I’m at it again.
That’s the thought that slithered through my mind this morning as I sat at my tabletop easel with brush in hand. I’m at it again: trying to make order out of chaos.
I’d spent two successive days in transit, flying from Sacramento, California, to Rapid City, South Dakota, via San Francisco and Denver with an overnight delay in Denver due to a flight cancellation. The plane had mechanical problems — several planes, apparently, had mechanical problems because more than one United flight from Denver to Rapid City was canceled.
I staggered with exhaustion last night as I unpacked. I don’t sleep well the night before a flight because I’m afraid of oversleeping; I wake up repeatedly in order to check the time. Flying for two days in a row resulted in two successive nights of frequently interrupted sleep. I expected to sleep for at least twelve hours when I finally pulled tired feet into my own bed.
I was wrong. Nine hours later, I was awake and feeling the tug of my improvised studio. I started the coffee, fed the cats, scooped their litter, and collected a couple containers of water to clean my brushes as I worked. (Acrylics are great in that way — none of the fumes of oil paints and simple soap and water for cleaning brushes.) After circling back to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, I settled in to work.
I decided to warm up by beginning to rework one of the leaf paintings that didn’t entirely satisfy me. Before heading for California to visit the grandest of twin girls, I had laid a grid of shredded journal strips over a portion of it. It’s the second time I’ve tried this approach to salvaging a leaf painting. As I mixed the paint for this piece, the thought struck me.
I’m at it again. I used a modified grid format (I Ching hexagrams)for the first series of portraits I exhibited, and an obvious grid format for my Inside/Out series. For that series, I collaged squares cut from portraits and landscapes together with other materials (such as mica and flower petals). Why, I wondered, not giving the question much conscious thought because I was focused on stirring gel medium into paint with a toothpick.
I discovered while building my career that I could manipulate acrylics more easily by mixing paint from the tube with a little gel or gloss medium, depending upon the consistency of the paint, before I started working. I had also discovered that mixing the paint in a 10-well round tray reduced the surface of the paint so that I could keep the paint workable for a longer period of time simply by misting it with water. Each time I sit down to work, my first step is preparing the paint, and that’s what I was doing when the question popped into my question.
Why do I so often incorporate grids into my work? My answer years ago was simple: I lack imagination and that is an easy design element to use. Today’s answer was different. I need to make order out of chaos.
On my overnight layover in Denver, I visited one of my brothers and his wife. As usual, we ended up in one of our philosophical discussions about the way our lives and those of our two absent brothers have evolved from our humble (i.e., poor and dysfunctional) beginnings. I never cease to be amazed at how well the boys have done — wonderful homes, six and seven digit incomes, strong marriages. Everything, in fact, that I don’t have.
As I mixed paint, I thought about my life. Our mother, bless her dysfunctional heart, had provided me with extremely poor guidance regarding relationships and intimacy, guidance which compounded by the grief of losing her at the age of 17 resulted in a great deal of emotional pain and numerous missteps in young adulthood. I suspect at this juncture in my life, that more than any other shortcoming I experienced growing up — family life that did not teach me to make decisions, to trust my own judgment or to live authentically — Mom’s poor guidance regarding relationships probably had the most far-reaching effect on my life.
It’s hard to live alone, to raise a family alone, to be solely responsible for keeping a roof over their heads and food in their bellies while meeting as many of their emotional needs as possible and providing them with a few of the experiences and possessions they desire. It’s hard to make decisions alone and live with the consequences alone. It’s hard to live day after day, year after year with few breaks and fewer indications of success.
Each time my girls have passed a milestone — graduated from high school, graduated from college with honors, experienced success in any guise (personal or professional) — I have been filled with a deep, heartfelt gratitude. Thank God, I pray silently, I didn’t handicap her in such a way that door was closed to her. I think Katie understands how much I sacrificed and the fear with which I lived while raising them, how much I struggled to give them the roots of love and the wings of self-confidence. I’m not sure Sara has been able to put herself in my shoes that way, but that’s OK. She’s soaring personally and professionally and I am satisfied to see the way she has used her wings to achieve her goals.
So, what does this have to do with grids? Nothing and everything.
My life is stable at present and I am content. I’ve made peace with most of my failures by understanding the factors which influenced my decisions and the circumstances which shaped me. But the process of finding this place of peace has involved taking the pieces of my life, shattered over and over again, and holding them up to the light one by one. I have needed to mourn losses, to forgive myself, to forgive others, to recognize the precious quotidian blessings that have made it possible for me to continue putting one step in front of the other.
I have needed to find the underlying plotline in my personal narrative and to put the pieces in place like jars of cannned peaches on the shelf of a pantry. I have needed to make order out of chaos, and to the extent that art is true it reflects what is true in the heart and life of the creator — not the mind, the heart and life.
And so I use grids, to honor my story of survival, in a personal tribute to the process of picking up the pieces of my life and creating beauty — such as it is. And despite the lack of a companion, the lack of financial security, the lack of a home I can call my own, my life does have elements of beauty and I am grateful.