Greetings from my separate studio to yours.
A note about what this next chapter will look like for Painters on Paintings: we are starting an Art in Isolation series. We are asking for your thoughts on art that is helping you through this time and also how your own practice is shifting. If you are interested in writing for us, please send an email.
[NB: We renamed this series Alone Together in light of the community building, protests, and actions to support Black Lives that are happening coexistent with quarantine.]
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I’ll start with some words about my last few months. I’ve spent them with artist friends upstate. As a single person, I’ve had the rare opportunity to live with three of the closest women in my life and their partners, closed off from the rest of the world, turned in towards each other.
My days have been strung through with gratitude. Not the kind that sits in the drawer collecting dust next to the ball of ennui, but the bright, county-fair-at-night gratitude, that shoots fireworks up my spine and waterworks down my cheeks at the smallest things.
There was an evening not that long ago (March 11th, says my calendar), when Julie and I (your co-editors) were standing among Kyle Staver’s comic, monumental figures in the Zurcher Gallery in the Lower East Side. I drove us there on empty streets. It was a room full of friends — our particular multigenerational painter community prone to unhip dance parties and general silliness. But the dj was sent home. We knocked elbows timidly and stole glances at each other over small glasses of white wine. Distance had sprouted up between us. We were already on the other side of something.
A few days later, an email informed me that Pratt classes would not resume in person this semester. I thought about this for a minute and then called Julie. “Mind if I move in with you?” I took the next day to pack my Subaru with a month’s worth of groceries and the essential art supplies – the ones that make the cut for residencies. I left the sculpey, the fish tanks, the half-renovated dollhouse and drove north.
I took the familiar route to Woodstock, to Julie’s home, which she has opened to me more times than I can count. Woodstock was a welcome sight – familiar from my time with her as well as a long stint at the Byrdcliffe Artist Colony. So, although the sidewalks were empty, each turn in the road was populated by a lively memory – teetering cones of Nancy’s vegan ice-cream, a surreptitious kiss behind Byrdcliffe’s pottery barn, the flailing bodies of the full moon drum circle, the bright bell of the door at Catskill Art and Office Supply. I paid the latter a visit on one of its last days and bought their entire stock of primed and unprimed canvas.
Even though I had oils and those endless virgin scrolls, I found myself working small. I gravitated to my friend’s 3-inch watercolor kit and a couple of half-dried gouache tubes and began making little drawings and washy sketch-paintings of the people I was with and the spaces I was in. What I didn’t sketch, I wrote down, in long fractured Word documents, documents which spawned other, longer, more fractured Word documents. I noticed I was collecting intimate moments and the memories of intimacy they recalled. I was an old lady collecting sea glass. If it was shiny, I picked it up.
My paintings are usually fanciful. They deal, not in flights of fancy, but in amalgams, imagined futures, chimera structures, and spliced landscapes. Some are warnings, some contingency plans. Most are spaces that have undergone some trauma and are in the process of rebuilding. I teach a class on world building at Pratt, with unit on utopian/dystopian literature and art as well as the apocalyptic and what comes after. I’ve been a devout reader of speculative fiction since before it was cool and dream about natural or manmade earth-altering disasters weekly. It’s in my bones, a child of ecologists who heard the canary call early. I shuffle and reorder destruction as a way of bearing witness to the real ills of the world and how they are doled out constantly and unjustly.
But now my hyperactive “what if” asking has slowed and my hand is gravitating more to the here and now. Julie too, who I consider a master of the imaginary, has been working on a longform piece of non-fiction. I won’t say more because that is her story to tell. But it makes me wonder, who else has turned to record keeping?
After a chapter at Julie’s, I drove to an artist friend’s house perched in the chilly foothills of the Catskills. As soon as I had set my last of fourteen grocery bags down, she announced that she was pregnant. We spent the next few weeks charting the changes in her body with awe. I sketched her napping, which she did quite often, and taking baths, which she did when she wasn’t napping. I liked mapping the swell of her body. I liked the finite time and energy exchanged over the course of a sketch. I talk about this in my drawing classes but had somehow forgotten its power. I also drew all kinds of other things: a friend’s Instagram livestream, my dream about the mermaid from Splash, goldfinch feathers I found by the pond, and the novel The Goldfinch.
Zaria Sleeping, 2020, Pencil on paper
At the same time, I’ve been drawn to other people’s non-fiction, confessional works. I’m listening to Perfume Genius on repeat and devouring Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Here is Ocean writing about Perfume Genius:
“Can disruption be beautiful? Can it, through new ways of embodying joy and power, become a way of thinking and living in a world burning at the edges? Hearing Perfume Genius, one realizes that the answer is not only yes — but that it arrived years ago, when Mike Hadreas, at age 26, decided to take his life and art in to his own hands, his own mouth. In doing so, he recast what we understand as music into a weather of feeling and thinking, one where the body (queer, healing, troubled, wounded, possible and gorgeous) sings itself into its future.”
I suppose I am looking both for advice on how to live through something hard, and how to spin art from it. I’m also weaning myself on Sugar Calling, a podcast where author and advice columnist Cheryl Strayed turns the tables and asks her Elders in the literary arts, including George Saunders and Margaret Atwood, for advice on processing and making work during this time. Saunders reads an email he wrote to his MFA students:
“This is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds… We are, and especially you are, the generation that is going to have to make sense of this and recover afterwards… Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important… What you are able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you are paying now and what records you keep. Also, I think, with how open you can keep your heart.”
I have no conclusions to draw. I will keep drawing what I see. And we will use this platform to archive other voices during this time. Thank you for helping grow this collection.