volunteered how she used to live in Vegas so she didn’t understand the Minnesota liquor laws.

“Vegas was just one big cesspool of neon lights,” she said, “but I miss the sunshine. Minnesotans, maybe all the time in the snow, they are always so polite, but sometimes, it’s a little like Stepford, everyone silently nodding and smiling.”

The cashier, clearly Minnesotan, smiled, and handed her her change. But she didn’t leave, and went on talking as I stepped up and handed him my bottle of wine.

“Have you ever been to Las Vegas?” she asked. Still quiet, he nodded no. “It’s not just casinos and strippers.  I mean, those are there too, but there is something about the desert, when you get a little bit out of town.  I don’t mean the desert where the mafia buries people, but the kind of hiking desert in the spring, after one of those crazy rainstorms that come up from the south and dry up 30 seconds after the clouds pass, but that’s the day that everything blooms.  It’s amazing, when you see that, that this place that seems lifeless is really just hiding itself.”

The clerk handed me my change, and said to her, finally verbal, “Sounds nice.”

“Yeah, it is,” she said, and gave up trying to engage him then, heading for the door. 

She walked out in front of me and when we got outside, she turned to me and said without preamble, “Can you give me a ride to 65th and Humboldt?”  I noticed her eyes then, large and brown, oddly rounded like a cartoon character, but with clear whites, not bloodshot. The address was only about six blocks out of my way and totally residential, so I said, "sure."

We got in the car and she asked me, again playing with her hair, what I did for a living. I told her I worked in training for educational testing, and she launched into telling me she has experience in sales and training and asked if we're hiring.

“No, not right now,” I said, afraid she was going to ask me for a reference next.

“Look, let me give you my number, just in case something comes up. My name is Candy 
Cartwright,” she said, and listed off her number.  

By then, we were in front of her house, a small but tidy place with deep green shutters and a linden tree listing too far toward the house. I wrote her number down on the liquor store receipt, and then she added, "I'm also a massage therapist and I do massages privately so if you're looking for one, call me." She then got out of my car, waved and smiled as I drove off.

I was left with the question: Was she a) looking for a job; b) looking for a date; or, c) looking for a John? Or maybe the moral of this story was not to let strangers into my car. 

She was petite and harmless looking, with a fresh-faced no make-up look except a hint of lipstick, wearing a t-shirt and jeans that, I confess, I'd noticed she did fill out nicely. It’s not like she was 18 years old in lime-green spandex twirling a feather boa. She was probably in her early 30s, so maybe too young for my 47 year old self. Or maybe not. My sister endlessly told me I looked so young, despite the gray at my temples.  Those long Minnesota winters did keep the sun damage down. 

Honestly, something about Candy scared me a little bit, be she lonely gal, unemployed gal, friendly hooker -- whatever she was, she was so animated, so lively, direct but also confusing.   
Back in my own house, I put the white wine in the fridge to chill and pet Roscoe the dog until he ambled off again to nap by his year-round post by the fireplace. I put her phone number in the basket on the kitchen counter where I tossed the mail. 


A week later, as I finished both a glass of wine and paying the gas and electric bills (rates went up yet again), I came across the receipt with her number. I’d googled her name at work the day after our meeting, but come up with nothing on Candy Cartwright except information on a pro-wrestler with an impressive record and a devoted following. But nothing about my neighborhood Candy.

I wished she didn’t have a name that suggested either childhood board games or hospital-striped strip teasers. I mean, someone has to be named Candy, and Candace was a bit stuffy (I went by Ed, not my given of Edward) but Candy seemed to suggest the “happy ending” type of massage, rather than therapeutic.  Still.  Who plies her trade at a suburban liquor store?  Or is opportunity everything, so she just talked and played with her hair wherever she went? 

I turned the receipt over in my hands a few times, and then put it back in the bill basket. It would be silly to call.

But an hour and two more glasses of wine later, silly didn’t seem like such a bad thing. Sometimes, when one normally says "no," it's exciting to say "yes" and  see to where the door opens. 

The phone rang four times, and I was beginning to come to the unpleasant conclusion that I would either have to leave a message, or hang-up knowing that my number would be up on her caller ID, when I heard, “Hi!”  She sounded a little breathless.

“Hi, this is Ed. I gave you a ride back from the liquor store last week?”

“Ed! Hi! It’s nice to hear from you. So is DCR hiring now? I’m a sales whiz!”

“Oh, no, I was just calling to...” Crap. Why was I calling?  To find out if you’re a hooker?  If you’re single?  If I’m not quite as middle-aged looking or feeling as I thought? “That is, you mentioned that you’re a massage therapist?  Because I think I’ve done something to my,”  Hamstring?  That would make me sound like a runner -- but no, thighs were too personal. Foot?  No, that made me sound decrepit. “…my shoulder.  I was cleaning the gutters, and I think I pulled something. And I thought of you.”  Thought of you? Could I take that back? Too late.

“Great!  Well, I should tell you - I’m not exactly licensed.  But I have good hands, really.”

“Oh, umm” Holy crap, she was a hooker. “Umm.”

“I’m not licensed in Minnesota, I should say, not yet.  I was in Vegas.  If you’re not licensed in Vegas, people think you’re a call girl.  It got annoying. I mean, seriously, go find a showgirl. They’d do anybody.”

“Oh, umm.”  Thank god for telephones, I thought, because in person, she would have seen the flood 
of blood that rushed up into my face, making my ears tingle. “Umm, no, it’s just my shoulder.”

“You don’t want to see a doctor?”

“No, it’s just something that flares up from time to time…it will unknot itself again, I just get sick of it sometimes.” This was true. Too many hours hunched over the computer left my right shoulder and up into my neck tightened up so badly that I sometimes felt like Quasimoto. 

“A massage can fix that right up, and you’ll feel great! Since I’m not licensed in MN, I can give you deal.  You just, you know, can’t sue me.  Ok?”

“OK.” We agreed to a fee and set up a time two days later.  She did her informal massages out of her house, and so I would return to the same place just six blocks away.  She suddenly seemed awkwardly close. 

On the day of my appointment, my entire back had nary a knot to be found, and I felt intimately aware of my healthy shoulders, and considered canceling.  But it wasn’t a date.  I wasn’t a John. She wasn’t applying for a job.  It was a massage, and massages were supposed to be good for your health in all sorts of ways. Why not?  I hadn’t had a woman’s hands on my back in six months, not since I’d told Miriam that no, I didn’t believe in UFOs, and that I wished she’d stop talking about them, that I wished, in fact, that she would just go. It was the least smooth break-up in my illustrious and increasingly infrequent romantic life, and I later felt bad about it, but seriously, what adult woman believes in UFOs spiriting people away?  I mean, those people not on anti-psychotics? And she called me “hon” all the time.  Not honey, but “hon.” It grated on me.

Of late, I’d spent too much time thinking about Schopenhauer’s comment that “A man can be himself only so long as he is alone, and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom, for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.”

At 6:57pm, I found myself back in front of Candy’s house.  The linden tree was still listing into the gutters, probably providing a nice highway for the ants into the house. Before I was a homeowner, I never noticed these things. I hated that sometimes. 

