It isn't that kind of anniversary; we've only been married five years. But eight years ago, today, you sent me an email. You'd visited Portland and seen an art show of mine and wanted to tell me how much you enjoyed my work. Living most of the country away from each other, we became great email friends. I was long-time alone, and you were long-time unhappily married. Over many months, we grew to be best friends, then infatuated, eventually lovers. And our lives joined up and turned.
Almost as soon as you moved here - to start a new life, a new life for both of us - you began a new novel. You'd been a writer your whole life, practically, and wanted to be really grown-up, serious published more than anything else. The new novel grew out of the story of your old life and how you came to leave it. With love and loving guidance, and work and work, your novel is done and about to begin its own journey. Because all the finishing and approvals and introductions aligned in just this way, you're sending it out on this particular day. A day - the first one, of eight years ago - that's even written into the story. And now your book is making its first professional contact. It may have many others; no one knows how this particular journey turns.
We've argued over the novel, sometimes. Mostly me being over-protective of what you'd already done, not understanding that the work of a novelist is to keep ripping the thing apart and putting it back together, the healing making the whole thing stronger. We've argued over the title, recently, when you really had to choose one. And then, you've been too concerned that what you'd written based on me and my life was too much real. But I don't care - or I decided not to care. Because after the first few weeks, trying to sift, confused at who is Stephen and who is the Michael in your pages, I said no, I shouldn't read this, I shouldn't be a part of the process; it's yours. So I've separated myself from the novel. As much as possible, anyway. I love your teacher and I love your writer friends, I love hearing the talk about your book and the admiration and respect you've earned. And I've sometimes scanned the stack of pages that wait to be taken to group on Thursdays - since I know that's alright with you - but then only rarely. So even though the growth of this work has been one of the most present and precious things in our life together, through near to exactly seven years now, I haven't read your book. I knew I could at any time, that you'd let me, that you'd welcome it, but I kept saying to myself not yet. Not yet.
This morning I'll have made you breakfast. I'll have gone off to my short day at work, leaving you to send the email. In the evening we'll open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and toast this day, what it's meant and what it means. We'll eat "treats", and we'll watch a movie that thematically syncs with your book: something touching on the circus and/or the devil. Because this is what we do, the two of us. We try and celebrate all of these moments.
But I won't be there when you send your novel. I try to picture you when you hit "send". It almost hurts to think of detaching myself from you in that moment, though I'll be thinking of you, having that ache in my stomach and my chest, sending all my half-believed prayer toward God or energy or light or the Universe, that you'll have what you want out of all this, all this time and desire invested, that you'll get what you've earned. But it's perfect, really, that I have to be at work. Because it's so important that you do this alone. Whatever happens, this is your time, this blessed edge that you've worked so hard to reach. This is yours.
We have some people coming over. Actually, I think it might be G's parents; they must be visiting. In the last-minute tidying up, I go into the bathroom. I've been storing a finished painting in the toilet bowl. In the toilet bowl, submerged. It is understood that the painting has been there a while, and that the toilet has been in normal use the whole time. I recognize that it's a rather unusual idea, but it seems such a clever way to save space. And the painting gets washed clean with every flush, so what's to worry about?
I pull the painting out. [It's actually quite a bit larger than would really fit in the toilet; about 20x16, I'd guess.] I notice that the image is quite faded. It isn't as if the paint has been abraded or washed off. It's consistently faded, as though it's been bleached. I also notice that the wooden framework that supports the panel has gone all soft and spongy; at the mitered corners, the veneer pulls away at my touch. It has the texture of wet newspaper or soft putty. I carefully smooth down the corners, open the shower curtain, and lay the painting flat on the dry bottom of the tub. I quickly draw the shower curtain closed and think how the painting will thus be safely stored while, at the same time, no one will even know that it's there. I'll figure out what to do with it later.
In the ever continuing rearrangement/refurbishment of my studio, here in the apartment, I just put together a new desk chair I bought at Ikea. Honestly, we have a ton of things from Ikea; in our apartment, if it isn't old/antique, it's probably a product of that Swedish company. Bookcases, tables, bed, chairs, curtain rods, lamps. Everyone jokes about the horrors of assembly-required items from Ikea - the hieroglyphic instructions, the unintuitive build order, the odd fastenings and the "foreign-looking" included tools - but I really enjoy putting things together. I'm pretty good at it.
I always say that with more than a bit of pride. Putting things together is something that always linked me with my late dad. He put things together, took them apart, and put them back together. For a living. He was an airplane mechanic, in the Air force and out. I don't know if there's any genetic possibility that I could have inherited this particular sort of intelligence from him, but I like to think so. My younger brother, Brian, certainly got none of it. I've always been quite gloat-y that I had this quality in common with our dad, while my slim, athletic, non-sissy brother didn't. My brother has many excellent qualities; they will more than suffice.
My dad and I certainly loved each other, even if we never really had a lot to talk about. But my fondest memories of him are of the two of us working together - when we couldn't procrastinate any longer - on some maintenance or repair project. The last time we did so, we rebuilt part of the low wooden fence around my grandmother's Japanese style garden. We had to disassemble one side of it and replace three or four of the fence posts. We said little in the hours we spent doing this, but we seemed so very much in tune, working together, figuring out how to accomplish what was needed. At one point or another, I suggested something that made something easier to do or made it work better; I don't remember what it was. He seemed impressed with my ingenuity, my good sense. And it made me so quietly happy to have that recognition. To have my father's respect was such a wonderful thing.
Putting together my new chair, this is the page in the instructions that shows how to assemble the base:
Ikea is famous/infamous for having no-text building instructions. It's one of the things that makes people craziest when they're struggling to get their new purchase up and running. At the other extreme, for anything where they would consider written language necessary - fabric content and care, cautions, etc. - they share it in all 29 (!) of the languages spoken in the various countries where Ikea has plopped down retail establishments.
I laughed out loud when I saw that one was told to listen for the "click!" Click. With an exclamation mark. (For the record, it didn't make that sound at all. It was more of a vague but still reassuring thud.) For a moment I pondered whether "click" could be the same in every language? Well, of course not. There is also the question of alphabets....
In line with Gigi's and my recent decamping to French when discussing Nick's "number two"s, I got out the French dictionary for a little rough investigation. We find petit bruit sec (literally, a little dry sound - charming!). And we also have clic, cliquet, and déclic. Not too far off, those. Click might be comprehensible with French as a starting point. But I can only assume things are not quite so simple when we arrive at Turkish or Thai.
