While I am on the subject of students’ homework (yesterday’s entry), I should tell you about the self-portrait another student brought in. She said it was awful and she would never do another one. (It wasn't that bad, just not up to her usual exceptional accomplishments.) So I told them about my Last Self Portrait.
When I was in my junior year at Brown University, studying Literature, a friend suggested that we go down into the basement and paint. I said sure enough, so three of us took some supplies and headed into the inner workings of the dormitory. I took a very large sheet of cardboard and some oil paint (maybe it was someone else's because I don't remember painting in oils before that) and I must have had a mirror as well. I used my favorite colors: purples, yellows, pinks, oranges, you know, the colors you find in skin (if you look closely). This was actually a seminal piece for me. It was what gave me the desire to paint, to be an artist, to dedicate my life to serving art. To go to art school after graduation. To keep painting. The process of painting that portrait gave me a sense of joy that I had never known before. It transcended the “me” that was so ever present, that was always walking two steps ahead of me. It leapt over that self-consciousness and broadened the world.
When I brought this wonderful (to me) painting home at the end of the year, and took it out of the trunk of the car, the father of my next door neighbor (the girl I had always longed "to be", friendly and likeable, the original girl next door), her father said: “What’s that? The booby prize?”
And the best part of this is that it didn’t effect any part of the rest of my life. I still paint.
AND my students have challenged me to do another self portrait. We will see. Maybe........
One of my students (who will remain unnamed for obvious reasons) came in with an interesting drawing for her homework assignment this week. She said she was trying to represent her first experience with LSD. She also said that she had only taken two pills and it was a disappointing experience, no hallucinations. So this weekend it will be three pills. Previously she had been drawing her experiences taking Ecstasy. Obviously my role is to critique the drawing (not the draw-er) from an aesthetic point of view. I did however wander into telling the story of my experiences with LSD, which actually are far different from the usual.
When I was in high school, in the 50’s, my mother worked as secretary (she actually ran the office, so was what they call administrative assistant these days) at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. At that time, NIMH was doing research on LSD, using conscientious objectors as their bodies. My mother was very amused by the stories of these young (mostly Amish) men from Pennsylvania farmland and often invited them to our house for dinner. So I heard many versions of hallucinogenic experiences at my dinner table (enough so that I knew it would not be something I could do, being close enough to the edge, enjoying an active imagination without it). But......an interesting way to serve your country.
I’ve never thought of myself as someone who ran away from pain. Although I wouldn’t mind having less pain in my life, I find it a valuable lesson. I can often be very philosophical about it, especially after the event/fact has cooled.
I recently reread some of Tamar’s entries in her journal Hidden Laughter, about her son Damian, his diagnosis of (and recovering from) high functioning autism and how she and Dan have worked with him. I can't begin to tell you the effect rereading it has had for me. I don't think I have allowed myself to go through her experience anywhere near the level that she has. I have pushed away my own pain in the situation. Just enjoyed the excitements of his (many) accomplishments. I reread all the entries with tears running down my face, so many tears the words were often blurred. As if the numbness that I had encouraged was rapidly melting away, a bleeding glacier.
It has been the same with my granddaughter, who moved to Brazil when she was just over two years old. I hadn’t seen her for five years until this last January. I could feel my son's pain, but not my own. Now the pain of separation is easily available. I cannot think of her without tears of pain and joy. Pain for her being so far away, joy for knowing her.
I hope I can use this pain in a way that can be helpful. Yet it is very easy to deny pain in a situation when you feel helpless. I can talk to Tamar often, visit some, be helpful to her during difficult times, but there was little I could do for Damian, who is 4,000 miles away most of the time. And less for Shaya in Brazil. I can joke about being Grandmotherly Challenged. But it is still hard.
Did someone say it is spring? It must be somewhere. The sun on the lake was beautiful this morning. (My neighbor Danis says the ice is still 18” thick. He was out with his kite in the middle of the lake last week.)
