May 24, 2016 § 1 Comment
It wasn’t easy being the weird outsider creative kid growing up in the Fundamentalist church. I constantly berated myself for being an “over-analyzer” as though this was a fault rather than an asset. I struggled to conform to the unified whole, but was always left with the same person hiding inside my head. Secretly, I knew that the only path to my complete self was through diversity—of thought, of lifestyle, of culture. I knew this, though everyone around me kept saying over and over, “Be in the world, but not of it.”
I began drawing obsessively from about the age of seven, and by my teens was doing figurative paintings in oils. People were often impressed by my work, yet the feedback I most remember is, “These are beautiful, but when are you going to start bringing glory to God?” I took this to mean that if I wasn’t painting scenes from the Bible, my art had little value. This was the basic concept of what an artist should be. The entire back wall of the church was covered in tacky oil paintings depicting the life of Jesus.
I was trained to mistrust everything outside of our tightly woven sub-culture. I not only looked down on people who were not Christian, but I feared them as well. I absorbed these lessons of conformity, and though none of it felt right, I was afraid to ask questions. A question meant doubt, and doubt could result in my family, my friends, my church, my school, rejecting me. It was a narrative I had observed before, and one I was to experience to some extent later on.
These memories came up strongly for me as I did research from two books written by Christian writers—Art For God’s Sake by Philip Graham Ryken, and State Of The Arts by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. The two authors seek to “educate” the reader with a call to reclaim art for their faith, as though art should not be determined by the artist, but by the establishment. Ryken begins by observing the issues within the church for artists, with words that ring true to what I experienced:
“If anything, things are even more difficult for Christian artists. Some churches do not consider art a serious way to serve God. Others deny that Christians in the arts have a legitimate calling. As a result, Christian artists often feel like they have to justify their existence. Rather than providing a community of support, some churches surround them with a climate of suspicion (Ryken, 9).”
The individual artist is not only underestimated in their role, but also feared in their ability to examine and critique the system. The church is leery of this type of behavior since their ideology is based on faith rather than fact. From his fair assessment, Ryken’s treatise quickly devolves into a derailment against the art world, and the two writers—Ryken being strongly influenced by the work of Veith—go on to display their lack of education on modern art, and their inability to explore the work beyond face-value:
“In many ways the art world has become—in the words of critic Suzi Gablik—a ‘suburb of hell (Ryken, 13).’”
Along with sweeping generalizations of the non-believing artist:
“It has always seemed to me a great evidence for the Christian faith that those who reject it acknowledge, if they are honest, that without God they have no hope in the world (Ephesians 2:12). Great unbelieving artists generally do not pretend that the absence of God in their lives is in any way fulfilling or a cause of rejoicing. Lacking God, they express their own emptiness. Looking outward, they probe and find that everything—other people, their society, nature itself—is a sham and a cheat. Is not their experience exactly what the Christian would predict (Veith, 210)?”
Veith’s observation here is a classic projection of his own beliefs onto those with an entirely different set of values. He holds assumptions about their worldview and their experience, concluding that they must be depressed and confused. I can’t comment for other artists, but since I am an unbelieving artist with greatness left to be determined, I take offense to Veith’s view. The only sham is the idea of God itself. With a bit of historical research, it doesn’t take much to understand that all gods pass away. The people who have created them, however, continue on in their formation of ideas.
Personally, when I first realized that God does not exist, I suddenly understood the concept of self-responsibility. There is no outside source directing my course. It is all on me—my choices, my initiative, my discipline. There is no one to blame for a misstep but myself. This redirection brought a sense of presence. I became more of a problem-solver. Fully embodied in nature, I no longer found it suspect. Rather than looking beyond this existence, I found the enormity of the present. There was nothing empty about this experience, and it improved my work as an artist.
“But whatever stories it tells, and whatever ideas or emotions it communicates, art is true only if it points in some way to the one true story of salvation—the story of God’s creation, human sin, and the triumph of grace through Christ (Ryken, 40).”
If a believing artist chooses to fall in line by directly promoting the church—as the church so often requests—their art degrades into propaganda. The general viewer is not interested in an art show as a form of religious proselytization. Rather, the audience seeks metaphor and examinations of established ideas. When a power structure uses the artist as a vessel for the promotion of a prerogative, the artist is subtracted down to the role of artisan. Yes, under a patron the artist may toy with the limits of their role, or use their artistry to go above and beyond, but the subject matter is typically chosen for them. Before the Renaissance, artists were generally viewed as artisans, and they received little respect in society.
Through many centuries of power, the Catholic Church understood the sway that art could have on their congregation. They staked their claim on visual artists, funding them and commissioning major works of art. Since most people could not read, the art served as the narrative. Though this set-up has changed drastically since then, the view that the church should direct the course of the art, still persists.
During the Reformation, as early Protestants sought to differentiate themselves from Catholicism, they destroyed many works depicting saints, and their fervor led to a general mistrust of art as being idolatrous. As a result, artists in Northern Europe faced a shortage of patrons for their work, and suddenly they had to paint of their own accord, without a commission directing their course. Subject matter shifted from religious and mythical depictions to scenes from everyday life.