I rang the bell, and heard her rustling behind the door with her quick step. The door swung open, and she greeting me warmly, like an old friend, with a quick hug that threw me, this expanse of heat pressed up momentarily against me, and just as fast removed. She was wearing an orange tank top and floaty gray yoga pants, and her hair pulled back in a ponytail, more evidence that this was not a date nor was she a hooker. 

She ushered me into the living room, a small space with wood floors, squishy formless sofas and an extra-large purple velour bean bag in one corner. In another corner next to the bookshelves, there was what looked a like a small altar with a photo, flower and small statue. Incense, a vaguely floral scent under some kind of sage, dry, arid, lingered in the air. 

“Great, right on time! You seem like the punctual type. So have a seat here for a minute. Do you want a glass of water?”

“No, thanks, I’m fine.” I perched on the edge of the couch, and folded my hands together in front of me. With clarity, I realized this was a terrible, terrible idea.  

She blinked at me twice, and then started to laugh. “You’re nervous! You haven’t had a massage before, have you?”

“Not a professional one, no,” I confessed. 

“Well, informal, given my licensing issues, but yeah, ok.” She reached around for her pony tail, flicking its end through her fingers once before letting if fly back again.

“So the deal is, my table is set up in the dining room.  I’ll leave the room while you undress, and then you slide under the sheet, so you have some privacy.  I mostly do Swedish massage, so pretty gentle, but I may lean into that bad shoulder a bit more.”

She continued on, quizzing me on any injuries or sensitivities, and then led me through a swinging door into the dining room.  A chandelier overhead had been chained closer to the ceiling, and was dimmed so that only a mellow glow fell over the massage table, and glinted off the glass of a china-filled breakfront in the corner. Thick blinds covered the windows.

“I figured I never used the dining room anyway, and I don’t have a table here anyway, so it became my massage room almost immediately.” 

After instructing me to position myself face down under the sheet, she left the room. 

I stood for a minute, looking at my reflection it the glass breakfront, considering the oddity of 
walking into a strange home and stripping down 5 minutes later. I shrugged, and felt, finally, my shoulder twinge, justified at last. I began to undress. Peeling off my t-shirt, I thought of the cashier at the liquor store, and wondered if he got massages here too. My sister was always telling me, live a little, leave yourself open to the world, explore new experiences, be vulnerable. I made good money at DCR, so why not blow a bit on a little weird, awkward luxury?  Might as well benefit from all that rampant capitalism.

Moments after I had settled myself into the massage table under the sheet, enjoying the mild scent of lavender in the cotton, I heard her knock on the door. “Ready?”

“Sure.” I heard the door swing open to admit her.  Looking over my shoulder, I noted she was still wearing the tank top, but now also small bike shorts of a strange murky green. She really did have a great butt.  No denying that, and not what I wanted to ponder in that particular circumstance. With the orange top and sheen of green, she seems like some kind of tropical bird, brightly colored, reflecting the little light in the dim room. 

“So your job here is to just relax, Ed.  Feel free to talk or not talk, and definitely tell me if anything hurts or is uncomfortable. I’ll ask you questions if I’m not sure on anything, but mostly, I’ll just listen to your body and let my hands do the rest.”

She lifted the sheet covering my feet, and began rubbing some kind of almond-scented oil into them.  

Her hands were remarkably strong, and all that lively energy that usually sparked out through chatter seemed to travel through her hands into my feet and ankles.  Time drifted and her hands moved.  I became aware of my breathing and how it synchronized with hers. Somewhere outside, a dog barked at car driving up the street.  A car door slammed. My feet melted away from my body.

When the front door opened with a jangle of keys, I came back to myself as Candy’s hands sprang away from my feet.

“Shit,” she said. “Sorry, Ed, it’s my roommate.  Just give me one minute.  I’ll be right back.” She pulled the sheet back over my legs. 

The person who came through the door had a heavy step, clomping into the living room.  “Candy?” he called. “Damn, I wish you’d stop burning that incense in here. It smells like a goddamn brothel.”

Candy slid through the swinging dining room door back to the living room, pausing in front of it, I realized, to make sure her form blocked any view into the room as the door swung closed again. 

And I had the revelation that I didn’t much feel like having a massage anymore.  I rolled off the table, and located my boxers and jeans, pulling them on quicker than I’d previously thought possible. Screw vulnerability. 

In the living room, I heard Candy talking. “Thor, hon, I didn’t expect you home quite so early tonight.  Slow at the bar?”

“Scheduling screw up. Larsen had already gotten there, and I figured, hell, time to go home.”

Candy dropped her voice, but since I’d now moved closer to the door as I was tucking in my shirt, could hear her say to the looming presence of Thor visible through the crack in the door, “Look, don’t be mad, Thor, but I have a client here right now.  And I sort of need to finish up. So like an hour?”

Thor said nothing for what seemed like a long moment. “You have a naked guy here in my house?”

Whispering emphatically, she said, “No, no, it’s a woman. Keep your voice down. She’s very nice. I met her through Marla. You know Marla and all her church people.”

I moved away from the door then, sat quickly in the wooden chair in the corner to lace up my shoes, trying to figure a way out of being part of what could blossom into an unpleasant domestic matter. “Look, I’m going upstairs,” Thor said. “You finish up, but, Jesus, Candy, we’ve talked about this.  I don’t like having you rub all these people running around the house. Get Marla’s friend out the door fast, and then let’s get some dinner. I wanted a night home with you.”

Candy said, “I wouldn’t have scheduled her today if I’d known, hon. Thanks.”

I heard the perfunctory smack of their lips, and then Thor’s clomping feet going upstairs. 
Candy came swinging back through the door, looked from the table to me now dressed and sitting in the corner. 

“Oh,” she said.  “You heard?”

“I heard. I think maybe I should go, Candy.”  She looked at me mournfully, the animation drained from her, and said, “Yes, I suppose so.”

By unspoken accord, she held open the door for me, and then rushed to the front door, unlocking it as quietly as possible.  I turned to look at her as I exited, her face impassive, and heard Thor from upstairs saying, “Candy?  Marla just texted saying she wants to know who you mean?” His voice started moving closer coming down the stairs, “She said she hasn’t referred anyone to you, Candy.”

I started running down the front walk then, my oily feet sliding around in my socks and the night air full of the warmth of blooming garden smells.  I fumbled with my keys getting the car door unlocked, and looked to see Thor on the front steps, filling the frame with his height and breadth. He came bolting down the walk. I opened the car door, clear then that I could peel away in time, and looked up to see Candy silhouetted in the doorway. 

And with that, I closed the door again without getting in. I watched Thor’s progress toward me and heard the high pitch of Candy’s voice as she yelled at Thor, “Hon! Hon! He’s a nice man! Get back here, you big jerk!”  But Thor wasn’t listening to Candy.  To my right, the porch lights went on at the house next door.  Candy stepped off the front stairs, following Thor’s route toward me.  Thor, young, blond, the god of thunder carried his storm toward me as I waited by my dusty Corolla. 

I had never felt more alive. 

