Walking around in your underwear (sorta)

It’s why my son says he’s the best runner and world champion marathoner Paula Radcliffe says she has areas where she could really improve. Why kids at lemonade stands brag about their business skills and CEOs of successful companies revamp their entire strategies. 

If we didn’t, in the beginning, believe in our own genius, our own capacity for greatness, I doubt we would ever pursue anything at all. Thank God for blind, ignorant, audacious confidence. Thank God we can so often at least begin with voices more encouraging than we deserve instead of those that tell us “what’s the use” or “this will never work.”

I didn’t take a formal art class until college. I knew so little that I strutted into an art major, confident as my dog in pursuit of a squirrel (don’t tell her she’s 0 for 1,758). In my second year, one of my classmates was preparing for her senior exhibition, which she entitled “Walking Around In Your Underwear,” a phrase our professor would use a lot to describe what it feels like to share your art with others. The thing was, it didn’t feel like that to me at all back then. It felt neither vulnerable nor very personal. It felt more like walking around in my GAP jeans, sweater, and LL bean backpack– nothing too remarkable nor scary about that. 

It’s twenty years later, and I’ve painted more and in more cities in the last few months than I did in all four years of college. And every day when I show up to my newly opened gallery, stride past the hardware store on my way to grab a cappuccino from the coffee shop down the road, I give myself a little pep talk to ward off the insecurities. It’s not that I feel like I’m walking around in my underwear. It’s more like I’m walking around with some enormous and ridiculous hat– one that has the ability to talk and every so often just blurts out some random or incongruent idea at passerbys. My art now feels deeply and unavoidably personal. 

I know so much more now. Namely, that what I don’t know is infinitely bigger than all the things I will ever know or could ever know. That painting each day is acknowledging limitations but also not letting them get the best of me, using them even. It’s acceptance. It’s giving the bird to the idea that what I offer is not good enough to exist, that perfection should precede expression. 

I think that’s the spirit by which this new series was born. The women in these pieces mostly have their eyes covered. Half the time I don’t know where I’m going and despite all the long-term goals I try to make, I often can’t see beyond my next step. I think these pieces are equally about being hidden and standing out, equally about humility and confidence. They are the reflection of a racing mind and an overwhelming peace that presides over the noise. And of course, that peace, for me, quite often looks like a bird. 

This post feels just about as vulnerable as the paintings behind it. But I’ve got this tiny little metaphoric bird ever at my shoulder. She’s part the poems that guide me, my late Aunt Catherine who taught me art and therefore bravery, and part that heavenly peace that surpasses all understanding, the one urging us forward and on and around and about no matter how silly it all feels. 

I am so grateful at this moment for the confidence born of ignorance that propelled me into this new shape-shifting world where I feel less certain of each step and yet more eager to keep taking them. 

I’m getting this small series ready for the gallery (and the site). They will be available Friday, November 26th at 10 am.

A few days ago I shared the piece that starts this post as well as another painting from the series on social media and asked for feedback on what ideas, feelings, or thoughts it conjured for my followers. Having not yet shared this post, which I was working on, I was a little astounded at the answers I got and how deeply they resonated with what I felt about this body of work. You can read some of the responses below and if you aren’t on facebook or instagram, well, first, congratulations! and second, I’d still love your feedback, right here on this old school blog. 

I Could Stay Here A While

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“I Could Stay Here A While” 24×24

My tank was on empty. Not metaphorically but that too. The light came on in the minivan and I pulled over to the gas station closest to my house. Insert card, open gas lid, chose fuel type, the whole drill. I got everything rolling, clicked the metal piece that keeps the gas a flowin’ without me having to keep my hand on the trigger the entire time, and sat back down in the van, scrolled through my instagram feed for a few minutes only to look up and see I’d only filled up a couple gallons so far. It was one of those slow pumps. I was going to be there a while. So I immediately went back to instagram before realizing, as though by divine intervention, there were other things I could look at. 

The gas station sits next to a harbor. There were boats and darkening clouds. A man still wearing a silver helmet walking slowly but determinedly into the convenience store. Another man in a black t-shirt with writing all over it. 

There were so many birds I couldn’t have counted them if I had wanted to. Some gulls wandering about but also a whole pod of pelicans in the distance, flying away in a V– did I know they did that? I think I did but, after seeing it, now I’m not sure. 

