Friday, June 24, 2011

About Being Alive

Some years ago, while I was still in my forties, I convinced myself that I had lung cancer and was on my way to see an M.D. to get my fears confirmed. I was a heavy smoker at the time and had good reason to believe that I had done myself in. Add to that that I had recently lost a very dear friend, and the person who had been the head of my department at the university, plus two others who had populated my landscape over the years. All smokers taken by cancer. There was also the idea that I would die at the age my mother did; she was forty-seven. Her mother was thirty-three. Cancer took both.

I had recently arrived in California and didn’t have a car yet. I waited at a bus stop observing two elderly women enjoying a conversation and thought about being robbed of the old age that could have been mine. Those old ladies were probably younger than I am now.

In the days prior to the clean bill of health that I finally got from the doctor, I became increasingly aware of those moments of life that I didn’t want to give up. It wasn’t the people in my world I was focused on; that would have been far too painful, and not the world around me that I would no longer inhabit. No, it was the momentary pleasures, like the fragrance of printing ink that is released when the newspaper is opened in the morning. Sitting in a movie theater with a bag of popcorn waiting for the show to begin is another of those repeated moments that has never lost its luster. Snuggling into the big soft chair in my room to steal a nap and the time when I slip into my warm bed as the house cools at night. How sad to think there would be no more.

This line of thinking came back last weekend when I strolled on a sunny Saturday at our local farmer’s market. I was with my daughter and a dear friend and was taking great pleasure in some of the best strawberries I had ever put in my mouth.

I think what is special about those bits of life is that being alive is enough. Pain does something quite different, sometimes causing us to wish our lives away. I wonder about those people whose worlds were taken from them recently by way of tsunamis, earthquakes, tornados, floods and other disasters of old testament dimensions. How fortunate those of us that continue to delight in that first cup of coffee in our kitchens in the morning.

I took an unplanned detour there. I meant to end this discourse with something about how the arts (music and the visual arts, movies, books and such) were part of the picture. Oh well, maybe next time.

Poet Emily Dickinson: “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”

The image above is Enactment ©2002, Painted Paper Collage on Canvas, 10” x 32”

Friday, June 17, 2011

About Hope

This is an extension of last week’s text on optimism. According to my dictionary one definition of hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen”. For optimism we get “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something”. Pretty close, don’t you think?

Personally, and the advice I tend to give to my children (over and over again) is expect the best, prepare for the worst. Of course, that’s hard to do. Most of us slip from one mode to the other according to our mood of the day or to repercussions from recent experience. Surely we feel better when hope and optimism reign. And, as I mentioned last week, what risks could we venture into without the hope of a favorable outcome? And, let’s face it, no risks would make for a dull life.

Every time I prepare for an exhibition or plan an open studio, I need to arm myself with the expectation of success in the form of lots of visitors, a lot of appreciation for the work and sales enough to make it possible for me to go on painting. It hasn’t always come together like that with all the elements in place. Several times during this history I have taken part-time jobs, and a few times have been bailed out by the family. Mostly, though, it has been a fairly smooth ride, with occasional bouts of anxiety. But obviously, since I am still at it, that irrational optimism about the future kicks in and the march continues. I guess that’s the reason for writing again on the subject. It’s the optimism based on nothing more than the desire to have this life, that has fueled the walk. I need to keep it operating.

Even writing this essay requires optimism, or maybe in this instance it’s more like faith. When I start writing with nothing more than a sentence in mind, I need to believe I will come up with something I can maintain my own interest in. If I don’t get involved, I surely won’t engage my readers. And miraculously, this old brain heats up and takes over. After a number of repetitions the confidence is born. The truth is that without that confidence, or hope, or optimism, or expectation or maybe just plain thoughtless plunging ahead, nothing would be created that wasn’t done before. Who would pick up pen or brush or camera or test tube if there was no hope? Who would buy a lottery ticket and fantasize about the studio she would design? How silly would that be?

Winston Churchill: For myself I am an optimist — it does not seem to be much use being anything else.