Inadvertently, this rejection of visual art by the Protestant church led to the artist as a free agent. As the ideas of Humanism developed, art evolved as an ever-shifting landscape, wide and varied. It went beyond the limits of “beauty” and became a process of experimentation and exchange. When the individual is given value, there are no borders on creativity. We now benefit from the conceptual artist not only in art itself, but also in science, technology, and so many other aspects of contemporary life.
The problem between Christianity and art lies in the essence of both. Christians are told to not ask questions by accepting the mythical as being true. The artist is instructed to examine the details of every concept, and dissect the visual down to its basic elements to build it back up again.
It makes sense that everything I wanted to express as a young girl was in opposition to the limits imposed on me. In response to being instructed that a woman must be submissive, I painted strong women that I wanted to emulate. In order to work through my fear that the “darkness” would consume me, I dove right into it, and found that if you face it without fear, it has no power and does not even exist. I wanted to understand what made the world evil, and all I found was a world full of stories that only make sense when you listen, when you search, when you read from start to finish.
The thing is, even when you make these realizations, you still have to live in a world inhabited by people who think that myths are true. I have let go of my anger enough to have a dialogue with the people who tried to make me something that I was not. And since I am not a Christian, I can ask as many questions of believers as I choose. I keep them on their toes, and we have all grown for it. Every day, I lose another piece of the fear that I was raised with. It turns out, that being an “over-analyzer” was my greatest strength, not my greatest weakness.
September 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
In my last post, I stumbled on the idea that religion teaches us to see the world from a specific point of view, while art teaches us to see the world from all points of view. This topic deserves to be expanded. The word “art” can be a little vague because we forget the wide breadth that this covers within culture. To name just a few areas where art is who we are—film, television, literature, journalism, architecture, fashion, visual arts, theater, the art of making a speech, the art of making a meal, the art of conversation.
Art provides empathy. Empathy is the greatest experience that we can achieve. Through all of the means I have listed (and then some) we strive to share something special to us in order to give that feeling to others. We find a breakthrough in our craft, which leads to the completion of a story, which leads to the beginning of another story. By sharing this, others may feel what we feel. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they are opposed to what we feel, and they will create a different story out of that experience.
By sharing, we spread the meme, and the meme grows. It is an organic process—ever-evolving. Through that evolution, life continues to change, only remaining the same in its substance. When we do not allow the story to shift and change, we’re in danger. If we do not allow metaphor and symbolism to have their way, we’re lacking in the imagination that can save us.
In my research, I’m currently studying the process of the mystics. Mystics often come from a traditionally religious background, but they have also been some of the great non-practicing figures, such as the poets Rimbaud or Walt Whitman. Writer Gershom Scholem shares:
“The most radical of the revolutionary mystics are those who not only reinterpret and transform the religious authority, but aspire to establish a new authority based on their own experience… The formlessness of the original experience may even lead to a dissolution of all form, even in interpretation (On The Kabbalah And Its Symbolism, 11).”
The word mystic can easily be substituted here for artist. Through persistent study, the artist breaks down what came before to create a new language. This language not only captures the zeitgeist, it transforms it.
The literalist, on the other hand, sees the words within holy books as stagnant, unmoving, ever the same. This causes a conservative rigid outlook on life—black and white, good and evil, wrong or right. To get beyond the words, we must stare at the words for a long time. We must examine their meanings. For example, the word good comes from god. The word evil originates from devil. Our language is steeped in religious concepts. The more I have examined these two words and their meanings, the more I have realized that they don’t actually exist. They only exist as a cultural concept, and not as a reality. Good and evil creates false judgments against outsiders, against people who have a different lifestyle or culture than our own. Within the parameters of good and evil, there is a language of conformity. These terms allow people to persecute others on the basis of differences and a lack of understanding.
We are an animal, and animals have motivations for survival. The greater portion of our faults come from being easily spooked. We over-compensate when we perceive the slightest threat. We are over-crowded in cities, stressed out and impatient, over-worked and struggling. News stations work hard to keep us uneducated and afraid. This in turn makes us want to commit atrocities against perceived threats.
Democracy is extremely fragile. We must be vigilant, because at any moment democracy can turn back into fascism. Last week the president of China visited Seattle. He had dinner at Bill Gates’ mansion. Fascism is happening right now in China. Activist artists such as Ai Wei Wei, Liu Yi, Zhao Zhao, and Chen Guang are threatened by the government on a daily basis. Leading up to June 4th, over 100 activists were taken into custody before the 25th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Some were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Others were spirited away by police on forced vacations. Anything in order to silence the voices that are determined to remember the protesters who lost their lives in 1989. It is clear that not much has changed since then. Art is a threat against those who spread fear.
We must be grateful for our freedom of speech. In the US, just sixty years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a copy of Lady Chattely’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (one of the greatest novels ever written). Allen Ginsberg underwent an obscenity trial for his poem Howl. Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer was banned for close to 30 years until the early 1960’s. People in Hollywood were blacklisted from working in film, and censorship was around every corner. Communism became a dirty word, and the American government used that fear against us. We are told that we live in a democracy, but vigilance is necessary in order to fully achieve that.
This week is Banned Books Week, highlighting some of the great truth-tellers of our time and of the past. Some of the works epitomize the statement that you should write as though no one is ever going to read your work—they are daring and free. Other books might seem commonplace to us, but in other cultures they are viewed as dangerous. By empathizing with the characters in these books we are taken into a different point of view than our own. We are given the possibility of a mind expanded. For the fundamentalist or the fascist, that is a truly dangerous prospect.