And there must be at least a foot of snow in most places. But my driveway is clear, the brook is running fast........
and it is warming up, so perhaps, if there is not more snow……….
One thing I neglected to mention about my student who is contemplating quitting school is that it is his parents, both of them, who have insisted that he go to art school. Now that is a real turn around. Rarely do I hear of parents one hundred percent in favor of art school. And given the statistics about graduates, there is good reason. I have heard (and forgive me if I have the numbers a little off) that ten years after graduating, 10% (someone actually said 2%) will still be in the field, making art, and of those, only 10% will make over $10,000 a year from their artwork (it used to be $6,000 but there has been some improvement, maybe). My parents didn’t object to my going to art school. In those days the thinking was that I’m a girl and would get married, right? But they also didn’t object to my quitting. I had a B.A. in Literature and I knew how to cook and sew. But my history with school was never that I thought it a good place to be. (I even tried to walk out on pre-school at age four. It didn’t work. I was sent back.)
I had a student once who was complaining constantly about how stupid this school is, how much better his old school was, etc. etc. So I suggested he quit. The next year he was president of the Student Council. Either he was lonely and wanted to “fit in” or else he found a better way to complain.
In that one year of art school that I had, I learned invaluable skills. It was a very good year, difficult, demanding and rewarding. I had the best of teachers, the best of instruction. I can teach because I have been making art for many years. But I also learn as much from my students as they learn from me. Different things, definitely. I learn how younger people see this ever changing world, how they view the ever broadening field of visual art. But more important I learn how to communicate what I see and to see from their point of view and to find ways to help them clarify and develop their skills and ideas. I am still learning.
One of my students was goading me the other day. He’s one of my better students. Very talented, bright. Does work that shows integrity and directness. But he doesn’t always produce the work that is required, i.e. homework. And sometimes in class he seems inattentive. In fact, one day I had said to him, after he had told me he really wasn’t the slacker that he appeared to be, “You are too talented to be a slacker” and he made a face that told me he had heard that before.
But back to his goading me. He said he was going to crew on a boat this summer, one that was going to the Bahamas via New York and that maybe he wasn’t coming back. And what did I think about that. My reply was: “You are talking to the wrong person. I’m an art school dropout.”
“No way,” he said. “Can’t be!” And I just walked away. He can figure that one out on his own.
I did hear a jazz musician (on CBC radio of course) talking about education in the arts. As jazz is more improvisational than classical music (which is the way I feel about my painting process), he put forward the thought that “if a person is going to do it, they will.” No amount of education will change that. The important quality to have, besides intelligence and talent, is self-discipline. This is equally true in other artistic disciplines, writing, visual arts, disciplines where the heart/core of a person is the important quality that creates valuable work. I often wonder what my life would be like if I had stayed in school. It would probably be very different, but I’ll never know and have no regrets.
In Figure Drawing class on Monday, I had to ask a tall student to fix the lights on the ceiling, to adjust them to illuminate the model. One of the advantages of being short and old, I said. Of course, the young students immediately said: “Don’t admit to being old!”
I have a couple of “mature” students in that class. This often raises the level of discussion. Living longer, life skills, older and wiser. I don’t usually think of myself as old, really, but definitely older than my college students. And sometimes the body reminds me that I am not young (not as young as I used to be, of course).
I heard there is a law on Prince Edward Island making it illegal to use the word “older” in some situations. They must use the word elderly. I would prefer to be older, which references wiser. Elderly does imply elder (as in the Native American tradition), but in the Western tradition elderly sounds very old and weak. Today a person in their 80’s is like a person used to be in their 60’s. Such is progress. But to a young person, old is still old, and not the blessing it is to a healthy older person.
There’s that mystical/magical place called The Zone. I’m not sure what it looks like, being someone who slips in and out of staying in the present, having often lived in a very real fantasy zone. I don’t think that is what they are talking about. This magical zone is said to be where things work, where work is not effort but smooth, the silk fabric of the mind and body coordinating. I know that feeling often when I am painting. I expect it, I nourish it, I enjoy it. When playing the piano it is more difficult to maintain. Probably because of childhood associations. When the music flows, that is where I usually then freeze, stumble.
