I’d begun to dream, night dreams, about oil painting. I followed them to a midtown art store. Maybe trying something new would address a mood of stagnation, a creative slump. The day was dreary, rain and a deep chill in the air. I prowled the aisles in my dripping slicker. When the salesperson, asked if I was looking for anything in particular, I said, vaguely, “Just poking around.”
I didn’t know the first thing. Why couldn’t I just admit this and ask for help? Art stores bring out a deep insecurity that goes back to second grade art class. The teacher, with her selective praise, anointed some “artists,” others not. In art stores, I am always a party crasher.
The sales guy caught up with me again in the oils section. He wanted to know what kind of painting I do. “Landscapes? Flowers? Dogs?”
I’m sure he didn’t mean to mock me, in his 20-something art school way, but I found myself blushing. “Nothing realistic, more like interior landscape.” Of course, I didn’t know; I just wanted to play with color, to play, period.
He helped me assemble the things I’d need to get started. At the last minute I added a book, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Oil Painting.
I came home and started mixing colors, trying to make purple. It wasn’t as easy as blending red and blue. The closest I got was a violet-tinged dull gray, the color of an ominous sky. I made a muddy brown-black blob on the canvas, then, in frustration, I began to smack this brown-black blob sharply with a paintbrush, splattering oil paint around the kitchen table. I’d suspected painting would take me deeper into myself, but I hadn’t anticipated what a dark place it would be.
I felt vindicated when I read in my new book: “Unfortunately, the popular interpretation of the color wheel as a guide to mixing up a storm from three little tubes of red, yellow, and blue paint is simplistic and, from the professional artist’s standpoint, downright misleading.”
Oh, I’d mixed up a storm all right.
Again, the book was helpful. “It’s a good idea to shop at your local art supply stores… you’ll have a consultant who can answer your questions. . . and be your spirit guide through the massive inventory of available art goods.”
I returned to the art store the next day. My new friend was eager to help. Maybe I should practice on paper, he said. He almost always worked on paper. He led me to the right place. Told me to wet it, tape it down, then it wouldn’t wrinkle after it dried.
As I was checking out, another spirit guide with many piercings asked what I’d been doing before the oils. Emboldened by a sudden flush of esprit de corps, I told her collage. This was actually true; I’d been playing with the images of other artists for years. Collage is, I believe, the preferred art form of those who want to make something but can’t draw, those who never got an invitation to the party.
“Cool,” they said in unison.
“I just cut and paste,” I said.
“You can paint right on top of your collages,” she said. “All you need is Matte Medium.”
“Yeah,” my spirit guide said. “And use it as an adhesive too.” He ran to get a tube.
I messed around with oils for a while, quite literally, then went back to collage. A neighbor stopped by. I had stuff strewn all over the kitchen table, magazines and old books, all kinds of papers. “I didn’t know you were a crafter,” he said.
Okay, that hurt. Just a little. When I later complained about this incident to a friend, he was quick to diagnose the problem. “Ah,” he said. “Confusing the vale of soul-making for the state fair.” Our best friends help us to see what we can’t; they ennoble us.
Another trip to the art store yielded the little treasure Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. “By making things we figure out who we are.” He encourages us to free ourselves of the burden of being completely original, to explore our influences instead of running away from them.
I’d begun to feel some urgency to find an artist whose work had infected me 15 or 20 years ago. But I couldn’t remember his name or even what museum I’d been in when I stumbled upon his watercolor illustrations teeming with children. When you looked closely, drawn in by yummy colors and fantastic landscapes, there was something confusing–sexual ambiguity, a feeling of danger abroad. They were enchanting and disturbing at the same time.
In the intervening years, I’d made a practice of scouring used bookstores for old children’s books to use in my collages. I was never happier than when I could maneuver an innocent into a tight spot. I found an old primary school textbook from the 1950’s. It carried the frustrated markings of a bored child. Maybe he’d hated his teacher or suffered from some developmental disorder. This scamp had scratched our retinas, scribbled over scenery, and added eyeglasses and mustaches to many of the children in the illustrations. The title page bore a message from the book defiler himself. He’d written, “Whoever gets this book is crazy because I roat in it and put a make on ever page with ink [sic].” His prophecy, written in pen, had been scribbled over with pencil then erased, so the words seemed to float on a cloud of smoke. And now the book belonged to me.
A few weeks ago a friend sent me a text out of the blue. Did I know the artist Henry Darger? She’d read about him and thought of me.
Bingo! Darger was the artist I’d been trying to find, the one I’d carried with me for the better part of two decades. He’d been a reclusive hospital janitor and dishwasher in Chicago. He used images from comics, children’s books and newspapers to illustrate the 15,000-page fantasy novel that grew out of his wildly prolific interior landscape. He’d suffered a tragic childhood, spent time in an orphanage and an institution for the “feeble-minded.” His childhood nickname was ‘Crazy.’ His work might never have been discovered at all if his landlord and another tenant, clearing out his two-room apartment, hadn’t happened upon his enormous body of work and recognized something important. When this tenant visited Darger in the nursing home where he lay dying and mentioned the find, the old man roused himself to say, simply, “Too late now.”
An outsider artist. This was a new term for me–self-trained, outside the establishment. I thought of my cousin, the most creative person I know. On her sister’s milestone birthday, she hung 60 silver and silver plated teapots in the towering evergreen tree outside the birthday girl’s house. She’d collected them at yard sales, junk shops, and flea markets through the years. When you walk under this tree, head down, looking at the ground, you don’t even notice until a glinting teapot bops you in the brow. There you stand, rubbing the spot with your hand, waking up to a marvel of teapots, a field of magic where it would come as no surprise if the March Hare in his waistcoat were to happen by, nervously checking his pocket watch.
Maybe it’s the March Hare that jogs a memory of early praise. I couldn’t have been more than four or five. My parents had friends over; he was the editor of the local newspaper. I’d been finger-painting. He asked about my painting, what it was of. “Peter Rabbit coming out of a teepee,” I said. He asked to have it, had it framed, and hung it over the desk in his home office. Fifty years later this painting found its way back to me. It looks like nothing so much as a big brown mess with a few fingernail marks creating something remotely teepee-ish. I can’t imagine what he saw in it, and I can’t make out Peter Rabbit at all.
In icon writing–the ritualized and meditative painting of religious images, the dark under-layers of paint are called the chaos layers. Over this original darkness, the artist just keeps moving from dark to light, applying paint one meticulous layer at a time, raising the figure out of obscurity. And so we build our lives, layer by layer, upon the chaos of childhood.
The point, dear ones, is this: to play in whatever way has meaning before it’s too late.