I’ve continued to use the practice of painting as a healing balm, which has been especially helpful in these August weeks so close to the year mark of Vernon’s death ( the date is tomorrow, in fact!) You may not be able to know without being told that all of the following paintings are based on bones—at least that is where they started. I had this idea of going back to some of Vernon’s original fractures by looking at images of x-rays, then abstracting them in order to create something new. Of course, with this kind of painting in particular, the artist has very little say in where the painting will go, how it will emerge, or if she’ll even like the thing when it’s finished. There are often a lot of layers and a lot of covering up, a lot of frustration—but also, a lot of freedom and joy. Ultimately, I hoped to make something beautiful out of something broken and painful. And if not always beautiful, at least colorful.
Why bones? It was the starting place for us after Vernon’s accident—the parts that were supposed to heal most quickly. But even though they healed, they never held him up again. But bones…what are they? They are the scaffolds of our bodies on which the rest rests. Hidden from view all our lives, these are the parts of our earthly bodies that remain the longest when the rest has passed away. Bone marrow produces the blood and stem cells that keep us alive…and can help give life to others! All this thinking about our bones made me wonder: can they hold our memories too, can they hold our trauma? It sure feels like it sometimes, even if it’s merely poetic, rather than scientific association. People talk about feeling things deep in their bones, so I know I’m not alone. This series for me has been about exploring some of these things and releasing some of this pain and turning it into something else. I couldn’t fix Vernon’s broken body, but I can attempt to take this kind of healing work into my own hands, with the brush as my scalpel.
I’m leaving the working titles off as I share them because I don’t want to influence the viewing. All are oil paint.
in closing here is a poem for thought by the always wonderful Mary Oliver, called Bone.
through the pale-pink morning light.
The memories continue to resurface from last year. I hope people don’t mind my sharing so many of them. I wonder if I’ll do the same next year. Maybe. Why not? I don’t want to forget. As I’ve said before, its a lot like childbirth…such a significant thing that it seems a waste to simply forget it. And for me, talking about things helps me validate them, helps them seem real even after the events are over. I don’t know if I’m honoring his life this way because he was so much more than this for his nearly-50 years, but I am certainly trying to honor his death (which was one of the most significant parts of it.)
Here was a delightful, yet sad, memory that showed up today on Facebook. Do you remember this? He’s eating chocolate ice cream.
He hadn’t been officially allowed to eat anything for years (although we did sneak him milkshakes and chocolate when no one was looking, things he could safely swallow without breaking into a choking fit) but when I finally signed off on his Advanced Directive, the nursing home allowed him to have whatever he wanted from the cafeteria. And all he wanted was chocolate ice cream…ambrosia of the gods. It was such a gift to be able to give him some small pleasure. I love remembering how he enjoyed it.
Today, I got a letter in the mail from the hospice company. They send check up letters every so often, just to show they still care, but I haven’t taken them up on any of their offers of support. (I should, I just get so busy.) Anyway, today’s letter included a lovely poem by Margaret Mead. This stood out to me especially as she was one of my early paintings this year in my Groundbreaking Girls series, and also one of my favorites.
Here is the beautiful poem:
To the living, I am gone.
To the sorrowful, I will never return.
To the angry, I was cheated,
But to the happy, I am at peace,
And to the faithful, I have never left.
I cannot be seen, but I can be heard.
So as you stand upon a shore, gazing at a beautiful sea – remember me.
As you look in awe at a mighty forest and its grand majesty – remember me.
As you look upon a flower and admire its simplicity – remember me.
Remember me in your heart, your thoughts, your memories of the times we loved,
the times we cried, the times we fought, the times we laughed.
For if you always think of me, I will never be gone.
On This Day in History: The kids started school last year and I went up to Costa Mesa with my packed bags, planning to stay near Vernon as long as I needed to (which turned out to be eight days.) No matter what, I was NOT going to miss his death…at least, I hoped I wouldn’t, and I wanted to make myself as available as possible.
This year, we have another week till the kids go back to school. They aren’t thrilled about it (though Maki has a better attitude than his sister this round—he wants to see his friends) and so far, I haven’t been thrilled about it either. It’s been a really great summer. I do love that late wake up time time without the morning rush. It’s been great having so much down time to ourselves …and with each other. This was the first summer in three years that we could be mostly home and relaxed in it. Granted, Maki and I went to Norway, and he stayed a few extra weeks. But even that gave me extra time with Justine to just cuddle and arrange play dates. I feel like we got some some equilibrium back between us. We aren’t so stressed. She’s not so nervous that I’m going to leave each day and not come back. Yes, I still work from home and she still wants my attention at the most inopportune times, but I feel like we’ve relaxed into it. I hope we can take this into the year. Whatever happens, I know we got through the last one..and the three before that. It can’t be any worse, can it?
