He was fun, he was a great cook, and he lived life to the fullest. He learned to drive not long after meeting my mother and would drive us cross county in our old pickup truck, recklessly bouncing over arroyos and sagebrush, always stuck in whatever gear he happened to last use, us kids shrieking in the back with delight and fear, We had dogs and a sheep, huge vegetable gardens, and he was always working (not so expertly it turns out) on our house or properties they had bought. But after 17 years of marriage, it all fell apart. It was a hateful breakup, full of acrimony and spite. All that was petty and small in both my mother and in Nick emerged and they would never be friends again. However, Nick stayed in our lives, more my father than my biological father ever had been. He retired from his job with the state(no longer the bohemian artist)and traveled the world with a backpack full of vitamins and a change of underwear, making friends wherever he went.
Unfortunately, his bad relationship with my mother would come back to haunt me. In the last ten years of his life, he began to be cold, rude and abrupt with me. It seemed that he was confusing me with my mother, and now, with hindsight, we realized that it signaled the beginning of his dementia. He died at the age of 91, peacefully--if death is ever peaceful. He couldn't see, could barely hear, and his memory was mostly gone, yet one of the last things he told my sister was that he wanted to live to be 100.
I've been going through my old black and white negatives and scanning some of them into my computer. I have thousands, so it means looking through lots of contact sheets and identifying the ones that, for whatever reason, speak to me. I then (carefully) pull them out of their plastic holders and drop them onto the glass of my scanner. It takes some time for them to scan, so I wait patiently and try and remember to file them correctly so I can find them once they are in my computer. In years past, I would print the images out in my darkroom, then(heavily) paint over them with oil paints. Now, however, I'm looking for something different, but, I'm not sure what that is.
I'm not taking many photographs these days. I have the feeling when I pick up my camera that I've already taken that picture, already seen how that particular thing would look as a photograph. In looking through these old negatives, I'm impressed by just how many not very good photos there are. The quality of the photograph never really affected the painted photo that followed since the paint changed the nature of the image so much. Underexposed, overexposed, dirty negative--as my friends liked to point out, it didn't really matter since I was going to paint over the photo anyway. However, there are some quite wonderful ones which have never been seen. I may have to see what I can do about that.
I make my living primarily though selling my work and teaching workshops around the country. The teaching is fairly seamless: I enjoy teaching, and people like working with me. I'm invited to teach at different schools and art centers, and with many of these places, I go back year after year. However, galleries are a different beast. I have a long history with gallery representation starting in my twenties--I was with two of my galleries for over 20 years. But nothing stays the same. As Heidi Klum of Project Runway liked to say, "One day you're in, and the next day, you're out!" Because galleries are so often the only feed back we have in the success of our work, if we aren't showing/selling we began to feel that what we are doing isn't valid, and we take this lack of sales as personally as is humanly possible. As artists, instead of thinking as an adult in the business world would, we react like children who aren't receiving the love we (so desperately) need. We began to tumble down the stairway of self doubt, and before we know it, we are splayed on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, broken and bleeding
But, like the children we really are, we don't know any other way, so we pull ourselves up off the "failure" floor and continue to make more work, thinking that there must be some magic trick that will make the work popular, sell like crazy and allow us to feel validated. Of course there isn't a magic trick, but a combination of making good, original work, and finding the right people to support and believe in what we do who are at the same time competent and capable marketers. And of course, we ourselves have to learn those same skills in marketing ourselves, distasteful and onerous as it seems to most of us.
Years ago I found a photograph of a young woman in a bathrobe. I think it was in a newspaper, but I'm not sure. I can't remember where the photo was taken, or what it was about, just that I loved the honest intensity of her gaze and her bald head. So I cut it out and kept it.
Recently I found out about the death of another student of mine from breast cancer, Suzanne Simpson. Suzanne took several of my workshops at Anderson Ranch in Colorado, both three week immersives. She was chronically late for the start of the workshops(by many days), but, once she showed up, she was there. She was warm, engaging, and loved helping the other students, which was sometimes a problem because she wouldn't get to her own work. She could perseverate for days on a piece, and would often start completely over if it wasn't exactly right(which made me a little crazy). She did several pieces that were absolutely exquisite; small paintings that combined a cracked surface with a new technique we were just learning, emulsion transfers.
I only found out about her death recently, even though she died over a year and a half ago. It was a shock to think that she wouldn't be showing up in anymore of my workshops. I'll miss her.