I'm in my studio, working on a painting that's close to being finished. It's on a large, horizontally oriented Ampersand panel. [Gesso-covered Masonite mounted flush with a two-inch-deep birch plywood framework.] I don't know what the image is, but on a large expanse of what seems to be flesh I notice an odd, slightly darkened round-ish patch. Small, about the size of the end of a pencil eraser. The surface of the painting is wet. I put my fingertip on the discolored place and rub slightly, and the paint - and gesso - come away, leaving just the bare Masonite. I'm not particularly alarmed; the small section that came away is just fairly flat color, and should be not too difficult to match. I tilt the panel back, catching the light differently, to examine the surface for any irregularities I might not have noticed previously. What looks like a taped join - under the paint, under the gesso - going vertically and through the point where I found the problem is fairly obvious in the otherwise perfectly flat surface of the Masonite. I tilt the painting back down and now I notice another small section of paint loss about four inches to the right of the first, and the apparent join has become horizontal rather than vertical; both areas of paint loss are along that line. I turn the large panel around to the back side and see that, indeed, the surface is actually in two pieces, taped together with what looks like a few layers of that wide brown paper tape they used to seal boxes for shipping. The top edge of the tape has mostly come away from the surface of the panel, the edges curling out and then back toward it. I turn the panel back around to the front, only to see that the butted seam has shifted now, making about an eighth of an inch separation - the edges still in contact - most of the way across the panel. Along the length of the dislocated seam the paint surface has lifted slightly from the two edges of the Masonite, stretching and in some places torn. I'm still more annoyed than shocked. And pragmatic, thinking first that I should just replace the brown paper tape. Then deciding it will be much better to put the panel on its face and glue a piece of wood to the back of the seam, doing this all on a nice flat surface to ensure that the front of the panel will be as smooth as possible when the repair is finished. Then I'll repaint the damaged parts of the painting. I can do this. I'll fix this.
Yesterday's date - if you somehow failed to notice - was 11/11/11. And it also included two opportunities to experience the time posting of 11:11 on 11/11/11. A lot of people thought that was pretty cool.
Many believe that eleven is a strongly energetic number, and that seeing 11:11 on the clock is a moment powerful with potentiality. And therefore a moment to focus one's attention or even a moment to pray. I've been lucky, most of my adult life, to quite frequently stumble upon 11:11s. And I always use those minutes - or fragments of minutes - to slow down my breathing, think positive thoughts and/or ponder my goals and desires. Also, numerologically, I'm an eleven. While any eleven ends up being a two, of course, many numerologists believe that it's pretty powerful for an eleven to be the penultimate sum.
Anyone who knows Gigi and me at all well, and knows the story of how we found each other, knows that Rufus Wainwright was crucial to us. At the end of 2003, we both had a newly minted mania for his music; we "met" on his website message board. G had happened to be visiting Portland, saw a show of mine and wrote me a sort of fan letter. I responded, we became long-distance friends and, eight years later, here we are. Even though our enthusiasm for Rufus and his music has cooled quite a bit, we'll always be very grateful to the fellow.
His first album to come out after G and I met had a song on it titled "11:11". Never one of our favorites, musically, it still felt fairly directed at us. (It even included the line, "...wasn't in Portland and I wasn't in heaven.") Because right from the beginning, at least once we were in an in-person relationship, G and I have always witnessed 11:11s. (G's always seen them, too. And eleven has always been her favorite number.) And if we happen to be together, we must have a small kiss to mark the moment. Silly I guess.......but why not?! (Honestly, much of the time now, we look for them, we wait for them. Which isn't quite fair, I suppose....)
I had yesterday off, and since I hadn't listened to Rufus' music in a very long time, it seemed only right, considering the day, to listen to the album that contained that song. I put on two of his albums, actually. (And put them in shuffle with two albums of Holcombe Waller, whose music I love. It was a good combination; there are a lot of similarities in their music. And a nice contrast, vocally: Holcombe's pure, soaring instrument, and Rufus' mumble-y, powerhouse baritone.)
When I really love an album, I'll play it over and over and over. Until I've heard it so much, sung along with it so much, heard it in my head even when I'm not hearing it - know it sodeeply - that, gradually, it somehow disappears. And then I don't really even hear it when it plays. I've been so greedy for this thing I love, that I've devoured it and so don't have it anymore. That's certainly the story of those Rufus albums. The main reason I stopped listening to them is that I stopped hearing them.
I noticed an odd thing yesterday; I don't know that I've had exactly this experience before. When I listened to Rufus' albums, they remained partly disappeared to me. I still couldn't quite connect with them. I half expected that, even after all this time. But what surprised me was that these songs that I had known so well, sung at the top of my voice countless times, weren't entirely familiar to me anymore. As I tried to sing along, I couldn't always tell where the melody was going to go next. Rufus' progressions do often tend to be unexpected, but still. At this point, the music is so familiar that I don't entirely hear it but, at the same time, so distant that I can't follow the path of the tune. I wasn't prepared for this odd dislocation of memory.
When G brought the doggie in from his first walk of the day, this morning, I asked if he'd done his "business". As new/returning dog owners, we spend an inordinate amount of time pondering and discussing his digestive tract and its production, shall we call it. But since we are also inordinately squeamish about discussing anything relating to that general topic I've suggested that, whenever possible, we speak of it in French. So when G announced that Nick had been successful not once but twice, I chimed in happily, "Il a fait caca deux fois!"
And then, of course, as happens any time I venture into my beloved French, I couldn't think of another bloody thing to say. My mouth was ready, my brain had stalled. But I noticed something about that anticipatory stance that I never had before: my muttered "uh" was in French. Really impossible to describe, the sound and shape of both the inside and outside of my mouth. Closer to an "ew" sound than an "uh", my mouth small and round and my tongue pressed against the back of my lower teeth. Even though my brain was currently void of French content, my mouth had the instinct intact. And somehow knew that if I ever would think of something to say, I'd be ready. Because you really can't get from a beautifully manufactured French to an American "uh", and back again.
I never really had the chance to come out, since I never really had the "opportunity" to be in; some of us are more obvious than others. Obvious as what, though, hasn't always been so clear.
If you look at my life at all, and specifically my love life - slim file that it is - it gets confusing. Gay, straight, bi, some sort of transgender? How would I be labeled? Human consciousness and behavior isn't much subtler than that of other animals: we want to eat, have sex and, no matter how much we bellow and squawk, we're afraid of nearly everything. Our fear breeds our need to codify and label, to reassure ourselves with an illusory clarity. I've spent much of my life trying to find and fit a label for myself, discovering things about myself that felt definitive at the time, and then making declarations of "this is what I am". Only to realize soon after that, no, that didn't really explain it. Didn't explain me. I've never been a close fit with any of the clearly established categories of sexuality/gender, never really felt fully in synch with any of those groups. That's always been a cause of sadness and frustration for me; we all want to belong. (Especially when you're one of society's oddballs, and you don't even seem to fit inwith any of the other oddballs.) But as you get older, if you're lucky, you stop struggling with things as much. Which often makes it easier to see what your particular truth is. And I've come to realize that I'm all of those things and none of them.