Is this why art professors make such a big deal about drawing from life rather than just from photographs? I looked at my view and then at my screen. They hardly had anything in common at all. One was curated, posed, and I was making it move from one thing to the next with my thumb. The other was expansive, unedited. It was just as random but less forced. Grand but no one to aggrandize it– no photoshop for the grey clouds and the colorless water before me.

“Look up!” a trainer used to tell me when I was working on my running form. “There’s nothing for you down there. Eyes up,” he’d yell. 

So I’ve been lifting my eyes up lately. Maybe part of the reason I find myself running on empty is because I’m glued to a screen that is as much like real life as a driving a car is to playing Mario Cart. 

And you know what? I’m writing this on a screen and no doubt you’re reading it on one, too. But when I finish, I’m going to look up. I’m going to pay attention. I’m going to take three deep breaths and remember that there’s a great big world out there for me. Even in my tiny town, my drop of the ocean, my grain of sand.

If you find a few moments today to look up. I would love to know what you see. 

A long way, indeed.

I went for a run this morning on the beach. Not the street next to the beach. The actual sand-in-your-toes beach. There were a couple of dead catfish, one beheaded, washed up on the shore and I zig zagged around my fair share of jellyfish. The sand wasn’t packed down very hard and my feet were sinking into it with each stride making the effort more than I had planned to give. I ran slower than I’ve run in ages, and it was harder than I would have liked. It is indeed “a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world.” 

It feels like eons since I accepted Mary Oliver’s poem “Invitation” as just that– an invitation. A spiritual practice. An awareness. A starting point for a series of paintings. In the poem she asks us to take time out of our busy and very important day to attend to goldfinches who are singing in what she calls a “rather ridiculous performance.” I have tried to seek out the goldfinches which have come in the form of many things– clouds forming various shapes and patterns as they move across skies I’ve paid attention to long enough to notice changing colors. They’ve come in the form of trees whose leaves move ever so slightly even without a perceptible wind, the taste of yogurt truly savored, a long line of ants, busy, fragile and easily trampled. 

And with this intention to notice, I’ve lingered with my paintings too, revisiting ones I once would have long called finished. I reread my old blog posts before starting this one. I’ve been talking about this “Linger” series and Mary Oliver for longer than I’m comfortable with, which might just be the point? There’s part of me that wants to apologize.

I could spend a lifetime on these paintings but at some point, I’m going to have to put them out into the world or else “linger” turns to flat-out beached, like the fish I saw on the sand this morning. 

Beached. That is exactly how I feel right now. When the perfect gallery space became available I first decided against it, then decided to go take a look just for fun, then said definitely for sure because seeing it changed everything. Now it’s painting (on walls with rollers), getting signs made, figuring out where to put a desk, and what POS system I should use all the while the paintings that will hang on those walls are still changing. I’m still thinking and rethinking them, adding to them, throwing others out to start again. I’m in the in between time. I’m filled with excitement and nerves. I’m doing an awkward junior-high-style dance with “this is going to be great!” and “who in the world do you think you are?” I feel like a million bucks and I feel like a kid trying to sell lemonade on the street corner. 

On my morning beach run I imagined Mary Oliver visited me and she brought with her my great aunt, Sr. Catherine who was my first and greatest art teacher. Neither of them say much, but their presence comforts me, reminds me that I am both important and yet maybe not all that much so. That the “and” spaces are alright. That the gallery is good. That the paintings will be fine if they sit still yet a little longer. The sand is sinking with every step, and I feel like I’m running in peanut butter, but when I look back at the beach, I see I’ve come a long way, indeed. 

The painting below is one that I’ve been working on for months, both scratching off old bits and adding new. I think it reflects a little of the push and pull I’ve been feeling. The “and” in the fear and excitement of doing something new.

So I plan to be open sometime in September and use the time to slowly figure some things out while my doors are open and there are actual paintings on the walls. A grand opening is tentatively scheduled for the first weekend in November– likely that Friday. It’s definitely safe enough to pencil in.

Thank you all for your kind words of support and excitement over the past few weeks as well as your feedback and suggestions. I’ll continue to post gallery updates to social media and I’ll certainly send out an email when the plans firm up. 

