Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Placement of Things

I have been putting this blog together, taking it apart, restructuring it and re-working it again and again over the past few days. Granted, the landscape might have helped with this: I spent Sunday night and most of Monday honoring American Presidents by sleeping, walking, bathing, hiking, photographing and all sorts of other verb-ing in the Desatoya Range in Eastern(ish) Nevada. It's a beautiful place, but if you are into things like trees and lush greenery, I think you might be in shock, feeling naked maybe, the first time you go. But there is something about an empty landscape, though, that opens up and that (for me, at least) allows my thoughts to breathe.

The large spaces invite the intrusion of thought.

And my thoughts, such as they are, are many. 

I don't know if I have written about this much (or as much as I'd usually do) but I've finally done it: I signed up for a full Ironman race. I'll be doing Coeur d'Alene this year-- a venue I'm excited about, actually-- and my goal, this time, is simply to have fun and to finish. But being who I am, I want to do well, too, and I think that's where this blog post actually begins. Because for me "having fun" translates into "doing well" and "doing well" means actually placing and once you place, it might as well be first, right? And what good is winning your age group compared to actually all-out-winning and so goes my slippery slope until it's Wednesday of last week and I strain my Achilles on a silly mobility run during my lunch break.

No biggie, right?

Well, then I come back to a meeting that I am supposed to head and no one has read the document I created and no one knows what to say and I know that my boss thinks that I have failed-- and that is when the sharp pangs begin. Pain in my back and ribs so horrible I can't even begin to describe it. I can only say that it was not possible to sit up straight in my chair in the conference room any longer and it was all I could do to breathe.

My co-workers threatened to take me to the nearest Urgent Care so much that I ended up taking myself.  

The nurse was had a blonde-chin length bob with her hair held back from her face with a gigantic red and white polka dot bow. But she nearly made me cry with her questions.

If I was happy. 

If I have to train so much. 

If I have anyone to talk to. 

"Your eyes are so sad," she said.

Who knew mini lilly pads grow in the Desatoya Range beneath Aspen Trees?

And I do what I usually do in that situation: I mumble something polite and offer a half smile as if to say oh gosh, silly me. It's just my Achilles again. 

But I knew-- and know-- it wasn't and isn't. 

Which brings me to Sunday, the night of the Literary Arts & Wine reading-- the reading series I started after I was newly single and terrified of not-writing any more. It wasn't the best-thought-out plan I'd ever had, but somehow I thought if I had least had to show up somewhere once a month having written something, life would somehow continue and I wouldn't simply curl into a round, dead thing in the center of my living room floor.

I read a piece I have been working on for a long time. 

I wrote the first draft back in 2010 but took it up again this winter when I realized the things I was saying about the nature of time and the placement of emotions and meaning in our lives shift as we age. Of course, I used my running as an example of this-- how there was a time in my life that running meant more than any other thing and sometimes when I go for a run, that old feeling creeps back up and I get excited about the sport again. But no matter how often I feel that tug, there is the ever-present realization that I am not a teenager anymore, than I am not a runner in any sense of the word, that my life has moved beyond that time, in part, because I was able to live it when I did.

Aspen trees-- bare of leaves-- imagery I used to mark the passage of time in the essay I read that was a really big flop.

It's not a very complicated thought, granted-- it was a piece about getting older, I guess-- but I had hoped for more out of myself.  A better reading, a clearer articulation of my words, a better outfit that didn't make me look like I weigh 500 pounds and, honestly, as I read to a room of strangers, I really just wished that there was another writer there to connect with, who could appreciate my work and look beyond the fact that it's just "sports crap."

But then again, maybe "sports crap" is all I write and all I have written for years. 

So, out there in Eastern Nevada as my eyes found new landscapes, new mountains, new aspen groves and new qualities of light, I began to wonder if it isn't time to put my athletics in a different place than at the center of my life. Even in my life as a writer.

I still want to find a way to write about endurance events and I hope for my own sake, one day, I do. For now, though, I think it's best that I take a hiatus from the attempt so I'll be away from this blog for a while.

Thank you for reading, if you have. Your attention and time means more to me than I can possibly express.

Maybe I'll be back?

I have a feeling I will be when I discover the proper placement of things.

The world viewed from a busted-up-wreck-of-a-building. The light is all wrong, but the idea behind it is why I post this picture. Maybe, when it's time, the image in the window will be in focus. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Nature of Influence

For some reason, I'm really struggling with the third day of this five day Art Challenge to basically create, post, ruminate, and reflect on all things artistic. Maybe a part of the a struggle is that my blood is still in my legs from today's long ride on the CompuTrainer or the fact that (as I mentioned in the past from yesterday) that I am not producing work to display, explain, reflect and pontificate about at length. 

So... what to do?