And knowing that helps me to recognize that, when it comes to sexuality and gender, most people are blended to some degree. Whether they know it or not, I don't believe anyone is 100% anything. Again, even if we're not aware of it, we also all make choices about how we present ourselves to the people we know and love, how we present ourselves in the world. I don't know if anyone is completely aware of their sexual response, completely integrated in their gender identity. So can anyone be completely honest about it?
Coming out - if you can, if you will - is about so much more than personal honesty, though. So much more than a brave act, a claiming of dignity and freedom. It's just as much a gift. A necessary and loving gift of expansion. To those who don't recognize anything other than their own preconceptions, and to those of us who fool ourselves into thinking we're fairly free of those things. When someone comes out - as grand or small a gesture as it may be - it gives all of us the opportunity to expand our feeble understanding of truth and reality. It's a reminder that all of us need to remember that nothing is ever really as simple as it seems. The world is incredibly complex - more than we can comprehend - and so are we. Each individual of us. I am me. You are you. They are them. And each of us is incredibly - perfectly - specific, just as one blade of grass is different from every other blade of grass.
I'm very happy to have been invited by novelist Laura Stanfill to be interviewed for her ongoing "Seven Questions" blog series. I really enjoyed answering the smart questions and, as I do more interviews where I'm asked to talk about my work, I'm getting a lot clearer, myself, as to why I do what I do. It's quite a privilege and a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to ponder my creative process. My focus is always on "production" - making the next painting - so it's great to just step back and observe what I'm actually doing. Thanks, Laura!
We had a lovely time on Sunday evening, drinking champagne with two good friends - one of whom we'd never even met.
We'd met the other one, Rolfe, when he gave us a personal tour of one the penthouses that was part of 2009's Street of Dreams. He was one of the designers and had chosen a painting of mine as part of the decor. The apartment was wonderful; the response of color to the natural light was especially beautiful. I was so happy to have my work included in it, and Rolfe was charming and really very sweet to us, showing us around. After seeing his work and having some idea of his "eye", it didn't come as too much of a surprise that the house he and his husband, Stephen, assembled is amazing. I say "assembled" because that's really what it is: a rich blending of texture and patina, disparate, often salvaged, objects brought together and communicating in unexpected ways. Constantly evolving. Subtle and droll and very beautiful.
Just this year I started following Stephen's blog, Post Apocalyptic Bohemian. I can't actually recall how I found my way to it. But I've found it addictive. It's just my kind of thing: A blend of the very personal and social/historical commentary. And there's a lot of "born on this day in gay history", which I really love. I'm certainly no slouch in the history department, but Stephen always finds fascinating people to write about that are either new to me, or ones that he gives a new depth to. And often a lot of the enjoyment comes merely from knowing there are people out there in our silly, crude world who respond to and honor those things that are perhaps deeper and richer and more beautiful, the way Stephen does. And by writing about them, he's a sort of guardian, doing what he can so that the world doesn't forget. Doesn't forget our particular history, doesn't forget the artists who've given the world so much. And in a very real way, I believe that the way that Rolfe and Stephen live their lives, and the beauty they make and share as they go along, continues the line. Their example is so important to the nurturing and preservation of these often intangible things. Things that aren't any more than memory and sensibility and inspiration but that are, I believe, completely necessary to the health of our world.
Their house is relatively small and, even though their garden is, too, they've made a nice little paradise in the back. Perfectly chosen shrubs and flowers surround "the boy's fort", a continually evolving fair-weather nest, made of salvaged doors and shutters and old window frames. When we visited - last Sunday evening was lovely and warm - we sat out there and drank champagne. When we were leaving, Stephen grabbed some shears and cut exactly five stems of various things in the garden. The picture at the top of the page is those five in a vase - they arranged themselves - just the simplest, most elegant thing....
Yesterday was my birthday. Happy to say I didn't really have the hideous run-up depression I usually get every year as the day approaches; I just slid into this one. After hemming and hawing about whether I should call out, I went to work like I would any Friday morning - though I did wear a nicer shirt than normal; tea-colored linen. G and I walked together and talked and talked. (on Friday mornings we get to walk to work together, now; it's the only time in our workweek when we start at the same time.) During the day I did my work, my phone buzzing in pocket all day from all the lovely birthday greetings I was getting on Facebook.
(Say what you will about Facebook - and it is quite capable of sucking out huge segments of your daily life - the ease with which we can all be kind to each other there is a pretty damned lovely thing. And as much as I wrestle with my evil birthdays, if I were honest, I'd have to admit that I really do want a right regular outpouring of affection on that particular day. I do want to get that rush of knowing I'm appreciated or even loved. And then being able to send that affection and show of appreciation in the other direction, too. As childish as it is to wait until that 365th day of the year to tell someone they're special, I really do enjoy wishing someone a happy birthday. Saying, I really like and/or love you - thank God you were born, eh? And I don't think the ease of doing that on Facebook cheapens the gesture at all. With all of that said, after the much-appreciated love-fest of yesterday's birthday greetings, I'm practically jonesing today; doesn't anyone love me today?!)
When G and I got home, I puréed the strawberries we got at the farmer's market the day before, poured the gorgeous ruby-red mixture into glasses, and topped it with good champagne. Then I got to open my cards and my wee presents from G. (We aren't really supposed to give each other b-day presents, but I already broke the rules at her birthday, last month, so....) G's pretty lousy at keeping a secret, so I'd already guessed what my gift would be.
A few weeks ago, we bought up a large number of DVDs from a video store that was closing. We had brought in a list ahead of time - at their suggestion - and got almost all that we'd asked for. One of the few we didn't was Fellini's "8 1/2", and I vocally lamented that fact. So, when it became obvious what variety of present was coming - G said to ignore a package if it came and, when it did come, I found the Amazon box at the mailbox - I was pretty sure I knew what it was. But yesterday, there were two little wrapped, DVD-shaped presents. I had guessed right about "8 1/2" - yay! - but the other was a total surprise. "Babette's Feast", a movie we both adore but hadn't remembered to put on that list until it was too late. As our best, most frequent entertainment is watching movies in bed while eating yummies, what movie could be better? An inspired surprise, G!
Then we went across the street, sat outside, and had a lovely dinner. I won't go into all the evening's entertainments but, later - too late, as it turned out - I wanted to play with one of my new toys, as it were, and we decided to watch "8 1/2". About half-way through we both started to droop and drowse. Even the intervention of the chocolate dessert we'd brought home from the restaurant didn't help. We're both very ashamed of ourselves, but we had to turn in and go to sleep. (Oh, how we hate it when that happens!) We have seen it before, several times, but still we owe a big scusi to Fellini and his masterpiece.
[That was not exactly the most dramatic tale - fairly dull to read, I'm guessing - but I certainly enjoyed living it. My day. My life.]
Just got back from my first-of-the-season hike up in Forest Park. Beautiful. I was rather worried about how I'd fare; I haven't been to the gym in a few months, and the only exercise I've had has been when I could put down the paintbrush long enough for a brief, manful prance about the neighborhood. But I did very well. I accomplished that first, all-uphill mile with goat-y elan.