To view 196 banned titles, click the link to visit Powell’s Books
April 27, 2014 § 1 Comment
My first impression of Ellis Avery’s novel The Last Nude was, “Oh brother, another tale of the artist sleeping with the model.” I’ve been hard-pressed to find a book or a movie where this doesn’t enter the plot. Of course, much of history upholds this narrative with Diego Rivera’s mad lust for his models, Lucien Freud’s misogyny, and Picasso’s narcissism. In the film Venus, Peter O’Toole’s character has an old man boner for a young girl that he convinces to model – the purpose, of course, being so that he can peer in through a window and see what she looks like naked. The idea of the art model as an object of lust is really the only narrative we hear about in the mainstream.
The most realistic representation of what the artist/model relationship is like is in a French film entitled The Artist And The Model. This film was not only very realistic, but it showed the process of making art in a way that we never get to see outside of actual studios. At one point, the artist feels the curve of the model’s knee and reaches around the muscles of her shoulders, which makes her rather nervous regarding his intentions. Set in the forties, there were less rules then. Today, an artist generally never touches the model, though sometimes it still happens in the most unobtrusive ways.
I’ve written before about how I often run across people who are judgmental of my life as an art model. They picture the studio as some den of depravity, where pervs are sketching me one minute and jacking off in the bathroom in the next. Those that judge seem to think of me as some kind of enabler. They admonish the thought of running across a painting of me nude, and then what?
As I leave my body to be still in the pose – I observe the artists as they grow in their skill, approaching the difficult equation of capturing the human form, creating shape through shadow and light, measuring each angle, examining my structure next to a skeleton, identifying every muscle and how it connects to other muscles and bones. I am a living and breathing human anatomy lesson.
From my point of view, art modeling has been a study in subtle realistic poses – contrapposto, odalisque, the curve of the back, the angle of the head. I know exactly what my body can handle for what length of time. The pressures of stillness are a strange study, and I’ve learned from many mistakes – how to create poetry while balancing your weight to avoid pain.
In The Last Nude, the famous Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka picks up an American female model in the Bois de Boulogne. Rafaela is still a teenager, but she’s been selling her body to old rich men for a life of independence in 1920’s Paris. Tamara seduces her, and Rafaela falls in love. It’s the first time that Rafaela sleeps with a person for the love of it, rather than for what she wants. But is that really the case? In the heat of their summer together, Tamara paints the most stunning nude of her career. She keeps her motivations a secret from Rafaela, and to the young naive girl, the relationship is not what it seems.
I work in a wide range of settings, mainly art schools and private studios where several artists gather for sessions. I enjoy the people who call me to come in every three months. They’re dependable. It never gets too personal, but it’s always fun to see them after a while.
On the other hand, working for the people who get swept up in me as their muse can at once feel more relaxed and have an increased sense of pressure. The more they look, the more they see new lines that amaze them. Or they think of new scenarios to pose me in, week after week.
I get stuck having to wear my hair exactly the same way for months of sessions, and once I was chided for the fact that my hair grows. At times I feel claustrophobic being around the same people for too long (another reason why the variety of the job generally works well for me). Then I begin to resent how much I come to love these people, knowing that one day they’ll drop me and move on to the next model (as they should). Whether or not I’ll get to see them much after that point is left to be determined. When you are an artist, there is little time for friendships. Everyday is devoted to work. This is another cliché’ that gets broken – artists are not lazy, and their quest is somewhat obsessive and heroic for all the obstacles in their way.
Outside of the studio, the social strata present degrees of separation. More well known artists are likely to give you the feeling that you need to take a number to talk to them at art shows. The excessive amounts of time spent in their studio, countless meals eaten together – it’s all for naught when your time as muse is up. The intense connection dissipates over time.
Models have been fighting to be more than just the model since the dawn of figurative art. Before the 20th Century, female art models, dancers, and actors were basically viewed as “whores”. The main motivation of whoring yourself is to gain money and power and find success in the thing you love to do (which usually doesn’t involve seducing ugly old rich men). It’s a way out of poverty for people with assets and aspirations beyond the daily drudgery of life.
It makes sense that throughout history, models have often slept with the artist, especially in cases where the artist is wealthy and socially mobile. Sex can feel like a transfer of power, genius, and a solidifying bond. But in extremes of power imbalance, it often ends badly for the model.
Of Picasso’s models and lovers, overall, their lives ended in complete disrepair. They never recovered. The only one who was a success post-Picasso was Francoise Gilot, who left him of her own accord, knowing that her art career would go nowhere if she continued to live in his shadow.
The model remains as a vague representation of a person. A person we will never truly know. What makes the Mona Lisa famous? No one knows what she’s actually thinking, but whatever it is, her thoughts look very interesting. That’s the trick of being a good model – to always have a curious mind that never stands still within the stillness of your body. I love to be within my brain, barely aware that I am onstage, ignoring intense amounts of physical pain as the warm air of the space heater embraces my body.
I’ve seen thousands of versions of myself in drawings and paintings, and it is rare that any of them really fully capture me. I’m counting about five in my head right now. But that’s not really the point. My body is only a guide to what the artist sees. After so many years at it, I still feel excited to see what people are working on, and feel a sense of surprise when there is a new voice that speaks through the fascinating curves of lines and paint. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that sense of wonder, because I am an artist as well.
