So, I haven’t been painting
There’s a story about painter Chuck Close that goes: When he was in the hospital, recovering from a paralyzing stroke, his wife said, for God’s sake, give him a paintbrush. If he doesn’t paint, he’ll die. In rehab, they strapped a paintbrush onto his hand and he invented a whole new way of painting that drew from his previous works, but did not —he could not—copy them.
He’s famous for the quote, “Art saved my life.”
I always thought I’d be like Close, creating art through any setback, drawing strength, sanity, and a sense of direction from the work.
Then my mother died, and I stopped painting.
I admit, painting had already scootched to the back seat last fall. As my mother grew weaker, I began spending as much time with her as I could, which meant I was away from my studio most weeks. I kept a sketch book, of course. I never went anywhere without a sketchbook.
This is the last sketch I made in my sketchbook.
I drew as she slept in the hospital bed. She woke up and remarked on the drawing, then asked for a drink of water. 15 days later she died.
Since then, I haven’t touched paint and brush enough to really even remark on it. In February struggled through a month of classes with my favorite teacher, Felicia Forte, but painting felt like swimming through pudding, without the chocolate, and I didn’t—I couldn’t—continue.
It’s not that I haven’t wanted to work. It’s just that I can’t seem to get started, somehow. That’s not like me; I always worked, in the mood or not. I believed—I believe—that chance favors the prepared. If you’re not inspired, just draw something. Practice; inspiration will eventually come whistling through the door.
And here’s the thing: All my life, artwork energized me. My fiddler says it makes me glow. But since my mother passed, painting and drawing exhausts me. Even when drawing the figure, an exercise I purely love, my arm feels like lead, my charcoal feels like a gritty lump of dirt, the paper wrinkles and cockles, and every mark I make is awkward, as clumsy as if I’d never before drawn in my life.
A few weeks ago I told a friend of mine, painter Chuck Waldman, that I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I hadn’t been painting. “I just didn’t have the ganas to paint,” I whined.
“It’s the grief,” he said, matter-of-factly. “You’re having a conversation with grief instead of with the paint. You have to have that conversation. When you’re done, you’ll paint again.”
He spoke about grief in the most natural way, as if we were discussing the weather, or gardening. He didn’t try to drown me in platitudes, he didn’t try to make me feel “better.” He didn’t try to fix my grief. He acknowledged it.
That acknowledgement came as such a relief. I didn’t have to defend my grief, or feel guilty about it; he didn’t make me feel like a Debbie Downer, he didn’t make me talk about it, or try to shut me up about it. Grief rose and fell in our conversation like trout in still water. And I appreciate that so much.
Chuck’s words lifted something heavy from my heart. It was as if he lifted a stone that had collapsed onto my soul. Still trapped, but I can see some daylight.
Soon after, I started attending life drawing sessions again. I’ve made a few small paintings, mostly of my friend’s kittens (they are cute, non-threatening, happy). I’ve been working on a series of illustrations based on fantasy sketches I made in the wee hours last year, when I could not sleep.
Most days are still too painful for painting. On those days, I need activities that occupy my whole brain. Being busy is good. I throw myself into my job, focus extra sharply on the task at hand. I immerse myself in words, writing reams that will mostly never see the light of day. And I admit, I’ve sunk into the quagmire of social media, that soporific of outrage and cute-overload.
I now know that I won’t die if I don’t paint. It’s okay to rest a bit. To have that conversation with grief. And gradually, I hope, I’ll start to work more regularly, and once again my brain will fire like sparks from a Roman candle. I have to trust that will happen, because there are days when the brush looks like a weapon rather than a tool.
Meanwhile, I try to strap the brush to my wrist, and invite grief to a three-way conversation with art. Will that conferencing change my work? I don’t yet know.
Grief and art? If they’re talking, it’s behind my back.