When Panic Sets In: Pumpkin Streusel Cake and The Practice of Painting

I didn’t think I’d have time to bake a cake today. I woke up this morning intending to drive to Los Angeles and hand-deliver a CD of images for a juried show submission that apparently needed to be in their hands today, rather than postmarked, as I’d thought. I woke up this morning beating myself up for somehow misreading a form I had purposely read two weeks prior just to avoid this sort of last minute kerfuffle. I woke up this morning litanizing two paintings for their lack of promise and direction, and the fact that they would have just as little promise and direction this evening on account of my ineluctable journey and the lack of opportunity to work on them, and the fact that I need them to be stellar and presentable by Thursday for submission to a gallery in town I really respect, run by people I know who I don’t want to let down.

It felt like I either compromised the LA submission or ran the risk of compromising the one here.

I get no points for resolving this situation. My sister saved me. She lives in LA, and she agreed to take time out of her workday to make a CD of my images, fill out the entry form, forge my signature, and drive to West Hollywood in midday traffic. The only thing my sister hates more than being woken up and being hungry is driving, especially in traffic. So yeah…my sister is awesome AND I owe her bigtime.

Technicolor Pumpkin, Ink and Colored Pencil on Paper, 11″ x 8 1/2″

Sometimes, when panic sets in, the thing to do is ask for help. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, like me (and your sister is a saint who loves you more than you know how to say thanks for), you get the help that you are seeking.

But sometimes, you don’t.

When I sat down in front of the easel today, I knew the time I had been given to work was a gift, and a lucky one. But I was angry at those paintings for not coming together, for possibly throwing a wrench in the immediate plans of my career and the persona I want to present of myself as an artist. Prepared, prolific, professional. I also understood that being frustrated with the work closes me off from allowing it to grow, from anything other than being frustrated, honestly. Chögyam Trungpa puts it best: “When you get really angry, your eyes are bloodshot and you can’t see properly; you begin to stutter and, you can’t speak properly. You become a mean vegetable.” With a painting, I can be much calmer than foaming at the mouth and still reach the “mean vegetable” stage.

The practice of painting is like any other practice; you have to be gentle with it for it to grow. It’s hardest to do this when panic sets in, but that’s also when it’s most needed. All I can say for today is that I’m really grateful to my sister for giving me the time and space to work with my panic – and make cake too, once the paintings had started to come alive – and that I hope I remember this on the occasion that I don’t get the help I want and I do have to make a compromise, when I have to summon the patience to leave off berating myself and berating work that can only unfold if I am nice to us both.

Recipe after the jump…

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Things to Draw: Querencia

Querencia, Colored Pencil, Watercolor, and Ink on Paper, 8 1/4″ x 5 3/8″

Ay Carlita! What does this word mean? Once I’d finished Googling, I knew why Carla gave me this. It’s everything. Or at least, the core of many of my artistic obsessions and many conversations we shared when we lived together. A general and more common way of referring to this idea is sense-of-place. But Barry Lopez, the environmental author, gives the word its full poetry with this definition: “A place from which one’s strength of character is drawn. A place in which we know exactly who we are. The place from which we speak our deepest beliefs.”

In the drawing I aimed for both the metaphorical, internal place and the sense of a physical locus. The anatomical heart/fetus/angel image is one I came up with years ago, that I loved for its weird harmony and which has developed in its symbolism as it has stayed with me. The image reminds me that though my heart is fragile, it speaks to God. And for the location, well…this heart resides amidst pine forests and arid mountainsides. There I know myself. Querencia.

Like a Banshee

I’ve been away from the studio for a while now. First there was the big rearrange, and then I went to Santa Catalina to visit a friend and stock up on sunshine. I hiked around a whole darn watershed (granted not a very big one, but still), kayaked out to a bird rock to stare down some cormorants, and got a taste of what it might be like to be a sea creature whilst snorkeling amongst the feeshes and lobsters and kelp.

And then I returned, sated and feeling like a feckless wild thing. I’m currently sleepy and a bit nonsensical, but what’s on my mind is this: the other side of happiness is sorrow; the other side of bliss is pain. Neither is good, neither bad. Neither right nor wrong. But when I’m all doused in one, I often get a clear view of the other. Sun-drenched and soaring, I could feel the keening that comes with exchanging wild fecklessness for human civilizedness.

Self-Portrait in Sorrow, Digital Photograph

I love sorrow. I don’t like it, but when it comes, I will savor it. Sorrow is not pleasant, but it is rich. You can’t miss it. When you are keening inside, you know you are alive. Some one asked me once what my favorite monster is. I thought about dragons mostly and cool old things like Cerberus, but when my thoughts crossed the Banshee, they stopped. The Banshee comes from Irish folklore, a woman whose cry signifies the death of the one who hears it. To me, the Banshee is like the human heart. When she aches, she is reminding you that one day you will die, so you better live now.

Like a Banshee, Ink and Watercolor on Paper, 7″ x 7″

The Big Rearrange

This happened about three weeks ago.

Let me explain. My studio of late was actually my mother’s studio, which had been mostly vacated because she’d been cooking more than arting in her professional life. I’d basically taken over. But notice how I’m using the past perfect tense here? All this no more. Mom got a convection oven and is using what was the studio as a kitchen…it’s the only place with an electrical outlet gnarly enough to accomodate the new oven (it was intended for a glass-firing kiln).

To be fair, she didn’t mean to oust me – and it’s her space anyway, so if she’d wanted to, she certainly could have with no apologies. But she was full willing to move around all the cooling racks and flour bins to make space for me to actually sit in front of my easel and potentially also have some table domain for drawing.

After avoiding the room for two weeks on account of feeling skittish about the chaos, I started to internally panic. I couldn’t work. I didn’t even want to go in there. I felt like I had lost something dreadfully important to me, like it had been stolen, even though it wasn’t mine to have and it also wasn’t technically gone. Then I realized something.

I need a space to work that belongs to me. Making work is a focused, tender process of caring for an image and an idea as it comes into the world. You have to be completely open to negotiating with what the work wants, and, in my experience, you have to feel really safe to do that. Making is very intimate – an interesting connection to the solution to my studio dilemma.

I turned my bedroom – the safest place I’ve got – into my studio. I gave up my me-and-someone-else sized bed for a just-me sized bed and tucked it into the corner to make space for my easel and drawing table. There’s a little defiant sadness in that choice, as though part of me is trying to convince the rest of me that, “My art is my love and that’s all I need!” But I’m not that naive and I’m not that righteous. And we all fit our someone-else’s into twin-sized beds in college, right? Should I happen upon a someone else in the time that my life and space are arranged as such, at least he’ll know what he’s getting into. When you love this woman, you share her with her work and her working. There is no separation between living and making. It is not always tidy, and it is not always comfortable, but it is honest and it is carried out with care.

And now, to work.