February 6th, 2019
“Painting problems are life problems.”
My advisor said that in a seminar twenty-three years ago. It was 1996 and I was 28 years old. I had just started graduate school. At that time, I thought he meant that how I am as a person defines how I am as a painter. If I am uptight and rule-bound in my life, then I will be uptight and rule-bound in my painting. And if I want to loosen up my work, I must loosen up my life.
Two decades later, his words mean something more complex to me. Now I see a dynamic inter-relationship between my painting and the rest of my life. How I am in my life affects my painting; how I paint affects my life. I drive this process. I can choose to change my painting by changing my life, and I can choose to change my life by changing my painting.
A side note: this kind of deepening understanding of words my teachers said to me decades ago happens more and more, the older I get. It seems that my teachers keep teaching me, long I depart their classrooms.
Today, I remember the claim that “painting problems are life problems” as I think about the idea of storying, and re-storying. Storying is the action of telling a story or stories, and I use the term specifically in relation to how a person describes their life path to themself and to others. Re-storying refers to the way a person continually creates and re-creates the stories that they tell about themselves.
When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I deeply wanted to be a figure-painter. I believed that that the best painters painted people, and I believed that the best paintings were paintings of people. I wanted to feel good about myself as a painter and as a person, therefore I painted people.
I did not realize it at the time, but this story that I was telling myself….that I was a figure-painter……did not arise in some pure and organic way from within me. Rather, it depended heavily upon a socially-constructed story that I had absorbed from my early education, and that I had integrated so fully into my mind and body that it felt like my own thought.
This was the story that had come down to me through an education that looked to Renaissance Europe as the epitome of human achievement. In this story, the human figure is considered the most worthwhile subject matter for a painter.
By my late 20s, I might have known better than to orient my own personal story around an external social construct. I had majored in East Asian studies in college and had spent a long time looking at images from thousands of years of Chinese landscape painting. Then I went to graduate school in Seattle, where there was a strong and vibrant tradition of Pacific Northwest indigenous artists painting and carving animals. Why should I ignore or denigrate this work in favor of some narrow idea about figuration and the primacy of the human body in the definition of which art matters?
No reason, except that I saw what I wanted to see and believed what I wanted to believe. Because I wanted to make something meaningful and important, and because I let other people define what was meaningful and important, I painted people and defined myself as a figure-painter.
If I had been able to actually look deeply inside myself at this time, and to somehow claim a story that was truly mine, I would have been able to see that who I am is in direct conflict with much of the European artistic figurative tradition.
For instance, when I was in school, being a figurative painter meant working directly from a nude model. This was not a comfortable or an organic way of working for me. I prefer to work alone in my studio, and I often prefer solitude to being with others.
Also, I find it incredibly stressful to juggle the act of seeing someone as an object of my gaze, while trying to make them feel comfortable with me, and at the same time focusing on the work that I am doing.
Painting problems are life problems.
I began liberating my own story from this externally imposed story when my children were born, in 2000 and 2002. Being a young mother absolutely engrossed me. I found raising children to be intellectually stimulating, creative, and joyful.
I had been teaching at a local university, and that was challenging for me. My anxiety level about teaching was close to incapacitating. But I didn’t want to say to anyone that I couldn’t handle having a teaching job. At that time, I wasn’t ready to believe that my mental health issues were seriously impacting my life. So, when my first child arrived, I felt that I had been given a permission slip from the universe. I could write my own story, be home with my child, and avoid having a job that triggered my anxiety, while having the socially-acceptable cover of choosing to be a stay-at-home mom.
When my older child was almost one year old, he was in his car seat next to me on a train from Philadelphia to Rhode Island to see my parents. I carried a sketchbook with me, and I started drawing him as he slept. This was the beginning of a series of about a hundred drawings done intermittently, usually late at night, over the course of the next six years, of him and his younger brother sleeping.
Now I was living my art and drawing my life. The work and my life were completely intertwined.
However, I had not completely disentangled myself from the story I was still telling about being a figure painter. During those years, in addition to drawing my sleeping children, I was engaged in painting some commissioned portraits of various friends and acquaintances.
I thought that, if I worked from photos, I could bypass my discomfort with working directly with a model. This was a bit of self-liberation from the story I had believed about figure painters always needing to work directly from life.
So, I posed my subjects for photographic portraits and borrowed their family photo albums, intending to make paintings from the photographs later, when I was alone in my studio. This strategy worked poorly. The completed paintings were somewhat stiff and lifeless.
A different story that I might have told myself then was that I was not drawn to painting people in general. I was not particularly interested in looking at, or in drawing and painting, anyone other than my children, whom I loved to draw.
As the years passed and the children grew older, I began to feel that I was violating their personal space by watching them sleep for hours on end. I stopped drawing them and kind of wandered around, artistically speaking, for a few years not getting much art made.
In 2013, about the time I turned 45, the opportunity arose for me to rent a small studio in an arts building near my home in Philadelphia. I spent the next three years evolving what turned out to be about seventy-five small painted collages. They were based on photos I had taken of my children years before, and on photos I was continuing to take of the coast of Rhode Island near where I grew up, and old family photos that I found in my husband’s grandmother’s house.
