death of the artist

When I was a child, I drew on everything, including walls and bedding. Every child draws, but I don’t know if everyone remembers becoming aware of conceptual milestones while drawing as a child? A mechanism made–still makes–me try something always in a different way. I remember the sudden awareness of a new ability–I was not much older than five–like a coin tumbling through a complex machine and finally landing. The first time (that I can remember), I understood human figures have shoulders and that I could draw them as upside-down ‘u’s, with two lines in between to make arms. When I close my eyes and become that child again, I sense this is not primarily an aesthetic excitement. It’s about having found a shortcut. Another coin: this time I drew the figure with the arms extending off the page, and when my mother asked, “Where are the hands?” I said, “They are in your pockets.” Another: I drew my best friend from a photo in the 7th grade, and it looked like her. What had changed all of a sudden? What did it mean to make a “likeness?” And why was it that sometimes I could do it, and sometimes not? When I managed it, it was a kind of magic. I made a watercolor of my high school boyfriend, and his parents framed it and put it on the wall in their house. I drew and painted myself and wrote a college entry essay about how drawing had humbled me. By that time I had already received a mortal wound, but it would take a few more years to kill me.

Before I was born, my father made surrealist, monochromatic paintings with melting clocks and spades and roosters and numbers. He had wanted to be an artist but the Party had other ideas; he became an agricultural engineer. Some people in the Party had been sent to the US in the 50’s and 60’s to study new agricultural methods there and bring them back to Europe, and it was his job to disseminate the information. He hated telling the farmers what to do. He knew what they were doing was just fine, and that the new information was nonsense. Now everywhere we have the disastrous consequences of industrial agriculture, which is one reason I would like to be able to travel through time. To let my father be an artist. To let the farmers do what they knew was good for the land.

When I was in my second year of college, nearly dead from the wound, my father came to see the paintings I was making in my class with a professor who didn’t give a shit about teaching. I am not sure if she was a good artist. I do not remember her name. We walked around the studio looking at everyone’s easels, and then at mine. I was supposed to be painting balloons and paper airplanes, but I’d stayed very late the previous night and painted a self-portrait, with orange-pink cheeks, greens around the eyes, dark blue furrows between the eyebrows. My father looked at it and waved his hand towards the other students’ work, and asked, “What do you think about all this?” And I said, “I think it’s easy for me.” I had already declared a different major. It was my last painting.

Once, again, before I was born, my father was away with work for a few days, and when he came home, there were some new paintings in the house. He asked my mother, “Who was here?” and she said, “No one,” smiling. He kept asking, “But who brought us these paintings?” She had taken his materials and taught herself. She used thick strokes with a lot of paint, eventually using only a palette knife. There was a lot of texture, like in my father’s paintings, but where his were monochromatic, hers were exploding with color. After my father left (when I was five), she would regularly set everything aside for a few days, pull the phone cord out of the wall, put on classical music and paint. Mostly still-lives of flowers, or platters of trout, and, very rarely, portraits. There are two depictions of motherhood, in which a female figure is holding a wrapped baby, all very abstract except for the faces. A bundle holding a bundle. One is mostly ochre, the other striped with red, like blood, which she added it later, red for birth, she said. The bundles are enmeshed, which makes sense for a mother and a newborn, but she never saw motherhood in any other way.

After we had moved to the US, my mother didn’t paint as much. A lot happened to her that might make it hard to paint, including nearly becoming homeless with a young child after leaving her native home and language at 45, including nearly drowning by accident and thinking a lot about drowning on purpose. By the time she bought herself some art supplies and set up shop again, I was in high school and had been drawing and painting and making clay sculptures. We would finally paint together–exciting! She loved irises, so we both painted irises, me on my canvas, and she on hers. After two days, I was nearly done with my irises; she took a long look at my painting and said, “Well, you are better than I am now.” The next day we packed up, returned to ordinary time. I didn’t know then that I was bleeding, but when I told her a few years later that I had decided not to major in art, she was relieved I had decided to be sensible. She never painted again. Maybe I had completed something she had begun, but she was not happy about it. Not at all happy. I had taken something from her. I had taken too much.