I was afraid to be an artist because I thought it was too painful.
I stopped painting in the summer of 2000, just about fifteen years ago. At the time I was pouring a lot of difficult personal experiences into my paintings, or through them. It was cathartic to the extreme, sometimes it felt like it might kill me. A teacher once said about the work I was doing that “some people paint by bleeding through their fingertips.” There was a point where it started to feel like I might bleed out.
I hadn’t set out with the intention of painting difficult paintings. I had initiated this particular period of my art-making life with the innocent decision to dedicate some time, a few months or so, I thought, to just working on my rendering skills. I had been drawing and painting people mostly, and I wanted to be better and surer. I called it “playing scales”, and I chose my first subjects for the challenge they offered by way of complexity and detail.
The first one was a broken open pomegranate. I did a bunch of those.
Then one day my cat brought in a dead but perfectly pristine robin, and I fell in love. Feathers – are hard. Talons are hard. So I got all the juicy effortful trying and failing and learning I was after and then some.
But there was something else going on as well, and that was that I felt connected to that bird in a mysterious but very powerful way. That’s what really hooked me, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I knew that little bird. I knew its deadness — the sudden unfathomable deadness of a flitting, singing, soaring creature, one moment lovely and exquisitely free, the next moment forever stilled. The feeling or flavor of it was familiar to me, and also dear and precious. I cradled that bird and lavished my attention on every minute nuance of its form. I painted it for months, keeping it in my freezer between sessions.
During that time, other stilled little birds happened across my path. I found a skeleton of a bird in a planter in my garden. Once, a tiny baby bird, newly hatched and barely formed, literally fell from the sky, landing on the sidewalk at my feet. It breathed for a moment and then stopped, and I scooped it up tenderly and took it home and it joined the robin in and out of my freezer for a while.
At a certain point, someone challenged me about my subject matter, accused me of exploiting the birds for the shock value of their deadness. This came as quite a surprise to me because it was so completely inaccurate, and in response, I began painting myself into the pictures in various ways, in an attempt to clarify the strange kinship that was at the heart of my fascination. And as I did so, my understanding of myself began to take shape.
I started to realize that I knew that bird’s stillness, its tiny fragile perfect life stopped in mid-air, in numerous ways through the events of my own life. Through the actual deaths and near deaths of actual flitting, soaring, lovely beings, so full of life and possibility, that had come so frequently and close together ever since my childhood.
When I was five years old, my older sister was diagnosed with leukemia. At the time, that was a sure death sentence, and she was given six months. She underwent treatment and was a part of a test group for an as-then unproved protocol which was to be, in part, the reason she beat the odds and lives to this day. But our circumstances drew other cancer-fighting children into our lives, and while my sister survived, many of them didn’t. Then, in a bizarre twist of fate, my closest friend, a playmate of my very own, one who had nothing to do with our cancer community, succumbed to death from Reye’s syndrome at the age of seven. Later, the suicides and alcohol-related accidental deaths of my rebellious teenage years, coinciding with the Aids epidemic of the eighties delivered a host of unimaginably sudden stillings of exquisite soaring beings. There was the boy who either fell or jumped to his death from the roof at a party I attended when I was about nineteen, the one I wrote about in a previous blog.
When I was 23, I cradled my beloved uncle, a teacher and mentor of mine, in my arms as toxoplasmosis lesions consumed his brain, finalizing his conscious, relatable existence over the course of one dramatic night under my watch. When I was 24 I lost my first real romantic love to death, also HIV related. A few months after that I found myself a part of an informal network keeping watch over a brilliant creative young friend who was slipping away into the mental illness that eventually led to his suicide. He hanged himself with the bible laid open to the story of Lazarus’s rebirth. All young, flitting, singing, soaring beings. There were others, including my grandmother that Fall, who I’d lived with, who taught me meditation and breath practice and profoundly shaped my worldview, and who soared and flitted even as old age ravished her body and just up until the moment that death claimed it.
I’ve since noticed that this happens to people. It may have happened to you. There will be a year, or a few years in a person’s life that seems to be filled up with loss, one coming so close on the heels of the one before that they hardly have a chance to catch their breath.
Losing the man I loved when I was so young was pivotal in my particular story I think. In countries at war, even in parts of my own country, women in their twenties experience widowhood more regularly. But in the culture I grew up in that kind of loss is very unusual at the age of 24. When it happened to me, no one had any idea how to relate to me. I didn’t know how to relate to myself. I don’t think anyone who loved me could bear the thought of my pain, so we didn’t really talk about it. I remember how hard I tried not to. I remember watching myself as if from outside of myself, trying to maintain normal socially acceptable conversations, and hearing, or seeing the story of this terrible pain come out of my mouth as if I had no control over it at all. I remember wishing I could push the offending words back inside, stuff them down, and swallow them again.
So though it wasn’t what I set out to do when I painted that first little bird for the first time, I was now pouring the grief and tenderness and un-fathomability of it all into those paintings, and once the floodgates opened I was powerless to keep the images inside. And I was spending hours and hours every day at this. It was painful, and I was afraid of the pain, and of feeling alone, and of being singled out for my difficult nature, made ever more evident by my difficult paintings, and thus feeling more alone and thus feeling more pain. But I kept at it, because I thought, I still think, that truth has beauty inherent within it. That honesty is its own kind of beauty.
It took one final blow to push me over the edge, to make the pain of working through the grief greater than the healing benefit it promised: My friend, my best friend, who was also the man I had kissed for the first time just days before, the man who I was on my way to visit in order to figure out just what that kiss had meant, the healthy vigorous athletic vital man who had, incidentally, sat with me in my studio while so many of those paintings took shape over the previous few years, and who thought them beautiful also, died. It was sudden, a drowning. Like a soaring bird falling from the sky and landing lifeless at my feet.
In the wake of that powerful grief, on top of all the other old, unprocessed griefs, I made a choice to transform into a new version of myself rather than endure the heartbreak and suffering I was feeling. I turned away from myself. I stopped painting and drawing completely. I immersed myself in my newfound love of yoga. A few months after the drowning, I threw many of my paintings into the garbage.
Sometimes I want to go back and tell my younger self to stay with it, that fearless truth-telling is of value to the world and is salvation for the teller. But then I remember that I was so young and so hurt, and it was so much to hold, and I did what I thought I had to do to get through it.
These paintings are the few that remain. I made them between the years 1996 and 2000. I treasure them like a long-lost part of myself.
What I’ve learned since then has become one of the guiding principles of my life – that it’s not the telling of the truths that’s painful, it’s the truths themselves. That life is full of painful truths, and we can’t change that, but in the telling and sharing we can repurpose the pain into shared experiences of humanity, of connection, and these experiences of connection offer us some of our greatest moments as human beings.
Conversely, it was the times that I turned away from the truth, from myself and the full spectrum of my humanness, that brought the most suffering into my life. I know that now. But I had to learn it to know it. Back then, I was both too serious and not serious enough.
You can view all of these paintings in full-page format in one continuous scroll here.