I went to the dentist today. This is a big event in my life as the dentist I went to before this one had asked me never to come back. (There are certain kinds of pain for which I have a low tolerance, needles and drilling being the main ones.) That dentist didn’t have the patience to have me for a patient. It upset him that I felt pain when he didn’t expect it. I then found Dr. Haas and travel an hour to see him. At this point, I usually look like Damian in the dentist’s chair: apprehensive, yet willing. But that doesn’t seem to bother this dentist. And I enjoy his intelligent, calm approach to his job.
Meanwhile, recently a friend told me that he too had had some bad experiences with dentists. If he saw a sign for a dentist’s office, he would even cross the street to avoid walking in front it. Then he was referred to the dentist he goes to now, someone he is very comfortable with and treats him well. I asked him his name and of course, it was the doctor who asked me not to come back. My mother would have said "that's what makes horse racing."
Today, during our usual discursive distractions from the procedures, Dr. Haas asked me to put him in my memoirs. Since I am not writing a memoir anytime in the near future, I will tell you about him here. First, he wants me to tell you that he is a mountain of a person. He is. He is very unique. Curious about how people feel about what they are doing, I once asked him if he liked being a dentist. He said he did most of the time, except in the afternoon when the office was chaotic with children. (Yet I know he is known for his patience and gentleness with children.) He also said that he had once been asked to come to Harvard University to teach, but had turned down the offer because he preferred his life in the country (in Chester, Nova Scotia). He likes to play hockey in the winter and go off alone camping in the woods in the summer. He has three children, a son and two girls, adopted twins. Instead of moving to Cambridge and University Life, he and his wife adopted the girls, not as infants, but young children who definitely needed a home. They have been a challenge. All three children are in budding adolescence now, testing his need and desire for peace.
His family roots are in Germany. He said his father was orphaned at fifteen during World War II and suffered scars that still exist into his eighties. He said that a lot of Germans emigrated to Canada because of the excessive taxation demands of the Church on post-war Germans who were already economically depleted.
As I cringe under the needle and flinch with every movement he makes, I flippantly said today “Aren’t you glad you don’t have more patients like me?” and he said he actually does have more patients like me. In fact people come from all over the Maritimes, travel several hours to see him. People with various health problems who need more time. He said he has the time, he’s not going anywhere.
There are a lot of wonderful, helpful people in my life. And my dentist is one of them. In his welcoming and careful, precise and friendly way, he is definitely a solid rock-mountain of a person.
Now, I am not about to get a face-lift, nor am I recommending it. My fear of needles and surgery would be enough to keep me from the procedures. But I have had some second-thoughts about it. Last week I went to a new doctor and her first question was, as usual, “what is your secret” as my physical appearance does defy my age. Instead of saying exercise, eating well, meditation, etcetera, I replied “heredity”. And her response was, in a minor key and downward note, “oh”. In general I am proud of my well-seasoned age. I have had too many friends and family not live as long or with as much ease.
Sunday evening past I was feeling kind of down and turned on the TV for company (I don’t usually watch television much, but that is long story for another time) and I don’t usually do “nothing” (also probably heredity), so as I sat there knitting, I found I had tuned in to a program on cosmetic surgery.
The program followed two women in their forties. The first was getting Botox treatments to erase the sadness from her face that came after the death of her son in a car accident. Working from the outside in. To her the treatments were very successful. She said she felt better and could face (no pun intended) her life better. To me it did not erase the sadness in her eyes.
When I first saw the second woman, I thought “why bother”. But after the surgery, the change was startling. She definitely looked better and projected a joy that was infectious.
At one point during the course of the program, a statement was posted across the screen: research has shown that women who have face-lifts live on the average ten years longer. Surgery for the mind. Attitude. There are, actually, less expensive and less invasive techniques. But, whatever works.
I am not able to see my grandchildren often. One lives in Los Angeles, the other in Brazil. Yet I feel a strong bond and a deep excitement when I am with them.
