It’s a testament to how crazy my life has been that I’m only posting the finished painting now — almost a year after completing it. Part of that can be explained by the its size and weight — it took 2 people to carry it outside to varnish and photograph, and 3 to hang it in our stairwell. But the real reason it’s taken me this long to post is more personal. In early June, my partner’s mother received a diagnosis of end-stage cancer, and we invited her to live at our home until she passed away on August 11. This was only the last chapter of a long and difficult year. As I mourn losses and slowly put the pieces back together in a new way, it seems an appropriate time to close out this blog with the finished painting. You can always view the process from beginning to end on the Progress link (right). I also created a separate page just for detail shots, since there are so many. Some of you may see your names in and among the imagery — I haven’t forgotten all my dear sponsors who helped fund the creation of this painting. You were with me every step of the way.
It’s titled “The Grand And Damaging Parade” after a line from a Kay Ryan poem. I chose this title long before death entered my life this year, but now it’s more fitting than ever. My paintings often make more sense after they’re complete — as if they prepare me, teach me, pave the way for what’s coming.
“Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard” by Kay Ryan
A life should leave
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
Her things should
keep her marks.
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space–
should be left scarred
by the grand and
be so hard.
Thank you for witnessing this process, and for your emails and support along the way. I’ve enjoyed sharing this project along the way. If you’re interested in my new work, I’ve posted recent paintings on my fine arts site. Please keep in touch!
Several months ago, I finished and signed the painting, and waited for it to dry so I could varnish it. But then one small thing started to bug me — the face of Snow, one of the cats. It didn’t look right. Normally I never change a painting after I’ve signed it — but this time, I couldn’t let it go. So I refused to say it was finished. It sat there untouched for six months, waiting for me to fix that one part. In the meantime, another cat entered our lives — Hermann, one of the outdoor ferals, was hit by a car, and we brought him inside to nurse him back to health. He adapted right away and is now part of our indoor cat family (which is separate from the outdoor cat family, who lie around the back yard waiting for meals to be delivered twice a day). And then I realized that if I didn’t finish the damn painting, I’d have to keep adding new cats! So last weekend I fixed Snow’s face. And now it’s finally, completely done. Just in case, though, I’m going to varnish it soon before I’m tempted to “fix” anything else. And when I do, I’ll upload new photos.
In the meantime, I’m including one of my favorite essays, by Vladimir Nabakov. It helped inspire this painting, which is all about angels — winged transgender angels; four-legged furry angels; unlikely homeless angels; as well as the miraculous angels of memory, grief, hope, and love. I meant to capture the feeling of cycles, of the coming to be and passing away of things. And that tremendous yearning for a glimpse of some beautiful, divine presence, whatever form it takes.
“THE WORD” by Vladimir Nabakov
Swept out of the valley night by an inspired oneiric wind, I stood at the edge of a road, under a clear pure-gold sky, in an extraordinary mountainous land. Without looking, I sensed the lustre, the angles, and the facets of immense mosaic cliffs, dazzling precipices, and the mirrorlike glint of multitudinous lakes lying somewhere below, behind me. My soul was seized by a sense of heavenly iridescence, freedom, and loftiness: I knew that I was in Paradise. Yet, within this earthly soul, a single earthly thought rose like a piercing flame—and how jealously, how grimly I guarded it from the aura of gigantic beauty that surrounded me. This thought, this naked flame of suffering, was the thought of my earthly homeland. Barefoot and penniless, at the edge of a mountain road, I awaited the kind, luminous denizens of Heaven, while a wind, like the foretaste of a miracle, played in my hair, filled the gorges with a crystal hum, and ruffled the fabled silks of the trees that blossomed amid the cliffs lining the road. Tall grasses lapped at the tree trunks like tongues of fire; large flowers broke smoothly from the glittering branches and, like airborne goblets brimming with sunlight, glided through the air, puffing out their translucent convex petals. Their sweet, damp aroma reminded me of all the finest things I had experienced in my life.