This afternoon Yoko came over with her husband Hiro. My son Aaron was visiting. He had been here last summer when Yoko and I had first started playing duets together and she wanted him to hear how we had improved. So the two men sat on the couch while we entertained them. The first piece, a Dvorak, flowed perfectly. No mistakes. Very expressive. A real duet. At the end we spontaneously raised our thumbs to each other.
The two other pieces, by Grieg, were not so perfect. On the last piece I made a mistake on the second page and started laughing so much we had to start again. Once when I was young, my parents had ridiculed me in front of company when I made a mistake. I didn’t laugh then. I cried and left the house, thinking I would never return. I often now have a hard time playing for people even though I want to. Yoko is more of a performer but I intend to learn.
A few years ago I read a wonderful book by Noah Adams, Piano Lesson. He had decided, at age 51, to learn to play the piano. He chronicles his various attempts over a year to teach himself, ultimately realizing that he needed a teacher and also, ultimately, learning to play. During that time he wanted to learn “Traumerei” by Robert Shumann and play the piece for his wife as a Christmas present. When he had hesitated playing for people in the course of his studies, one of his teachers had said, in a very memorable and tender passage, that playing for someone is a rare and special gift. This book is a true love story. His story often sits down with me when I play for someone. It’s not just about playing it “right”. And that makes it right.
Yoko and I finally were able to play duets tonight. On Wednesday, when my driveway was so thick with snow and we were trying to negotiate possible plans, through my window I saw her at the top of my (long) driveway talking to me on her cell phone, she beside her car on the road, me on my home cordless phone. What joy, these modern toys!
Tonight my driveway is clear (although there are walls of snow along the sides) and we played right through any mistakes either of us made, listening to each other and enjoying the flow of the music. It felt like a big accomplishment, not to be intimidated or misdirected by mistakes. I find it so interesting to notice when I make mistakes. Usually it is when I start thinking how good it sounds. Then oops, distraction/mistake. Sometimes it is just reading too far ahead, not being with the notes I am making. Tonight, once, I found myself playing without reading the music, suddenly not knowing where I was but playing along anyway. Like stepping off an embankment but landing safely on the ground. Music is real food for me. One of the necessities of life, like sleep and books.
One of my students told me that some instructors draw during their classes and she suggested that I do that. My reply was: “You wouldn’t see me!” She said, “You mean you would be invisible?”
No, I mean I would become so absorbed in drawing I wouldn’t see them. But what an interesting idea—why not—become invisible. Then I could go around the room and draw on their work, make their drawings the way I would want them to be. So often it is hard for a student to hear what is incorrect about a drawing because they see it from their perspective and their history. And too, it is often hard to find words to express an artistic idea, critique. One picture is worth a thousand words. But then, I don’t usually like to draw on a student’s work, prefer having them make the discovery of correction themselves. Then the knowledge comes from within them.
On the other hand, what fun it would be for me to draw on what they have initiated, put my stamp, my conclusions on their ideas. One of the (many) difficult things about teaching is keeping my hands off their work. Not saying “do it this way, my way, the best way.” Sometimes their work is so exciting as a beginning idea to me that I would love to work into it. Maybe, if I were invisible, I could just take their hand in mine and gently guide them and they would feel the excitement of my ideas and experience. But for now, I will have to rely on words to show them, open doors for students. To draw pictures with words.
Yoko was going to come over this morning (which inspired my housekeeping need) to play duets (four hand piano). She was going to bring a couple of friends visiting from Tokyo. But we had another big dump of snow last night and my driveway was impassable except on foot, and her friends, coming from Tokyo, had only brought sneakers. So we will have to wait until Friday to play together.
Meanwhile, how much snow do we need for one winter! Really now!
