Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tuesday, or What Would You Prescribe?

Well, I thought I knew what I wanted to write about...

I guess it makes sense that, what with all the hoop-la surrounding my recent medical adventures, my creative endeavors have slowed to something approaching a dead stop.  For one thing, the bi-monthly art critique group, for which I will tie myself into knots, in order to bring work to show, had been on winter break, when the drama of the stopping heart revealed itself, first to the medical professionals, and then, at last, to me.  No motivation = no work.  Unlike one of my heroes, Francis Bacon, I do not have the discipline to show up in my studio every morning at 7 am (even though my commute entails walking downstairs to my basement), and start working on... something. 

And, once the implement (which I've dubbed the Li'l Intruder) was installed, there were the temporary physical limitations for me to observe -- no lifting, no reaching, no carrying, no stretching, no sleeping on my left side...  No working at a lathe (which, as I have no lathe, is moot); no hanging around the local power station...  So, I found myself avoiding the basement, where I've been so busy and productive for the past year or so, making desperately unpleasant work that most people feel looks too much like flayed human bodies for their comfort.  Which has been the general idea.

But, the temporary injunctions are about to be lifted, and I may even be able to return to something like a regular workout schedule at the gym.  Whether I'll be able to coerce myself to walk down the basement stairs, however, remains to be seen.

I think it's grief, still.  I hate to sound wimpy and complaining all the time -- I'm eager, more often than these posts might indicate, to proclaim my unexpected, probably undeserved good fortune in my life.   But emotions, I've come to observe, operate by a totally different set of rules, disconnected from objective reality.  The prettiest people, with the plumpest bank balances, and living in the nicest houses, aren't necessarily the happiest ones on the planet.  And, in spite of my very good fortune, in having discovered this cardiac problem, and having had such a splendid team of doctors to perform the necessary intervention, I must admit that the prevalent feelings with which I'm left, are those of the grief I've mentioned, shock and shame.

And ordinarily, I would strive to follow these less-than-pleasant emotional companions, to see where they might lead me.  Which materials might most convincingly mirror what I feel like?  What motor activities will create the most immediate sense, for me and, I hope, for the viewer, of a three-dimensional snapshot, if you will, of my inner workings at the moment?  The latest body of work, with the layered, stretched films of plastic, taut over bulging knots of tube and wire, and coated with sanguine shellac, has been particularly eloquent, in capturing my misgivings about physicality, and my desperate need somehow to mend things that can't possibly be fixed.

So, why, at this point, with my incision healing nicely, and the subcutaneous swelling going away, and the underlying Li'l Intruder beginning to look not so li'l after all, do I balk?  Is it all too close?  This would make sense.

Years ago, when I was taking course work in art therapy (I so hoped to be able, finally, to have a job with the word 'art' in the title, and an actual paycheck every so often, all at the same time...), my class was given an assignment: paint a portrait of your family.  And, I heard the teacher say, have it finished in two weeks.

Some of you, having read other postings of mine, might understand what a terrifically loaded bit of homework this would be.  And I had just two weeks, in which to produce something so potentially wrenching.  But, as the good student I was determined to be, I plunged ahead.  I gathered what few family photographs I had, chose a large piece of paint-friendly board, and started to work.

Down the center of the paper, I painted a wide black line.  On the left would be my original family -- my mother and sister only in vague outline, as I had no photos of them at the time; then the faces of my three brothers.  In the center, bridging that black divider, was my father's face, and the right side of the painting was for his second family: my stepmother, her mother (whom I have dubbed, in something of an understatement, my 'horrid grandmother'), and my two half-sisters.  At the bottom, in the lower left-hand corner, is the self-portrait the completes the grouping.  I worked on this steadily, every day when I came home from my job at the investment bank.  Changing out of my work clothes, I would set up my easel in my kitchen, get out my acrylic paints, and pick up where I'd left off the day before.  The clock ticking... two weeks...

The thing I discovered about painting, especially painting portraits of actual people, is its intimacy -- the sense, in fact, of touching that person, as the face begins to emerge from smears of paint.  It was a kind of poignant torture, really, to paint the faces of my three brothers, whose lives were so wrecked, and whom I betrayed so shamefully.  It was uncomfortable, to paint my father's familiar face, with all the mixed feelings that arose as his features clarified.  It was grotesque, to lavish such tender care, to touch with such sensitivity, the section of paper I had to transform into the likenesses of the women who never forgave my father for bringing 'those boys' into their lives.  My own face, painted with the help of a cheap mirror propped on the kitchen table, is done in starkly different colors from the rest of the group, almost as though I'm dreaming everything else on the surface.  I guess it won't surprise anyone that I tended to cry a lot while I was working.

And then, when class time came around again, I wrapped my painting in plastic, and took it into Manhattan, down to Spring St., where we met, and I wondered why, as the rest of the students assembled, I was the only one with his homework.  It turned out that, instead of two weeks, as I had understood the due date of the assignment, we had been given ten weeks to do this family portrait.  I still think that, knowing on some level how explosive this effort would be, I deliberately mis-heard the teacher -- if I'd had ten full weeks, to stare at this terrible group of faces, I might never have finished -- I might never have gone back to class at all.

Everyone laughed at my mistake.  We looked at what I'd done.  We had our lesson, probably about how people suffering from brain damage can benefit from making art.  And, as usual in this ar-centered class, we had to make some of our own art.  And for this particular class, instead of having an assignment (draw some beads; draw a picture with a tree, a house, and a person in it) we were permitted to do whatever we wanted.  I chose to cover my paper with rows of wavy crayon lines, layered over each other, to create the feeling of looking into a rippling teal/aqua/lavender pool of shallow water.  When it was time to put all our work up, another student commented that my work seemed 'defensive', in that this screen of color acted as a kind of barrier, hiding the creator from the viewer.

But my teacher saw it differently.  She pointed out that, in having completed my family portrait, which we'd all discussed earlier, I had undertaken a creative journey into very difficult territory.  After such an effort, she said, it was completely reasonable -- and in fact, healthy -- for me to fall back, as it were, and invest some effort in protecting myself.

Which brings me, at last, back to my current creative quandary, and my apparent inability to pick up where I left off, perhaps six weeks ago, when I thought my heart was fine, and when it was easier, for some reason, to make graphically disturbing things.  Now, really, I don't quite know what to do.  It feels as though, if I start tying plastic things together, and covering them with shellac again, I'll just be making literal self-portraits, at a time when I'm not sure I can bear that.  But if not that, what on earth will I do?

One possibility, I just realized.  While waiting for one of the many doctors I consulted with, during this cardiac adventure of mine, I started a page of odd, scribble-like doodles, about the size of the tip of my little finger, and looking much as if I'd dipped that fingertip into some ink, and pressed it against the tan paper, in more or less neat rows, all across the page.  Rows of nine, rows of seven, ninety to a page, or eighty-one.  Pages of them.  The doctor was quite late.  And, as I did these little scribbles, I saw them as wrapped things, about the size of my fist.  As I look at them now, they look like hearts, don't they?  Row after row of -- not the Valentine's, but the organic -- hearts.

They say my heart, itself, is strong -- really strong.  So, maybe now, I have the thing I can do -- making work, not about the wound, but about the strength beneath it.  It's worth a try, don't you think?   

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