Suddenly, the road on which I stood, breathless from the shimmer, was filled with a tempest of wings. Swarming out of the blinding depths came the angels I awaited, their folded wings pointing sharply upward. Their tread was ethereal; they were like colored clouds in motion, and their transparent visages were motionless except for the rapturous tremor of their radiant lashes. Among them, turquoise birds flew with peals of happy girlish laughter, and lithe orange animals loped, fantastically speckled with black. The creatures coiled through the air, silently thrusting out their satin paws to catch the airborne flowers as they circled and soared, pressing past me with flashing eyes.
Wings, wings, wings! How can I describe their convolutions and their tints? They were all-powerful and soft—tawny, purple, deep blue, velvety black, with fiery dust on the rounded tips of their bowed feathers. Like precipitous clouds they stood, imperiously poised above the angels’ luminous shoulders; now and then an angel, in a kind of marvellous transport, as if unable to restrain his bliss, suddenly, for a single instant, unfurled his winged beauty, and it was like a burst of sunlight, like the sparkling of millions of eyes.
They passed in throngs, glancing heavenward. Their eyes were like jubilant chasms, and in those eyes I saw the syncope of flight. They came with gliding step, showered with flowers. The flowers spilled their humid sheen in flight; the sleek, bright beasts played, whirling and climbing; the birds chimed with bliss, soaring and dipping. I, a blinded, quaking beggar, stood at the edge of the road, and within my beggar’s soul the selfsame thought kept prattling: Cry out to them, tell them—oh, tell them that on the most splendid of God’s stars there is a land—my land—that is dying in agonizing darkness. I had the sense that, if I could grasp with my hand but one quivering shimmer, I would bring to my country such joy that human souls would instantly be illumined, and would circle beneath the plash and crackle of resurrected springtime, to the golden thunder of reawakened temples.
Reaching out with trembling hands, striving to bar the angels’ path, I began clutching at the hems of their bright chasubles, at the undulating, torrid fringes of their curved wings, which slipped through my fingers like downy flowers. I moaned, I dashed about, I deliriously beseeched their indulgence, but the angels trod ever forward, oblivious of me, their chiselled faces turned upward. They streamed in hosts to a heavenly feast, into an unendurably resplendent glade, where roiled and breathed a divinity about which I dared not think. I saw fiery cobwebs, splashes, designs on gigantic crimson, russet, violet wings, and, above me, a downy rustling passed in waves. The rainbow-crowned turquoise birds pecked, the flowers floated off from shiny boughs. “Wait, hear me out!” I cried, trying to embrace an angel’s vaporous legs, but the feet, impalpable, unstoppable, slipped through my extended hands, and the borders of the broad wings only scorched my lips as they swept past. In the distance, a golden clearing between lush, vivid cliffs was filling with the surging storm; the angels were receding; the birds ceased their high-pitched agitated laughter; the flowers no longer flew from the trees; I grew feeble, I fell mute. . . .
Then a miracle occurred. One of the last angels lingered, turned, and quietly approached me. I caught sight of his cavernous, staring, diamond eyes under the imposing arches of his brows. On the ribs of his outspread wings glistened what seemed like frost. The wings themselves were gray, an ineffable tint of gray, and each feather ended in a silvery sickle. His visage, the faintly smiling outline of his lips, and his straight clear forehead reminded me of features I had seen on earth. The curves, the gleaming, the charm of all the faces I had ever loved—the features of people who had long since departed from me—seemed to merge into one wondrous countenance. All the familiar sounds that came separately into contact with my hearing now seemed to blend into a single, perfect melody.
He came up to me. He smiled. I could not look at him. But, glancing at his legs, I noticed a network of azure veins on his feet and one pale birthmark. From these veins, from that little spot, I understood that he had not yet totally abandoned earth, that he might understand my prayer.
Then, bending my head, pressing my singed palms, smeared with bright clay, to my half-blinded eyes, I began recounting my sorrows. I wanted to explain how wondrous my land was, and how horrid its black syncope, but I did not find the words I needed. Hurrying, repeating myself, I babbled about trifles, about some burned-down house where once the sunny sheen of parquet had been reflected in an inclined mirror. I prattled of old books and old lindens, of knickknacks, of my first poems in a cobalt schoolboy notebook, of some gray boulder, overgrown with wild raspberries, in the middle of a field filled with scabiosa and daisies—but the most important thing I simply could not express. I grew confused, I stopped short, I began anew, and again, in my helpless, rapid speech, I spoke of rooms in a cool and resonant country house, of lindens, of my first love, of bumblebees sleeping on the scabiosa. It seemed to me that any minute—any minute!—I would get to what was most important, I would explain the whole sorrow of my homeland. But for some reason I could remember only minute, quite mundane things that were unable to speak or weep those corpulent, burning, terrible tears, about which I wanted to but could not tell. . . .