My friend Joe told me an interesting story a while ago. He had received a letter from an old girlfriend, telling him, first, to be sure to sit down when reading it, and second, that he would probably be hearing from a seventeen year old boy who was actually his son. Eighteen years before she had become pregnant and not told my friend. Their relationship was over. She gave the child up for adoption.
When Joe did hear from his son, he decided to go visit. Apparently the child had been adopted into a good, kind family, with many advantages and loving support. The adoptive parents had kept three photo albums, one for themselves, one for the birth mother and one for the birth father, preparing themselves for the time when their son would want to meet his birth parents.
There were many similarities between Joe and his son. Both were excellent at math, the son was about to go to the same university that Joe had, and when seeing the two of them sitting next to each other on the couch, the adoptive parents said it was easy to see who the father was. Even though they had never met before, they had similar mannerisms.
The fascinating part of the story is that when the newly acquainted father and son were alone together, the son could talk to Joe about things that he could never tell his adoptive parents. And these “things” were very similar to what Joe had experienced in his life: an interest in drugs, jazz, an underlying rebellion against his middle-class upbringing.
The ties that bind run deep.
With all the genetic engineering that has been invented lately, perhaps they could come up with an egg that has a transparent shell so that you could see when it is cooked properly so there wouldn't be slime on your toast in the morning.
It's turned cold again here, -18 C in the daytime. (We had a reprieve last week.) I woke up this morning to see the sunrise through frost on the windows, icicles hanging from the roofline, and later in the day, sun on the snow.
After spending half the day today stretching canvases and only fantasizing about painting tomorrow and actually thinking what in the world am I going to put on these canvases anyway (a new size for me, 30" x 30", small, I like to work big) and they have to be done by April for an exhibit I have commited myself to in May, I began thinking how I once could not have been so calm or so focused, knowing it will all come together in time, it does seem to, (years ago, when I first started painting, an invited critique from a friend would put me under the covers for a couple of weeks) and I thought about a friend who was telling me recently that, in her words, she is “coming to recognize the importance of a certain (measured) amount of vulnerability/sensitivity.” How exciting it is for her to meet or read about people who are “tuned into (sensitive to) what their surroundings are” and how this gives their work impact, power to effect other people. Yet there is still the need to balance the secretarial/custodial/housework with the creative work.
Being very sensitive is a blessing and a curse. It is not usually easy to make it an advantage, to find that balance of sensitivity and forward movement that is necessary to move, associate with life, even, sometimes, with the people who are important to reach. Too often it feels like a barrier in itself to communication even though the communication could be more insightful because of the sensitivity.
I was reading a book of poetry recently, On the Road Again by David McFadden and came across some lines that expressed this sensitively. In the last poem in the book he says:
give me the power to be sensitive
to the small flowers you cause to grow
in my head
and to the children and newborn lambs
that surround me
Sensitivity is a luxury the lucky
escape without abandoning
After reading so many “domestic” stories lately (Lovely Bones, Unless, The Hidden Life of Bees, Three Junes), I picked up a couple of more “heady” books: Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee and In Custody by Anita Desai, in the Los Angeles airport, to read on the long journey home after Christmas. Elizabeth Costello is about a successful writer in her later years, how she felt her mind was disintegrating, how she doubts her own beliefs. Most of the book consists of lectures that she gives, mainly in various university settings, once on a cruise ship. And how the audience challenges her hyper-intellectualizations. It would take sitting with a library of reference material for me to follow all that she puts into her lectures. It is difficult reading, but reading that is rewarded in the end by the last chapter which so perfectly plays with her questioning mind in a setting appropriate to the journey of the entire novel.
The other novel, In Custody was also about a person doubting himself. This man is a university instructor in a small town in India, a weak man, overwhelmed by the circumstances of his life. The novel was difficult to enjoy mainly because it felt like all the characters were playing one note continuously. No one was appealing. I look for some insight, some growth or change, but it was hard to get to the last page and still feel nothing but distaste for the characters, all of them. I have heard Anita Desai is a good writer, and I do usually enjoy reading about other cultures, but this book left me unsatisfied. At the advice of a good friend who does enjoy Desai’s writing, I will try another one.