The image above is from the August Quintet, ©2011, archival inks on acid-free Epson paper, size varies. For information or purchases please click here to email me.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

About Optimism

A recent Time cover article was about how optimism is an integral part of our human operation. Well, of course. How else would we sell lottery tickets, have reality shows or even plan a vacation? I need all the optimism I can muster to get myself on an airplane. The article went on to say that we do a far better job of imagining our sunny future than we do at remembering our real history. 

All my life I have had vivid fantasies about how I wanted the story of my life to proceed. When I was very young the next chapters were essentially romantic and adventurous. Later they became more about life becoming easy and comfortable although the romance and desire for excitement didn’t completely abate. And then, in my mid forties, I opted to live the vision entirely and put rationality aside to dedicate myself wholly to painting.

As I recount in my recent video interview (available for viewing here), if I had known what lay ahead for me I would have been far more scared than I was. I know now that it was that crazy optimism that resides within the frontal cortex of my brain that made the decision doable. But certainly not less crazy. As Warren Buffet said: “Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing.” In my case, no knowing was a blessing. Now, many years later, I marvel at how good it has been. I have been fortunate in my art-business dealings and have benefited greatly from the support, moral and practical, from family and friends. 

According to the research the outcomes of the choices you make and the tests you take are more likely to be positive if you expect them to be so. It is not so easy to imagine a bright future as the years accumulate. The time ahead does not stretch endlessly as it did before. The realities of old age keep breaking through as the script is written. But how about these apples: Claude Monet didn’t even start his water lily series until he was in his seventies; Goethe finished Faust in his eighties; Pablo Casals was still performing in his nineties? (Thanks to Peter Spellman, Berklee College of Music) Looks like there’s reason to be hopeful, doesn’t it? 
Writer Anais Nin said: And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. 

The image above is from the August Quintet, ©2011. An archival print of it will be available this weekend for the second round of our North Coast Open Studios. For directions or inquiries please click here to email me

Friday, June 3, 2011

About the Test

This weekend many of the artists of Humboldt County, California will be opening our studios to the public. While I have raced to get ready, I have been feeling the kind of anxiety that always comes on when I am about to show new work.

Getting ready means setting up to show new work while at the same time giving visitors a look into the reality of life in the workspace. Making my crowded studio visitor friendly is a challenge and I am fortunate to have an engineer daughter who takes on the chores thwarted by my right-brained mode.

The anxiety about showing the work and meeting the public is history that recurs again and again and is probably a bit milder than it was in the beginning. I have delved into my psyche in an attempt to understand it. The hope is that understanding what it’s about would help to diminish its power over me.

What came to mind today was that TV show I used to watch called “Inside The Actors’ Studio”. Towards the end of the interview there were some questions that were the same every week. One was (paraphrased) “What would you like God to say to you when you meet him in heaven?” My response to that would be that I would want him to pat me on the back and say: “You did good”. As if life were a test. We are born into circumstances that we don’t elect for ourselves and our lives require constant choices and decisions. So if there is some deity who is going to review how we did with the hand we were dealt, I don’t want to hear him say: “This is what you did with what I gave you?” 

The reality for most of us living in this culture, is that we are free to make our lives as we will. That said, I am fully aware that many of us are born into conditions that are close to impossible to overcome. And in the poorer countries the proportions of those who struggle to survive in the face of insurmountable obstacles is huge. 

I suppose that luck can play a part too, though I have never counted on it. Fantasized, yes, but expected, no. We do love stories about those people who defy the odds and come out winners. We cheer on the underdog in a competition if we know how much it means to him and how hard he has worked for it. I wonder if prevailing over difficulties is becoming less common as the world changes. I sincerely hope that is not the case.

Allan Sherman: Grandma cheated whenever she could. She cheated because it was a much more scientific and surer way of winning than trusting to luck.

The image above is Dusk One, ©2011, archival ink on acid free paper, size varies. It is one of the new prints that will be available this weekend and next at my open studio. For more information go to North Coast Open Studios 2011 -- Humboldt County, California or email me at