Art in Layers

I’ve noticed a trend as, trying to find my voice and my style, I’ve painted with a mentor over this last year. The paintings that have been the most satisfying still seem to occur by accident. There’s more intention in the way that I work each day – starting with reckless abandon, trying to find the joy, then looking for the element in the moment that compels me. Very often, however, the paintings I like the best of the ones that emerge through layers of missteps and experiments. The final piece is scarred with evidence of prior experiments and discoveries poking through.

The realization came to me while we were in Rome at the beginning of July. My husband and I, both keenly aware of that Thing1’s impending move to the big city signaled that opportunities for family vacations are dwindling and booked a trip for the four of us. I got off the plane hoping for days of watercolor sketching, but, wandering a city filled with sights that compel you, I struggled to hone in on one thing. 

As we wandered from Imperial ruins to medieval neighborhoods and collections of renaissance art, however, the intense blue of the sky brought the colored stucco into sharp relief. At first I thought the pinks and yellows and oranges were the compelling elements, but, as I sketched the doorway of our apartment, noticing the layers of history between the wall and the cornices, I realized how Rome had cast such a powerful spell. 

It was the same reason that authors written about — the city is always changing and evolving, but the scars of history are never completely erased. A fresh coat of stucco doesn’t completely hide cracks from the layers below or the stonework that forms the original structure of a wall. Medieval timbers may form the ceiling of an apartment with 200 year old windows and conduits for ethernet or electrical cables. 

The city exists in layers, and that is what I ended up painting when we got home.  I had been painting it for months without realizing it, and painting those scars and reminders of all my mistakes and little victories has turned out to be the the best expression of who I am as an artist — and a person.

Walking to First

It’s the end of day 7.

This time last week I was voluntarily getting hit by the chemical equivalent of a baseball bat to the inner ear and brain to try and get some of my old life back, and, after a day or two of delayed side effects, did what any batter who gets hit would do. I took the walk.

Now, at the end of day 7, I’m slowly crawling to first base. The fog is starting to clear bit by bit.

I’m heading back to work tomorrow, regardless of the wisdom of that idea. I’ll be sitting on first, waiting for the signal to start running again, but, after the cathartic weekend of painting that preceded the bat to the ear, I know exactly how it will feel.

It won’t be a feverish productivity or blur of activity. It will be when the need to pick up the brush cuts through the spinning fog. It won’t feel like guilt for having neglected work or art. It will feel like a lifeline pulling me in.

The Not So Bad

Most of the time I hate Ménière’s disease. When you’re not being violently rocked as you try to get to sleep at night, you are hugging the floor trying to get the world to stop looking like a ceiling fan that gets stuck on a quarter turn, and then resets itself before Turning again. There are perverse times, however, like right now, When the salts and crystals in my inner ear, create the sensation of being on a an inflatable raft on Lake Michigan on a gentle wave kind of day.

In two weeks. I’m going into the hospital to have a procedure that will probably cost a good amount of hearing in the affected ear in exchange for getting my life back. The trade is going to make it easier to drive and work with some stability. Even though I won’t miss the vertigo and the falls, I’m trying to commit tonight’s gentle wave sensation to memory. It’s a lesson that even the things that make life really hard sometimes, can bring an unexpected smile to your face.

Talking to Spring

Talking to Spring, 20″ x 20″, Oil on Canvas
Click Here if you would like this painting to live on your wall.

It’s been in the 40s and 50s the last couple of days, and even though there are some sizable snowbanks left, it feels like Mother Nature is ready to keep her annual promise.

The light is changing. it lasts longer every day. It seems as if there are even more critters crawling around in the dark outside. 

Suddenly, the forest that seemed populated only by the wind a few weeks ago, is teaming with life again.

How Do You Do?

Once upon a time I saw myself as (primarily) a writer, and I did my morning pages every day for work without fail.

Nowadays my job starts earlier, and there is no time for morning pages or sketches. Sometimes that disconnects me from art like a bird not flying for a day, and then two, and then ten.

I know if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a creator too, so my question to the zeitgeist on this rainy afternoon is, when do you make your morning pages happen?

Spring Cleaning

Clearing

I’d read the same paragraph about neuroplasticity three times and been unable to remember what the major point when I made the decision to kill off a part of myself. I did it with a tiny little pill. It will be a drawn out death, but it’s not a murder. It’s self-defense.