I got out much earlier than I did last year. I was able to negotiate the muddy bits well enough - I loathe mud - and there were still lots of dainty flowers blooming. Really too late for the trillium - I always miss them; it's the mud issue, don't you know - but there were a few latecomers, including one beautiful white one: small, precise, elegant. It appears I didn't require my inter-cranial Muzak, today. No Reynaldo Hahn waltzes, no moaning Bessie Smith - well, not until half-way through when "I used to be your sweet mama, sweet papa, but now I'm just as sour as can be" wedged itself, sideways, into my feeble dome. And it looped.... Until then, the sound of all the birds singing, and the tinkle of thin rivulets careening down the hillside was more than enough to make me a very contented fellow.
I saw very few people - which is always nice - but when I do, I find it interesting to see who will greet me and who won't. At least not unless I do it first. Men almost always do, running or walking. Women are harder to figure, though. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won't. It doesn't appear to be related to age or fitness level or apparent economic stature. But it does get easier to predict if they have a dog with them. Yes. I've done an exhaustive study and, after much data analysis, I've discovered that the more attractive the dog, the more likely its female owner is to say hello to me first. I don't know why this. But just today, I had additional proof.
On the return loop of my hike I passed a woman with a pretty little Cocker Spaniel. She smiled at me quite warmly and said hello. Just previous to that, I encountered two women with two really appalling looking dogs. I love mutts - prefer them - but these were the kind of dogs who looked put together from spare parts, who didn't so much have coats, but furry Cubist quilts. I'm sure they were very sweet dogs, but their owners had rather a different aspect. One glowered at me, while the other averted her eyes nervously. When I passed them and said hello, the glowering one garbled out the same back at me, through gritted teeth. It will take a bit more research, of course, but I begin to think there is a more specific connection: The less good-looking a women's dog, the more likely she is to see me as some sort of sexual sadist, or someone equally unfortunate to encounter in the forest.
Toward the end of my hike I saw, coming toward me, a handsome young fellow wearing nothing but small black shorts. He was only walking, but I'm aware that there is a trend right now for running barefoot, so I'm thinking that had something to do with his ostentatiously spare wardrobe. Pale skinned, with hair almost as dark as his shorts, the only other item attached to him was a small pack. Fastened at the chest - right under his pecs - rather than the waist. The pack itself must have been in the back, because the thin strap was all that was visible from the front. As he walked toward me, it looked like nothing more than that his black brassiere had slipped down, exposing his tiny nipples. He looked very calm and content - dreamy, even - loosely putting down one bare foot, then the next. The sun was in his eyes, but when he got close, he looked up and gave me a breathy, languorous "hi-i-i-i...." Fun.
I hope the weather continues like this a bit longer.
Gigi and I went to the ballet the other night. We get in a fair amount of live performance, though dance isn't something we see very often. But we attended the opening night of Song and Dance, a program of four pieces put on by our own Oregon Ballet Theatre. A classic Balanchine piece, two contemporary pieces, including one set to rap and hip-hop, and the last piece choreographed to Cole Porter songs. As someone who is very "classical" in all things, it was a surprise that the two more traditional dances left me a bit cold, while I thought the "modern" ones were amazing.
Balanchine, of course, was the great God of twentieth-century ballet. Few, if any, are still more respected. My actual knowledge of dance is extremely limited, but my understanding is that the great respect - reverence - shown to Balanchine most often relates to the extreme purity of his choreography. Clean, cold, naked in its precise line. He set a lot of dance in a very long career; his earliest great work was with Diaghilev. I don't know how Square Dance rates in his oeuvre, but I have to say I couldn't really appreciate it. Set to Vivaldi and Corelli with a square dance caller, it seemed as though it should have been cheekily delightful - the caller certainly was - but it just wouldn't come together for me. Aside from one elegant solo by OBT principal Chauncey Parsons, most of the piece seemed like a strained-for joke. Nothing wrong with the company or performance, I just didn't care for the concept. Or the choreography - God help me for saying so!
The final piece, Eyes on You, was exactly what I suppose it was designed to be: a crowd pleaser. Set by the company's artistic director, Christopher Stowell, it was beautiful to look at. Limiting the "set design" to almost nothing but lighting - in a perfectly judged choice of alternating red, yellow, and blue - with nicely textured, thirties-style, all-white costumes - which was something far better than the cheesy pastiche period costuming one so often sees - it was a smart and attractive production. The dancing was well done, but I feel the choreography could have been sharper. This sort of number easily falls into "too cute" unless the choreography is really smart. Especially in dealing with the larger groups, there were several lost opportunities for patterning that could have taken this endeavor to a higher level. Grouped movement that began well, looked as though it was developing into...and then it didn't. I wonder why, so often in dance, the most exciting parts are the solos and duos; bring everyone on stage and things often go flat. Maybe choreographers should take a look at (non-dance-trained) Busby Berkeley's notebook on how to stage large-scale groups; it might not be "pure", but it might be a lot more effective. And how appropriate his exhilarating sort of patterning could be in something just like this, set in the thirties as it is.
The other two works of the evening I enjoyed immensely. Speak was two short, related pieces created by Trey McIntyre, a very hot property in the dance world. Blank stage, rap/hip-hop style costumes - I guess you'd call them that; what do I know? - a solo and a duo, it was just delightful. I don't pretend to understand how it worked, any more than I "get" the music used. But it was so obviously smart, funny, unexpected - and beautiful - that any understanding beyond the recognition of those qualities isn't really necessary, I think. It's so good, that that is enough. You get it.
The big highlight of the evening for me was Left Unsaid, an amazing piece for six dancers set to music for solo violin by Bach. Made up of vignettes that faded in and out - solos, duos, many different combinations of dancers - it was created by Nicolo Fonte, certainly a world-class choreographer, certainly a world-class piece. Very abstract, very spare, monochromatic, dimly lit - all things that I might find off-putting - I was simply overwhelmed by the beauty of it. Three chairs, three men's jackets, a screen at the back of the stage that went up and down slightly. That was the "set design". And the dancing was fantastic. Everyone. Exceptional dancing.
I don't know enough of choreography to be able to really explain what I experienced but, stepping away from the plain wonder of what the dancers were accomplishing, I kept thinking how fluid and un-repetitive it all seemed. So much dance - great or not - seems to have repetitive movement: strike a pose and repeat, strike a pose and repeat. And so many ta-da moments that seem designed to call attention to themselves. This was completely fluid, every movement led from one to the next and never seemed to repeat. Never called attention to itself. Even when it was dramatic or exceptionally beautiful each movement was completely integrated to the whole. At the same time, the choreography was often so incredibly intricate, the transitions and positions so unexpected, that I found myself holding my breath. From plain excitement.
