A Period of Painting – Essay
Talking about paintings or songs is like trying to explain death or sadness. You end up with a mess of words amounting to a cheap imitation. Even art is only a faint glimpse of the place from which it comes. But we’ll say that ‘art’ comes from the ‘artist’ and the ‘artist’ comes from his ‘story’. I’ll attempt to reduce mine to some bullet points, peppered with the requisite amount of romance and color. A not-so-brief therefore not-so-witty reflection.
Of the 38 towns in the United States named Springfield, Newsweek once called my Springfield “The Town That Typifies the American Dream”. The Gallup Organization more recently named it the “Unhappiest City in America” so I guess it depends on the day, like anywhere.
My mom became pregnant at 16, while attending Springfield Catholic High. Once her belly made its appearance she was kicked out and transferred to a non-Catholic institution on the ‘other’ side of town.
A few months later, after 21 hours of brutal labor, I emerged from her 5 foot-small frame, amidst small-town scandal.
A few weeks later our Volkswagen Bug had a head-on collision with a van. As seat belts were not yet the fashion, I crashed into the windshield. My head left a spiderweb impression on the broken glass and I was suddenly on the curb, in the grass; a bloody baby in the arms of a crying mother for the second time in a month’s period. My newborn skull cracked and there were broken bones. But, according to the local doctor, “baby heads are pliable”, so I lived. We returned home to discover another broken bone the doc had somehow missed and went back to the hospital for a third time. I can’t help but feel I was reluctant to start this whole journey. Donning an infantile 2 inch cast, me and the 2 teenagers finally made it home and began a family life. And after a few more “incidents” I moved on to elementary school.
In grade school my head was again exploding, but this time with beautiful images and sounds. For my lack of concentration I was awarded my own desk in the dimly lit supply closet of the principal’s office. I spent hours underneath an asbestos sky, dreaming, drawing and retreating into my own imagination. A teacher noticed my drawing ability and had me make big chalk murals. Later, I was commissioned to design a 40 foot ‘gates of heaven’ display for the school show. It was easier for me to concentrate on things like that. My parents placed me in an advanced art class, but after the first few minutes I walked out and began wandering around the park just outside. I wandered for 2 hours before my ride came. I don’t remember the art class but I do remember how beautiful the park was that day; a cluster of cliffs, vivid greens tucked into a black pond…
I was eleven when I drank alcohol and did drugs for the first time. Sometimes I pilfered from my mom’s supply of pills; prescribed to ease what was the beginning of a long psychiatric battle. It was also during this time that I began playing every musical instrument I could get my hands on. The fumes leftover from the explosion and reconstruction of music and culture at the end of the 60’s were still permeating the Midwestern air that I inhaled. I was inebriated by this air and played as much music and drew as many pictures as I could.
Runnin’ Thru the Hills
I remember having mysterious moments of intense joy juxtaposed by overwhelming grief. We moved a lot and for a short time we lived in the rural outskirts of Springfield, where I would run through a cornfield that opened up to a stretch of forest that lead to perch of land overlooking some farms. Once I made it to that particular spot I knew that I would have the privacy to weep, even though the wonder experienced on that little journey through the cornfield and forest was contrary to anything that would normally be construed as sadness. For example, on one particular run I remember seeing a plump raccoon sitting, human style on a log lying across a little creek and thinking to myself that the very definition of life and vitality was pulsating within this little patch of green. But tears can come for all kinds of reasons as one navigates through life in the town that typifies the American dream.
Suddenly, I found myself a freshman in the same small town at the same small high school that had expelled my mother years before..with, primarily the same administration intact. During the first week, while goofing off at a beginning-of-the-year assembly, I was chastised by a couple of nuns who said they knew ‘who i was’ and that they’d be keeping an ‘eye on me’. I’m sure that I was praying to a different God than theirs because I was pulled right out of that situation. Just a few weeks into freshman year we moved from Springfield, Ohio to Scottsdale Arizona or, from one planet to another…And while experts might say that the 13th year is worst time to transfer a kid, I thought it was the best..and was completely and immediately on-board.