For as long as I can remember, a highly structured, complex fantasy world has occupied a good portion of my brain. Psychiatry journals tell me I use it to cope with anxiety and PTSD that I should be old and experienced enough to manage without a tiny little pill. But, as I annotated another article on the miracles and vulnerabilities of the human brain, I realized that by letting my cranial amusement park stay open, I’m a hypocrite.

My still embryonic career as a special educator has focused on children with intensive needs, specifically children with behavioral and mental health issues. I’ve been where many of them are. They’re my tribe. But the most important part of my job is to helping them be present in the world — something I’ve lacked the courage to do consistently. To be present for them, I know I have to be present for myself.

I’ve had the the pills (and several other similar prescriptions) in my pill drawer for a few weeks now. I’ve told myself I’m holding off to make sure the side effects don’t get in the way of work, but, after reading a paragraph three times because I keep returning to the fantasy world, I realized things are already getting in the way of the first truly meaningful professional experiences of my life. The fantasy world even gets in the way of making art.

There are things that get in the way of work and life that you can’t control like a chronic illness. I’m starting to accept mine, albeit ungracefully. But there are the things that you can control, and all of that control starts with being honest with yourself. Honest that mania and depression do not improve your creativity; they keep you from picking up the brush. They are not the inevitable byproduct of discovering a very real disability; they are the excuse to wallow in the fantasy world.

Killing that world is scary. It means cutting off and escape from reality. It’s even scarier than admitting that, in your fifties, you have the fantasy world in the first place. But, today, the realization that it, and not any disability, could keep me from doing the things I desperately want to do, meant that it, like a tumor, had to be irradiated.

Conscious Detachment

I’m doing a very different set of paintings right now. Winter seems to be losing its grip, the light is glorious as the angle of the sun shifts, but I am still stuck in my inner world. It’s the one I find myself painting recently because, for the first time ever, I have found the perfect medium for it.

My inner world could only be called abstract. The stories in my head could only be sketched as  chaos — documented fodder for a future commitment hearing. Giving into that world when I am in front of an easel, however, casts new light on the value of retreating from the world.

Everyday I work to help kids who are not neurotypical manage stereotypical behaviors that are barriers to educational and social development — not always but still too often because of a world that fears any behavior that isn’t “normal”. As a special educator and a doctoral student studying behavior, I understand the importance of helping children interact with their surroundings and with society. As someone who has lived with her own atypical her behaviors, however, I sometimes feel like a hypocrite.

My own inner world is vast and complex. I am always mindful not to wade into the undertow, but, as I’m dancing in front of the easel to a random playlist, splashing my feet in the foamy fantasy, tension from the last few weeks dissolves. I stop worrying about being too fat, about endless to-do lists, and budgets. 

Conscious detachment from the “real“ world, aided by brush and paint, soothes body and brain. It leaves me alone with my frailties but also my strengths. Problems become manageable, and the same behavior that sometimes has me and the world holding each other at arm’s length becomes a secret weapon. 

And I remember why so many children with behavioral issues revert inward in the first place.

I know my job is to help kids self soothe with intention rather than isolation and possibly perseverate on an issue. It’s an important concept to master for anyone, but it makes me wonder if our societal worship of “normal“ and of being constantly entertained and occupied, is training us out of the ability to be alone with ourselves, and to be calmed by that.

Incubation

I used to think about December as the beginning of hibernation. Creative output always seems to slow down as the days get shorter, and work seems far more intrusive than it does in the crackling light of autumn.

For last last few weeks my output has followed the same trend. It took me a while to recognize the pattern because I initially blamed the slowdown the Ménière’s disease that’s been with me in earnest for a year now. Yesterday, though, as I drove down the mountain and had to stop and catch my breath as fast moving clouds dusted with powdered sugar the top of a mountain across the river, I realized that this time of year is not solely about hibernating.

To catch that moment, you would’ve had to be in the exact spot at the exact time with me. The peak of the mountain is almost hidden by two others that “overlap“ each other in the view that is only seen when coming down the road from our remote town to a “main“ route. The moment sparked attempts to repeats – something that shouldn’t be too difficult in Southwestern vermont in the winter – but it was the only one that day. The moment and the search germinated hours of wonder and reading and discovery.

What do I want to capture when I paint or draw? Moments of breathlessness? Revelations of the grit that lies at the foot of these mountains? Or appreciation of one the few places humans haven’t tamed?

Tonight will be occupied with the work of work, but in the back of my brain, the next painting session is germinating. It occurred to me that every racing thought, every quiet space that arrives with the dark of winter is not about hibernating through depression. Instead that darkness may just be the needed incubation for what will come next.