And one of the biggest surprises for me, watching this very abstract, minimal work of art, was how moved I was by it. It really got to me. There was a feeling of story in the choreography, even if there wasn't one. And an expression of emotion in the movement - not at all acted out - that was accessed in the most subconscious way. It was so moving, and inexplicable in delivering the gift of that emotion. I love it when a work of art knocks me flat, and I don't even know how I got there!
As I understand it, the choreography is influenced by Fonte's practice of Iyengar yoga and takes some inspiration from the novel The Golden Compass. Neither of those elements is familiar to me. And are, honestly, totally unimportant to my experience. As I said of Speak, I don't think I needed to understand anything about this work. I just let it wash over me. And this performance of Left Unsaid was some of the best, most satisfying dance I've ever been fortunate to witness.
It wasn't until we got home and I read more of the program did I realize that principal Anne Mueller would be retiring as a dancer at the conclusion of this run. She danced in three of the four pieces we saw. All three incredibly different. And she was superb in them all. I don't know how old she is, but she's been with the company for fifteen years. And a still-young person can be a very-old dancer. But how do you give up something like that? Something that she's been living every day since she was a child, I'm sure. How do you just say, I'll stop now?
I can't imagine what it's like to be so attuned to one's body, to understand and be able to calibrate its exact placement in space. As someone who has such poor balance, who's so completely out of touch with his body - if you said to me, "quick, where's your left elbow!", it might take me a shockingly long time to come up with an answer - I just have to marvel at the amazing control and sensitivity a great dancer has in communion with his or her body. The language of movement, the language spoken by the body of a dancer is something I'll never be able to comprehend. And when I see really great dancing its beauty is almost terrifying to me. Which is a rather odd thing to say, I suppose. But there's always something for me about watching a great dancer in action - on stage or on film, classical ballet or Fred Astaire - that makes me think I could dance, too. The perfection of it and the seeming effortlessness somehow put the perverse belief into me that I could actually do that: the music swells and I elegantly rise and fling myself into glorious, effortless dancing. All around the room. Or down the street, like they do in the movies. I always have to struggle to tamp down this madness because, if I ever let loose and threw my real weight behind my incautious imagining, my ignorant body could really hurt itself.
I've been on a month-long leave from the day job; today was the day I was supposed to return. I took it so that I could spend a good chunk of time painting, to try and get a little bit ahead with my work. But the composition of my Tacoma Art Museum symposium talk tookway, way more time than I expected. It was worth it in the long run - it went very well - but it took up three-quarters of my time off. So I asked my supervisors at work if I could have two more weeks, and they thankfully said yes. So now begins the two more weeks.
Besides just wanting to get more time to paint, the other reason for taking the leave was to try and figure out what it would be like to be a full-time artist, the life-style of the thing. I don't know that I'm really all that near to making that transition, but I still wanted to see how much work I could really produce if I didn't have to go to another job. And, maybe more importantly, to see if I could get an idea of the balance I could strike with art-making and non-art-making time. No artist can just sit and make art all the time. Even without having to break to go to a day job, you still have a life that needs to be integrated with the time used for art-making. And if I spent all my time painting, I'd just go nuts. So what would a balance look like? I hope to get some sense of that in the next two weeks.
My uncle Hugh died this morning. My father was the eldest of the four boys. Hugh was the youngest; his brothers always called him "Baby Hughie". He was a talented baseball player in his youth, and played professionally for a time. But for almost his entire adult life he suffered from untreated mental illness. I don't know if he was ever actually diagnosed, but he was almost certainly schizophrenic. His particular "mania" was a far-beyond-conservative Catholicism. He was always quiet, self-effacing but engaged within the family group. For years he picketed outside the "abortion clinic" at NW 24th and Lovejoy. It appears he did that quietly as well. At least he never got into any trouble that I know of. And because he didn't cause any actual trouble - to himself or others - there was nothing the family could do to get him help; you actually have to make some sort of disturbance or endangerment in order for the authorities to intervene. No one in the family had been able to get him to seek help, himself.
A college graduate, for years he worked at menial jobs - I think he was a dishwasher at Good Samaritan for a long time - but, as I understand it, he would make people uncomfortable with his talk about religion, and had difficulty keeping a job. I believe that for the last several years he wasn't working; his brothers helped him out financially, and I think he may have been getting disability. Sometimes he would show up at family events, other times not. His clothes were always pretty ragged. And we were disturbed by how unhealthy he looked. I have no idea how he spent his days.
I never knew Hugh, really. While I was growing up, we only rarely lived near the rest of our extended family. And when I finally moved back to Portland, he was too far lost to his illness. I hadn't felt any real connection to him, so I didn't make any effort to get to know him better and maybe involve myself with his life or problems. Honestly, no one in my immediate family got very involved with the situation. We left it to his brothers - including my dad, before his death - to worry about.
My mom called on Monday evening to tell me that she'd just found out that Hugh was in the hospital and wasn't expected to live much longer. It seems he'd had untreated prostate cancer for years, and it had spread throughout his body. She went to visit yesterday and told me today that he'd been just barely still hanging on, so she wasn't surprised to hear, this morning, that he'd died. I want to say that he lived a sad, wasted life, and that's it's some sort of blessing that he's at peace now, but what do I really know about it? I think he probably wasn't happy, but what would he have said? It's not my question to answer. But I can say that the way he left his life helps deepen my perspective on the way his big brother did so.
Ever since my father's death, all of us in my immediate family have agreed that the way he died - instantly, unexpectedly, with none of us there - was the way he would have chosen. That he wouldn't have been able to bear being sick and incapacitated, and - as he would have seen it - a burden on any of us. And it would have been horrible for us to see him suffering that way. If we, in any way, choose an accidental death, he chose his. He was happy, having a fun bike ride with his friends, and then he was gone. As hard as the loss has been, knowing that has been a big comfort to us all.
Seeing Hugh after my father's death was difficult for me and, especially, my mom. Because Hugh looked so much like my dad. To see him ravaged the way he was was really disturbing; it was like seeing my father that way, too. When my mother saw Hugh at the hospital yesterday, she was really struck by the resemblance again. She said it was like she watching my dad dying. And she said to me over the phone today that it made her so grateful that my dad never had to go through that, was spared the indignity of it. That since he had to die - and we agreed that we're all headed there, sooner than we'd like - she was actually glad that it happened as it did.
There was a lightness in her voice, talking about it, that was different from what it's been in the almost four years since my dad's been gone. She seemed so much more sure of the unexpected rightness of this thing that has utterly changed her life and caused her such pain, seemed so much more healed. In my way, I feel the same. I'm my father's son, not his wife, so it's a very different map of progress. And as time goes on, I miss him more, not less. But I'm still surer of the blessing of the way he died. And I want to thank my uncle Hugh for helping us to be sure.