For the last year, I’ve been increasing my time and efforts in my painting practice. I knew that painting would come back to me one day. It was all I did for so long, and then went away when I became a writer.
People struggle with the idea of others in more than one role. They are sometimes amazed to see me painting. There is a tug of war between days that I model, days that I paint, and days that I write. Models are never just models. They are poets, actors, burlesque dancers, musicians, singers, and artists. It is the perfect job for the creative person who wants to make their own schedule, be their own boss, work as much or as little as they want to.
Hopefully, the majority of our lot will make something of themselves. I overheard a well-known artist say, “We’ve lost so many models to thinking that they want to be artists. It’s a real problem!” Quite a lot of people would like to see others remain in their known role. It’s up to each of us to make our lives what we feel it should be.
I never stop reaching for greatness. It’s a magical thing to work for people who teach me to go that much farther. Art is a discipline; a playfulness; an openness; an exploration. I get to watch people create from onstage, and then go home and do the same. I’ve found my place in Seattle through my work, and I’m building a sense of community and friendship.
Did I mention that I’ve never met a model that slept with the artist? It wouldn’t bother me if I did. But the point is, it’s a job like any other. Word spreads fast, and we depend on the money to get by. For those that don’t take it seriously, go ahead and fool around. Though trust me, overall, artists aren’t nearly as sexy as people make them out to be. We’re a nerdy lot.
December 3, 2013 § 1 Comment
I just finished painting a portrait that feels like the source of my previously untapped visual language. For a long time, I have been searching, seeking the story I want to tell through paint. As an art model, I hear voices of teachers speaking their own language, exerting their own ideas, often asking their students to copy their vision to learn to paint well. The result is a less technically advanced reproduction of the master.
One time in class, a student went to retrieve her painting from the drying rack, but she couldn’t remember which one was hers. Sometimes, it is impossible to tell. I see drawings of a figure, all from different angles, but they all look as though they were drawn by the same person. They are all beautiful drawings, but they are missing an individual voice.
Drawing or painting from life is useless if the artist fails to bring their own particular way of seeing or feeling to their art. Students take classes to learn technique. Hopefully after the fact, they will learn to express themselves and leave rigidity behind. But it’s not for certain. Art stands out from the mass production of images only for that very ingredient of self-expression. It’s the expansive silence amidst the endless noise. A meditation.
In Marion Milner’s book On Not Being Able To Paint she describes the process: “It now looked as if some of the spiritual dangers to be faced in this matter of coming to see as the painter sees were concerned with the transfiguration of the external world; in fact, with a process of giving to it something that came from within oneself, either in an overwhelming or a reviving flood. Also this process could be felt as a plunge – a plunge that one could sometimes do deliberately but which also sometimes just happened, as when one falls in love (Milner, 31).”
Through observing artists and students at work, I eventually came back to exactly where I started – an expressionist style that shares the inner humanity of a person, rather than our idealized perceptions of them in the broader context. It’s an empathetic exploration that can’t be achieved by painting from a photograph, no matter how hard I try when I’m not in a studio.
“One of the things that had been so dissatisfying about those deliberate drawings which were sheer copying of the object was that they had no life in them (Milner, 41).”
As far back as I can remember I have been drawing the human form. In grade school, I was obsessed with becoming a fashion designer. It was a glamorous fantasy life that I had all worked out in my head. In sixth grade, I created a book of at least twenty fashion illustrations. I still think of some of those designs today, and wish that I could wear them. But my friend bought the drawings for ten dollars, and knowing her, she probably told people that she drew them herself.
From grade school through high school I was drawing so much that I barely passed my classes. Usually I had an F all semester, right up until the last few weeks when teachers began to feel sorry for me, or didn’t want me in their class all over again. I could never hear what the homework was, or that we even had any because I was too absorbed in the drawings on the margins of my notebooks.
I made it into a small Christian college on a probationary basis. It was the first year they were offering Art as a major, and it was a disorganized and scattered program. I took Modern Art in my first year, but the professor spent the whole semester on Impressionism, and barely made it into the 20th Century. With only two weeks left, he panicked, and asked us all to pick an art movement, write a paper on it, and present it to the class. I chose Art Nouveau, which was based on the curves of an organic environment.
The art teacher was mainly a potter – vases and bowls were his passion. The other teacher was well known for his complex watercolor landscapes. I had the sense that there was very little they could teach me. I’d just come out of Advanced Placement Art in high school, and had spent the entire year previous creating a portfolio of work. I wanted to be taught things that I didn’t already know, rather than carry on an independent study at a very expensive school. So I chose fashion and writing/literature instead.
I continued to paint on my own time in my dorm room. People kept asking me to do paintings for them, usually from grainy, indistinct photos – either of them as children, or their grandchildren. Kids were the antithesis of everything I was driven to paint. There was no life experience in their faces, only an empty canvas of a life waiting to happen. When I finished the commissions, I failed at receiving an appropriate amount of pay, even to cover the cost of supplies. It was something that should have been agreed up-front, but I had an aversion to discussing anything having to do with money. In my frustration, something snapped, and I stopped doing art altogether. I felt like a sell-out – somehow, money had ruined the craft I loved.