Every good story starts with a bad decision.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Summer Holiday

Although I was not intending it to be the case, Artful Mistakes (and I) ended up taking the summer off.  Creative work was still going on, albeit in my usual sporadic way, but I didn't have much to say about it.  After feeling bad about my neglect of this blog and accompanying implied shoddy work ethic, I've now opted for a broader view. A fallow period in any project can be wise in that it provides the opportunity for context, reflection and course corrections.

Artful Mistakes: A Short History

Artful Mistakes started as a place for me, a relatively private person, to be more public in my wranglings with art. I also hoped to start conversations and perhaps collaborations with other arty-inclined friends.

I started this blog in the very tail end of 2009, a few months after my brother's death. In retrospect, his death was the first several events punctuating a tough era of my life, one from which only fairly recently would I say I've emerged.

While my stated initial intent was to write about art in its many forms (writing, painting, photography, music, the creative process, etc.), what I also ended up writing about was absence, loss, grief, and difficult relationships, be they with the living, the dead, fictional characters or thorny art projects.  In writing about all of those, I necessarily wrote about healing and finding peace, the way out of dark places.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and died in 2013.  A man I knew killed himself in 2013. Another friend of mine's mother, Betty, an enormously kind woman who among other brave moves taught me how to drive, passed away in 2013 also.  Other family members had concerning, complicated health issues. I moved multiple times - DC, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon, Florida - disrupting local support networks, and pursued romantic relationships that were stressful and ill-fated. It was no wonder I was having trouble moving out of grief.

One marvelous aspect of art is that it provides an indirect way into touchy topics.  My mother, for instance, became a consistent reader of my blog, and in that somewhat circuitous way, I think we began to know each other in a different way, not just as mother and child but also as readers, armchair philosophers, and lovers of beauty also put upon by griefs that preceded and followed my brother death.  Also, because this blog is public, any commentary was much less fraught or pointed than any email or phone call -- it was just what I was thinking about, and Mom could connect with it or not; it wasn't a barometer of our own personal relationship.

Of course, I suspected some pieces Mom would like more than others, just as I knew other family readers would like some more than others too. Some of those opinions were based on artistic merit, but often, it was also personal opinion and style -- and sometimes I was surprised by who liked what. Unexpectedly, friends would find something on a post to which they connected, and sometimes strangers, or near strangers.

One offshoot of this blog is that I was often uncomfortably aware that people could, if they liked to read, know a great deal more about me than I did about them.  Although I wish my writing more often had larger scope, I am largely a confessional writer. And, of course, some folks whom I wished would riveted by all things about me (me me me me me) did not commit each post to memory, much to my dismay.

Particularly during my mother's illness and for some time after her death, I struggled with, yeah, the meaning of life.  It became abundantly clear that time was short.  My brother's death showed that death could come out of nowhere, sudden, harsh, final.  My mother's illness pointed out that not only is it short, but that quality of life is of consideration too.  My friend's suicide made that even more clear as I floundered in and out of my own depressions, hoping to avoid coming to the same solution he decided upon.

I used art to communicate what sometimes I could not articulate, or could barely piece together. One of my first paintings - dreadful and not at all true to life, but one very large canvas - was of my mother and brother together.  And in working on that, I saw an insight into nuances of their relationship that I likely could not ever have seen had I not spent so much time staring at a photo of them and wondering about particular expressions and all the time that came before that moment, and the short time that would come after it and how to translate that onto canvas.  The literal struggle of understanding the angles of people's faces explored the more complex struggle of trying to understand the internal world of people I loved.

I would give a great deal to sit and talk to my mother again, or just sit and hold her hand. I would give almost anything to have been able to magically take away her cancer and give her a longer life. Instead, I only see her in dreams, usually with my brother in attendance.

So what I am saying in again, a somewhat circuitous way, is that art is one thing that kept me afloat during a sometimes isolated and tumultuous time.  I didn't know that's what Artful Mistakes was about for a while, although I realized I wrote about the dead too often for it to be a Fun, Lighthearted blog, and that my writing is (as this post is as well) often too personal for some folks. Probably, I have lost some work opportunities because of this blog, but possibly, I have also been given some opportunities because of this blog as well.  Certainly the warmth and conversations it had generated have more than made up for the discomforts of exposure and vulnerability.

Artful Mistakes: Looking Ahead

And now here I am back to life, and a fallow period (perhaps) coming to a close, grief managed as much as any losses ever are.  My address is constant, my friends and family solid, and one ancient cat still purrs next to me.  Many things still need to be figured out -- it's life, you don't just arrive one day, the decisions big and little keep on -- but I know I am more solid at the core.

acrylic on canvas
What that means for my creative life, and how it will manifest in this blog, I'm not sure.  My current painting in progress is Ophelia from Hamlet.  In some ways, I'll always be drawn to darker subjects. But before her, there was Tree of Life.  My hope is that my art will be more about exploration and curiosity, more external, less internal, and more connected.

When I was researching post-traumatic stress disorder for a former client, I had opportunity to learn another term: post-traumatic growth. After the bad times can sometimes come a leap forward.  And I am hoping that leap is next for me after this fallow period, that the ground is restored and ready for new growth.

Like everyone, I have regrets - things I wish I had done, thing I wish I hadn't.  But I'm resolving to to look forward more than backwards, to look toward those adventures yet to be had, love and laughter and all the other greeting-card sentiments that are, as those cards proclaim, the moments that make our lives quirky, creative and wondrous.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Tree of Life

Tree of Life
acrylic & ink on canvas
11" x 14"
At long last, I spent some time painting.  Tree of Life was inspired by a photo I found in a landscape coffee table book.  The original photo is more muted, the bare tree in the fog, but still had the same peaceful blues and greens.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Recipe for a Cheap Desk

1. Go to Habitat's ReStore and get an unfinished birch slab door for $8.00.

2. Sand, stain and polyurethane wood. 

3. Buy Adils table legs at IKEA ($3.50 each) and attach to the wood.

Voila!  A huge, basic desk.  

Be warned that if your door is hollow (as mine is), it may be a wobbly desk as the leg screws don't have quite enough wood to grip onto.  At a later date, I may do some kind of reinforcing there to stabilize it.  For now, the file cabinets keep it secure enough so that I can type away without incident. I am grooving on the extra space - and hopeful that I'll also now remember to water the fern.  

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Design Class Update

Design class has continued, with mixed results in terms of project enjoyment and loveliness of final pieces.
Vines, ink on paper on board, 12" x 12"
Vines was created by carving two 1-inch linoleum squares with different patterns, and then using them to print squares on various colored paper (white, gray, black) with black and white ink. The squares were designed so that the patterns would hook together no matter how they were placed next to each other, lending some order to chaos.  I remain a slob, and got inky fingerprints everywhere (which were fortunately trimmed off of the edges of the individual squares).  There's something I don't quite like about the final project, aside from my questionable printing technique.  If I were to do it again, I think I might limit the number of colors further, which might highlight the pattern, or do a less random arrangement. Still, having never worked with linoleum or printing at all, it was a fun project and contained some interesting revelations on symmetry and repetition.