Most of the imagery involved small children walking away from the viewer, in cloudy beach landscapes. At the time I was making this work, my children were in middle school. My entire being had been wound up in mothering my small children. Now they were becoming teenagers who did not need me in the same way that they had needed me when younger. I was deeply grieving my sense that they were growing up and away from me.
But the way that I was storying my grief was incomplete. Yes, a large part of what was going on for me emotionally had to do with my stage in life, and with being in the midst of a transition. But prior to having children, I had lived with a sense of internal despair for a long time. Although being with small children had greatly lessened that sense for years, it was coming back with a vengeance.
I never knew the term “depression” when I was growing up, but in retrospect, I can see that I struggled with depression from a very young age. Certainly, in college and beyond, it affected my life deeply and continues to affect my life deeply.
By the time I finally sought help from a therapist in the fall of my senior year of college, I’d spent years trying to hide how badly I was feeling from everyone around me. Subsequently, my missed classes and late assignments were interpreted by many of my teachers to be signs of laziness.
I soaked up this criticism and misunderstanding. It seriously undermined my confidence in myself, and in the way I storied my life. I had felt like a success up until college because I had been able to hold it all together enough to do well in school. Now I was coming unglued.
After college, I had a series of successive jobs that I could not keep because I was anxious and depressed and unstable. After a while, I settled into a job working as an aide at a high school, and a while after that, in 1993, Tom (now my husband) moved to California to be with me.
A note here:………Tom later moved with me to where I went to graduate school, and he got a job, and he’s had a job ever since, and that’s what’s supported my art and my mental health. He has paid, and continues to pay, for my health insurance and for my therapist appointments and for my psychiatric medications. I recognize that this might be judged as falling into traditional, sexist patterns of dependency, but we have co-written a different story.
Back to 1994 when, at the age of 26, I started on Prozac. I’ve been on various combinations of psychiatric medications since then, after learning about my depression, and then about my anxiety, and then about my bipolar disorder. I received these diagnoses in succession, over a period of ten years.
I was ashamed of these diagnoses, ashamed of being on psychiatric medication. Periodically, I would stop taking my medications because I felt that I shouldn’t need them. I’d be on some medication and it would start working, and then I’d start feeling better, and then I’d tell myself that I was fine and didn’t need medication. This pattern continued for close to twenty years.
A few years ago, for some reason, my medications stopped working the way they had been working. I went through one of the worst depressions I had ever experienced. I had psychiatric care and a therapist, but months went by and we couldn’t pull me out of it.
I finally had to accept that managing my illness is an ongoing process. I shifted my story of myself. Before this, I never before truly acknowledged that I have a mental illness. Even with all the therapy and medications and hard times, I always kept in the back of my mind the thought that sometime, somehow, this would all get better and go away.
Now I know that getting better, for me, means that my “windows of health” will be longer and more frequent and more stable, and that the dark times in between will be shorter and less intense.
I no longer tell myself the story that I should get off my medications. Now I tell myself how grateful I am that there are medications that work for me. People die from this illness, and I don’t want to be one of those people.
People often talk about a connection between mental illness and creativity. I used to worry that taking medication for mental illness would destroy my creativity.
At age 50, after working at drawing and painting for 30 years, I have come to the conclusion that what drives my creativity is not my mental illness, but rather my passion and my practice and my spirit of inquiry.
Showing up, again and again and again, year after year after year, to do the same thing over and over and over……that is a practice and that is the fertile field in which I plant the seeds of my creativity.
And the most fundamental aspect of this practice is inquiry…….the practice of asking questions that lead to other questions that lead to other questions. Like:
What am I doing?
What do I want to paint?
Why do I like photographing the plants in the garden?
What draws me the most?
What is it about this twelve foot sunflower that appeals so strongly to me?
Will they let me take the sunflower at the end of the season?
Will it fit in my car and can I get it up the stairs to my studio?
Why is my connection to Van Gogh’s sunflowers feeling so personal and strong?
What size to I want to paint?
What colors do I want to use?
How do I develop a palette?
Where should I buy which supplies?
What to put in?
What to leave out?
Why do I care so much about this?
Who else in art and in the world cares about this?
Whose work should I be looking at?
And so on and so on…….
My mental illness is not what drives my creativity, and medications do not destroy my creativity. I am creative because I keep working on my painting and I keep working on my story.
I value and prioritize my creativity, I manifest this in my life through maintaining a relatively stable studio practice that focuses on asking questions about every aspect of my work. I stand in front of my canvas and I paint.
I am able to paint because I align myself with forces that support my will to live well and to paint. I have a “Team.” The members of my team include my spouse, my children, my therapist, my psychiatrist, and my friends, especially those friends who are artists, some of whom also struggle with mental health challenges.
Painting problems are life problems. Painting triumphs are life triumphs.
In a letter from Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo in 1882, he wrote,
“I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep, dark well, utterly helpless.”
I think that many of us have felt this way. Perhaps some of you who are listening to me right now have felt this way.
I wonder how much more each of us can accomplish in our lives, and how much fuller lives we can lead, if we find the support and resources to help pull us out of that well.
I hold fast to another part of a sentence from one of Van Gogh’s letters. “Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle….”
Let us keep courage. Let us try to be patient and gentle. And let us ask for help.