I think I'm finally done pulling at and tweaking my presentation for this Sunday's symposium, The Figure in Contemporary Art, at the Tacoma Art Museum. Approximately forty minutes and one-hundred and eighty some powerpoint images in length, putting this together has nearly done me in. I've been saying, maybe if I had gone to art school - any college, really - I might have had to put together this sort of thing, learned how it works. But I came to this completely unprepared and ignorant.
How to you tell everything you think about your art? How you developed as an artist? Your feelings and thoughts about art, in general? I've taken a month-long leave from work to get ahead with my painting and here I am, three weeks in, and all I've been working on is this presentation. Working on it day and night. Not sleeping very well. Alright, I'm obsessive.
I mentioned to G the other night that I'd been thinking recently about how weird it would be if either one of us was with someone who wasn't as obsessed with their work as both of us are. Someone who wouldn't work and work until they finally felt they'd got it right, like we do. Someone who said, "Oh, that's good enough", when it wasn't, really. "No sweat." "It doesn't really matter." I can't imagine. In a lot of ways, it would probably be much healthier to not be so fixated on "getting it right". But what G and I both work at isn't a group effort, where the individual isn't always crucial to the end product. If you're writing something or painting something that only you can do, that is so personal and singular that, in a way, it says who you are, how do you find an easy place to compromise?
Well, anyway, I think I've got this thing together as best I can. G has been an enormous help, reading and listening and watching. She even skipped class last week so she could help me edit. She's been wonderfully tough, and I've made almost every single cut she suggested - and very happy for it, too. She'll sit again, tonight, while I run through the whole thing once more; it might be the last time before the actual event. It feels good to be on this side of the process. I'm nervous, of course, but I'm looking forward to Sunday.
I'm married to a writer. I never knew writers before. And now I get to be around them a lot. I'm an artist, of course, but I've never really socialized much with other artists; never actually felt part of the "tribe". So it's been a revelation to experience the warmth and camaraderie that I routinely witness within the writing community here in Portland. I don't know how other writing communities are; maybe Portland is the exception. Here, writers come out to hear writers read, big or small readings. I see well-established authors, with multiple books published, and relative novices at the same events. Often reading at the same events. Sharing contacts, happy to put in a good word with an agent or publisher for someone trying to get ahead. Sadly, a lot of the people who've "made it" in their careers are afraid of others getting too much success in the same field. But I never see that here. And I see very little sign of hierarchy. But I see such generosity, always.
I've read a lot lately on the status of women in the Arts. It's shocking how they get published less, performed less, shown less. Ironically, the vast majority of the writers - and published writers - I know or are acquainted with are women. Such fantastic writers. As supportive as the writing community is, here in Portland, the writing women are maybe even more so. They are so kind to each other, they give each other time and smart advice, they are so amazingly available to each other. I'm afraid - as a man, after all - to muddle my way into speaking about the nurturing natures of women, but that's what I see so much of, honestly. The writing women who have been published, wanting so much for those who haven't been to have that, too. There isn't a feeling of scarcity; there's enough for everyone. "Here, look, I made this beautiful cake. It's so damned good! Have a piece; I'll give you the recipe."
I'm nearing the deadline for finishing the talk that I'll be giving at the symposium at the Tacoma Art Museum on April 3rd. And, I have to say, it's proving to be rather a tough job. Since I'll by talking about my art, much of the presentation will be visual, but I still need to have enough material to go on for forty-five minutes. Forty-five minutes! Oh....
Though the theme of the symposium - which is in conjunction with the big Norman Rockwell exhibition at TAM - is the figurative in art, I'll end up speaking of other things as well. One of the thoughts rolling around in my head right now is the idea of "art for the art world" versus "people's art". Norman Rockwell was certainly a people's artist. That's one of the qualities, I believe, that made serious, critical attention and appreciation so slow to come; he wasn't seen as "serious" enough, his work is so straightforward and accessible. That's one area where I think our work has parallels.
I'm lucky that my career has come at a time when critics and the art establishment are increasingly more open minded about what kind of art can be taken seriously. But I still think my work is appreciated even more by the "average Joe". And though to be able to sell my work, I need to access a different layer of society, shall we say, I think - maybe unconsciously - I still aim my output at the less-art-educated majority. I'm not talking down to that audience. We appreciate the same things; their sensibilities are mostly my own. And they get my work as well, if not better, than the art-educated minority. The way I look at it, my work - with all its historicist excess, its gender tweaking, its unabashed prettiness - isn't meant to be thought over too deeply, just to be enjoyed. For its clear language and its "too utterly utter" preposterous pretensions. It's probably equally outrageous of me to say so, but I've come to think of my visual style as "elitism for the masses". And I hope it is.
The building where we live had posted that they'd be turning off the water on Tuesday at 10:00 am to do some repairs. They've been doing that a lot lately. Always at ten in the morning. Often they don't get started then. Often they start much later or don't start at all. And the shut-off, when it happens, is almost always very brief. I figured that, since I didn't have to be to work until three in the afternoon, there wasn't any reason to try to shower before ten. Soon after ten I noticed that the water was off. As it got later, I kept checking to see if the water was back on. I had showered the night before, so I wasn't actually dirty, but I hate getting ready for the day unless I'm really clean and fresh. (I also shave and brush my teeth in the shower.) Past two, running out of time, I called the management office to check the status, and got the typically vague response that it would be back on soon. At the last minute, with still nothing coming out of the tap, I had to find some way to get myself ready.
There was very little water in the container in the refrigerator, but I put what we had in a pan to heat it up a little. Added the small amount that was in a container of bottled water G had saved and the - very flat - remains of the lime-flavored bubbly water that we hadn't thought to throw away. When it was warm I took it into the bathroom, brushed my teeth, wetted my hair a little, and got a cloth, wetted it, and dragged it over myself a bit. When it came to shaving, I didn't want to rinse off the blade in the still relatively clear water, so I thought to use the very murky, paint-y liquid in the water container I use for my painting. I wasn't - comfortably - clean when I'd finished, but I thought myself pretty resourceful for doing what I could. Later that night, after work, as I was heading for the shower, G agreed that I was pretty clever.
Three days later, on Friday, a 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit Japan, followed by a devastating tsunami. Many of the thousands of survivors have not had any access to water for more than two days.
The saying goes something like, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention". I agree with that absolutely. Even with our eyes half-closed, there's enough wrong, enough gross imbalance in this country, in the world to fill us up with horror. And if we are paying attention, how do we keep ourselves from being completely swamped with despair? How do we go about our lives, consciously, without being crippled with depression? How can we find the strength to recognize and focus on all the positive and the good in our lives, when nearly all the news we get is negative? What is out there to give some balance, to feed us hope and some positive stimulus that, as sensitive beings, we need in order to function?