Ain't That a Kick in the Head
acrylic paint on paper
10" x 15"
Ain't That a Kick in the Head has four elements included - a piece of Renaissance art (the woman's head), a piece of non-Western art (the foot of, in the larger piece, a Persian goddess), a logo (the Apple logo) and a pattern from an animal (the apple pieces are actually part of a feather pattern from an eagle wing).  Color scheme had to include a primary with complementary to either side, so mine ranges from purple through red to orange.  The design had to have the illusion of transparency too, that is, areas where shapes overlap and the color changes. And, the design also had to use the golden ratio -- which was where I ran into a lot of difficulty.  I'm still not sure that the nautilus spiral is in there with quite the emphasis I'd like, but so it goes.  I knew before going into this class that shape and composition are my weak points, while color comes somewhat more naturally.  And in fact, the illusion of transparency is no problem for me to figure out. Compositionally, I probably could have done with less of it in order to highlight shape elements more. I also probably could have done more with the gray background, which is a little flat.  I continue to have a tendency to wash out contrast.  

On this one, I also realized that I can't actually do design for design's sake without having some kind of idea behind it...and so there is a story behind this, which could be variously the hostility between east and west, conflicting ideas of womanhood, a reference to Eve and that darn apple, or simply my own frustration in composing the project (kicking my own teeth in).  I didn't need to decide on any of those ideas, or flesh them out at all, but I somehow had to have *something* to play around with to motivate where to put pieces (beyond the golden ratio, which never felt all that delicious to me).  I suppose the writer in me needs to put story into everything.

Clouds of Joan
acrylic on canvas board
12" x 16"
Clouds of Joan is, to be honest, evidence of not following the directions.  I needed to come to class with a person, an animal, and a word in a specific font to work with on this project, and while I did, the morphing between those in five steps each simply went beyond me that day in messing with graph paper and thumbnails (hey, I'm auditing for a reason).  So I took a break, and played with the image of the person (writer Joan Didion) and with paint and color. Composition was not considered, and I'm not crazy about her being squat in the middle there, but I do like the fun with color, and it was relaxing which, after all, is a part of my motivation in messing around with art.

It's been an interesting class.  It's not what I expected -- I'd envisioned more conversation, lecture, discussions, and largely, it's just assignments, silence and studio time -- but I have accumulated a few new ideas, and a few new tubes of paint, so I'm pleased with that.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Design Class, Project 1

Leaves & the Letter O
I started an art class recently, a basic design class, and so have been spending the last couple of weeks either climbing up and down ladders, busily painting my new house (!) or sitting at a table playing with inks and paints in class.  This combination means I currently always have paint in my hair, under my fingernails, and on at least one elbow.

We've only completed one project thus far, as the printmaking project is more involved and taking longer. I have to say, I am glad I'm auditing the class - this is not a world where I think I'd like any grades.

Project 1 involved taking a leaf (real or photo), making a 2D simplification of it, and creating a pattern with it, and a letter of the alphabet, where the leaves and letters interwove at least 3 times.  It sounds easy, but I made gazillions of thumbnail sketches with various leaves and letters that were all aggressively ugly.  The final product I finally created post thumbnails and roughs, well, umm, it's not perfect.  Critique included very politely worded commentary on the importance of craftsmanship, as in, ahem, I'm a slob, and the paint ended up extra lumpy on this one, and white paint doesn't really cover fingerprints terribly well on board, etc.  The design itself is not terrible though, not nearly as awful as some of those thumbnail sketches. Varying the letter O sizes more would have probably helped - that, and better craftsmanship.  I am not good at being careful and precise with paint, as the baseboards in my house will attest.    

The interesting thing about working on the project was knowing I was learning something in all the experimenting, but not being really sure what I was learning.  My hope is that the experimentation involved in art leads to developing a personal aesthetic style. We'll see if, down the road, I'm better able to articulate what I like, what I don't, and why.  

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Cat in Antlers Tradition Continues

After an exhaustive search, and much to Hazel's dismay, I finally found where I put the antlers for safekeeping.  Merry Christmas!

A reflective reindeer.  

"Every. Year.  What's wrong with her?"

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Nothing New

I was talking to a friend of mine in New York briefly yesterday, mostly agonizing over the intricacies of buying a house (I was outbid; oh well), but also mentioned in passing that when not thinking about putting down roots here in Florida, I was thinking about moving to New Zealand. There are a lot of reasons on for that that make sense given my needs and values - love of beauty and nature, English-speaking so I could find work more easily, liberal policies including environmental conservation and universal healthcare.  It's a secular nation, and that's hugely appealing when I see the way religion has been corrupted here in this country, a country founded on the premise of religious tolerance and the division between church and state.  New Zealand is a peaceful place with a lot of open space.  I recently discovered that it's the first country to give women the power to vote.

It's also got a whole bunch of white people, and pasty gal that I am, I'd fit right in there.

That last detail is a little funny, considering that my current desire to move is based not just on my usual itchy feet, and the sense that if I am ever going to live in another country, at 45, I best get on it, but also because I'm just so damn disgusted with my own country right now, in particular with how much institutional racism is woven into the system.

I'm not a particularly political person. I have a opinions, but I don't like to argue, and my experience for the most part is that people seldom if ever change their mind based on anything I've ever said. More often, they've spent considerable energy finding a way to discount my opinion.  Sometimes in valid ways, my lack of knowledge or experience, but often, these ways are more annoying, including things such as my status as a woman, my history of mental illness, my sexual choices, my variable income and professions over the years, or by detracting points for style instead of content; sometimes, I'm not suitably polite in my argument.

I'm that liberal ilk people talk about and dismiss.  Heck, I'm an artist.  You know I've got to be flaky.

On the one hand, I get that.  I'm no expert in, well, anything.  I'm not as up on, well, pretty much everything, as I should be, and I'm rather hopelessly naive.

For example: I figured if you shoot an unarmed man in front of many witnesses, and they all agree that's what happened, well then, that pretty much guarantees a trial.  Someone died. It seems like the least you can do is have a trial to look into how and why that happened. But of course, that's not what happened in Ferguson.

Another example: if, after restraining a man with an chokehold, he dies as a result of those injuries, and that death is ruled a homicide by the coroner, and there is a videotape detailing the whole exchange, well,  of course there would have to be a trial, right?


As noted, I'm naive.

I'm not an expert, but at the same time: I'm also not devoid of basic critical thinking skills and a moral center with ideas of what is fair and reasonable.  Here I come up against: how can this shit still be happening?  How can there be no consequences?

Clearly one thing I need to look into more is what the hell happens in a grand jury and how a group can come to such flummoxing conclusions.

When talking to my friend, and she asked about moving, I just alluded to it not being a proud time to be an American (which I in my head encompassed the mystifying responses of the recent grand juries among other confusing events).  Getting the reference, in the politest way possible, my friend said, "well, that's nothing new."  

And of course, it's not new - it's just getting press right now.  I just float along with my white privilege and figure, huh, if someone bangs my head against ground for selling cigarettes, there will probably be quite a stink about it (I mean, unless I'm at a frat party, in which case, it will be filed under "boys will be boys" and "don't fuck with tradition" and the ever popular "she asked for it." But I'm digressing.)

