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.

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