I fell silent, raised my head. The angel smiled a quiet, attentive smile, gazed fixedly at me with his elongated diamond eyes. I felt he understood me.
“Forgive me,” I exclaimed, meekly kissing the birthmark on his light-hued foot. “Forgive that I am capable of speaking only about the ephemeral, the trivial. You understand, though, my kindhearted, my gray angel. Answer me, help me, tell me, what can save my land?”
Embracing my shoulders for an instant with his dovelike wings, the angel pronounced a single word, and in his voice I recognized all those beloved, those silenced voices. The word he spoke was so marvellous that, with a sigh, I closed my eyes and bowed my head still lower. The fragrance and the melody of the word spread through my veins, rose like a sun within my brain; the countless cavities within my consciousness caught up and repeated its lustrous edenic song. I was filled with it. Like a taut knot, it beat within my temple, its dampness trembled upon my lashes, its sweet chill fanned through my hair, and it poured heavenly warmth over my heart.
I shouted it, I revelled in its every syllable, I violently cast up my eyes, which were filled with the radiant rainbows of joyous tears. . . .
Oh, Lord—the winter dawn glows greenish in the window, and I remember not what word it was that I shouted.
After a long period of juggling work, school, and personal commitments, I finally returned to painting. The pent-up energy poured out fast, and I almost finished the image. I just have to complete the self-portrait and cats, and add a few more touches throughout. I only have two more names to paint in, so if you haven’t yet sponsored and want your name in the final image, now is the time (click here).
I have no idea why I had to change the self-portrait figure this way. Sometimes when I’m painting, an urge comes over me to do something, and I don’t understand it until later. All I knew was that I didn’t want to paint a literal naked me — nor did I want to add clothes. So I had an idea to apply a layer of gold paint and then dig into it with the brush and palette knife. Now it’s in that phase where it’s disturbing me a little, because it doesn’t look like it did, and yet I’m not sure where it’s going.
But I trust it will end up where it’s supposed to. This painting is about the energy inside things, the connections and life force, rather than actual surfaces like skin and features — which tie us to a specific physical location and time. When I paint, I feel the “oneness” of things, the eternalness, and for a short time, it all makes sense. I try to capture that somehow in paint, using recognizable imagery but deconstructing it into light, movement, texture and color. Then I put the brush down, come in the next day, and slip back into doubt. I wonder what the heck I was thinking. Until someone steps into my studio and says, “wow.” That’s when I know the energy is still there in the canvas. These radical changes, however unsettling they might seem, are a necessary part of keeping that energy alive.
So hang in there with me, I only have a few posts left before I can say I’m done. I’ll send a few more goodies about process and inspiration, and maybe some fun studio photos!
I recently added a thick layer of pure ultramarine blue along the bottom right and center, and it made the image really bright. I also carved names and phrases into the paint. Now the homeless guy is more obscured, as if underwater. I scrolled through the earlier versions of these images, and noticed how much more realistic they used to look. Once I render an image, I like to dig in and mess it up — to deconstruct the shapes, get beyond the surface, discover the invisible “stuff” that animates things and connects one thing to another. What’s most interesting to me about this painting is not the figures themselves, but the space in between, how it teems with life even if it appears to be “empty.” That’s where all the magic happens. Otherwise, it would just be a painting of people (and cats) floating in space, perfectly rendered, isolated in their own little worlds.
Closeup of that family in front of a burning house
I painted last weekend, and now I feel like the top portion of the canvas, including the angel, is almost done. I’m really happy with the texture and energy. I’ve painted in many of the names already. It’s getting closer to being finished!
(A glimpse of my palette in use)
I’m a big fan of lists. I tell myself they’re crucial to organizing the chaos and not just another procrastination technique. Yesterday, as I sat before my canvas, procrastinating, I wrote this:
“Why do I paint? What purpose does it serve?
To express what has to come out.
To express emotions, viewpoints, experiences, memories, perceptions.
