Down the Same Drain

“I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” 

― Georgia O’Keeffe

I’m reading a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe right now, and I have to take it in small doses because she blows me away. I cannot handle her all at once. Ahead of her time, confident, thought-provoking, the story of her life is something I have had to let simmer.

I read the quote that begins this post a lot. I’m not there, but I’d like to be. I’m getting there. I used to be a person who hung on every slanted eye or critical comment for days and even weeks. And flattery, though it never hit me quite as hard, would puff me up like some of those birds I paint– the ones cold or scared, feathers poofy, turning their graceful forms into comical caricatures. 

I had a conversation with a man in the gallery recently. With the encouragement of his family, he had taken up painting in retirement. Hesitant to show me his work, he was fraught with disclaimers like “I just started” and “I’m really not that good” to which I immediately responded, “me too.” 

Truthfully, there are many, many worlds in which I’ve just started and I’m not that good. And there are many others where I’m an expert of sorts, where I’m quite good. These worlds exist outside me. I also navigate them internally almost daily. They are both true, both real.

But when I’m at my best, and what I think I eventually said to that novice painter was something like this:

Objectively good or bad– the “in a vacuum” kind doesn’t exist. What matters is that I have offered something to the world at all. Covered in roses or warts or both, I give it away knowing, believing, trusting, and sometimes hoping it has a value, any value. I have given it and let it go. It is my offering, something holy but never perfect. It just is. I don’t give it because my greatness demands it or despite my limitations. I give it out of the most human part of me. 

At my best, I know this to be true. At my best, I am free to let flattery and criticism, insecurity and arrogance go down the same drain. And I am free to paint. Free to grow. Free to feel the joy that is being human.

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I don’t know how to buy art (but I’m learning)

Truth be told, and I hate to admit it, but I don’t really know how to buy art. I’ve been on the other side of it for a while now, and that I kind of get. So when you buy something from me at a market or from my site, I’m a little in awe. Of all the beautiful art in the world, you made a decision about one piece and invested in it. And, let’s be honest, you invested in yourself. Paintings aren’t groceries or car insurance. I imagine we could live happy, secure lives without them. But you– you saw something and thought, I like that. I want to look at it more. I want to own it. Not because it could fill your belly or reorganize your life but because you value your own perception of beauty, your own power to just behold something. You rock.

I want to be like you, I really do. But I get squirmy trying to decide what art I will buy and where it will go and if I will still like it a decade from now. I feel uneasy and awkward making that transition from appreciating a work of art to making an investment in it. I want to buy a lot of art but since both wall space and finances are limited, I put pressure on myself to buy the “right” art. Enter my son Ezra who, at six years old, bought his first piece of art at a market several months ago. We were strolling along when we came upon a booth with a large display of wooden sculptures. Ezra, who in the last couple of years has developed an interest/obsession with fishing, saw a sculpture of a redfish that he immediately wanted to take home. The artist talked to us about the wood he used to make the base, driftwood from Katrina. I listened with fascination as Ezra tugged on my arm asking me on repeat if we could buy it. I told him we’d have to really think about it, so we walked away on another errand and chatted about it for a while. Did he really want to use the money from his savings account? Did he think he would put the sculpture in his own home one day, the first of a bigger collection?

We ended up detouring to the bank and made a withdrawal from his account to pay for the artwork. That was back in March, and he still loves his purchase, proudly showing it to anyone who comes through our front door. 

Ezra’s taught me a lot over the years, and this was no exception. I’ve tried to follow his example and become more of an art buyer not just appreciator. I still find myself strangely nervous about it, not quite sure how exactly to go about it smartly, but, recently, when an artist I admire, Leslie Duke, posted that she still had select limited edition prints available in her online store, I pulled the trigger and bought one. It took some debating, some back and forth. I love all her work and had trouble choosing. I thought of Ezra, how he picked the fish that first caught his eye, the one one that made him tug at my sleeve, the one that pulled him in. 

When my print arrived in the mail, I knew I’d made a great choice. Now framed, it hangs proudly in my living room, not all that far from an old wooden display table that holds a carefully carved sculpture of a redfish. 

At the end of the day, art buying scares me because I don’t think I quite trust myself — as though I’m at a blind wine tasting, and I will choose as my favorite the grocery store box wine instead of the expensive ten year old French Bordeaux. But Ezra’s helped me start to trust myself, to look for what speaks to me, for what I can’t stop thinking about. And should my taste change, and I sure hope it doesn’t stay stagnant but evolves, my collection will simply grow. I don’t really want a house full of one type of art anyway. I want each piece to become part of my story– one that speaks of a person who trusts her own perceptions of beauty, her own ability to behold. 

I am so curious about your experiences buying art. Any advice, regrets, revelations, fears, joys? What makes you want to own something? What artists’ work do you own? I’d love to check them out. 

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To the Tchefuncte, With Love

 “Hurricane” Barry was a non event. There’s still a twig in my yard that blew off the sycamore tree, but other than that, there’s no evidence. And the twig wouldn’t hold up in court because even the slightest rains bring down branches in my tree-happy yard. 