In the meantime, I’d love to connect with you about your own “and” spaces where joy and frailty meet. What is your greatest comfort, your mantra, your ritual?

Sneak Peek at “Linger”

“Invitation” by Mary Oliver

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy
 
and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
 
for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,
 
or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air
 
as they strive
melodiously
not for your sake
and not for mine
 
and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing
 
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,
 
do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.
 
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

 

It all started with some train tracks and a bird. Ever since I saw the great blue heron in my backyard, Mary Oliver’s poem “Invitation” has lingered in my mind. I’ve tried to be mindful of it’s message as I’ve navigated my studio time the past few months. I’ve tried not to walk by without pausing. When I’ve lamented the thought of my “busy and very important day,” I’ve cleared time for stillness instead of soldiering on. I’ve quietly revisited canvases several times and am still not sure if any of them are “done,” a feeling that delights rather than frustrates me.

The whole series started with the culprit, the heron. I then turned more literally to Oliver’s poem and played around with actual yellow goldfinches on the canvas, brought out from their surfaces with the aid of some cold wax medium.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the spirit of “linger” was well established, I moved to human figures and faces, postures I hoped were either lingering or encouraging such a thing in the viewer. 

Somewhere along the way, and quite unexpectedly, I started scratching my knives into wet paint with haste. Scribble scratch came to represent the “busy and very important day” of the poem and of my psyche. It also represents an acceptance of messiness and a release from the pressures of an unattainable perfection. I loved that the scratches became an element in what was overall meant to soothe, remind, slow down, and calm. In a yoga class, the instructor often asks you to set an intention. That’s what this series is made of. A simple intention to linger, to notice, to pay attention. I am amazed, maybe dumbfounded is a better word, at what transpired from that intention– it’s far more than the 25+ paintings I’ve created. It’s my patience with the kids, an even deeper love for my husband. There’s a new and exciting opportunity lingering just around the corner, and I am certain it is at least partially one of the fruits of this intention. I’ll be sharing more on that soon.

Until then, the new paintings in this series will be available on my site August 2nd at 9am. I hope you’ll check them out and maybe even let me know what speaks to you. But more than that, I hope, that as summer somehow already finds itself with more days behind it than ahead of it, that you, too, will find a moment to heed the sacred invitation to linger– in your garden, in your thoughts, in your relationships, in your hopes, and in your art, whatever form that may take.

Why do we even need painting?

My art professor asked us, a bunch of bright-eyed students, this back in 2002. Even then, we were still anxious about technology. Post flip phone, pre texting, my friends and I would type out messages to each other on our computers which sat on our desks, grounding us to a space. We’d write “away messages” when we went to the cafeteria or library where messages could not follow. 

My professor talked to us about those machines at arcades that could turn a photo into what would look like a drawing or a watercolor. We didn’t know that in a decade our phones would be able to do that, no problem, plus a good bit more. 

I didn’t know the answer to her question about painting, but the slowness of her words, the nonchalant tone, the thoughtful pauses were driving me crazy. I was hanging on her every word waiting; I had to know and already believed whole-heartedly in whatever it was she was about to say.  

She said she thought it had something to do with texture. 

Ah, glorious texture– that thing you can’t get from an app or a screen. Maybe that’s why I obsess over it, overdo it, and enjoy it so deeply. In a world where I can see everything and touch almost nothing, I throw overflowing globs of paint onto canvas (and sometimes the floor). Touch me, touch me, touch me, I want my paintings to say. (Below is a photo of my cousin and her baby who very much heeded that call).

texture painting

Texture is my anti-screen, my appeal to remain in this physical world. Texture is how I take up space when I feel most invisible, how I navigate abstract, intangible, and shape-shifting worries, scary narratives that play on repeat in my mind. Texture is the answer to more than the question my professor posed to me nearly twenty years ago. Texture is my comfort and my delight. 

I’m not sure texture fully answers why we need painting. I would bet there are hundreds of other reasons. But it certainly answers it for me. It’s why I need painting. It’s why, even as the world I inhabit becomes increasingly backlit and small, expanding with just two fingers stretching it out, I need changing contours and bumps, mountains and valleys, globs and goo.