To respond to the world around me.
To document my life; to tell stories.
To become visible.
To relieve internal pressure.
Because I have to!
My work is a narrative expression of my inner world interacting with/projected onto the outer world, both spiritual and mundane.”
I often write lists like these. Maybe because I’m trying to understand, or justify, why I spent so much of my time, money, and energy creating things that seem to have no direct usefulness in the world. Other than a house full of paintings, I have nothing to show for twenty years of personal work — no reputation, no savings, no gallery. I’m not talking about my Disney art, which has (ironically) garnered a following and generated income, however irregular. I’m talking about this painting, my other paintings, my writing — all those creative endeavors that consume me for a period of time until the next things takes over. While other people spend their weekends and free time shopping, exercising, seeing movies or enjoying life, I’m in my studio painting or writing, creating things I don’t sell and rarely show. Some might say, but that’s what you enjoy — and yes, it is my preferred activity, but it’s also a compulsion that I can’t suppress or avoid. In fact, if I don’t create for a few weeks, I get agitated. I read somewhere once that creative people are more prone to depression and mental disorders — something to do with dopamine and the structure of the brain. It’s also what enables “thinking outside the box” and “brainstorming.” I often feel like that: like there’s a storm in my brain. And painting is the only thing that relieves it. Even if only a few dozen people see my art — even if I’m flabby and pale, anti-social, and broke — I still have to create. I could say I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I don’t really have a choice.
Then again, there’s another way to tell this story: I have the rare privilege of knowing what I MUST do , and I have the skill and means to carry it out. I’ve built my life around the pursuit of creativity, and I manage to maintain it, year after year. I love creating art. I feel connected to other artists throughout history, and my life and work have meaning to me. Dancing with my Muse is the closest I come to experiencing a divine force. Plus I’m completely unsuited for a normal job, so I’ve found work that keeps me occupied and allows me to remain independent and flexible.
See, after twenty years of painting, I’ve learned that I can’t dwell too long in the lows — eventually, I have to focus on the positive. Otherwise, I’ll never even pick up the brush.
Happy MLK Day. May the revolution live on in our hearts.
Yesterday was 1/1/11 — a day of new beginnings. I feel like I’m finally ready to finish this painting and start a new project. This week I worked on the homeless guy in the bottom right corner. I started by tracing the old figure, re-working it in the drawing, then transferring back to canvas and re-painting. Next I want to touch up the self-portrait and all those kitties. The last thing I’ll do is paint in all the names. I’ve tried painting them along the way, but they get covered up with every new layer, so I’ve decided to wait until the end.
Happy 2011 to all of you!
I saw a photo recently of a bombed-out building, and knew immediately I wanted to reference that in the painting. So I added something to that effect on the right — only more colorful. I had fun scooping on big chunks of paint. I also tightened up the arm of my 3-faced woman (me), and did some push-pull along the top — that’s where I go back and forth between light and dark, picking up shapes that have begun to form on their own, and toning down areas that want to drop back. Yes, the painting is doing the work now — I just listen and obey.
I was surprised at the recent layer: an explosion of red. I was meditating before painting, and the image came to me so strongly that I had to get up, go into the studio, and pour Alizarin Crimson all across the top half of the canvas. Sometimes the urge to paint is very feverish. This feels like an in-between phase; I want to add more yellow and white, work the red back and forth. But it insisted on coming out this way. New figures are appearing on their own — which is one of the ways I know it’s getting closer to being done .
I painted all day Sunday and fell in love with the piece again. One strong layer of Fra Angelica Blue united the imagery and immersed it in a dreamy sea. I dug into the surface a little and built up some texture.
I also re-named the piece. “Apotheosis” felt right at the beginning, but now I like “The Grand and Damaging Parade”. I got the line from one of my favorite Kay Ryan poems. Most of my painting inspiration comes from music, poetry and literature — and this piece is heavily influenced by Ryan’s work, as well as Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” (his terrible angels!). The ghostly jellyfish along the bottom left come from another Ryan poem, called “Tune”:
Imagine a sea
as soft as moons.
tunes of drifting things.
This is the deep machine
that powers the lamps
of dreams and accounts
for their bluish tint.
How can something
so grand and serene
vanish again and again
without a hint?