Every now and then, I found an interesting face in a magazine and I drew it in my sketchbook, or I’d sketch faces at coffee shops. Then the day I first fell in love, I started a sketch and never finished it. Poetry began to take up all the blank pages, and writing became my new form of expression. I was pulling back the layers on my honesty, daring myself to go further and further. My stories began in paint, then they became poetry, then fiction, and then memoir.
A funny thing happened after I published my memoir. I felt horribly exposed. More naked than when I stand on the podium posing for artists. Even though I am almost finished with a second memoir, I’m not sure that I will publish it. I would like distance from the genre, except in this book blog, where I write more about my present state of mind, rather than the feelings of a past self that I no longer identify with.
The sheer amount of work that went into creating a quality book burned me out after months of twelve-hour days on editing and formatting, and designing the cover. So all summer, after the book came out, I needed some distance. During that time, there was a rumble. Posing on the stage, I began to feel intense and painful currents of envy towards all the artists who were drawing me. It felt necessary that I come back to my place on the other side of the easel – but this time, as a fully formed adult with a clear sense of vision.
It had started out subtle. In the spring I drew at a studio nearby a few times. I wasn’t sure if I would stick with it, and I didn’t have much spare time. But then I began looking at art more and more with a rather dissective tendency. I teetered-tottered between classical painting and a modern expressive style. I toyed with the abstract qualities of an artist I worked for all year. I asked myself, in the struggle to find and express a language, “What do I like to look at? What gives me a rush?”
A few of my favorite artists are Lucian Freud, Alice Neel, and Egon Schiele. These artists capture something else about our reality than what is visual to the basic eye. There is messiness, pain, scars, movement, a beating heart pulsing on the canvas. Looking at their work, you commune with the sitter by moving through their humanity. You sense their struggles. But you also feel their strength.
An excellent example of art verses mass media is Lucian Freud’s painting of Kate Moss. Towards the end of his life, she sat for him, and what resulted is a Kate we’ve never seen before. We are used to cool Kate. Perfect in her rocker-girl chic, her perpetual bed-head, the pout and the cat eyes. She is surrounded by mystery. But Freud strips that all away and shows us a person. Not a model or a celebrity or someone who’s been airbrushed too many times to count. He’s not showing us a life we desire to have. He shows us a naked, vulnerable, human being who is mortal like all the rest of us.
There are many classical painters at the school where I work, but I soon realized that their paintings left me cold. At first, their work seems incredible. Their technique is awe-inspiring. But more and more, I saw the tricks. It’s just as airbrushed as what we see in the magazines. They fuzz out the detail to give the painting a romantic feel. They exert over us an idealized view of life. It reminds me of church.
Working from a photo is a similar pitfall – a copy of a 2-dimensional flatness of light. There is very little you can bring to the table as far as expression goes. For years, I painted and drew from photos, and never really questioned it. I wasn’t aware that I had a choice. I had no idea there were so many options out there for drawing from a model. Subconsciously, I think going into modeling was an attempt to find my way back to art.
So I’ve listened to hundreds of art lectures, stared at hundreds of paintings, and have finally pinpointed exactly what I like to look at. Now came the challenge of putting that into practice.
I began to go to a studio every Friday afternoon, working from a several weeks long pose. In the last three, I developed a 9X12 portrait of the model Ifat. The first thing to be struck by is her beauty. It takes time to get past that, and analyze what it is you are actually seeing. The process becomes a breakdown of bone structure and muscle; light and shadow; and how her face moves, even in stillness. How does the color play across her skin as it peaks and valleys?
The more I began to see, the more I could see everything in everyone. Every face I look at, I am painting in my head. I am seeing the light and how it changes the face at different times of day.
This portrait feels like a major achievement for me. It went beyond the stereotypes of beauty that so often make paintings look cheesy. I stopped worrying about what could be perceived (Did I age her? Did I make her look too world-weary?) and broke it down merely into what I actually saw. Not what I think I see, but what is actually there in the present.
One difficulty that occurred was that what I saw changed week by week as Ifat’s face changed or the light was slightly different. Working from life is never static. That movement becomes alive in the artwork – at least when there is success.
Artists often feel that if they get to know the model too well, it will be harder to see them. Though drawing a person for extended periods of time, you get to know them in a way that their closest friends never will. It’s a way of knowing that has nothing to do with words.
I like to express that knowing through the face. I spent much of last year being painted as a faceless figure. The body I saw was a body I don’t fully identify with – the faceless woman body. There is something objective about it, without the face to give the body a story. The paintings have more to do with composition and sense of space than with the actual person posing as the figure. It’s a different philosophy than what I personally identify with in my need to create.
As a writer, I feel that great art is not complete without a narrative. It might explain why I would rather visit artist’s studios, and hear their process, rather than go to sterile galleries with nothing of the person there to explain their work. I like to see what books the artist is reading, and what they have tacked up on the walls. I like to see how they arrange their palette, what colors they choose, what brand of paint, what mediums. If it’s an abstract piece, I want to hear the story of how they layered grey over red over black to give the piece a depth that the average observer would never notice without the explanation.
Painting the figure is a narrative of my own life – how I’ve seen the world through every phase, every decade. I started out looking for people who could teach me something through their faces. I am returning to the beginning.
From the start, I was more essentially myself than what I give that undeveloped age credit for. The artists I love now are the same ones I loved then. There are sketches from those early years that I’d be hard-pressed to achieve now. All through those twelve years of not painting, I knew that I would come back to it someday. My style now is different, and yet the same. Though, I’ve learned so much in the past few years.