Friday evening I went to see/hear the Mongolian throat-singers, the group called Tuva. Being there, listening to beautiful music in a beautiful old church with high ceilings and good acoustics, the experience was transcendent. I felt transported, part of the nomadic culture these men come from as they sang. Their singing was magical as they manipulated their vocal chords to produce and manipulate overtones while singing.
As I sat there mesmerized by their music, I also tried to decide which one of the four beautiful, lusty men on stage singing I would like to take home with me. At the intermission I saw three of them outside (in the –24 C. cold night) smoking cigarettes. Maybe that is their secret. Not caring for cigarette smoke in my home, I bought one of their CD’s, Huun Huur Tu, and brought that home instead and am enjoying them often. An adequate compromise.
Yes, it has been cold here, for several weeks. Around -24 C. in the afternoon, with the sun shining. With snow. And very beautiful:
But it is warming up, hovering near zero degrees Celsius. Almost balmy!
I took some paintings in to be photographed last week. The slides came out looking great, better than the paintings. The color was vibrant in the paintings, and more so in the slides. But after having the work out of my studio for a week, I saw that the image in the paintings felt unresolved. I took the paintings home and tweaked them, worked on them again for a couple of days. They are basically the same, just different. They look as good as the photographs now.
But I needed the slides to send to the Galerie d’Avignon in Montreal for her to choose pieces for a group exhibit in March. I sent off the slides. When I spoke to the gallery owner, I told her the story, that the paintings had changed a bit since they were photographed. She chuckled and said everyone does that. What a relief! I’m not the only one.
I’m titling my exhibit at the Lunenburg Art Gallery, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in May Subject to Change because that is a good description of my painting process. When I told the Lunenburg Art Gallery that was the title, they thought it was just a working title and would change. But it is the paintings that change. Over and over and again.
Maybe I am making the creative process sound too romantic. It is, but………
I spent most of yesterday packing up some paintings to ship to the Susan de Witt Gallery in Naples, Florida (if you’re in the area, she has a beautiful space), making arrangements with the shipper, making sure I have the right export forms, filling out grant application forms, planning an exhibit in May, ordering the necessary canvas stretchers. Today I have to pick up some slides (that were duplicated) from the photo store, pick up some paintings that were photographed, submit the grant application (with fingers crossed!), and tomorrow the paintings (in cartons) will be picked up to go to Florida. Meanwhile, I have to sort more slides for various applications, galleries, duplication, etc. My dinning room table has seen more slides than food on it. Sounds like fun? I am happy to be in a situation where this is what I can and need to do, that my work will be seen. But it is not painting. Maybe tomorrow.
It's true, a person has to be a maniac to make art. To be so driven not even to think about the consequences. The possibilities of no one looking at it, any one or every one not liking it.
To be so driven that your need to put your particular twist on what has been done again and again overwhelms the rationality of doing it.
Forget about paying the bills and cleaning the house (well, perhaps figuratively, not literally, but definitely, when working). The pleasure, thrill of creating a work of art is all that is important.
I have been pondering Jasmin's comment/question to me (in my January 2 entry) about the motivation behind abstract art, what's in the mind of someone who paints with no recognizable image.
When I was in art school, a group of us drove down from New Haven, Connecticut to New York City to see the exhibit of Sixteen American Painters (I think that was the title then), paintings by the Abstract Expressionist group, Kline, deKooning, Rothko, Motherwell, and others at the Museum of Modern Art. We were all so energized by the adventure that we were issued a speeding ticket. Seeing so much strong abstract art in one space was confirmation for me that this was the direction I needed to go, what I needed to do.
What goes through my mind is similar to what brought on that speeding ticket: the excitement of seeing what paint can do, how manipulating the paint creates something that has no immediate story to tell other than itself. How color, marks, texture can have a life that transcends the process of choosing and creating them.
I do have certain qualities that I want a painting to possess, qualities such as weight, mass, color. The particular form that takes is dictated more from what happens as I work than what I think I am going to make happen. One painting informs another, breeds the next one. They don’t exist in isolation. And it all works best when I feel I have stepped out of the way in the process. Wherever the road takes me.
