Friday, June 12, 2009

Claiming my True Identity

Terry Pratchett has written one of my favorite characters: a failed wizard named Rincewind. Rincewind can't correctly spell wizard and, most of the time, can't do any magic. (A Great Spell has taken up residence in his mind, refusing any other spells gotta read the books.) Still, he IS a wizard; he claims that as his identity, regardless of what other people might think.

In much the same way, I am an artist. I have only sold a few paintings. I self-published my book, Dancing with Monsters (not, I pridefully point out, because it was rejected but because I have the patience of a gnat and wanted to hold it in my hands rather than schlep it to publishing houses). Like Rincewind, reality seems to disagree with me. I find comfort, however, in the assertion of the great MythBuster-philosopher, Adam Savage: "I reject your reality and substitute my own."

I was worn out by weeks spent in the nasty bowels of medical recommendation and social service bafflement. There, I am a patient, a person with disability, a supplicant to the labyrinthine God of Benefits. I realized I had to think about—and do—something else. I needed to return to my center, practice my identity: I needed to make some art.

Even that idea comes with extra baggage of fear these days. For several years, my ability to use my hands has been decreasing. My left hand is strong, but it shakes and has never been very coordinated. My right hand and arm are weak. Earlier this year, I passed a milestone: the paintings I did for Lent were created using my left hand as much as my right. I felt as if there were a stop watch counting down the amount of time I would be able to make art.

I find inspiration in the work of Henri Matisse who, when he started using a wheelchair, shifted his art from painting to paper cut outs. Because painting was too physically rigorous, he found another way.

When I first started painting, it changed the way I looked at the world. Instead of just seeing a tree, I would notice the colors in the bark and the leaves and wonder what paints to use to mix those colors. I would think about what movements of the brush I would need to make to communicate the textures in front of me. The world became a magical puzzle and I love seeing the world that way.

Here in eastern Minnesota, we have been in near drought conditions. I looked at the sky. The sky that day moved from a light blue at the horizon to a deep blue right above me. It was like a clear, crisp, sustained note—a crystal chime. I sang back to it. I didn't have time, that day, to respond with an image. I did remember, though, and that working on the computer allows me to paint with light.

For several days, I looked at the sky and try to memorize what I saw. Finally, the weekend came and I had time to play with images and colors. I created "Five Skies."

It felt good to be making gratuitous art again.

Not too long ago, exhausted by the media harping on the bad economic news, I put some CDs in my car player. I was listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock. One of the things I love about that group is the rich texture they create with their voices. Thinking about that, I remembered that texture speaks to me. I want to touch things.

The clear blue sky, though, doesn't have a texture. It has depth. My digital drawings weren't capturing that depth.

I came back about a week later and made some refinements:

I don't know if the changes are even visible to the casual observer, but I felt better about the piece after making them.

When I updated my website to add the new sketch, I said I was working on "Five Series of Five." As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I started envisioning what the next five would be. (This time, I am definitely going to get to play with texture!)

Looking at the world through artist eyes, I feel interested and hopeful. Those days of sky gazing taught me that the seeing may be enough. If my hands and arms fail me completely and all I can do is watch and imagine, that will do.

I will be a maker as long as I can be. I will be an artist as long as I live.

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