The friend I talked to yesterday is a black woman who grew up in Memphis and now lives in a rather lovely apartment in Harlem high above Morningside Park, the park where in 1985, a black classmate of ours was shot while allegedly attempting to mug a plainclothes police officer the summer after he graduated.  His death was a startling end to what was supposed to be one of those great success stories - Harlem kid goes to fancy boarding school, gets scholarship to Stanford, makes good in the old white boy network.  It wasn't supposed to end with him dead in a park, but it did.

I didn't know Eddie at all, and while I heard bits about his death, rumors as it was sorted through the legal system, I mostly kept my head in the sand, consumed with being 15. There was, of course, a grand jury that found the the police officer acted within his rights to use deadly force. The other participant in the alleged mugging was tried and found not guilty.  Despite a fair amount of press and rumor, I managed to know little about it. As a teenager at Exeter, the reality of race largely just breezed on by me, and great majority of the other privileged white folks in our overwhelmingly white, upper class bubble.

Every once in a while though, there were moments of recognition. One of my more embarrassing oh-my-god, I'm-so-white-and-clueless memories is being at a photo exhibition on the Civil Rights movement at the student art center in 10th grade.  There were disturbing, stunning photos of KKK crosses burning, crowded marches with pickets and slogans, and scuffles in the street with close-up photos of white men screaming in rage at the idea of integration. I looked at the images the way you would something in an old museum, thinking about how horrible it all was, but my nice white folks would never have been that nasty racist - that was other people's people - so I was off the hook.  I hummed along with how nice it was that the Civil Rights legislation was successful and racism eradicated.

At some point, I looked at my friends next to me, one of whom was black, and finally realized that she was seeing these photos from a very different perspective.  This was not a shameful-but-resolved history (my racist violent forebearers, the people I so much did not want to identify with) for her, but the history of abuses showered upon her forebearers, abuses that continued on to that day - in subtler ways usually (although obviously not always), but with that same undercurrent of rage, violence, exclusion and oppression.  For me, it was a history I actively wanted to distance, and so happily wrapped it up in a pretty the-law-changed bow.  For her, it was just the earlier chapter of an ongoing story leading up to the current day.

For a brief moment, I realized how unbelievably insulated I was, how much just didn't even occur to me, and that I had not the slightest idea what it was like to be part of a minority population at such an overwhelmingly rich, white school.  I got in touch with my uber sheltered white girl.

And then pretty much forgot about it.  Because that's what privilege is like - you see it for a moment, but then it's gone, and you're back to being obtuse.  Because you don't have the security guard at the store following you around, and the nasty epithets screamed out by a driver in traffic doesn't apply to you, and you never worry that people are afraid to introduce you to their parents because they're from a small town in North Carolina that believes "like should stay with like" (unless of course, there is sex involved, as that would mean homosexuality, another no-no in the idealized 1950s), because of all that.  I wondered if I wore the right clothes a lot in high school (hint: I didn't), but I never felt like my skin was viewed as wrong.  That's a very different reality.

I've thought about that moment on rare occasions when I talked to men about sexism and male privilege - rare because I so often get frustrated if they just don't see it.  It's not their experience, so it flies under their radar. They've never had anyone refer to their ideas and ambitions as "cute" and felt that belittlement or had some company pay them less money because they know you have boobs. They've never had their comments ignored until the man standing next to them says the exact same thing, and is heard.

If you are not a straight rich white man, little question marks can intrude into every encounter. Did he not take my ideas seriously because he thinks I'm an intellectual lightweight based on an ill-conceived argument -- or because I'm a woman, and he believes women can't be smart?

The summer after my senior year of high school (having finally graduated high school after dropping out of Exeter in 11th grade), I was dating a Nice Boy who my parents liked because he gave me a coffee maker and I liked because he was a boyfriend, and I'd never had one before.  We didn't have much to say to each other, but kissing filled in a lot of awkward pauses.  When said boyfriend left for a month of travel, the day after he left, I ended up kissing someone else, whom among other things, was the only black guy that ran with my circle of otherwise white friends.  I was young and hormonal and heady with the idea that I could get attention through this whole kissing thing, and he was pretty hot, and funny, and I was pretty sure he liked me, but at the same time knew I was subject to a lot of rules; I couldn't very well start dating a new boy 24 hours after my official boyfriend had left down, or I'd be That Slutty Girl.

The new guy and I, and a bunch of friends, went to a party, and I remember touching his hand in the car, and thinking I liked him, even though the kissing was, honestly, not so hot, and I was confused. At the party, he avoided me, and then left for a long stretch of time to go get beer, which somehow took hours, during which time I got aggressively and ultimately successfully hit-on by the host of the party, a worldly older man of 24 (who later that summer would wander off with my virginity as well - a persuasive soul with, as it turns out, a tiny tiny penis, a questionable drug habit and a taste for women that were too young for him).  At the party, a whole bunch of drama ensued because when the guys finally returned with beer, I was by then making out with the even newer new guy.  I remember sitting on the porch and trying to apologize but also justify myself, which is pretty much all my teenage years.

I mention all this very old drama because years later, a friend noted that he thought I didn't want to tell anyone about our make-out session because he was black. For me,  I was worried about my slutty reputation (which, no surprise, I managed to acquire in short order anyway that summer, and on into college).  On any conscious level, I didn't think that race was factoring in. But I don't know that it wasn't in some other fashion.  There were hierarchies.  Maybe I preferred older tiny penis man not just because he seemed so into me, to want me so much (for the one evening), that he was such a fine kisser, that he was older and smart and "more sophisticated" as teenage girls say about their crushes, but also because he was white and the other guy was not.  Doesn't every gal want to hook up with the Rich White Guy?  Isn't that the fabulous American dream for women, as seen on TV, to marry wealth and power, items much, much more likely to be found with a white guy?

These many years later, I still feel horrible that that guy thought I ditched him because he was black - and enormous shame that maybe in some way he was right.  That my reaction to his race wasn't occurring to me consciously doesn't mean it wasn't influencing me in other ways

Yesterday, talking to my friend, I wondered if she thought I wanted to move to New Zealand because with all those white people  (so many, because the Maori population was decimated, now running at about 15%), I thought somehow in that homogeneity that I could get away from all the racism around here, because I knew I would "fit in" because of the way I look (as long as I kept my wrong-accented mouth shut).  This running from difference is basically the reintroduction of the "separate but equal" credo of segregation.  And that freaks me out.

When I was 19, I took time off of college, and lived in Boston, eventually living in the North End in a cheap apartment which, in retrospect, was probably illegal since the landlord liked to be paid in crisp 100 dollar bills in person every month.  But it was a great location, close to downtown and work, and with a 24 hours bakery just down the street.  When I contacted another Exeter friend of mine, by then at Harvard and asked if she would visit, she said, umm, I can't go to the North End.  At the time it was such a notoriously racist area that as a black woman, she didn't feel safe going there.

It had never occurred to me that it was an issue - happy white girl in a bubble, I didn't know about the hostility because it wasn't directed at me.