But nevertheless, and even though it barely rained, I found myself in a productive, thoughtful “hunkering down” period. I could have netflixed the whole time because we never lost power and I have just started Stranger Things, but instead I worked on several paintings. And the one that got me thinking was the one the hurricane threat inspired– this painting of the Tchefuncte river. 

The Tchefuncte and I, we have a history. 

She’s where I learned to waterski off the back of a jet ski. Where I fed bread to alligators from the porch at Friends in Madisonville before it turned into the ill-fitting highrise that eventually went out of business. She’s where I went to in my mind, floating on an inner tube when the lamaze instructor told us to visualize a peaceful place. 

In 2012, I watched her creep threateningly close to my front porch steps, Hurricane Isaac causing her to swell and pour towards me and the newborn son in my arms. And then, months later, hurricane debris cleared and forgotten, I found a quiet spot where I could just sit and watch her, telling her about the debris in my own life that I was less able to clear. Less able to forget. She didn’t care. But her calm way of reflecting the cypress trees back to themselves (they didn’t care either) started to convince me that her detached peace was reality too. Grief wasn’t all there was. 

Painting this river is part careful adherence to observable reality and part fantasy– I sometimes put moss where I wanted it or turquoise where I don’t really see it. The Tchefuncte seems to invite me to participate in her beauty, to create. I observe but I also invent, I look but I also remember, imagine. Rivers aren’t still but ever moving, ever changing. This painting is about a specific river but also a specific relationship with it– one that’s been shaped over a lifetime, one I’ve just begun to tap into on the canvas.

I’ve got several more planned in this series– the next I envision will include a larger section of sky well beyond where the trees can touch it– the river will shrink, become part of a larger slice of earth and not all-consuming on the plane of the canvas. 

Is there a physical place you go to, that you find tied up in your emotions and memories? I would love to know it’s story and would be honored if you’d share it with me. 

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I’m still pissed.

I’m still pissed. 

As though it were a bad show on Bravo or the dead possum on the side of the road, for a long time I just wasn’t able to look away even though I know my spirit (and my queasy stomach) deserve better. 

It’s about something that happened so long ago. About something I should have handled then but didn’t. 

Once and only once have I not received payment for a painting– a really big painting. I want so much to go into the gory details of it, but I’ll resist my baser urge and summarize it like this: I was commissioned for this work by a relative of another collector, and it was in light of a gut-wrenching situation that the new collector wanted the painting. It was also time sensitive. Having had a positive experience with the first collector, I dropped everything I was currently working on, took on the project without a deposit, and fronted the bill for shipping. These are just the facts. Not my most saavy business maneuvers. Upon it’s safe arrival, the collector immediately messaged me his joy at having received the painting and said he would send the payment we had agreed upon at the start. It never happened. I reached out, nothing. I gave it some time, then reached out again. Rinse, repeat. Nothing. Months went by.

I was ghosted. Though I’ve never met this person, when I created the painting for him, he friended me on facebook. And the whole time I was reaching out, trying to procure the payment (or, let’s be honest, just some form of communication about the situation that would have undoubtedly led me to an “it’s on the house” response), I watched photograph after photograph after meme after status update of boats and planes and vacations, of a fancy suburban home and cars purchased, inspirational quotes about lives well lived, integrity, family. All in all it appeared a #blessed life. Can you feel me rolling my eyes thorugh the screen?

Eventually, after a long and overly heartfelt letter in which I definitely, I’m embarrassed to admit, played the “single mom” card, this isn’t a hobby it’s my job, I have a mortgage, yadda yadda yadda, I got my first response and a payment that did not even cover the shipping– not even a fourth of the agreed upon price. There was a weak assurance that the rest of the money would be paid. And I’m sure you can now guess, it never was. All my invoices and messages again ignored. 

I seethed and I raged. I sent invoice after invoice. I threatened legal action I didn’t actually want to take on. And what’s worse, I kept looking at the facebook posts mocking me from my feed, delighting in all the evidence I was mentally building that this was just an undoubtedly rotten person. I daydreamed about responding to some of the posts– “Nice car. Do they know you don’t pay your bills?” or “Beautiful family, I wonder if you’ll teach them to be responsible and decent?” Oh and the one about his taxes paying for the lazy and unemployed? That one really set me off. 

I was clinging tight to my comforting rage, letting it curl up next to me on the couch every once in a while just to stroke it’s forehead and listen to it purr. 

“You’re letting that ugliness take up too much space in your beautiful life”

That’s what my friend said to me after I’d recounted (gory-detail version) this story. I was expecting her to feel the same glorious, righteous indignation I thought the situation warranted. Instead she asked what I’d learned, and how I had behaved differently since then– I always take a deposit. I never ship without a payment. I only take on commissions I want to take on, not ones I feel obligated to take on. 

She was right. If I hadn’t done anything and was not planning to do anything about it, why was I letting the foulness of it all creep into my heart and mind? Why was I giving it a voice, prominence in a life that, admittedly was going pretty wonderfully? Why was I letting it onto the couch, where it would shed and leave messes for me to endlessly clean?

Let it go, she said. Unfriend him. Today. 