For whatever reason (and I'm not even going to attempt to explain the strange inner workings of my brain) I fell onto the subject of influence because what would art be-- or what would anything be, really-- if not for inspiration, interaction and the product that is a result of those two things? 


Poet T.S. Eliot and critic Harold Bloom both wrote extensively about the importance-- or, necessity-- of influence in the literary arts. It is unarguably equally important to the visual and musical arts as well. But as I sit here at my desk after a long ride (and struggling to find the right words and references in this dusty frame of mind) I can't help but wonder if we aren't always creatures of influence in nearly every facet of our lives.  

Americans, typically, prefer to inhabit the discourse of individualism, the "self-made-man", the working up from your bootstraps and all of that-- which is fine, of course. But I think there is a certain element of our beings that is always social-- that is always gleaning information from past or present "outside sources"-- that leads me to believe you can't ever be fully separate from others no matter how hard you try. Even to be a hermit, one delves into the idea of a hermit which recalls a body of literature, a history, a psychological and/or sociological "type", a set of moral, ethical and (perhaps) spiritual values... I think you get the point. 

Despite the connections made more easy with technology (social media outlets, smart phones) I still think there is something necessarily "connected" about existence. You are never without the things you've seen and read; never without the inspiration (or angst) that comes from knowing others have come before you, performed or lived a certain way, thought certain things, described a landscape in one way or another, fought and died on a battlefield and how not only the ground is hallow but the meaning of the memory and the way in which a culture subscribes to the value of those past actions, is. 

Enter: Art.  

Even though I have artistic people in my life-- in my family, even-- if you were to ask me which artist has influenced me the most, I would answer: Chuck Close.  I don't know him personally and have only seen one of his works in person and yet  his work speaks to me on an aesthetic as well as a philosophic level. 

For those of you who don't know his work, I would urge you to look him up. Read his bio. Watch the evolution of the production of his hands. I can only say that the evolution from photorealist to-- well, postmodern cubist? (I'm trying to use my own limited terminology here and not borrow that of art critics so forgive me) is inspiring. 

When his body began to fail, he could no longer create the large format realistic portraits that had formed the foundation of his careers as an artist. While this might seem like a real impediment to most people, Close decided to change his work to fit his physical condition. And in so doing, he created a new kind of "portraiture"-- one that, ultimately, contains a more authentic feel and a more intimate understanding of shadow, light and color. 

His work is now composed of squares. From a considerable distance, it appears as though he is still panting portraits. 

Chuck Close's work from afar...
Up close,  though, it is patterns, lines, squares. 

And this is what it looks like "up close" so to speak. 

As an athlete, I admire his ability to find a solution in a situation where most people would simply give up and do something else. As a writer, I am fascinated by the solution he found: one in which a handicap was not a handicap but instead a method to produce something new and interesting. 


And what has this to do with me? 

Sometimes (or, a lot of the time, especially recently) training for the Ironman feels like a journey of discovering my weak spots-- my faults. There are days I am sore and tired; there are days I don't want to swim at 5:30 am or run during my lunch break at work or ride my bike indoors. But those are the most important days: I watch the "masters' of this sport and I am inspired, constantly, by their dedication. I am inspired by the people I train with (in the pool, on the bike, in the gym, on the road) and I'm not sure I would be able to put in the volume I do without them. 

They are the squares which form the self-portrait of me, writ. Ironman.  Come June 28th in Coeur d'Alene, I really hope I will be able to express how grateful I am to each and every one of them.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Where does the ART come from?

This blog post is inspired by a facebook post which was inspired by a writer I'm beyond lucky to call my friend, Kelsay Myers. Kelsay and I were colleagues in the MFA program at Saint Mary's College where we both received degrees in Nonficton Writing in 2012. Kelsay went on to receive a second MFA with a focus on poetry while I ventured into the "real" world where I worked a series of extremely odd jobs, learned how to swim and started dreaming Ironman dreams.

In 2015 (now): Kelsay teaches writing courses in the bay and has taken part in several art installations and art shows around the San Francisco Area. I'm back in Reno and back (more or less) as an athlete as well. But our paths crossed recently (albeit electronically) a few days ago when Kelsay tagged me in something called the "5-Day Art Challenge" which basically asks participants to contemplate and post something artistic-- or, some artistic production-- every day for five days in a row.

"Blackwood in Blue", colored pencil, 2005

I don't know why I decided to follow this particular challenge (as a rule, I usually don't take part) but there was something about the nature of thinking about my life "artistically" that made me not only want to post that I was in for the challenge but that has also made me want to turn these into a series of blog entries as well.

I think part of it comes from the fact that art was a really important part of my life growing up and as the demands of Ironman (and of adult life) encroach on those moments of silent contemplation (otherwise known as doing nothing), I don't have time for the art anymore.  Maybe this feeds into my overall feeling of "blah" or the questioning I force onto those of you who read and follow me here.