I was surprised by how green and alive the Sonora desert was…thousands of stately Saguaros poking up like newborn but ancient visitors from another world…a skyline of spiky towers, an array of desert flowers. an eerie emerald city against a back-drop of blood-red earth..Creosote bushes that give off a particular smell after rain… Completely foreign to the Midwestern trees and grass I’d left behind.
I was determined to re-write my own script and managed to avoid some trouble for the first few months. I began to conduct myself as I thought society was calling us all to. I played football and eventually was elected Home Coming king by my new Arizona high school’s student body. I remember feeling quite odd as they were putting that velvety crown on my head…I remember reflecting on how little I knew about myself or anyone around me. Due to a plethora of absences and the fact that I did not pay attention to a single classroom event during my entire educational experience, I barely, graduated. But I did go on to obtain my Bachelor of Arts degree from Arizona State University. All of the following happened during that process:
I was kicked out of a fraternity after ‘re-modeling’ their pledge room. I was cast in some plays and commercials, garnered an agent and joined SAG. I had a religious experience that catapulted me back towards my church roots. I could not read or write a note of music, but I found myself arraigning ensembles and directing 50 person choirs as a salaried music director for the Diocese of Phoenix. I traveled the world. I met and performed for Mother Teresa. I became involved in a ‘group’ and was interviewed by clergy and written about in books. I became addicted to coke. I found love and sickness. I found religion and then lost it. I married a ballerina with anorexia, then I lost her too. Having finally graduated from ASU, I finished my Music Director contract and left the the desert, the job and the relationship behind.
I had an opportunity to go to LA and record my songs with a drummer who played on hits for Van Morrison, The Steve Miller Band, Bruce and others. A bonified “rockstar” who recounted stories about people like Jimi Hendrix. This was all I needed to justify creating space between myself and a broken marriage and community. I ran from AZ to LA and spent the first months in my Burbank apartment licking my wounds, writing, drawing, working on my annulment and working for the LA Weekly as a route driver. I made demos of tunes and received music contracts from prominent entertainment attorneys. I couldn’t bring myself to sign the contracts, but I did draw nice sketches on many of the many pages. Later, I moved from the valley to a two Story, twenty-room shanty near the beach with some of Santa Monica’s most famous homeless people. (If you’re from Santa Monica or Venice you may remember the guy who did the Woody Woodpecker laugh; balding, shoe-less, pushed himself around on an old bicycle. I lived in his building). Each floor shared one bathroom. I saw some scary things in that bathroom…I never checked out the bathroom on the first floor, though I’m told it was worse. Outside my window was an alley across from recovery center for addicts. I heard interesting conversations in that alley late at night. They say these kind of things help you create. I’m not sure. But I am sure that that building was close to 100 years old. Historic. One can only imagine the folks who strolled through that place at one time or another over the century. I’m sure Jim Morrison stopped in. Minstrels, drug addicts, writers. Some, we’ve heard of. Some we’ve never heard of but should have. Anyway, I did learn to surf during this period. Well, kind of…
Leaving on a Jet Plane
One day, after my record contract was officially dead in the water and my divorce was final and I finally felt free enough, I grabbed my guitar and some clothes and moved to Paris, France to live with my girlfriend. I left my culture, family, faith and everything I ‘knew’ behind.
*This was a big step towards getting me to the point where I felt free enough to start painting…which is what this essay is supposed to be about.
*I drew and made art my whole life but, up to this point had avoided painting like the plague.. (although Matisse said that painting is pretty much drawing – not an exact quote.)
*note to reader: prepare for author’s attempt to over-inject romance.
Paris was a great tableau. I spent two years observing and studying it with all my senses and one year as a figure in the actual painting itself. As a Springfield-er in this Parisian painting, things like the mere act of eating dinner transformed into a spiritual cacophony. A great meeting of humans at their most equitable, fulfilling the need to self-nourish but expressed with the most civil tenderness; almost presenting hope for us as a noble beasts. I embraced the language of the 10th arrondissment , my neighborhood that was on the edge of gentrification but still a bit dangerous. My guitar and I had a solo act. We played in a theater, cafes, the metro and on the streets of Montmartre. I had fans who became friends from the Brasserie Du Nord, the bar three floors down from our tiny flat. I worked with the underground French hip hop movement and wrote and sang a dance tune that was pressed to vinyl and spun in Parisian clubs by big DJs. I met with major record labels who, again showed interest in my writing. After the meetings I began to make art; swiped construction panels off the side of the road…I would burn images into the Styrofoam and color them with red ink. In Paris I had still not yet painted, but I did begin to dissect my very existence. In Paris I began to breathe and was deemed among other things, “officially ready to paint”.
