Trust, 2015

This painting began two years ago. I received some plywood from my elderly neighbor–he’d had it in his garage for over fifty years. It had an exceedingly subtle scent that connected me to my grandfather’s shop, and to the obsessive scrap collection I’d grown up with in my father’s dark, cluttered basement. 

At the time, I was working on a mission statement for my son’s elementary school, and I planned to make textural substrate for painted cardboard letters. I made a 30x37”self-framed rectangle out of that material, and filled it with a dark gray paperclay that I worked as I had the Tablets of that time. The pattern was reminiscent of a tartan from the Scotland of my ancestors, or of Kente cloth. I cut the 150 letters of the statement out of the paperboard I’d been collecting from household waste, and spraypainted each one into a kind of plastic–they almost clinked when they shuffled together. And then, assembling them upon my panel, I discovered the truth: my measurements were off! The statement didn’t fit in the panel. In my enjoyment of these processes, I’d neglected to make a mock-up of the whole thing. 

The light went out of the panel and the little letter collection. I shelved the project, and stowed the panel outside, banished like a sinful minion. The letters hid in a plastic bag under some envelopes. Newer, shinier projects emerged; time passed; and eventually my son finished elementary school. A “someday” project died and became a “never,” like a feather falling after a hawk’s meal. The season turned.

Months later, flush with inspiration drawn from Boro, the Japanese peasant tradition of endlessly patched, inherited clothing, I saw the panel with new eyes. It was like a worn-out textile, I thought, ready to be patched with new layers. I took it up again, and after gesso, began making spaces and windows, patches and swatches. I learned about the relationship between the imaginary spaces I drew and the textural landscape of the paperclay itself: sometimes they fight; sometimes they sleep together, spooning; and sometimes they have nothing to say to one another. I used up colors I was putting on other projects here, on what had become “Boro I;” I came back to it, again and again, letting it become a cloud of squares, or a Superfund site with an oil spill, or a block in a city that you drove by at speed. I liked it again.

Eventually there came a moment when I had to acknowledge that despite all I’d learned with this piece, all the places I’d discovered in it, it just didn’t work. It didn’t gel. There were lots of interesting moments in it, but they were like a collection of photos of someone all matted together, and not a portrait. Once more the light drained from the painting. Just as before, I had lots of other work underway, and I could afford to let this one lie fallow for a while. So it lay in a corner. I hoped it was marinating. 

But it wasn’t. Coming back to it later I found that it still wasn’t alive. I thought I’d rough it up a bit, like shaking someone in a coma, and so I painted a big bunch of cadmium red deep on it. It got very dark; there was a passage like muddy clogs tramping down grass, and there was a passage like a wall of blood, of course. I cried, actually, at this one. This little pink child had become a crazed monster. I turned its face to the wall.

Antidote, my show at the Healing Arts Center this summer, was coming soon. I gessoed this panel once again, and began peeling the bloodied mess off it, literally peeling the paint film away. Instantly it began to come to life. I saw what it was: a human being, open to the heavens, standing in the middle of life, catching a glimpse of the massive cathedral that we each carry inside us and that we walk through every day. I wept, oh I cried at receiving this gift. With some stitching and some beading, the gesture was complete. 


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