I’m not sure if I have introduced out latest member of the family on this blog. Introducing Benson, the Hamster. Justine finally got him on her birthday in June after six months of plans and promises. He’s the smallest sort of starter-pet but now we can’t imagine life without him. He’s a total mental health pet for her…and if I’m honest, for me too. 🙂
So here we are…at almost a year, perhaps a little fragile, but also kind of empowered in the fact that we’ve almost made it a year. That has got be worth a piece of cake at least, right?
I received a surprise email yesterday from an old student friend of Vernon’s, someone I’ve never heard from before. I’ll share some of it here to keep it in the Vernon-archives. It’s pretty funny.
He and I produced the show catalogue together – a statement by each artist, plus some drawings. He typed it all up on his wonky typewriter, I formatted and xeroxed it, and we spent hours collating and folding it. The front cover was a joint effort, and the back was by Vernon: a picture of DuChamp’s ‘Fountain’ with the text – “He took a fountain and named it urinal”. I had a copy until a few years ago but, alas, I can no longer find it. Perhaps he kept his? What I do still have is our 1989 degree show catalogue. If you don’t have a copy, let me know and I’ll scan you a copy of Vernon’s photo.
Both Vernon and I had an active dislike of the college tutors, who were more interested in drinking in the student bar and chasing after the prettier girls. We quite often ended up in arguments with them, both separately and together. On one occasion, we were given an exercise: paint an object, accurately reproducing the colour and tone. Most people chose a predictable assortment of things – a piece of fruit; a vase, and so on. Vernon painted a cornflakes box flat grey, and then painted his canvass the same. The tutor was annoyed and attempted to humiliate Vernon by saying he hadn’t reproduced the colour correctly, at which point Vernon pulled out the can of house paint he’d used to do both objects. We really weren’t popular.
The Norwegian trip last month was so healing and wonderful in so many ways, but one of the surprising gifts was the effect it had on my artwork. I came back from that light-filled expanse, not wanting to lose the surreal sense of space and grandeur. I thought I’d want to use the time I was away to write, but no words came. I just was present, drinking coffee and eating cheese and homemade bread, listening between languages, taking hikes, and realizing people survive in expanses without many other people, and have for ages. Something jarred me—in a good way. As it was, my brain needed some jarring, so I was open to the change.
Anyway, when I returned, even on the drive home from the airport, to be specific, I decided I’d try my hand at some abstract painting. I started by studying the abstract expressionist, Helen Frankenthaler, who had herself once been hugely inspired by a trip to Nova Scotia. Afterward, she said: “I had the landscape in my arms as I painted it. I had the landscape in my mind and shoulder and wrist.”
Here is my painting of Helen. And following are a few more that I made based somewhat on my Norwegian experience. There was something about clarity of reflections on the fjords that really jostled my soul. I imagined if I painted images and their reflections being somewhat wrong, somewhat off, it would also help me make sense of how my own world had been split in half in so many ways: Vernon’s old self/brain injured self, the me before the trauma/after the trauma, life/death, past/future, even Maki having parents on other sides of the world. There was so much clear dichotomy, so many fractures…but how to pull them back together into one place. I think that’s where I am…I am at the beginning of trying to pull these worlds together again. Also, reflections (and reflecting) can be deceptive—which image is more real? Can’t they both be?
This is the first one I did, or one of the first….It’s actually one painting (14×18″) but I’m not sure which way I meant to stand it up. I also like how it reminds me now of a heart monitor. But that’s not what I was thinking at the time.
Here is the next one (bigger at 24X36″), also based on reflections. There are a few things going on here that I had in mind, and though I think it might look unfinished, I have moved on, so therefore, it is finished.
Here’s another that I worked a while on. I’m calling it “The Midnight Sun.” Don’t know when I’ll get to be inspired again by that surreal light, but for me, I feel that this one managed to capture some of that strange double-dimention-ness. I also like that this was built up on an old board, primed by Vernon years ago, that he intended to use for himself. I have one more of those floating around, but nothing worth showing you on that one yet. (16×20″)
Here is one more…you’d never know that such an amateur-looking piece would actually be layers and layers of paint, pictures started over and over, all based on the landscape, sort of. I’m calling it ” The Moon is Down,” which is actually the name of a song that Maki wrote on his guitar (and, he discovered just this week, the name of a John Steinbeck book that happens to take place in Norway!) I wish I could express in words the things this one means to me. But I can’t, so I paint…and share.
So this is the ongoing gift of the North to me. I’ll continue this story in another post, as I share the next step of my painting journey. But that wouldn’t make sense without this. And that’s how things seem to go. One step leads us to the next. No matter how strange and new.
If you love any one of these paintings enough to buy one, please let me know. This is a way of supporting the family now. But it is a way to stay present in my life, no matter what gets thrown our way. And not just that, a way to throw something back! 🙂