What is our purpose but the very things we do, every day? Many times I've asked: can I be a runner if I don't run (due to injury)? Is an athlete only an athlete when they are performing or racing? So too, I often wonder, am I an artist still or aren't I?

Maybe identity is both fluid and solid. We are what we do, of course. But then there's the realm of memory, those childhood scenes we return to again and again, those moments we point to and say: this is why I am the way I am. We all have them. And for me, several of those moments literally involve art.

My grandmother was a painter. She had a studio and her work was displayed and sold in a gallery at the Kit Carson Lodge (my family's business long, long ago.)  She did a lot of landscapes, in part, because my dad was dabbling in photography and would take pictures of the surrounding landscape that he would develop and from which she would create her work (which was always oil on canvas.)

My earliest memories involve her studio and the smell of oil paints. The sharp afternoon sunlight through the sliding glass windows and onto the white carpet (how she used oil paints on white carpet without getting it all over the place, I'll never know.)

By that time, her compositions had evolved beyond the landscape and were, most often, depictions of female nudes and of Native American women--mothers-- from the southwest.  There wasn't really much for a kid to do in a studio and so I can't explain why I always went down there to sit in the middle of the room, gazing up at the walls, but I did. It felt like a sacred space to me, a place where magic happened. A place where a bare, white canvas came to life.

She came to stay with us in the wintertime when I was eleven years old. I remember this because she handed me a red Macy's bag on Christmas and I wondered why she hadn't wrapped my present as she had in previous years.  It was heavier than her presents had been-- this was not a dress or a jacket or socks or a lovely leather bag.

It didn't take long for me to realize what she'd given me. It was a painting.

My grandmother's painting.

My favorite of hers. The composition depicts a garden lined with trees and a fountain at its center. I had just read the book The Secret Garden and had was going through the childhood fantasies of finding a spot of my own to cultivate, to grow, to bring life to.  I was astounded, at the age of 11, that she had given one of her pieces to me.

She passed away the following spring. I only mention this because I had been working on a water color painting to give back to her depicting the ocean at sunset framed by trees. I never thought it was good enough to give her and so I worked and worked at it, until the phone call came to tell me she was gone. I put the painting in a drawer and in one of several moves around the American West, it was lost.

I made a promise to myself that I would be an artist.

Of course, when you're twelve you make all sorts of ridiculous promises to yourself. I was also going to be:

  • an athlete
  • a writer
  • a gardener
  • a pilot
  • a veterinarian
  • an Egyptologist
  • a marine biologist
  • a model named Skye

But I did always make sure to take an art class when I was in junior high and later, in high school. I took drawing courses, painting courses, pottery and ceramics courses (which I really sucked at) but the smell of oil paint still called me back, again and again, even if all I was ever allowed to use were acrylic paints.

I was the President of our high school Art Club and painted the storefront windows of small shops to earn enough money to travel to "Portfolio Shows" to show my work to Art Schools, hoping for a scholarship and the validation that I was, in fact, a "great" artist.  That, however, didn't happen. A man scouting for a school on the East Coast berated me and my work so much so that I spent most of the bus ride home from Seattle to Spring Creek, Nevada in tears.

I focused on my French studies after that. And then, as luck would have it, I would actually live in France for a half a year and due to several circumstances (far too many to delve in here) my mental health dwindled along with my vocabulary and my inability to fully articulate myself in a foreign country literally became the impetuous by which I simply wanted to erase myself by not eating a single thing.

Nude, done in the style of Chuck Close, 2005. 

In college, I clung to my art as my body did strange things. I couldn't recognize myself in the mirror so I turned my eye outward, painting and drawing everything I saw. As the years passed, though, my understanding of myself began to settle. Words took the place of images; or, I began to find that I did, in fact, have the words not only to express myself, but to paint an image, a time and a place.

I still painted and drew. I moved to a cabin in Tahoma one year without phone or internet or television to write my first novel. In the moments I couldn't write, I painted. That love was still there. It still is.

The last painting I did was in 2013 when I lived in a cottage on an old estate outside San Francisco. There were heavy rains that winter and I was too injured to run much. The easel called to me as the oak trees faded to dark silhouettes at night after work. It was nothing complicated, as far compositions go: an image of the reflection of bare branches and leaves floating atop a pond in wintertime. The feeling, suggesting, (I thought) waiting, or of hope.

Untitled, 2013. 

I think back on that moment now and realize that perhaps I am not as bad with images as I once believed.  Even though images are more immediately palpable to the audience than words, both carry meaning.

And perhaps, knowing the meaning is there, is enough to call one's self an artist-- an artist of not only images, media or words, but of life.