Then, after three years of living across the street from the Gare du Nord, which catapulted people by train under the sea to London, I moved back to CA with a new son, his mom and a bunch of not-quite-finished songs and even more unfinished paintings.
Back in CA-to Present
It’s difficult to write about current times. I’m not yet far enough removed to see them clearly. So, to fill the space I’ll return to grandiose exaggerations…or under-exaggerated romance…or vain attempts at drama or..maybe just leave out the real sentiment altogether.
Three years after landing in Paris, France, I returned to Sunny, Southern California with beauty in my pocket and epiphanies to share. But my tales fell on deaf ears and my excitement transformed into a period of mourning. Somewhere in the process of ‘change’, my connection to family and friends had disintegrated. Sobering thoughts that plagued me through childhood came tumbling back into my trajectory like random boulders that land smack in the middle of an mountain roads…stopping you in your tracks, creating the kind of questions that only lead to more questions.
Some of these ‘questions’ lead me to the world of severe autism. I worked with these ‘friends’ for a while.. in both a musical and artistic capacity. I felt somewhat at home in that community. But one never find a permanent home in this realm. I’ve learned that once one commits to a path of self-evaluation, one signs on for a certain amount of solitude. Maybe that’s a ‘trade-off’ for creativity or whatever.
Anyway, along with drawing pictures on the back of coffee shop receipts during this ‘period of painting’, I made attempts to draw conclusions as well. I’ll just note them here for dexterity’s sake, although none of them are set in stone, at least not in my stone:
*I wrote this so I’d have to answer less questions.
*We need more time to imagine.
*’Hatred’ is more about the person doing the hating than anything else.
*The subjects in my paintings are like old friends I’ve met in dreams.
*There is enough magic in one square milometer of one leaf to last several life-times.
*I worked on songs and paintings for years before ever picking up a brush, writing down a word or playing a single note.
*Humans are professionals at lifting other humans up too high and then blaming them for falling.
*In dumpsters I see hundreds of potential canvases.
*The last ‘noble’ battle is the conquering of ‘self’ (not ‘others’).
*Ugly and pitiful can be beautiful.
*Its funny that we take ourselves so seriously.
*We often take our unresolved issues out on other people under the guise of a “noble” cause or self-conceived “mission”.
*If we are busy dealing with ourselves we’ll have no time to hurt others.
*The unresolved self, passed down from generation to generation, is the cause of war.
*The extent to which we do not deal with ourselves equates to the promulgation of the state of ‘primitive’ man; or, the opposite of anything that could be construed as ‘civilized’. And is, in my opinion, ultimately the cause of war.
*The cycle continues, the ‘revolutions’ occur, but we never deal with the real culprit.
Anyway, this is supposed to be about paintings so:
One day, around the time that many I’d come to know had left the earth, I started painting. There was a huge waive of work in the beginning which I called ‘A Period of Painting’…but the wave of work has not stopped..Maybe I’ll change the name to ‘a cheap imitation’. What I thought was ‘done’ has only just begun…results: not sure yet..
Ending: some words
Thankful relics, realizations in waiting, scratching at flat, savage, dumpster claws – any ritual will do ’cause nothing’s getting through but misconstrued matter, critiqued but not found for the first time or any time.
A ‘Growing up’, non- existent, a missing link plucked from the chain of ‘kid-dom’ wrapped around the neck, broken, shattered, melted and smeared into pieces of torn furniture, or lucky tumblers if stumbled upon.. pretty and heavy.
Something to ‘say’ never works when translating an apple, rambling and boring, annoying and enjoying the same sunlight as an orange, liking dirt and liking nothing..but heat, frenzy and very little actually, hints of an old curtain, pale, green filaments. banal..or fucking beautiful.
A Period of Painting – (fiction and/or comedy)