Tuesday, August 22, 2017

#SOL17: Transforming Heart Ache through Art: 18 months of Journaling with Paint

Dreaming. (watercolor, digital remix, August 18, 2017, about 3 a.m., Molskine journal)

For the last 18 months I have been painting in art journals--some purchased, some made by hand. It hasn't exactly been practice, as practice connotes an end game and somehow the drawing and painting I have been doing was more elemental, more necessary. There was no prescribed end in mind. It began simply because I needed to expend energy after Rob died. Lifting my camera was a too familiar weight. Making a photographic image felt too passive and perhaps more so reminded me of Rob and all the times I had photographed during our nearly thirty years together.

In the time since his death, painting in my journals (and perhaps painting on a large sheet of watercolor--I actually took out a sheet in anticipation) has become essential.  I dream of painting, rehearsing in my mind what I will do. I can feel my hand holding the brush, moving paint with my fingers.  I don't remember many dreams upon waking, but I do remember my painting dreams.  Most mornings when I am not at work I paint. When I can I paint in the evenings too, especially late evening.  I paint, let dry what needs to dry and come back. I also work across numerous journals now using a lot of different media. Some days I sketch in different journals. These may be people I have been observing in public spaces, like at a Starbucks or photographs or images from magazines that I use as references. On other days I may spend hours just painting backgrounds on journal pages with little anticipation of what I might end up creating on the page. Now and then I will just sketch what I imagine or paint without any guide.

Oddly, it was without any reference that I began painting. Below is the first painting I made after Rob died. It is non-representational and I thought it nothing more than a sloppy mess. I titled it, "Let Her Paint" and posted it on my blog nonetheless. Beneath all of that grief, I think I knew that physical act of painting would be necessary. I needed it so much and how grateful I am that painting was possible.

from an art journal (March 18, 2016)
Two months later I began to keep an art journal in earnest. I selected an old atlas that had been Rob's and gessoed several pages.  It was an oversized book and allowed me a lot of space to work. I painted the image below using a stencil and also free hand. Even now, looking at it, I still enjoy the image--mostly because of the way I used space across two pages. This morning when I reread the image, knowing I made it two months after Rob died,  I notice how life percolates beneath the ground unseen--like the will to live remained within me.

Page from art journal, May 18, 2016

After Father's Day I made  the two images below, using newspaper, ink, gesso, Stabilo pencil, and acrylic paint. As I look at these paintings, I notice the empty spaces surrounding each and how the the grief image (6.19.16) seems to float without an anchor, whereas the other image of sadness is anchored to the bottom of the page. Each new holiday, like Father's Day, was mostly a terror that first year. Less so the second year.

(stabilo pencil, gesso, acrylic paint, ink, newspaper, 6.20.16)
(stabilo pencil, gesso, acrylic paint, newspaper, 6.19.16)

The image of two women I made four months later crossed two large journal pages. I think about how I was seeing and not seeing at the time. Grief and loneliness alter reality.  The arrangement here of images and collage elements felt new to me.  Uncharted territory. What to do with empty space is a question I worked out on this page--much like I was working out in my life. After the death of a husband, large blocks of what felt like empty space become more noticeable. Understanding that I had choices and perhaps, more importantly, needed to see my own hand in my life, I began slowly to accept that the life I was making was my own.  I had been waiting for life to be given to me, not made. In the fall of last year I was learning that if I waited for something external to show me all there was to see, I would be waiting for a long time. Most days now, I accept that living is always about partial sight. We never really know where we are walking and what we will see.


from my art journal, 10.22.16 (gesso, found papers, acrylic paint, Tombow markers, tissue paper, ink)

Five months later in mid-March of 2017 I was thinking a lot about the burden of grief and that lovely poem by Molly Peacock, "Putting a Burden Down."  Many years ago I took a class at the 92nd Street Y with Molly and after the class ended she became a private teacher for me for the remainder of the year. I was writing a final project for a graduate degree--a collection of poems. I painted the image below in my journal. It was a week after the anniversary of Rob's death and I began to think that putting down grief is a decision not a divine directive. What rested in my hands was mine for the making. As Rob told me so many times, the only way out is through. After a year of grieving I came to understand that defining myself through grief and grieving was a choice. So too was putting it all down. And if only it was that simple.