I only noticed when I didn't fit, not when someone else didn't.  I also remember standing in a store in Gallup, New Mexico, looking for cheap t-shirts, and suddenly realizing that a couple of people had done double-takes looking at me.  When I looked around, I realized I was the only non-Navajo person in the store.  The few days I was in Japan struck that home much more - never had I been anywhere were I was so consistently The Outsider.  No one was actively unkind, but it was somewhat like living as a ghost, with all decisions and conversations going on around me but without me - and that was not just the language barrier.

During the period of time when I was engaged to an Iranian man, I remember his mother looking at me with mild distaste.  I was so clearly Not Persian - I looked wrong, I sounded wrong, I didn't have the right manners or beliefs; I didn't understand her culture and certainly not her son.  And she was right - I understood his American side much better than his Persian side despite my trying to learn more of the language of his birth, the history of his first country.  My brief time with his family visits was my experience of being the one out of place.  His experience was every day when someone noticed his accent.  At the airport, even well before 9/11, his luggage was searched with particular thoroughness because of his Iranian passport.  Or so I thought - I never asked him if he thought the same.

But no one shot at me or put me in a chokehold - even then, my white, middle-class privilege applied, and if my almost-mother-in-law disliked me, she had plenty of other reasons (she was right that her son and I were not happy match). My Harvard friend didn't want to risk harassment in the North End, and we met in Cambridge instead, neutral territory.  And while I'm sad she never saw my apartment, I'm embarrassed for my old neighborhood, one which for me, and my whiteness, was otherwise one of the safest.  I think about how police might have pursued anyone who harassed her, how it might suddenly have turned into questions on what she was doing in that neighborhood. She had her Harvard card to play, but what if not that?  What if a black man decided to walk around a lovely and very wealthy white neighborhood?  How many "suspicious persons" reports would be called into the police?  And what happens when the police arrive?  More bullets and chokeholds?  Too often, being in the "wrong" place with the "wrong" attitude with the "wrong" crowd or the "wrong" clothes is translated to mean violence is somehow deserved.  Wearing short skirts doesn't justify rape.  Selling loose cigarettes doesn't justify that man's death.  Being a police officer doesn't provide immunity from the consequences of your actions, doesn't mean that you can use excessive violence up to and including killing someone without there being any repercussions - or at least, it shouldn't, in my mind.  Many grand juries seem to disagree with that idea, and I find it harder and harder to hide in my naivete.  

It feels in some way frivolous to talk about my middle-class liberal angst about worrying about my own internalized racism.   It's self involved and narcissistic, and yet at the same time, the only way that change happens is when it starts from within, when I, or anyone, starts to pay attention, when we can extrapolate from our own experience to someone else's, to see the similarities and differences and take the time to understand why they might exist and how they impact experience.

In wanting to do right over the years, in trying not to offend, I've often not asked the questions that might have educated me. I've not had conversations that are uncomfortable - race, sex, class, these are all hot buttons, and I avoid them because I'm tired of those arguments that don't go anywhere, I'm horrified by a system that still ignores the death of black men, I'm horrified by my own desire to run away and hide from the tough stuff, and at the same time, wonder if I have any right to speak given that I am still, essentially, a naive, clueless, spoiled white girl who most days doesn't give a moment's pause as to how privileged I am.

I don't know what to say, and I don't know what to do, but I do know, even though it's nothing new, this shit has got to change.  This is no way for any of us to live and die.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Time Lapses

After my mother died, I kept thinking about time. When she was sick, there were predictable thoughts -- precious time, wasted time, good times & bad, being cheated of time, how much time she lived and how long she suffered in illness.

But after she died, I more often thought about time as it works as a dimension. Time, sometimes called the 4th dimension, locates a specific event as it occurs in a specific location.  After she died, that's the time I wanted to understand.

I've long tracked my own history by location, e.g, if it was when I lived in New Mexico the first time, it must have been 2006.  Because of my many moves, my timeline is easily tied to longitude and latitude. Many of those locations I have repeated.

In The Moviegoer, Walker Percy writes about the pleasure of repetitions separated by time.  In his character's formula, a repetition is "the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle." When I moved back to a location, it was often with the (mistaken) belief that the peanuts would be gone this time.  And, of course, it was never like that -- life is always throwing peanuts at you, no matter how many times you leave and return, a point that I'd been rather slow to learn.

During my mother's illness, time's looming presence for all our family was largely tracked by her life, with markers for key moments such as diagnosis, first surgery, chemos, remission, recurrence, emergency surgeries, hospice, death.  And we chronicled the first of every event after her death, as in, all the things she missed, all the times and places when and where we missed her.

But if time is just a portion of the equation of locating a person in a spacetime, I reasoned that it seemed like just one measly layer, one that if you could just peel through it a bit, you could see everything and everyone that had ever been there in that location throughout time, and see them clearly. Think time-lapse films, where the plant germinates, grows, blossoms, withers and dies.  Everything is there on the film, all happening all at once; it's just where you choose to play the film that gives you what you want to see.  

In the refashioning of history and relationships that happens when one party is no longer there to refute them, I found my mother everywhere. There were remnants of her in the places she frequented, in every object she touched, even in the way she appeared in dreams, as dream time seems the most permeable to changing the physics of time, a loophole or wormhole or what-have-you.

In Bill Bryson's book A Short History of Nearly Everything, he talks about the dispersal of durable atoms over time and points out that we all may have a little bit of Shakespeare in us (o happy writers!), as those freewheeling atoms have been circling about for long enough that some may have found their way into your pinkie finger  But if you're hoping that you have some Elvis atoms in you - sorry. There hasn't been enough time since his passing to have dispersed the atoms far enough through the universe for you have incorporated his atoms. I thought about Mom's atoms when I walked on the beach, splashing feet in the water, as up in Maine, some of her ashes went into that water. Who doesn't want the whole ocean, all oceans, as their mother?

People talk about ghosts, but what if it's just you can sense evidence of where they were, like perfume that lingers in a room someone has just left?  And what if everything is drowned in that smell, and peels layers of time away like turpentine on paint?

Or what if you just miss your mom - and you want to bend your limited scientific knowledge to keep her around for a while longer, even if only is in some great cosmic metaphysical time travel kind of way?

Joan Didion describes in The Year of Magical Thinking how after the death of her husband, when she was clearing out his closet, she kept some of his shoes because he would need them when he came back.  It was around then that she realized she was not, perhaps, holding things together quite as well as she had hoped. She writes:

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes."

I remembered that comment with particular relief when, after my mother died, I realized some part of me believed Mom was sending me messages in the lyrics of pop songs.

Immediately after she died, I moved to Florida.  Coincidentally, Phillip Phillip's song "Home" was playing incessantly everywhere, the song with the refrain, "Just know you're not alone / Cause I'm going to make this place your home."  If, for instance, you are afraid you're going to start to cry for no reason standing in the towels aisle of Target, and that song comes lilting on the piped-in music, it feels like a benediction - or it did for me.