I have the most beautiful grandchildren. See for yourself:
I just returned from a weekend with Shaya in Montreal (she was visiting from Brazil) and before that, two weeks with Damian in Los Angeles. I am too overwhelmed with emotion to write more now.
I love my toys, my powerbook, digital camera, cell phone, radio, stereo system, my boats for summer fun, a nice house, beautiful things. I could go on and make a very long list of things I would prefer not to do without. Things that are newly acquired and newly invented. Old things that have been inherited and treasured. Things.
I just finished reading Ten Lost Years by Barry Broadfoot. It is not as depressing a book as one might expect, given that it is about The Depression of the ‘30’s, a time when many people did without many things. It is about survival. This is a book that should be required reading for all high school students. I wish I had read it when I was young. It would have given me a better understanding and appreciation of my parents. Which I really needed. We were fortunate. During The Depression, my father had a steady job with the government. A good job that let my parents build a house in what later became a prosperous neighborhood. Yet the insecurity lasted long after The Depression was over. My mother would travel far to find a bargain. We didn’t go out to dinner or movies as a family. Growing up during The War to End All Wars, abundance was something that was not familiar. We were careful. We had ration stamps, were very self-reliant, making our own root beer, putting up produce from the garden, playing games with few toys. The radio was a hub for friends and family.
Barry Broadfoot put together an intense, in depth oral history of The Depression in Canada. The people tell their stories with wit and outrage. Most of the people talking in his book begin by saying “Why would you want to know about that? Who would want to hear about The Depression?” People then did not call it The Depression, they just knew things were bad. And those that did not die of starvation or were wealthy, managed. And often with humor, generosity and a sense of community. The usual income was often $20 a month. For a family. Not enough to live on, but they did. They ate from the earth, bartered, helped each other, bought little, managed.
I think one reason people don’t want to talk about The Depression is that it makes it too real, too close, too possible that it might happen again. It is very frightening to think that with all of our material “needs”, the latest in technical communications, new clothes, homes, that this, all our comfort, could disappear as easily as it did in the thirties. Perhaps if we are more aware of our spending habits (and debt loads) we will not have another time like that. I do hope it doesn’t happen again
School has started again. Yesterday was my first class. A small class, thirteen students, for a collage workshop. My other class, figure drawing on Mondays, will have the usual twenty students. A smaller class is definitely a delight, a bonus. All classes are a challenge--to meet the students where they need to be seen, help them see what they need to learn. The most important thing I can teach them is self-discipline, how to work, how to see, how to overcome obstacles.
In the fall I heard an interview with an award winning professor at Harvard (CBC, of course). When asked his secret for successful teaching, he said he taught by the three P’s: planning, preparation, and pseudo-extroversion. That about explains it. Most academics, and artists, are introverted. The work comes out of ruminations of a solo mind. Teaching is a performance practice. And most students want to be stimulated by the instructor, inspired to look over the cliff. So……….another semester brings another challenge to get into the minds of students, find ways to stimulate and guide, and learn how to be a pseudo-extrovert. And maybe become a real extrovert, at least somewhat.
I was listening to an interview with the English writer, Martin Amis, on the radio this afternoon (CBC, of course). He was talking about how he listens to his body as his critique when he is writing. He honors his feet as they take him away from his desk when he is struggling with his work and as they bring him back after he has rested his body in a chair and thereby refreshed his mind.
For me, it is also the body that talks when I am working and it also has the final say. When I look at a piece to decide what to do next, to understand what is happening, I feel it, literally, in my gut. A visceral reaction.
A painting needs to have tension and excitement. It is easy to get stuck in some area that excites, pleases but nevertheless does not work with the rest of the piece. So there is often a feeling of sacrificing something in order to have the different elements work together. The areas that do not work well with the whole usually talk louder, have a voice that is discordant. Like when I was in eighth grade and wanted so much to sing in the choir. But the teacher always knew when I was singing, would say someone is off key in that section. So I would mouth the words, just to be there. But that didn’t work for long.