I don’t know if I will ever have a gallery show, or where my love of painting will lead. Paintings of Ifat are taking over the living room. She appears over and over wherever I draw or paint, as the beacon for my new eyes. Eyes I always had, that could never quite see in this way before. Art has always brought me something more than I thought I was capable of. It’s so important, leading us to a greater capacity of self, empathy, understanding – a heightening of the senses taking us beyond where we thought we could go.
January 31, 2013 § 121 Comments
I am in the final stages before releasing my memoir, and for a few weeks there, I dealt with a paralyzing fear. All I could think about are the attacks people will make on my character (though I’ve been attacked by readers before, on numerous occasions). Or the ways in which certain people in the book will feel misrepresented or insulted (though I did my best to tell my story as it actually happened).
I listened to my dad telling stories about my sister and I over family dinner, and realized how unique each of our stories and perceptions really are. He had no recollection of what we were really going through at different stages of our lives. A bitter drink turned sweet with distance. In fact, everyone from my youth has little idea of the double life I lived, now captured in my book.
“The risk is fearsome: in making your real work you hand the audience the power to deny the understanding you seek; you hand them the power to say, “you’re not like us; you’re weird; you’re crazy (Bayles, Orland, 39).”
In all truth, I prefer people that I don’t know at all to read my work, rather than people who know me. It’s okay for a stranger to not like it, or not get it, but when it’s your friend, it means that they don’t really get you at all.
In the midst of my publishing fear phase, a friend leant me the book “Art & Fear – Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking”. As soon as I began reading it, my fear subsided. I was able to fully focus again on the process of making art, rather than fearing the result of my art. And I remembered how amazing it is to be where I am at, and see that the creation of this book all happened through mad stubborn persistence, diligence, pain, tears, upheaval, countless rewrites, and that fleeting feeling of triumph.
“Basically, those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue – or more precisely, have learned how to not quit (Bayles, Orland, 9).”
In the beginning, I imagined I would write a novel. My boyfriend at the time so fascinated me that I had to capture him with words. I thought it would just be a story of him, but it grew and grew into a whole community. How I got there, what I was searching for, and how it all ended up. In the end, it was not really about him or them at all. It was about me.
I thought it would be finished in 1-2 years. It would be published by a major with a huge book advance, become a best seller, and I would receive a movie deal within the year (how wonderful it is to be naïve and clueless). As I slugged away at horrible jobs that paid practically nothing, this image of the victorious author got me through the worst.
Then there was the issue, that in my twenties I partied so hard and lived so much to the fullest (which makes for much of my subject matter), that it was hard to find time and a morning without a hangover to write. But no matter. I still lugged my computer to the coffee shop when I could, on my one day off from work a week. Eventually, even in the early morning hours.
“To the artist, art is a verb (Bayles, Orland, 90).”
Bit by bit the pieces grew organically, and came to fit together. The book started as a third person novel, then a novel in the 1st person, then with voices of two other characters thrown in. Finally, three years ago, I was able to find the courage to admit that it is a memoir. But I would not have had the guts to say what I did, if it hadn’t started out as fiction. I also wouldn’t have come to know the other characters so well without that extra exploration. Did I mention that I began writing this book in 2002?
“The artists life is frustrating not because the passage is slow, but because he imagines it to be fast (Bayle, Orland, 17).”
It still amazes me that I have not given up. But on the other hand, it doesn’t amaze me at all, because I had no other choice. I couldn’t release it from my brain until it was all written down. And when it was finally done, it lifted like magic, and I was free of it.
I am at an age now, where the idealism begins to fade away. I’ve watched plenty of friends give up their craft for stability. Life is hard. Most artists don’t survive as artists once they leave the supportive community of school. After that, it’s just you and your art, and good luck getting people to care about what you do. Your friends are not necessarily your fans.
Facing the fact that my book will be available to the public, I wonder how my life will change. I will do everything I can to see that it’s successful, but there is the fear that it won’t sell. I won’t know until I take that risk. And whatever happens, it will still be a foundation that I can build from.
Years ago, a friend of mine read several chapters. Paul was a young techie nerd, who was bored with life, and struggling to find social skills. He kept talking to me about one of the main characters: a binging, partying, player who puts on a debonair act. He became obsessed with this guy. It didn’t take long before he was turning into him.
Suddenly, Paul was out every single night, getting wasted, and hounding women wherever he went. In a bizarre turn of events, he married an older woman within three months of meeting her. But he continued to go out every night, and slurred to me that he wasn’t sure how he’d gotten sucked into the institution.
At one point, he had been my best friend. But soon, it was too embarrassing to go anywhere with him. He was rude to bartenders who were my friends. He was loud and obnoxious, trying to see how many curse words he could fit into one sentence. He went from being madly intelligent and witty, to talking in circles without making any sense. It was like watching Truman Capote’s downfall.
Was it the book? Or was it because he also had feelings for me? Or maybe, I was not responsible at all, and he was just on that course looking for an avenue to go down. I don’t know. But it was a disturbing realization that the book might be a little dangerous for the slightly unstable.
“Artmaking grants access to worlds that may be dangerous, sacred, forbidden, seductive, or all of the above. It grants access to worlds you may otherwise never fully engage (Bayle, Orland, 108).”