And after one last look at a ridiculous quote I couldn’t quite avoid, with the click of a button, he was gone, robbed of the power to take up any more space in my life. No more festering, no more ugly anger. Dignity isn’t something someone can grant or take away. And there I was hoping he would grant it, furious that he was withholding it. 

But it was always there, immovable, unshakable.

I was working on this new painting when my friend and I had our conversation. After I’d texted her a screenshot of the “unfriending” I went back to work on it. I added the birds. The ones the woman’s letting go of. The ones no longer beating around inside her, tying her stomach in rage-filled knots. And it’s funny how so often when I let something go, it’s not so much the thing that’s free, but me. 

I have to admit, I’m still pissed, I really am. But my frustration and anger no longer have an open invitation to hang out. I’ve shut the door on something that no good could come of. Letting go isn’t a one time thing. Those birds, I’m sure they will come back (though they certainly won’t be beckoned by a silly facebook post) and having exercised my letting-go muscle, I hope I’ll have the strength to do it again and again, until they’ve got no reason return at all. I think my anger, now that I’ve stopped looking at those posts, was really more about me anyway. I’m mad at myself for not standing up to this guy in a more meaningful way, a way that would potentially curb his next crime. But I’m letting go of that too, confident that I’ve become more assertive and confident in the process. Confident that history will not repeat itself. And that is enough for now. 

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Why so many birds?

How can you keep painting so many birds? No one but my inner voice actually asks me that. But she’s a bit of a nag, so I’m going to go ahead and answer her.

It’s simple, really. I am constantly changing the way I do it. Those birds? They are my little, light-footed, hyper-aware, graceful, elegant muses that lead me to new discoveries about paint, design, and color.

In the first painting of the splendid fairywren, I started with a charcoal sketch on a cadmium red/burnt sienna wash. I then used the palette knife to layer on thick (almost obnoxiously so) chunks of paint. When the bird was almost completely filled in, I scraped all the paint away using the long side of my knife. Scraped clean, the canvas revealed a ghost-like remnant of the bird. I then went in with a brush and added softer bits of color.

Painting two, the bluebird. I started with the same sketch and wash combo as the first painting, but this time used just one large brush– a flat size 10 which is HUGE for a 4x4 canvas. I worked with only a brush, careful to leave that red wash showing in select places where bird meets background.

Painting three, the cardinal. This one was an old palette knife painting from weeks ago; one I had scraped away in frustration. I took the old, splotchy painting and started to rework it. It was different from the fairywren painting because the original layer of paint was completely dry and those bumpy textures firmly set. I worked over the underlying mess with a smaller flat brush than I did in the middle painting. I wasn’t expecting much from this re-working but it turned out to be my favorite.

If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, joy is approaching the same painting with new strategies time and time again.

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The Art of Not Staying in Bed

Every morning last week was the same madness.

I’d go into my son’s room at 7:00 am. With a flip of the light switch, I’d tell him good morning. He’d grumble from under the covers, his overgrown curly hair just poking out from the top of the comforter. If I didn’t know who was under there, I might have thought him a teenager and not my baby of six. I’d tell him his allotted ten minute “snooze” period had begun and leave him to his waking up. He wouldn’t. When I’d go back in his room, he’d refuse to get up.

I’m too tired. I can’t. I don’t want to go to school.

So all that week, I physically removed him from the bed. I put his school shirt over his body. I placed socks on his feet. I had flashbacks to what it was like to have a toddler.

I know him. I know if he’d just push through the initial resistance, he’d become my well-rested, hyper, and chatty boy who has so much to say on the way to the bathroom to brush his teeth that he often forgets to brush at all. But coming off a full week of spring break paired with a bonus day of school closing due to bad weather, he just couldn’t. The tired felt too big. His desire to not get up overwhelming.

Buddy, I’ve been there.

I’ve been there when the easel stares at me, and I look back at it not with excitement but with agony. Leave me alone, I tell it with my eyes. The thought of engaging with you is too much. I just don’t wanna.

Sometimes that resistance wins because I’m a grown woman in an empty studio– no one to take my hand and gingerly place it around the palette knife. No one to give me those hard truths (You have to. I don’t care if you’re tired) because while my son simply cannot stay in bed all day, I can avoid my easel. I can say no, not today.

What I realized today is this: painting, and any creative enterprise for that matter, is not a singular, contained act unrelated to what came before or will come after it. Painting is the incarnation of ideas that have interacted and developed over time

Today’s work is about more than just today. Opting out doesn’t just affect what I might produce today, but what I might produce in the weeks and years to come. I’m building something intricate here. Something with branches that shoot off from one another, intermingle, and grow.

I believe in rest. Recharging. Like my body after a good run, my creative mind needs recovery. But that’s different than opting out. Giving up. Staying in bed when a bright day will greet you two minutes after you shake the sleep from your eyes.

If only my son knew what I know– that the heavy weight of resistance he feels so intensely will vanish entirely the moment he compels his little body from the comfort of his bed and into the world. If only I always practiced what I know– that my easel doesn’t antagonize me as much as it invites me to create today what may or not be good in and of itself but what will be part of a broader, more intricate conversation, one that needs today’s little effort as it marches towards something bigger.

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