Saturday, May 18, 2013

Painting's Gift

An artist's works are like his children; they contain the imprint of his DNA. They go out from the safety of the studio to make their way in the world. For almost 25 years I've been engaged in a familiar ritual of taking new work to galleries and bringing home what hasn't sold.  Each time, a few of the earlier pieces remain with the gallery, ever hopeful of a sale. Eventually a time comes for galleries to clear out their storerooms. What comes forth can be surprising. Paintings I haven't seen for many years return home like lost children that have grown up. I hardly recognize them sometimes.

No artist can expect to sell everything he paints. I've been fortunate over the years to have had good dealers who have managed to find homes for a lot of my work, but it's still only a small fraction of what I produce. It can be discouraging bringing back boxes and stacks of older work that failed to find a home. I think, should I have my paint tubes tied and stop making any more of these homeless children? Does the world really need any more paintings? I spread them out all over my living room and enjoy our reunion. What my paintings might mean to another I can never know. No artist can. When I make them I don't address myself to any audience, imagined or real. Making a painting, for me is, ultimately, a soliloquy; a private, brooding walk in the woods, the end of which is to get clear about something.

This morning my eyes fell on the painting above, a small, twelve-inch square oil on canvas that I painted in northern Maine during my year as visiting artist at Colby College, from 2006 to 2007. It's one of the paintings I recently brought home from its rounds in the galleries and I'm actually very happy to have it back. It was painted in a transitional time in my life, the extent of which I hardly glimpsed at the time. An important relationship of five years was gradating, sadly, to its end, and what lay at the end of my time at Colby wasn't clear. Nature's indifference to human dramas is often a solace at such times. Looking at this little painting of mine always gives me an indescribable elation. My eyes seem to unpack the colors and shapes until I can actually smell and taste the damp salty air. I sense again the immensity of that wild northern landscape stretching out in my peripheral vision beyond the borders of that twelve-inch window. I feel the world turning. It makes me wonder what others see in a painting that makes them want to own it.

Recently at a local Habitat for Humanity "Re-Store" I spied a tremendous stack of paintings against a wall. An employee told me that a man had dropped them off that morning. Investigating, I discovered that they were all painted on high-quality linen canvas, tastefully framed. The paintings, while not great, showed that the artist had been engaged with the history of Modern painting. There were traces of conversation with Bonnard and Matisse. Figures and interiors, still-life and landscapes, gave me to realize that the artist had also been engaged with her own life. I was saddened to realize what this person's life work had come to. It's every artist's worst nightmare. All I could do was re-stack the paintings so that their corners would no longer press against canvas.

When I look at the growing stacks of my own paintings that have come home to roost, it's hard not to imagine a similar fate for them. Many of my friends are now retiring from long careers teaching art in universities. They are facing the same dilemma. Massive inventories of a lifes' work stowed quietly away in basements and attics do not make for restful sleep at night. Like parents, we think about our children and what's to become of them after we're no longer there to care for them.

The little twelve-inch painting of the Penobscot River in Maine now sits on top of a bookshelf in my house. I look at it and the peaty air of central Maine fills my lungs. I feel again the familiar cool dampness on my cheeks. I remember the healing that it brought to the close of a difficult chapter in my life. In the end, painting is not about what you made, but about the making itself. It's about the day by day decision to make time for it, to make room for it, among all the other competing pressures of an average life. To do it at all is a gift, and that's enough. And just as my Mother did when I left home, I will thank life for the gift, and trust that I did what I could.