I hope that my memoir shows that the world is never exactly as we are told it is, and it is up to each of us to find out for ourselves. Every person has the right to be an adventurer, an explorer of life. To Think for themselves.
Of course, it is dangerous to really live. To take chances, and be open to people who are different from ourselves. But it’s the only way to find out who we really are. If we live in fear, we’ll remain in a bubble where nothing really happens, and nothing can really grow.
“Insist that the world must always remain x, and x is indeed exactly what you’ll get (Bayles, Orland, 111-112).”
I am excited, that soon, with the book release, my life will open up to new possibilities. It will be out there, speaking for me, doing the work that I put into it for a decade of my life. I will keep you all updated when it is released.
Do any of you have book release experiences to share? Was it uplifting? Did it feel like a let down? Did it open your life up to new things? Please share.
November 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
““You don’t really want to be a poet. First of all, if you’re a woman, you have to be three times as good as any of the men. Secondly, you have to fuck everyone. And thirdly, you have to be dead.” – a male poet, in conversation (Jong, 43)”
I recommend the poem that follows in Erica Jong’s book of poems, Fruits and Vegetables, first published in 1968.
The other day a photographer, James Arzente, came to my apartment to photograph me for a book he’s doing on artists and writers. After a long email dialogue, we came up with a concept, and piled all of the physical remains of what it took to write my memoir (piles of notepads filled with chicken scratch, journals, photographs, music, books, costumes, pens, mementos, and postcards) onto the kitchen table. The photographer wanted to get at what’s inside my head, and I pulled out as much physical evidence as I could possibly find, but it wasn’t even the half of it.
He pried further and further to figure out what makes me tick. On one hand, it made me understand the intensity of what it must feel like to be a celebrity. On the other, I was exhausted by it, and exhausted of being the sole focus. I grew sick of myself, ill with the knowledge of my current unsatisfactory state.
“You will never really be understood,” he said, “And you have to be okay with that.”
We talked about what it means to be a woman and a writer. I want to celebrate my womanhood, but being female has always felt like a strike against me. I’m working through it, towards a love and acceptance of my own gender. It’s difficult when I’ve been attacked for being a woman, not only by strangers, but also by friends and lovers. My healing comes from strong female role models, who repair me through their wisdom and our shared stories.
“Who do you feel you are on the inside?” James asked me.
“I feel like an outlaw. I feel like I’m fighting against the roles prescribed for me by others. I feel invisible. I’m in a chrysalis phase, and working non-stop to create my body of work. It’s killing me that my book isn’t out there yet, when I have so much more to give. I’m waiting for recognition, when in my mind, I am already known for what I do. In reality, I’m a drifter that no one really knows all that well.”
The truth is, I feel more like a Hunter S. Thompson, a Henry Miller, a Charles Bukowski, a Norman Mailer than a woman. None of my heroes understood women at all, and didn’t care to understand. But women inspired their stories. They almost had an unhealthy worship of the women that castrated them in a sense. Scared to death of the great goddess that might reach up and snuff them out.
Right now, at the Seattle Art Museum, the Elles exhibit of twentieth century women artists, is here from the Pompidou in Paris. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about the show. Some are angry over the feeling that women’s art is segregated. Some felt it was too political. Some were disturbed by the empty pockets of history, where women really weren’t allowed to fully partake, as in the Bauhaus movement.
For me, I found the exhibit to be enormously invigorating, and at times disturbing. Throughout history, women have been told that their life should be a sacrifice for the family. In much of the art, I found that same sense of sacrifice, but it was an angry outcry against prescribed roles. A gigantic woven bee hive/cocoon – enormous and frightening, like death hanging from a hook in the ceiling. A film of a naked carefree woman on the beach, hula hooping with barbed wire, each turn ripping her abdomen to shreds. Marina Abramavic’s performance piece, “I must be beautiful, I must be beautiful, art must be beautiful,” as she rips at her scalp with a brush.
Grouping all of this art together is enormously satisfying and powerful. It tells a narrative, fighting to redefine what it means to be a woman, determined to have equality and a voice.
“To create is an act of liberation and every day this need for liberation comes back to me.” – Louise Bourgeois
I think as well, it would be impossible for the art to not be political. In an article by Robin Held in City Arts Magazine she states, “Only 5 percent of the art on display in U.S. museums is made by women, although 51 percent of U.S. visual artists today are women.” And this is the current state of the art world. Just today I walked through the art section at a bookstore, and the only female artist I saw on the shelves, was Georgia O’Keefe. I never even noticed the disparity before.
All this week, I have been enmeshed in talks with women artists on how they feel about the exhibit, and how they feel about their role in art today. The women of the sixties and seventies had a lot of wisdom and history to offer. One woman spoke of how she couldn’t sign her real name to a piece, because if they knew she was a woman, she wouldn’t get a show. She used her initials instead. To be a success, she had to deny the feminine. But now, because of political battles that have been won, she is free to sign her real name, and wears her womanhood like a badge of honor.
Strikingly, the women of my generation said that they don’t identify as women. One felt that anything written before 1980 was a “dinosaur text.” They were firmly planted in the here and now, living dangerously outside the context of history. I sensed abhorrence within them of their femaleness. The same abhorrence that existed in society in the 1950’s, when my mother was raised to think that being a woman made her unclean – doomed to keep cleaning, just to make up for it. Back then, household appliances were sold as devices to cure psychological ailments.