I struggle with this void all the time. I think I cope less well with this than most people. People I know, family, Facebook friends seem to have a better internal balance. So that they can be smart and informed about all the world's horrors, without losing their perspective. So easily, I lose mine. My outrage always brings out the warrior in me; I want to go out and fix all the worlds problems. (I must be some sort of egomaniac, because it never occurs to me that I might not be the right person for the job.) At its worst, my unfocused fervor to go into righteous battle makes me feel that - in order to be ready, I guess - I need to turn my life upside down. Sell everything, move "off the grid" or to another country, devote my life to one and all of the so many great "good causes". I need to turn myself inside out, because somehow I think that's the only way I can help save the world. And when I'm thrashing about like this, desperate, one of the first things I think to rid myself of is making art; what good to the world are the silly pictures of a whiny, middle-aged artist who paints himself in a dress?
(Sadly - or fortunately - I have to realize, I'd make a terrible "savior of the world". It seems I have the ego for it, and I'm a good organizer, but I'm no "leader of men"; I always make a surprisingly awful boss. Always say the wrong things, always piss people off. Desire and commitment are only part of what's needed to do - well, anything, really. You also need very specific talent and skills. Very few of which, in this case, I possess. And so, it becomes obvious, I am unqualified to save the world....)
I don't really ever question why I paint what I paint. But I constantly question what the point of it would be to anyone else. Especially in the presence of what I see in the art world: deeply feeling and intelligent artists, striving to say something meaningful with their work. Something that relates to and comments on the world as they experience it. I always feel a bit out of place alongside these artists, because I don't make art like that. I really don't try to say anything at all with my art. There is content, of course, but whatever is there comes about subconsciously. My primary goal is always to just make something beautiful. Often humorous, always beautiful.
But when I'm feeling a little less insecure, a little less self-conscious, I will allow myself some hope that my work does serve a purpose. It's hard for me - myself - to really understand, but maybe the fact that I make work that doesn't reflect the real world, that avoids any commentary on war or misery or any of the real inequities so much of the world faces, does some good. Maybe my "silly" work does some good. If I complain that there is so little hopeful, balancing information or imagery being fed us through the media, then I have to recognize that maybe I'm doing a tiny bit to give someone, somewhere, something of that. If I make paintings that contain some light of beauty or laughter - which is what I try to do - I have to believe that there might just be people out there longing for something of that. Just the way I, as a child, always longed for it. As I long for it now. And if I recognize that I have some sort of "warrior spirit", I also need to understand what it is I have to work with, what it is I was designed to do. What my small but specific talents might offer to a world suffering and overwhelmed with uncertainty and real ugliness. To be coldly aware of the world as it is and, at the same time, to have the desire to retreat into the soft chambers of human imagination and human joy are not mutually exclusive. And that is what I have to keep searching to balance within myself. And I hope that my work can, in some small way, be helpful for others trying to maintain that balance.
How long does a bird live? A robin or a sparrow or a jay. How large is its brain? What are its cognitive powers? Does it have any sense of time or change? How much does it feel of the cold or heat? Easy enough to know these things, With a click and a click.
Not long, not large, not much Would be the answer To the question of birds.
But if we question our own ability to answer the question, Our capacity to carve an understanding Within the hardened range of our own comprehension, Of a bird or of anything, could we ask:
Would it ever fear the turning of the leaves in Fall? Might it feel the ache of the old age of a brief life? Could it know any regret, Or the sharp loss of other brief lives? Clutching to a narrow branch high in a leafless tree, Head tucked against the grey mist, Could it ever feel a longing for time To bloom forward?
I find that sometimes the good brings out the bad. And that's usually for the best. The more success I have, the more I can face my failures. The more loved I am and the more love I am able to give, the more vulnerable I can allow myself to be. And then the more room for all the old hurts to surface, the ones that never really healed. Some people are able to gracefully ride out their pain and failures. They move on, they press on. I always need to drag out the hurtful things, again and again, hold them in my hands and stare them down, before they begin to fade. But then there are the ones that come back. Again. Still. Because I don't want to look at those ones. Because I don't want to engage them. Those shadows I keep turning away from.
The shadows of all the things that hurt and confused me as a child. All the shame of being unliked and alone. The new kid. The shy kid. The fat kid. The sissy kid. Freckle-faced. Bed-wetter. My dad was in the Air Force so we moved a lot. So many schools. It was hard to make friends. And the friends I thought I had often turned out to be...not really my friends. A lot of betrayal in my young life. Being laughed at and taunted. All the questioning of why are people so mean to me? All the moments of humiliation that never go away. Not really. After almost fifty years, the feelings of them, the very real pictures of them never go away.
- Fourth or fifth grade, maybe. I knew Steven Large from school. I thought maybe I was his friend. He was English. He was very smart and everyone thought his accent was cool. One day in his back yard with his friends. All the sheets hanging on the clothesline. Between the sheets, and Steven and his friends spitting on me. Spitting all over me.
- Seventh or eighth grade. Gym class. Biggest, fattest, probably least developed physically; certainly the least developed emotionally. I was always the tallest and fattest boy, which made me a great target. If you're big, other boys want to fight you. If you're a sissy and don't want to fight, you're the best kind of target; call out the big guy who you know won't fight back. Every day at my gym locker a boy pushed me hard. I never knew what to do. Every day he pushed me. Finally one day, without thinking, I swung out my arms and pushed hard against his shoulders and he went flying back into some locker doors and sprawled on the tile floor. Before he could get back up, I burst into tears.
- Third or fourth grade, I think. My mom was visiting my dad in Hawaii while he was on R&R from Vietnam. I stayed with my friend Mitchell Conn and his family. We lived in Merced, but we drove up to Sunnyvale for the weekend, to stay with his wealthy cousins and their family. I still wet the bed. On Sunday morning, Mitch led his cousins into the room where I was sleeping. I awoke to Mitch pulling back the covers so they could see how I'd wet. I remember it was such a beautiful, bright sunny morning. The sheets and the fluffy bedding that I'd wet were blindingly white.
- Eighth grade, probably. Linda Little, the female "ringleader" of the cool black kids at school teased me all the time. And pushed me and smacked me. She and her friends liked to single me out. One day, I was standing on the edge of the sidewalk at the top of a small hill on the school grounds, when she came up to me and gave me a shove. I lost my balance and rolled all the way down the hill. Everyone saw. When I got up off the ground, I yelled "black bitch" (even then, with an ache that it was racist to say that) and tried not to cry, but Linda Little and her friends just laughed.
- Junior High. John was my best friend. I used to hang around with him and his younger brothers. They were from West Texas. He had a strong accent and was as skinny as I was fat. He liked the Beatles when they weren't even that cool. We rode our bikes everywhere. To the outskirts of town where there wasn't anything, only flat dried-up fields. I was probably in love with him. In a few years, by the end of junior high, he'd grown up a lot, got a girlfriend. Maryann. He stopped hanging around with me and he told people in school about how I made costumes for my GI Joe and my sister's Barbie. How I played with dolls. He did it to make himself more popular.