And then I spent some time pondering how it must be for those people with schizophrenia or psychotic breaks of some kind who believe they are receiving coded messages from the TV, and I got a little uncomfortable with finding comfort in pop songs and feared I was just a short time hop away from wearing a tinfoil hat to keep the aliens at bay. But even with that, I took the comfort anyway, that moment at Target and those that came after, moments where the music felt like what I needed to hear just then -- a coincidence, a serendipity, a sign, grace, good vibes, self-nurturance or my mom looking out for me, whatever it was, I took that comfort. I let it be, which I suppose is my own version of faith.

So when an ABBA tune played while I was in the rug section in IKEA, I got teary because I figured it was A Sign that buying furnishings was a good plan, tending to my new home.  Mom and I listened to ABBA in the car on the way to chemo a couple of times.  She came to ABBA late in life, having spent most of her life listening to classical music and occasionally musicals, but somewhere in there, Mamma Mia picked up the relentless happy beats of ABBA.

After Mom died, I turned to time, wanting more of it, wanting to redo it, wanting to relive the good parts and fix the bad parts, and I wanted her to still exist in a fashion, to be literally living and breathing.  And in the timeline, she is.  I can't fold time over like a Star Trek episode, but then again, I live on a planet that is still receiving light from stars that could have winked out of existence hundreds of years ago.  If all things are simultaneously happening in all timelines, then in some tiny portion of those instances, there is Mom humming along to store music as she did sometimes.  Why shouldn't I find parts of her in pop songs -- or wherever else she pops up?

Graffiti seen in a park, Bangor, ME

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Back from the Dead

Having not posted on this blog for months, I found I'm tongue-tied by the prospect of return.  Like most things, writing is a habit, and when you fall out of the habit, picking it up again comes with the aches and pains of, say, trying to start jogging again (another habit I am trying to resurrect).

Confession: The last months have not been full of giant creativity.  Until very recently, my easel remained disturbingly dusty.  Last week, I finally brushed off some very old short stories for some revision.  But largely, I reached a What's the Point moment with art, which led to an extended stall, and so I explored other avenues in my eternal quest on How to Feel Good.

This wasn't made any easier in July, since it became clear my beloved 17-year-old cat Leo was heading down to his final decline.  In the weeks in between the 1st anniversary of my mother's death and her birthday, he was diagnosed with cancer, and became so weak that he could no longer walk. I had to have him put to sleep. I cried a lot in July.

Leo sporting his acupuncture needles. 
Aside from innumerable veterinarian visits, I also spent a lot of time in an easy chair napping with needles in my ears, arms and legs -- I discovered the magic of acupuncture. Typically, my cat received acupuncture first (from a vet), with the hope that it would help his pain issues, at first thought just to be worsening arthritis. And it did seem to make him feel more relaxed.   Given that animals have no interest in the placebo effect, it seemed a good bet it might help me too.  I found a community acupuncture clinic (for humans) ( and got myself into that lounger. On my first few visits, I was near elated post treatments, perhaps a sign that I really needed to calm the heck down.  More recently, my reaction has been less intense, although I still leave relaxed and soothed.

In August, I started a couple of classes at the local community college in environmental science. Given that it's been twenty or so years since I've taken a science class, that was a mild shock to the system.  And yet, my 20 year old student self persists in some ways, with notebooks full of doodles and journal entries interspersed with actual notes. I still sit in the back of the class and daydream too much and still manage to cram my way to As on exams (which probably pleases me more than it should, the gold star of intellectual approval). College campuses are, from the small sample of my recent exploration, more or less the same, except for the addition of cell phones.
You missed seeing this amazing mural from the exhibit My Generation:
Young Chinese Artists. 
It closed at the end of September.  Still time
to see Jamie Wyeth's Portraits of Rudolf Nureyev though. 
There are still guys on skateboards weaving between very young women trading stories about their, yes, prom dates. Color me Methuselah.

Through most of my silent summer, I continued on at work at the museum, and continued to be impressed by the kindness of most of my coworkers.  I left that job at the end of September, as their kindness no longer successfully masked the inherently dull nature of processing memberships. I saw several coworkers at the last exhibit opening, where I was just a civilian again, there to see the art and collect a little shop gossip. I'm immensely grateful to the people there for their good will during my odd transitional first year here in Florida, something I worry I failed to make clear.

In the last months, I've also spent a great deal of time looking for a house to purchase.  I've looked at zillions, thanks to a very patient real estate agent, and even made offers on a couple, but nothing has quite come together, which has left me questioning the whole project.  Is buying a home going to make me feel rooted?  Or trapped?  Will I feel at home, or like an impostor? Will I just add inability to decorate to my list of character flaws? Could I overthink this more?
17-year-old Hazel pointing out that not only is she still
alive, she is also still darn cute. She'd also like a backyard
for lizard hunting. 

In my online searching, for a time, I was also looking for dates when not scanning real estate ads. The process is not dissimilar, where you scan through pictures and profiles and see what you can live with (no garage, but a lovely fireplace) and what you can't (appears to be screaming racist and not-so-bright). Thanks to the wonders of online dating, I met with four people in person, and three of them were pleasant enough, if not fabulous love matches, a reasonable percentage all things considered. But then I reached my saturation point. Right now, I'm not sure I want to hear about more divorces and broken hearts (and this also begs the question, if you've only been divorced for 45 seconds, or you're desperately hung up on your all-but-perfect ex, or you're not sure, but you might actually hate all women, then why exactly am I sitting here having a cup of tea with you? Do I have a special gift for picking people who are unavailable? Or am I just too picky in general? Am I supposed to be so fanfuckingtastic that I make all forget any previous woes? Sorry, that's clearly not gonna happen; we all drag our baggage into the event, as evidenced by this mini-rant).

The aptly named Sunset Beach, Treasure Island, FL
Maybe despite all my relentless questing and researching and occasional successes all things are not found on the internet. Shocking. I am trying to spend less time tangling up in the world wide web and more time out wandering in the real live world.

Throughout my tenure in Florida, I've remained dedicated to my sunset walks the beach and enjoying people watching happy locals and tourists. A week ago, a woman was standing stock still at the tide line because an enormous dragonfly had landed on her.  She was beside herself pleased with its magical presence: "He thinks I'm a great big flower."  Yesterday, I saw a woman sauntering along with a brightly-colored parrot perched with great dignity on her shoulder.  Never underestimate how delightful it is to watch the tide slowly devour a sandcastle or how in-tune the herons are with the possibility of snacks as they linger by the fisherman.

Philippe Park
Besides my beach trips, I've been checking out local parks, mini-road trips to find new views.  The slightly-busted camera that lives in my purse is getting a work out, and I've explored places like Philippe Park, which is just crazily beautiful.

I know this much: happy does not come from basking in some external bullshit socially-acceptable status checklist. I know people with houses, jobs, relationships, friends and full bank accounts who are also flat out miserable, and desperate for someone/something to blame (a bigger house, a "better" job, more money, a spouse or partner who doesn't or does __[fill in the blank]__, losing just 10 more pounds, waiting just one more year for ____ to happen).  Who I don't know are that many people that are actually, on balance, mostly content with their lives.  Some, mind you, many even.  But not as many as you'd think given their full checklists.