Today I actually spent the whole morning cleaning up my living room. I had been so busy the last few weeks that I have neglected everything other than painting and related tasks. At such times, the dining room table becomes (affectionately) my horizontal file, holding slides, magazines, unsorted mail, all which needs to be pushed aside at mealtimes. Before leaving for Montreal last week, I awoke very early and found myself folding and putting away laundry before the sun rose and I had to leave the house for a few days (again).
I had an interesting conversation with my dear friend Rowena recently. She was saying how she lets her house get a little more untidy when her husband is away. That she always leaves something, perhaps a teacup, on the counter, perhaps as a token of companionship. What kind of a life would you think I have had, what kind of a person am I by the way I keep my house in order, or lack thereof.
Rowena was saying that possibly someone who has everything in order may have nothing else to do, may lack connections. Maybe we feel sorry for them as there is no sign of ‘life’ and it is obvious that they are utterly alone. A clean and orderly house IS welcoming. Cleaning up is definitely showing movement. That something happened to make such a mess in my house is certain. But leaving it also shows a state of mind that is often seen as chaotic or what I usually feel, overwhelmed by all the presenting demands.
As a child (and I must admit, into my adulthood) cleaning up was never a priority. My mother would come into my room and empty the closet and dresser drawers and we would spend a day together putting things back with respect. I enjoyed our forays into order. I’ve always kept my kitchen in order. It helps in cooking without thinking too much. But my studio…………..I’d rather paint, any day. I do spend far too much time looking for something that I know is just “somewhere”.
But as time progresses and my life itself takes on more order, so does my house and cleaning up, putting things away, becomes easier. Usually. Cleaning up seems to be a way, in some sense, of making friends with mortality. I want my house in order when I die so that it will be easier on my children. I don’t want to feel I might want to apologize for my life. But there are always a few items that just don’t find a place. Like Rowena’s teacup on the counter, a reminder of the importance of a ‘life’ that is more than perfection.
My trip to Montreal last week was colored by the fact that I was reading Doris Lessing’s Love, Again. I hadn’t read anything of her writing for at least twenty years. It was both refreshing and frustrating reading. Her style is often very straight forward: he said, she said. Yet within that, she examines love from just about every angle as seen by a woman in her mid-sixties, from every view, that is, except that of sexual consummation. Hence, frustration. All the frustrations of being in love (in contrast to being “in love”), being “in lust”, differentiating the many facets of friendship, infatuation and love without the satisfaction of enduring love, holding someone close in your heart and body.
Intensely involved in a small theatre company, the woman, Sarah Durham, had put “that aspect” of her life away, feeling love was not part of her story any more. Coincidentally all the young men involved in the current production (which is about a woman all men love but cannot completely “have”) pursue her affections, stir the pot of “love’. It is an interesting stew, fascinating ingredients but not as enriching as I would have liked. I’m not sure I learned anything new about love (something I do think about and think I have experienced in many ways) but I did enjoy the ride on Sarah’s emotions. Perhaps Sarah was a richer person for having all the feelings (again) of love, but being alone (again) at the end of the book feels too much like real life. And probably that is what makes reading this book such an absorbing experience.
I was finally able to get back in my studio this morning. After so many interruptions--travel, school, snowstorms--it felt good that the paintings didn’t look strange or unforgiving for my absence. As if there is a thread that ties my life together no matter what kind of fabric I am using at the moment.
I’ve had a few days in Montreal, looking at lots of art, in museums and galleries. This trip I saw some very exciting exhibitions in the museums—from ancient clay sculptures to 20th century paintings and recent installation pieces. The one thing about Canada that causes concern for me for young students of art is that there is not much exposure to the old masters here or even to much of good contemporary art. Most of what is available to students is from slides and books. I was fortunate in living near the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. when I was young and to have a family that fostered visits to museums. As a teenager I spent hours looking at Vermeers and Rembrandts. I would go to the Gallery just to see Rembrandt's Girl with a Broom. When I was an undergraduate in Rhode Island, I saw a painting by Richard Diebenkorn, a painting of a young girl with a teacup, that changed the direction of my life, gave my desire to paint more conviction, more urgency. This painting moved me so deeply, by the way the light moved down her raised arm, the one holding the teacup, that I knew then the joy I felt from painting could be received as strongly by the viewer. I was thrilled to see that painting again a few years ago in San Francisco at a Diebenkorn retrospective exhibit. Some paintings just stay in my mind like old friends.