(watercolor, pencil, acrylic paint, ink, March 2017)

A month later, I decided to spend the next 100 days painting, drawing and on occasion photographing faces.  I wanted to represent faces better.  This led me to painting most days and learning how to first try to control the paint brush and paint and paint representationally. Later I experimented with leaning into the work and seeing where it led. Below is one of my more expressive pieces. The painting happened across a month.  It was a painting I started and abandoned, returning to again and again. Finally, I just painted and scribbled with much abandon. Just as grief was loosening its grip from my heart and life, my hand was learning how to hold the top of of the paint brush looser, to trust mark making both literally and figuratively.

acrylic paint, crayon, early July 2017)


12 paintings with blackbirds (July - August, 2017)

In the last month, flocks of blackbirds have found their way into what I am painting. A friend suggested the old Beatles' song, "Blackbird," as an apt metaphor. And perhaps it is new wings I am trying out. Painting offers a language that is complementary and different than the words I use to speak and write. Painting reveals truths I might not know or could not say. Below is a detail from a painting I completed in my art journal on August 19th. I wonder about the partiality of it and also the sensuousness of the image. It is more blended, less precise. More heart than mind. What might suggestion have to do with healing?  I suspect as I paint more, I will learn.

Suggestion (August 19, 2017)

Next spring I will be taking an acrylic collage workshop with abstract painter, Jane Davies. Lately the call of the non-representational is loud.  I want to explore it in large ways, using big spaces to paint. I have been drawn to abstract expressionist art for decades, but have never tried my hand at it. These days find me bolder, more willing to risk.

After the death of a husband, little seems undoable.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Making a New Journal by Hand

from the cover of my new handmade book
I recently attended a book making class that Cari from Art for the Soul organized and taught. She modeled how to make a simple 5" x 5" book.

In less than 2 hours we were able to do the following:

  1. dye rice paper for the book covers and set aside to dry,  
  2. use clips to hold the cut pages together
  3. punch three holes into the clipped pages using a hammer, block, and awl
  4. re-cut strip of material from a piece of Sari cloth to use as thick thread for binding
  5. glue dyed papers to front and back substrates to create the front and back covers 
  6. glue inside face pages to front and back covers
  7. clip front cover, pages, and back cover together
  8. re-punch holes making sure that each hole is large enough for binding materials
  9. thread needle with the strip of sari cloth 
  10. bind the book, using a Chinese-wrapped binding method. 

I took photographs as I was working so I could remember the process.  Some of those images can be seen below.





When I got home I opened the journal to the 2nd and 3rd page (I never start painting on page 1) and created the two images below by adding gesso to each page. Next I made two very quick sketches in pencil.  Then I shaded and painted the two faces using  Stablio pencil, Tombow markers, and thinned acrylic paint.