One of the biggest problems I have, after 40 years of making images, is that I just have too much. Too much to store, too much to keep track of, too much to leave to my daughters when I die. Today, while going through my digital files, I came across two pieces that I did in 2010. I had decided they weren't good enough to keep, so they were gessoed over and then made into new paintings. Now, looking at the two, I find myself thinking, "What the hell was going on with you? How could you have painted over these?". I love the pattern paper that makes up the background in both images, for both the physical reality of the lines and the conceptual one of using an image that is all about making something else. The snake on God's very red chest, and the apple falling from his hand in Adam and Eve give us clear clues as to what this is all about. The stories are strong: at the same time that God is sending the two errant humans out of the garden, he is creating sky, trees, and birds and clouds as well. With Beasts he gently urges the elephants out of the flower they have been gestating in while a huge yellow sun glows in the background. In both images God is nerdy, but clearly well meaning(but maybe not the best dresser). There is nothing about these two paintings that I don't love, yet they no longer exist except as digital images. And at least now, there are two more paintings that I don't have to worry about.
To Keep the Wolf from the Door:to have just enough money to be able to eat and live, Cambridge Dictionary.
A few days ago we received a card from a long time friend. Along with a picture of the family, and a recounting of the year's travels and adventures, it also stated that our friend had been diagnosed with (stage 2) ovarian cancer. She wrote on the card, "Big white waves ahead for us. And here we go!". This is not the first friend to be diagnosed with cancer. Recently, my husband counted four friends who, in the past two years, have been diagnosed and treated for cancers, all serious, including a young, recently married mother diagnosed with breast cancer. On my side, I have a friend's sister who is literally, at death's door, and another friend who died last year of pancreatic cancer. The wolf is at the door, although different for everyone. For my mother it is being made frantic at not being able to turn the TV off because she has confused the phone for the remote. For my husband it was a DVT in his leg a year and a half ago, and for a young friend it was his mother being hit by a motorist while on her bicycle, left in a coma for weeks. I could go on and on. We all have these stories, they just seem to be coming faster and more furiously. I don't think we can keep the wolf from the door. He's coming. Be ready.
In every successful artist's life there has to be someone that believes in that artist 150%, and for me, that person has always been my husband, Robert Wilson. Not only does he care deeply about what I do, but he has been my subject hundreds and hundreds of times. The photographs I take of him are awkward and odd, and then I do even stranger things to the photos once I start incorporating paint. What happens next, once I start painting, has always been a form of magic to me since I have no idea what will come of these images. Something takes over and it's much bigger and better than me. The results speak to me of another world, another reality that I was somehow able to step into for a brief period of time. Sometimes the images referenced parts of Bob and his personality, as in After the Operation, an image about kindness and concern, taking care of those things smaller and weaker than ourselves, and other times they might reference his being part of a different reality as in Bob as Blackie. In Bob Dreaming, I caughtthat moment when we go from our sleeping selves to our dreaming selves, separating off into another dimension. Looking back over the years of having made these images, I'm amazed at what we both have managed to accomplish--me with my camera and brushes, Bob with his support, his unconditional love, and his connection to the other side.
As a graduate student at Arizona State University in the 70's, I was fortunate enough to have had, as one of my instructors, John Kacere. A photo realist painter of woman's sexily glad midsections(but mostly of buttocks), John was a fantastic teacher. Short(he let us know that he wore lifts in his cowboy boots) and very intense, he made us all feel that each of us was that one special student. At one point, when John was talking to me about my work, he leaned in, and in his gravelly voice, insisted that I had to follow three rules if I were ever to teach. The rules were:
1. Know the subject you are teaching inside and out--be very good at what you teach
2. Never give your students more than they can handle
3. Always love every student the same.
I have gone on to teach now for 30 some years, always workshops in different art centers around the country, or at universities or with privately produced groups of artists who invite me to work with them. I have found that all three of John's rules are something that I apply in each and every workshop I teach. As a working artist, I have a depth of knowledge in the very narrow area that I work in: combining paint with other kinds of imagery, and I've become especially knowledgeable about different transfer processes. I am good at and do know well what I'm teaching. I have found that rule number 2 is very important, because by allowing someone to get in over their heads and then failing, they are then convinced that they can't do, and will never do whatever that thing is they are attempting. They think it's their entirely their fault, and they want to give up. I back them out of the problem, and together we come at it from a different direction until they succeed. The last rule is probably the most important, because if someone feels that you are preferring one student over another, they will lose trust in you, even if they are that preferred student. A class works as one unit, and if there is disharmony or if one of the students feels left out or overlooked, it affects, negatively, the entire dynamic of the class. The students aren't just learning from you, but also from each other and they need that basis of trust. Finding one's creative voice is such a delicate process, that with any sign of of preferential treatment, that creative voice will go into hiding, and refuse to emerge.
I would like to think that John, who died in 1999, would be pleased and proud of the way I've continued his legacy of teaching. I'd like to think that I've helped people become the best artists they can be, just as he helped me all those years ago.