Sometimes I will think a painting is finished, photograph it, show it, but then later that uncomfortable feeling creeps into my experience of it and so I will continue on with it, sometimes with just a few minimal changes, sometimes for a couple of years. When a painting is finished, there is no anguish in the gut, no desire to change anything. And then the desire to look at it is constant. It is a feast.
Z.Z. Parker’s book of short stories is very black. Strong stories written by a young black woman, about black people, mostly in black communities, with very black humor. It is not a cheerful, light book, but very strong and insightful. How people wish they were doing something other than what is happening, that they were living their life elsewhere, how they do something different than they thought they would do. Unfortunately I had to leave Los Angeles, and the book, before I had read the last story, but the ones I did read had a definite point where the life story, goals, behavior of the protagonist shifted, became the opposite of what had been, often in a startling, unexpected way.
Other than that I am not black and have no idea what it must feel like to be a black person, the people, the communities, the landscapes Parker writes about are very real, palpable, familiar to me. This twist in the road is very believable to me. My own life took such a dramatic turn, with no warning, when one day I suddenly realized I could no longer be in that marriage. The seeds for such major decisions, events may have been planted when we were unaware. And there is no going back.
These stories still haunt me. I want to read them more carefully, see if I can feel when, how the decisions happen. These stories raise the perennial question of will: do the events change us or do we change the events. How important is circumstance, when were the seeds planted, how long did they take to root, to sprout. I long to read the last story, to read Parker’s next story.
What’s in a name? I often find titling a painting the hardest part of the process. Years ago, I had a printmaking teacher tell me that I must name my work, even if I call a piece Fred, that titles are very important. Just like people need a name, so does artwork. A way of claiming it, giving it stature. So I began calling my paintings by different pet names, the name of my dog, Miranda, my daughter’s cat, Mithril, my neighbors cat, Nexus, and such like that. Then I began to get into more obtuse, obscure names, like Contingencies, or Landings. When I outgrew that, I began to use more poetic, fanciful names, invented while playing with refrigerator magnet words or words that arise on their own. Naming is still a mystery to me. Sometimes the title has a life of its own and is effortless, like the painting; sometimes it is a struggle, also like a painting. So this painting is, at present, titled Some Like It Blue. It is derived from Some Like It Hot, as this painting, and the series it has fostered, are, to me, hot. This is the painting that now dresses my livingroom.
I changed the painting in my living room yesterday. For the New Year. It may sound like a small change, but it was and is a big adventure. A friend came over and, after looking at my new work, suggested that a particular yellow painting should be hanging in my living room. I agreed. It is one of those IMPORTANT paintings (to me). So we took down the red painting (4’ x 5’) that has been hanging behind my piano for at least two years and brought the yellow painting (5’ x 7’) up. This also meant putting in new nails and changing the plant that would obstruct the new, much larger painting.
The result is shocking. The room is a different place, larger, more spacious, more welcoming. The painting itself is one that I feel holds within it a major, exciting shift in my work, a seminal painting, one from which I can keep learning. As silly as this might seem, it is as exciting as when I installed my new Miele dishwasher and would get up in the middle of the night to go down and look at it. An astonishing change, in that case, to something very sleek and understated. In this case, to something that tells a long rich story.
I was listening to Twyla Tharp, the dancer, choreographer, on CBC radio today talking about her new book, The Creative Habit. She says anyone can be creative. All you need is discipline, discipline to overcome laziness and fear. And to be really creative, challenge yourself, expand your repertoire. What used to lead me to make dramatic changes in my work every three or four years, now becomes more subtle yet important changes that keep me excited about what is happening and what will happen next.
This is a painting that comes out of a decision to take the borders off my work. A big decision that was brewing for two years. I needed the borders to contain what I was doing inside the painting itself. But then I seem to have outgrown them. Nevertheless, when I finally gave up the frame and borders that had originally been there to allow more freedom, I felt intense anxiety for a couple of weeks, until I grew into the greater freedom that not having them there created. Now that big change is part of my everyday painting experience.