I'm off again on Wednesday, this time to Montreal for an exhibition. A group show. If you are in the area, please do stop by. The address of the gallery is Galerie d'Avignon, 102 Laurier Oest. The reception is 5 to 8 pm on March 10 and the exhibit is up until the 28th. I will show three paintings, one red, one yellow, one blue. Hope to see you there..........
Sum of Its Parts, No.4
I just returned from a lovely weekend in the country. Now, I do live in the country; I just went to a different part of the country, one farther north on the Fundy Shore, near Parrsboro. There was still lots of snow around:
A friend recently bought a cottage there, a one hundred year old house, small, but very lovely. It needs work yet is still easy enough to be in. That is, if you don’t mind no running water in the winter and no insulation in the walls. (Even with a wood stove, it was pretty cold at times.) It will be delightful in the summer (after the black flies leave). Blackberries and blueberries in abundance. Swimming and hiking, amazing vistas and friendly neighbors.
There is an outhouse:
My friend sent me on snow-shoes up to the crest of her hill to see the view which was spectacular. But I still seem to be more fascinated by what is more intimate:
Yesterday we went to various country stores and chatted with neighbors. It was raining and very beautiful.
It was nice to be away, to another country home, but it is so very nice to be in my own warm house with running water (I feel like I have brushed my teeth six times since I got home) and flush toilets.
Sometimes I think I have painted my last good painting. That a painting is so good I cannot possibly do anything as good or better. Even though I work on the same idea, use the same marks, images over and over, look at the same thing from many points of view, standing still, repeating myself, does not appeal. I want to see progress of some kind. I hear in my head: “There’s nothing new under the sun” yet ………..So what am I trying to do, something new for the sake of new, something better for the feeling that life continues? Mostly it is the ability, chance to challenge myself.
When I went down in my studio this morning I felt like I might never be able to fulfill my commitments, that everything I had started would never come together. It felt very discouraging. Things weren’t drying as fast as I had expected. Images were not coming out. Everything was at a starting point but the bell hadn’t rung. So instead of racing to the finish point, I just kept plodding along. By the end of a few hours I could actually see progress, something happening. Maybe even another good painting. I am stubborn, persistent, and there is tomorrow. And I never lose sight that today it is a privilege to be doing this.
Today is the three year anniversary of my dog Katie’s death. I still miss her. I don’t miss having a dog. I miss Katie. After many years of taking care of someone—two children, three dogs, three cats, two fish tanks, an assortment of rodents—when she died it felt like time to be without the need to think about another being for a while. But I still miss her.
Now I have a ceramic sculpture of a small red dog, about five inches long, sitting on my dining room table. Sometimes I pet the dog’s head. I often talk to her and tell her about my day. After Katie died, I told a friend who had cared for her, who had known her from family walks along the cliffs in Duncan’s Cove where we had lived. (The children had always asked if that “red dog” would be there to join them. And she usually was, eager for their company.) A few days later my friend brought me a present. It was a ceramic red dog, made by her fourteen year old daughter when she was nine. The sculpture looks just like Katie. Has her inquisitive, intelligent, knowing and playful expression. I was (and am) very grateful for this gift. I still miss Katie’s warm body and quirky ways but she is still here, having meals with me every day.
Katie at fifteen, a year before she died.
My dog of sixteen years died on March One.
She was not my best friend.
She had great needs
I could never do enough for her.
Not enough walks,
Not enough food,
Not enough friends.
Not enough excursions.
She was in love with the world,
I was not enough.
We rubbed against each other
And forced response.
Her spirit was very big.
My little house is very big
We were the best of friends.