More than a year and a half ago, a coworker I work closely with - who I'd always been friends with - misunderstood the intentions of something I said and stopped talking to me. I tried to speak with him about it but since that day, other than the most absolutely necessary work communication, he hasn't spoken to me. Some of his friends who, prior to all this, were friendly enough, now seem to be following his lead. So I have several people at work who shun me. Really, that's what it is - as ridiculous as it sounds - I'm being shunned.
Things are going so well in my life. On all fronts. I've really worked out a lot of things that, for a long time, I've needed to deal with. I'm very grateful. And yet, at work, much of my attention and energy have been focused on this negative, confounding situation. But now, finally, in the last few days it has slowly begun to seep in - after more than a year and a half - that my distress with the situation is mostly because it takes me right back to who I was as a child. Puts me in the same position, puts me into the same confusion: Why are people mean to me? Why don't they like me? And I haven't known how to fight that feeling of being defenseless. Maybe that's why this year and a half has been so out-of-proportion painful. It's the sort of thing I wish I could just laugh off, muscle through. But, because of who I am, how I process things, it's brought back all the unfair confused hurt I felt as a little boy...and I know that that's completely necessary for me. For my health and my growth as a person. The sparks of comprehension I'm beginning to feel about all of this are signs to me that, soon enough, I'll be grateful for this hard time. I'll see it as a blessing.
I'm the kind of person who is always going to try and fix things, to talk things out, but you can't make someone talk to you. At this point, my understanding of the situation is that my coworker is a very sensitive individual. Who acts as though he's not. On some level he knows that he overreacted to the whole thing and is embarrassed by that. It's guess it's easier for him to put the blame on me than to sit with the shame of his behavior. All of which, honestly, I can completely understand. I understand because there is another side to this.
I've shunned people, too. A lot of people who grow up victimized in some way, subconsciously look for some way to hurt back. It's a sad truth that, if you're bullied or ridiculed or shunned, you may later have a tendency, yourself, to bully, ridicule, or shun. It's the abusive cycle. It's a defensive mechanism: if I hit you first, you can't hit me first. Even if it's just a look or caustic words delivered to keep someone at a distance. Or behaving toward someone as though they just don't exist. I believe that it's all part of the hyper-vigilance, that need to self-protect that is so often a result of trauma.
One of the biggest things about getting my anxiety issues under better control was that I've needed to go back and apologize to people that I've snubbed for no other reason than that I just couldn't deal with them in some way. My response to things - normal things - was often quite warped. For a long time. At work, over the last few years, I've made personal apologies to people I've treated dismissively or unfairly demonized in some way. And a few months ago, I sent out a general email to apologize for any bad behavior in the past. I felt pretty vulnerable - and maybe a bit foolish - doing so, but it seemed the right thing; I'm grateful that people were so kind and understanding in response. But even still, I'll always need to examine my reactions to people and question my motivations. So that my relationships with people aren't shaped by the feelings of the hurt little boy I was.
As I've been writing this, I keep thinking about three boys I went to school with. They'd all be the same age as I am now. I didn't really know any of them. But I've always remembered them so clearly.
I want to say I'm sorry to Joseph, the little boy in first grade who was ugly and smelled like pee. When given the choice to name my baby brother Joseph Brian or Brian Joseph, I chose the latter. A choice made only out of disdain for that poor little kid. I can still see his little first-grade face and I feel so sad. I hope life has been kinder to him since.
And I want to say I'm sorry to the Hispanic boy in junior high gym class - I think his last name was Gutierrez - who was fat like I was. His body was very soft and he had deep scars on his abdomen. Having to get naked in the locker room, having to run around the track. All the shame I felt, he must have felt. I don't know if I ever really talked to him. Or any of the other fat or big or slow kids. I was so desperate to not be the last one, the worst one. "At least I'm better than he is." That's all I could think about, then. "At least I'm not as bad as you!" I wish I could have known how to be friendly with him; we might have given each other some of the support we both needed so much. I hope he's had a happy, loved life.
And I want to thank the boy - another Hispanic boy - who stood up for me one day, when I was in sixth grade and we lived in Miami. I think that's when it was; there were so many times in my childhood that were similar. When I'd just be walking home from school and I'd get followed. A couple of boys from school would crowd around me, calling me names, trying to get me to fight with them. And I would stay as silent as I could, just walking, trying to be as dignified as I could, my head high, my eyes straight ahead. No one ever stood up for me, no one tried to get people to leave me alone. So I remember that day. The sky was heavy and the light was dim and yellow, like it often seemed in Miami. I didn't know the boy at all, just recognized him from school. I remember he was dressed very tidy, a button-down shirt, pressed. And he just walked along with me and kept telling the other kids to leave me alone. Even pushing one or another of them at times. He just walked along with me until they eventually drifted away. And then he went his own way. I don't know that we ever talked after that; I don't remember him except for that day. But I want to say how grateful I am to that noble child who just wanted to do the right thing. To be kind to someone who needed it. I needed it.
I have my first opening at Winston Wächter tomorrow night. And I'm nervous. It's two shows, really. One is for sculptor Mielle Riggie. The other is a (small) group exhibition; I'm showing with Seattle artists Tatiana Garmendia and Piper O'Neill. So it isn't like the fear I'd have with a first solo show. And it isn't an "introductions" sort of thing for me. I'm not "on spec"; I've got the "gig", so to speak. And they've already seen that my work will sell - thank you for that! The gallery is beautiful. The people who own and run it have been just lovely. Warm, approachable, down-to-earth. I couldn't be happier with the people or the situation.
Most importantly, I'm very happy with the new paintings I've delivered to be part of this exhibition. I really feel that I'm doing the best work I've done thus far. Smart and beautifully painted. Right now anyway, my artistic ambition and my ability are well matched. Well balanced. And I think the work will only get better. I may be wildly egotistical - delusional? - but I don't think so. Dammit, the work is good! So I guess I'm not insecure about that..........hmmm, no....
Judith et Holopherne
La Coiffure interrompue
So why am I nervous? I guess it's just that it's all so new. I don't really know these people, yet. Nice as they are. Or this beautiful place. I'm shy; unless I'm really comfortable, social situations can be daunting for me. So I'm nervous about making an ass of myself, saying something stupid, being a bore. Nervous that I'm not young enough or attractive enough or cool enough. Because, right or wrong, I'm putting a lot of weight on being successful at this new gallery. If I'm going to be able to really claim the job description of professional artist, if I'm going to be able to transition out of needing a "day job", I need to take big steps. Now and in the immediate future. Winston Wächter feels like a big step.
Now, I know that the only thing I really need to concern myself with is the work. Is the work good? It's the work that's important, not how good-lookin' or charming I might be. Deep down I know that that's the only thing that really matters - but who the hell remembers that kind of thing at a time like this?!
Stephen O'Donnell, painter and singer/performer. A mid-career fine artist, I have been showing professionally since 1995. Married to author and graphic designer Gigi Little, with whom I occasionally perform a mother and daughter singing act, Madeleine and Penny Prévert.