Friday, February 7, 2020

Life of a painter : Origin Story

A place to breathe, mixed media on canvas 2019, 62 x 76 cm, Irving Gallery, Oxford. Exhibition Feb. 29 - Apr 18th.

I remember my hands around a crayon and a long roll of white butcher paper on the back porch floor during the summer. I was a realist back then, drawing my favorite doll Jenny (that my mother had made). Once her piercing green eyes and broad nose and wild hair were captured, I moved on to draw my stuffed animal, Ricky the Raccoon (my spirit animal if you will, after being gently bitten by one in Little Rock, Arkansas, I would joke that I was now part raccoon, or at least I hoped I was). These drawings had flair in the mark-making and a psychic understanding of the subject. They were not hard for me to do. There were spider plants captured in oil pastel and batik, abstracted and with a strong color palette created in the summer art guild class that my mom taught. Mom thought they were better than some of the older students' work and they were framed and hung on the wall for years. There was the little house print with its sweet and ragged line, not unlike the house we have all drawn but this was a monoprint done at a ridiculous age. I remember sitting on the steps of the old Catholic church with my mom on Lafayette Street across the road from the big old house that had the same windows as Old Main on the University campus. We sat there just thinking and drawing, her perfect version of the red brick home and mine, always off-kilter but still very much the same place.

Once I was school-aged, my second-grade teacher Mary Nordan championed me in my art and made sure I stayed on task with my reading (I fell behind for a bit but she caught me back up). Later in my life, fresh out of art school, I would end up working in her classroom catching up children on their reading too and this wonderful teacher would become a collector of my work.

In what is mostly called middle school these days or Junior High, I took all the art classes offered and yet I wasn't particularly good or bad at art, it was just something I did. Writing inched a little closer to stealing my heart then, as a way of dealing with the trauma, I felt by being subjected to this structure, age, and peer group. Junior High was my idea of hell, and I etched "Sex Pistols" onto a mirror in an art class that horrified my school teaching mother. I did draw E.T. upside down, dabbled in perspective, painting, and all sorts, thanks to my art teacher Kay Berkley. At home, the conversation was all about drawing from the right side of your brain. I started failing math, struggling in science, and being quickly left behind and so I disappeared into a haze of music and boys.

If I could just hold on to until High School, I heard rumors that all my peers would mellow out by then and not be so cruel, cliquey and status hungry. Well, that didn't happen but I ceased to care, as punk rock had rooted in my heart and given me hope and my individuality back. I did all the theatre (my first love) I could and after not taking any art for two years, stayed up one night creating a portfolio of paintings so I could try to get into advanced art my final year of high school. I succeeded, (thanks, Mrs. McNair). Again, I wasn't particularly good at it once in class or perhaps I didn't particularly care. I drew a woman in a fetal position trapped in a bag of water like a goldfish on its way home from the pet store. I will say my copy of "The Scream" on canvas board was spot on.

What I really wanted to be was an actress, and if that didn't work I told my 10th-grade English teacher, I would just work in the chicken plant, live in a tiny apartment and use candles to save money on electricity so I could drink beer and go to as many punk gigs as possible and do community theatre. I had it all planned out. I never worked in a chicken plant.

Art, dancing, singing, writing, acting and making people laugh. That's all I wanted to do. The arts fused in me like the rumble of a generator in the background, a continuous buzzing, and all of this before the age of eighteen.

And then I stopped. I had to get real. I had to go to University (or did I?) I had to get a job (or did I?) I definitely had lots of beers to drink and gigs to see (I excelled at this - straight A's). Let's call that my gap year.

My barely caring school years showed on transcripts, but I still got into the University of Arkansas. I majored in art (surprise!) not because of passion but because of doubt and fear. I needed a win. Well, I didn't get it. I got one semester of Drawing, Design, History, and English and then I withdrew the second semester during the week of spring break. I did get a love of Brian Eno from that first semester (thanks, to my drawing and design teacher, Kirsten Musnug). So perhaps it was worth it. I enjoyed the painting class I withdrew from that second semester but I couldn't understand the point in all the paintings looking like the professors.