Young women artists want to shed their femaleness like a dead skin. And then they are shocked when those issues subconsciously come out in their art. One was disturbed when people found the feminine in her art. It made her angry. She might clothe herself with male-dominated activities to feel stronger, but she is still facing the unavoidable fact of her existence as a woman.
This same aversion to the female, I believe, has created a large disconnect among young women. I know I am at a difficult stage of life for female friendships – babies, work, lack of money, flakiness, geographical distance. But even so, all of the women I know look at each other with a deep sense of mistrust until proven otherwise. I am just as guilty as everyone else, and I’ve practically given up. Yet when I do find that closeness with other women, I find my confidence blossoms.
Women seem to feel sick of the issue of equality, and what that means. The issue has always been there, and it’s not going away anytime soon. It’s a constant struggle. And if we let go of it, there are plenty of men waiting in the wings to take back their control over our bodies. If your own body makes you ill, and you want to avoid it, then why not hand over the control?
In the young women, I saw myself, and I didn’t like what I saw. This week has changed me. I want to embrace who I am within this body within this world. But I also demand that society embrace my mind even more than the visual elements that I might express. Yes, I am a woman, but first and foremost, I am a human being.
November 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
I had a dream the other night, that I was one of three siblings. One sibling had stripped our father of his skin to see how we are made. He was laid out on a gurney, and we looked at the red layers of muscle, studying how they fold and overlap.
Our father was invincible and extremely angry. Maybe it was the process we had put him through, or maybe he was that way before, but he was insane and out to get us. Wherever we went, he followed – all over the world. We were on the run, and the situation was dire. We couldn’t kill the father, because the father was within all of us. But he was out to destroy what he had made.
You could make some religious allusions to all of this symbolism, or you could say that this is nature. I did not play myself in the dream, and the father and siblings were not my own.
The imagery stems from a slide show that Camille Paglia displayed in her talk last week at the library, of Leonardo Da Vinci’s private notebooks. In it, he studied the structure of muscles, and a fetus inside a dissected womb. If anyone had found out, at the time, that he was dissecting cadavers, the church would have severely punished him for it, maybe even put him to death. The drawings give us a sense that he is looking at things he should not be seeing.
This week, I read Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. I love her for being such an emancipated woman, born to radical parents in 1797. Frankenstein is not my kind of book. I only read it because it was on a list of the greatest books ever written, and it’s so obviously influenced our culture, where science (or philosophy as it was called in Shelley’s day) can go too far, producing something gruesome and disastrous.
“So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein – more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked. I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation (Shelly, 33).”
But once Frankenstein achieves his obsession, he is horrified as the creature takes its first breath. He realizes his mistake and deserts the monster. But after a series of murders of all those closest to Frankenstein, the creature gets a chance to tell his story. He began his life with love, but everyone he met hated and reviled him, turning his pain into a need for revenge.
Around the time that the novel was written, Mary had lost her first baby and had just given birth to a second, named William. Her half-sister committed suicide, and her partner, Percy Shelley, still had a wife who drowned herself in the Serpentine. Mary then lost a third child. After the novel was finished, she lost her son William, gave birth to Percy Florence who survived, and had a dangerous miscarriage after that. In the summer of 1822, Percy, her partner, drowned with two friends in a storm off the coast of Pisa. The badly decomposed bodies were burned, but Percy’s heart was removed and eventually buried in Rome. Mary was only twenty-five.
Reading her story in the introduction was much more horrific than the ghost story she wrote while summering with Percy and Lord Byron. The natural reaction, especially with losing a child, is to think at first that they will come back to life.
I edited a novel once, where a mother lost her baby and couldn’t let go of the little corpse. It had to be pried away from her. The writer was Australian, and was certain that American audiences wouldn’t be able to handle it, since in our culture we choose to be so far removed from death and dying.
Becoming a mother is to also face the possibility of ultimate loss – the chance of miscarriage, the chance of failing to protect your child from a world that is full of struggle, disease, and danger. For Shelley, bringing a corpse-like creature to life is the ultimate revenge against nature that takes away.
My strange dream of the father stripped of his skin reminds me of seeing the Bodies Exhibit. All those parts that make a whole, the muscles and organs frozen in time, not quite life-like in their preserved state, but disturbing because they were alive once, now frozen in space, dead, and there for our voyeuristic fascination.
In an art class, the students were told to spend twenty minutes drawing my head, and twenty minutes drawing a skull placed directly behind me. They moved in a circle alternating between death and life. For some reason, that day, all the students drew me to look much older than I am. I looked decrepit, as they over-emphasized the sagging lines of my face. I wished I had never looked.
I have reached that age, my thirties, where you begin to realize that you’re never going backwards. The physical body has changed its chemistry completely. I’ll never be tiny and thin again, my metabolism has slowed down, my liver throws back all the toxins I send its way, my immune system is sensitive to any disturbance.
But beyond my body, I’ve grown much stronger. My spirit feels invincible, unbreakable, my sense of discipline is becoming as solid as a rock, and nothing but my body slowly breaking down, could ever stop me at this point. It’s not quite as much fun as being young, dumb, and out of control, but this is the season for building my life. Knowing how quickly it all passes, I push harder each day to express in words and art the things that make us feel alive and well.