And maybe no one should be too content, lest that be too close to complacent.  One review of the news is enough to verify that there is no shortage of pain, tragedy, misery and horror out there, the real stuff, not my first-world middle class angst. Should anyone be content in the face of the sad state of human nature, the environment, governments, world politics, religions, wars, swaths of --isms and violence run amok?

Or is that just evidence of my bad attitude, an inability to thoroughly embrace the power of positive thinking?

That's something to ponder as I walk the beach and see if I can capture a photo of a pelican in flight, something to mull on while I  breathe the sea air.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day

Quilt made by Margot Daffron,
finished by her daughter Susan
Designed and pieced together by my mother, this quilt was (we believe) intended for me, but still resided in the UFO (unfinished object) category at the time of her death. My sister had the pieced work professionally quilted and finished the edges and backing herself, and mailed the completed quilt to me a few weeks ago for my 45th birthday.

As such, on Mother's Day, I can curl up on the couch and be warmed by the colorful heart and creativity of my mother.

Thanks to my sister for such an amazing gift


Happy Mother's Day, Mom.  We miss you.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Impressionable Artist

Long ago, when I was in college, I went drinking with a strawberry blond boy named Jonathan.  At different times, we hoped some romance would blossom between us, but never at the same time, and so it never did, which is just as well, as we had not much in common.  The last memory I have of him is him emphatically and ineffectually trying to explain to me that the water filtration system he was selling was not, indeed, a pyramid scheme. 

Well before that, however, one evening we were up in his dorm room, and he showed me a painting he had recently done, an abstract.  He said it was a personal piece to him, along the lines of a self-portrait and I giggled and said, “colorful.”  He put the painting to the side then, and gave me a disappointed and somewhat condescending look, at which point, I sighed, and went on, “I see the slash of red working though it as a representation of the anger that runs through you that you both try to suppress and secretly enjoy, but that the blues and greens behind it are more accurate to your core self, which is more placid and flexible and liquid, if less aggressive – that’s where you peacefulness lies.  Over here, in that dark corner, I see a reference to the grief that you carry with you – your father’s death, perhaps – but this explosion of shapes and color over here, that seems really joyful to me…”  I went on at some length, weaving in whatever I had gleaned about him through brief conversations and what I had intuited about his personality and way of being in the world, and connected it into that painting, a complicated line of compliments and complaints wrapped in a filmy gauze of bullshit.  I was a twenty-one years old English major, after all; seat-of-the-pants critique and rampant symbolism was my world (see for another example of that). 

By the end my explication of his art, Jonathan’s eyebrows were pulled together in creeped-out alarm.   He turned the painting to the wall, out of view.  Shortly thereafter, he shuffled me out the door. 

This is the thing about art: we want to be known through it, but then we don’t.  We use our own codes and symbols, hide our truths in plain sight, and then see who catches on to the joke – or attempts to rewrite our lines. 

In senior year of high school, for instance, a lot of my notebooks have this symbol:
which I made up because it has all the letters of my crush’s name built into it, along with a modified eye because he had ridiculously pretty extra-long eyelashes, and I personally felt a little too self-conscious under the watchful gazing eye of society and nice-looking boys. My little logo served the same purpose as writing his name with little hearts around it, but in a less mushy, more abstracted way. 

Given that my way into art has always been through character, through the emotional world of the writer or painter (including when that artist is me), working in an art museum poses somewhat of a challenge. Although my literary knowledge is broad, I have zero formal education in art history, and scant teaching in painting technique from several short art classes.  What I do know is hit or miss through whichever signs I’d read in art museums I've frequented or the artists I've researched or tried to mimic stylistically.  I can tell an impressionist painting on sight, but I can’t tell you exactly why.  I've limited information on the revolution it posed.  I can tell you they used purple for shadows. 

I know Modigliani figures have elongated faces and long necks, and those graceful long lines give me some insight into how he must have been as a person, someone full of romantic ideals and yearning – but that is entirely imagined on my part, even less informed than my armchair analysis of Jonathan’s painting given I’ve never shared a beer with Modigliani.  Modigliani was ill for much of his life, and hid his illness with excesses of alcohol and drugs (which obviously came with its own set of problems).  I feel that secretiveness and despair in the way he presents people in the world.  But these are simply my own loosey-goosey thoughts on a famously tragic artist that died young. 

Mood and style are only a small part of the conversations of the art world, where artists are categorized into larger schools of thought, movements across time and society.  Artists rise to the top given the tastes and values of that time.  Warhol’s fame could not have launched in the era before mass-media advertising and a growing cult of iconic celebrity and narcissism.  The rise of photography likely impacted the fall of realism.  Art museums carry on the cannon of the accepted norms, expanding what qualifies as art only once it has been debated in the smaller galleries.  Not too long ago, photography was considered a science experiment, not fine art.   Now, the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg (where I work) has a curator dedicated to its extensive photography collection.

While the sociological implications of movements of art intrigue me, they don’t fascinate me the way individual stories do.  My leanings are toward the microcosm, the personal, the individual, the emotional, the right brain.  Self-taught artists, especially those that are working through their own demons, particularly attract me.  My left-brain knowledge of the therapeutic effect of art creation is extensive.  I read reams of journal articles on art therapy, particularly as it applies to PTSD, performing research for a former client. Their project was to create an art therapy software program for combat veterans.  The user’s final product for that software?  Graphic novels.  Yes, comic books, that “low” art form currently enjoying a renaissance of reevaluation.  The MFA recently held a panel discussion with some of the leading comic artists, a sure sign that comics’ inherent “artiness” has been clearly established. 

These are conversations I seldom have at work though; I work in Development, not Programs or Curatorial. On our end of the hallway, our mission is to keep the financial wheels turning.  We speak eloquently, but sometimes vaguely, about the importance and relevance of art.  We seek to open eyes and hearts through museum programs, but also pocketbooks and wallets, as without those donations, the doors close, and Curatorial down at the other end of the all will have no opportunity to choose who among the many are worthy of display in the next exhibit.  The give and take between serving the community and being supported by the community is a tricky line in the art world.  There are days where I yearn for the purity of academics, where you get to dig into the meat of your chosen issue without thought of how it will affect funding.  [pause]. And here I recognize the naiveté of that idea too – if you, for instance, take your thesis advisor’s work to task, you may find your academic career brief; if your research and grant applications hold interest only to you, be prepared to fund them yourself.

The humanities always work within that strange context of trying to tease out, in a logical, left-brain way, what our right-brain just “knows.”  Minor keys sound sad.  Bright colors evoke strong emotion.  Short sentences spike up the action.  Humanities seek to quantify the techniques that raise some people’s art to, in some people’s eyes, exquisite levels. An art museum is but one forum, albeit at times a stodgy one, where that conversation takes place. 

And there are times where that conversation is just the rambling of young men and women wondering about their place in the world.  I’ve no idea what happened to Jonathan, if he still paints or sells water-filtration products or went on to do something totally different, finding ways to feed the hungry or shelter the rich.  I work part-time at an art museum and ruminate on art and emotion and wrestle with my odd paintings while trying to keep my geriatric cats alive.  Amedeo Modigliani died of tuberculosis in 1920 when he was ten years younger than I am today, leaving behind a body of work that continues to move people in ways they can’t fully articulate.