Connecting to Inspiration

Last Dance, 14″ x 14″, Oil on Canvas, Click Here if you would like this painting to live on your wall.

Several days into break, I was still having trouble mentally disconnecting from work and reconnecting with family and creative life. Our family had chosen to skip the bacchanalia of presents under the tree, filling each others’ stockings with small items instead. We had all enjoyed shifting focus away from obsessive shopping, but, even as we enjoyed a low-key day and prepared for a lovely family meal in Columbus, Ohio, I was in limbo.

But my present was about to arrive.

My parents had invited friends — a professor and an artist – to join us for Christmas dinner. We had known of each other for years, and the two sets of strangers were friends by the time coats were hung. The professor chatted with the rest of the family in the kitchen, while the artist and I brought hors d’oeuvres over to the living room.

The artist is also a professor, and, through my parents, knew that I painted and drew. We had barely traded cheese and crackers before she asked about my work. I had seen some of her work and, knowing she was a serious and classically-trained artist, was a bit nervous showing photos of some of my work. Like most of the committed artists I’ve known, however, she was genuinely interested in seeing others’ work.

“I’m getting away from landscapes,” I said as she scrolled through images of mountains and trees and then through abstract images. I explained a desire to make art that was more than decorative. “I connect with nature when I paint them in real life, but it still inspires the abstract,” I told her.

“I love landscapes,” she said. “I don’t paint them very much.” She told me about her work painting portraits before teaching and creating more abstract pieces. We talked more about creating work with meaning, and then she said, “I like nature, but I don’t really connect with it. It doesn’t inspire me.”

She told me about her recent work painting flowers using a more academic approach and how her search for castoffs from grocery florists had added a new facet to her project. As she talked about mountains of plastic and dying flowers that were thrown away each week, it occurred to me that her project was as much an investigation and revelation as it was the result of inspiration.

My brain was suddenly churning, and, for the first time in weeks, it was from enthusiasm rather than apprehension. Dinner preparations and the gathering of other guests in the living room were about to redirect the conversation, and we dug in deeper for a last few intimate moments of art talk. We talked about giants of art like William and Elaine de Kooning, Pollack and Krasner, who had found inspiration but also frustration in nature, and I began to think of how much of art emanated not from waiting for an impulse from something beautiful but from seeking and investigating.

The Big Guy and Thing1 and 2 and I continued talking about the ways a creative spark is fanned as we drove back to our hotel after dinner. We were still talking about it when we drove home from Ohio a few days later.

As we plodded through miles of shopping malls to get from our hotel to the highway, I realized how difficult it might be to pack up a plein air kit and connect with the natural world there. In a landscape of strip malls, an artist has to create their own vision.

Years of being surrounded by mountains and woods have made made connecting with inspiration easy for me, and I wondered if it had made me lazy as well. Waiting for it to hit, rather than seeking out revelation also made it easier for anxiety to settle in where creativity should have been raging during the downtime.

My mom’s friend had inadvertently given me the best Christmas gift any artist could give another. She had opened a window to a new way to connect with creativity.

New Rule

The alarm is set for 8 o’clock. It’s just past midnight, and I am staring at the ceiling, my eyes glued wide open. For once, neither I nor the ceiling are spinning, but nobody has managed to get the gremlins in my head to stand down.

The last few weeks have been defined by bouts of Ménière’s-related vertigo that have forced me to use a wheelchair to keep from falling down at work and to depend on other people to get me from point a to point B. At home this translates into far too much time spent on the couch watching reruns while mindlessly doom scrolling through text and images that I’m far too nauseous to absorb beyond a headline here or there.

When the fog clears, I try to paint – especially when the gremlin are keeping sleep away. Sitting and scrolling are becoming far too habitual, however.

This morning – it’s morning now –– I’m out of thinner for my paint. I’m desperate so I get up and fill the tub, grab the first book I see in my office and sink into the bubbles.

It’s not a novel. It’s a book about the history of English which turns out to be great. I expect to be engaged, entertained, and sooth, when I read fiction, but I’m surprised how relaxing it is to learn something new at two in the morning. I’m having the age old problem of not being able to put the book down, but it’s a different sensation from scrolling through toxic pages of social media posts.

Scrolling is turns my body into a clenched fist.

Each turned page, however, slows my heart rate. Each new factoid relaxes another muscle.

The book may keep me up all night, but I’m not worried about being worn out in the morning. The clarity that comes only from calm has helped me make a new rule. The next time anxiety tempts me to pick up the phone and scroll, I’ll grab a book instead.