Back to the bands, beers, and all the dishes I could wash at our local, fancy fine-dining establishment on the square. I did keep painting along with writing and was even in a community theatre production.  I was also 20 years old, drinking jugs of wine while listening to Robert Johnson during thunderstorms and smoking on the porch. "I've got mean things on my mind..." Oh, did I ever.

Finally, in a crazy flash of clarity or was it an obsession with the film "The Lost Boys" (because I liked the grandfather's house - the light and wind in particular, and the window over the kitchen sink). It was time to pack up and move away to Santa Cruz, California in 1993. My little town was about pop - gentrification: the first wave - and I couldn't sit there and watch. I was twenty-one. My two best friends had also decided to split the scene a few months earlier, so that made it easier to leave.

Santa Cruz sucked. My partner (who became my first husband) and I went to the library to check out a book on Eugene, Oregon. A music promoting friend had said it was a cool town. We read the blurb and it did sound good. On up the I-5 corridor, we went. We arrived in town and drove around. I asked Hank to pull over the truck so I could call my parents collect from the payphone. I told them that the light was incredible and that it already felt like home (very Mary Anne Singleton from Tales in the City, which would come to be PBS soon after and ignite my passion for the books by Armistead Maupin). The light always brings me to my knees. I remember much, much later crying over a plate of Pad Thai in Flagstaff, Arizona once because of the fucking light coming in through the windows. (If I ever doubt that I am an artist, I should remember my obsession with light). No wonder folks always ask me how I cope with painting in a windowless studio.

More dishes were washed, more beers had, more gigs were enjoyed as we made our way in this green and grey new world of the majestic Pacific Northwest. There were some false educational starts in Oregon too, first at the community college, it looked like I might be a theatre and art history major for a minute but then I was accepted to train as a drug and alcohol counselor and had to stop the drama.

Rest assured I came to my senses after a while and ran back to art history and then finally transferred to the Univerity of Oregon on a scholarship firmly to study art. No more hiding from my reality, I had to do this. I traded dishes, for selling newspapers, and then to reading books on to tape for the blind while I worked my way through University and I sank fully into painting, drawing, design, sculpture, photography, lithography, and art history along with my core liberal arts and language courses for my degree requirements.

Most importantly, I found the mentor and the professor who would change the game for me, Professor Ron Graff, a painter. Wonderfully talented and wry, branded demanding and difficult, I thrived under his guidance. I stayed on and was allowed to be my rebellious self as I went for my BFA in painting and drawing requiring yet another year of more formal and rigorous studio art practice. I received more scholarships and graduated with honors all while wrestling with a debilitating anxiety disorder which at times made the outside world too threatening to bear. My heart pod paintings and books were born, I learned how to talk about my work - I had finally found the calling that had been with me all along (there's no place like home) and I proved to myself I could stick with something and excel. I was twenty-seven.

These last twenty years have been dedicated to art but as I write and read this, my whole life has been. I moved across the country from Oregon back to Arkansas upon my graduation and tried to give the art scene in Fayetteville everything I could, before moving to Scotland. There have been countless paintings, exhibitions, galleries, studios, sales, blogs, videos, podcasts, communities, mentors, losses, relationship endings and beginnings, storms weathered, financial hardships, and of course, uncertainty and fear are still at hand and probably always will be.

However, it's the thread of art that has kept me together. The arts built me, and my family and many teachers listened and saw in me the need, ability, and passion. Various communities and patrons have supported me throughout these years and I keep finding more and more members of that community wherever I go. To say I am grateful is an understatement.

I have doubted myself so many times, I have thought that being an artist might be the biggest cop-out, the biggest fraud, and simply an exercise in ego, inherent poverty, and irresponsibility. I sadly still think this many days. Then I step back, I put on my headphones and listen to a piece of music that pierces my heart, I look at a painting that makes my pulse quicken and holds my mouth agape. I watch a film that breathes new life into my tired soul, I look to the flowers, the sky, and the glorious light and I catch my breath, tears come to my eyes, and I know I must stay free.

At forty-seven (forty-eight next month) this is no cop-out. This is my life. The life of a painter.

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