Family ties



So I go to painting class one morning, and I’m not feeling anything in particular, except annoyed at having to find a place to stash my car on 1st-Wednesday-of-the-month-don’t-even-THINK-of-parking-here. I put up my unfinished painting from 2 weeks ago, and I can’t see anything to do on it. In the painting I’m standing on top of the earth with my arms out in a joyful pose, while long, black holes stream in and out of their earthly passageways and little black figures swim upward in a strange parade.

Barbara comes up and asks me what I could paint next, and I’m a blank wall. I look into her eyes, and they strike me as so deep, so intelligent, as if they are her soul’s eyes taking a periscope peek out the portholes. Which I suppose they are.

She asks what I would paint on a fast painting, and I see myself on a dark planet all alone while everyone I know is dancing and frolicking far away on the Planet of Joy. Then she asks for another start, and I see myself squished between the earth and the dead planet I’m lying on, with snakes dancing around me on the tips of their tails. Each new painting I imagine takes me into deeper and darker places, and the tears are flowing now.

I spend the 3 hours of class doing one fast painting after another. At first the imagery fits what I had said to Barbara—me under a rock and my friends dancing on top of it. Me bleeding, snakes dancing around me. Sometimes painting is like a blunt stone tool that you just pound big stakes in the ground with, none of that delicate fine-tuning and painting every atom and particle. On the third or fourth painting, without any idea how I’m going to start, I paint myself as a fetus at the bottom of the paper. I’m encased in something, a womb, I suppose, and I’m being pelted by lots of black and green jabbing lines. For someone who’s used to painting dots and little details for weeks on end, these fast paintings are liberating.

Now I’m past the 3-mile limit off the coast of What I Know, and I’m just painting whatever comes. I start with the fetus image again, but this time my mother is sitting in the lotus position on top of me. She’s one pissed-off Buddha, with jaggedy teeth and angry eyes, and she’s reaching down with very long arms and long blood-red fingernails to claw at me in my safe harbor. Suddenly I’m stunned by a realization I have tried to hide from myself my whole life—that I was terrified of my mother. And that I had long been ashamed of this, as if it meant something was terribly wrong with me.

At the last minute, just before taking the painting off the wall, I paint a little figure in my mother’s heart, and I know it’s my little brother who died.

On the next painting, I paint my mother big. She’s in the lotus position again, holding my brother and weeping and gnashing her teeth. All the pain in the world seems to emanate from her chest, where my brother is cradled in her big, red, aching heart.

I barely find room to paint myself on this painting, but finally, there I am, scrunched into a corner. My father is scrunched into the opposite corner. I hadn’t planned this, but suddenly I see the truth of it. Both of us were grieving my brother’s loss, too, but we were both closed off completely from the fierce mother-grief.

At the last minute, I paint my brother’s waiting grave, with a cross and his name on it. Mike.

Next painting: my father at the bottom of the paper, stretched out in his grave, reaching up to my mother, stretched out in her grave, reaching up to my brother, stretched out in his grave, reaching up to me, stretched out on top of all the graves, arms tight to my sides, reaching out to no one.

There’s all this white space on the right side of the paper. I sense that something big is there, but I don’t know what. Without thinking (because what have I got to lose at this point), I paint a large blue spirit, with a halo and a big heart, reaching for my brother’s grave. Then I paint a blue cross on each of the bodies, including mine.

I’m definitely out in the open sea now, but I don’t seem to be above water anymore. I’m far from the feelings I started my first painting of the day with, and it strikes me once again that feelings are only the choppy waves on the surface. Where we really live is down in the enormous depths of the ocean.

I start my next painting. The blue spirit takes up the whole paper this time. She’s a female spirit with a big round gold heart. I paint her with legs but wonder about the propriety (or accuracy) of painting genitals on a spirit. Sometimes I just pop out of the painting trance and my mind tries to grab control, think logically, plan my next step. But I’m too far gone, I ignore that thought and continue to paint the blue and gold body. When I finish filling in the colors, I know She does indeed have dark blue genitalia that look more like a mysterious flowering plant, and lots of little people are being born out of her and falling upside down, plunging to someplace far below the bottom edge of the paper. Off to the side, I paint gold round planets with white insides and white rays coming out from around the edges.

It has been a good painting day.



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