Pages 2 and 3 from my new journal

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

#PoetryBreak: Hymn by Sherman Alexie

Hymn: A New Poem by Sherman Alexie


Why do we measure people's capacity
To love by how well they love their progeny?
That kind of love is easy. Encoded.
Any lion can be devoted
To its cubs. Any insect, be it prey
Or predator, worships its own DNA.
Like the wolf, elephant, bear, and bees,
We humans are programmed to love what we conceive.
That's why it's so shocking when a neighbor
Drives his car into a pond and slaughter–
Drowns his children. And that's why we curse
The mother who leaves her kids—her hearth—
And never returns. That kind of betrayal
Rattles our souls. That shit is biblical.
So, yes, we should grieve an ocean
When we encounter a caretaker so broken.
But I'm not going to send you a card
For being a decent parent. It ain't that hard
To love somebody who resembles you.
If you want an ode then join the endless queue
Of people who are good to their next of kin—
Who somehow love people with the same chin
And skin and religion and accent and eyes.
So you love your sibling? Big fucking surprise.
But how much do you love the strange and stranger?
Hey, Caveman, do you see only danger
When you peer into the night? Are you afraid
Of the country that exists outside of your cave?
Hey, Caveman, when are you going to evolve?
Are you still baffled by the way the earth revolves
Around the sun and not the other way around?
Are you terrified by the ever-shifting ground?
Hey, Trump, I know you weren't loved enough
By your sandpaper father, who roughed and roughed
And roughed the world. I have some empathy
For the boy you were. But, damn, your incivility,
Your volcanic hostility, your lists
Of enemies, your moral apocalypse—
All of it makes you dumb and dangerous.
You are the Antichrist we need to antitrust.
Or maybe you're only a minor league
Dictator—temporary, small, and weak.
You've wounded our country. It might heal.
And yet, I think of what you've revealed
About the millions and millions of people
Who worship beneath your tarnished steeple.
Those folks admire your lack of compassion.
They think it's honest and wonderfully old-fashioned.
They call you traditional and Christian.
LOL! You've given them permission
To be callous. They have been rewarded
For being heavily armed and heavily guarded.
You've convinced them that their deadly sins
(Envy, wrath, greed) have transformed into wins.
Of course, I'm also fragile and finite and flawed.
I have yet to fully atone for the pain I've caused.
I'm an atheist who believes in grace if not in God.
I'm a humanist who thinks that we’re all not
Humane enough. I think of someone who loves me—
A friend I love back—and how he didn't believe
How much I grieved the death of Prince and his paisley.
My friend doubted that anyone could grieve so deeply
The death of any stranger, especially a star.
"It doesn't feel real," he said. If I could play guitar
And sing, I would have turned purple and roared
One hundred Prince songs—every lick and chord—
But I think my friend would have still doubted me.
And now, in the context of this poem, I can see
That my friend’s love was the kind that only burns
In expectation of a fire in return.
He’s no longer my friend. I mourn that loss.
But, in the Trump aftermath, I've measured the costs
And benefits of loving those who don't love
Strangers. After all, I'm often the odd one—
The strangest stranger—in any field or room.
"He was weird" will be carved into my tomb.
But it’s wrong to measure my family and friends
By where their love for me begins or ends.
It’s too easy to keep a domestic score.
This world demands more love than that. More.
So let me ask demanding questions: Will you be
Eyes for the blind? Will you become the feet
For the wounded? Will you protect the poor?
Will you welcome the lost to your shore?
Will you battle the blood-thieves
And rescue the powerless from their teeth?
Who will you be? Who will I become
As we gather in this terrible kingdom?
My friends, I'm not quite sure what I should do.
I'm as angry and afraid and disillusioned as you.
But I do know this: I will resist hate. I will resist.
I will stand and sing my love. I will use my fist
To drum and drum my love. I will write and read poems
That offer the warmth and shelter of any good home.
I will sing for people who might not sing for me.
I will sing for people who are not my family.
I will sing honor songs for the unfamilar and new.
I will visit a different church and pray in a different pew.
I will silently sit and carefully listen to new stories
About other people’s tragedies and glories.
I will not assume my pain and joy are better.
I will not claim my people invented gravity or weather.
And, oh, I know I will still feel my rage and rage and rage
But I won’t act like I’m the only person onstage.
I am one more citizen marching against hatred.
Alone, we are defenseless. Collected, we are sacred.
We will march by the millions. We will tremble and grieve.
We will praise and weep and laugh. We will believe.
We will be courageous with our love. We will risk danger
As we sing and sing and sing to welcome strangers.
©2017, Sherman Alexie

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

SOL17: Karolina's Twins, The Nazis, and Trump


Memory is the Diary We All Carry (M.A. Reilly, 2017)


I.

Since I finished reading Ronald Balson's novel Karolina's Twins, my sleep has been disturbed.  I'm not sure I would have finished the novel had it not been the next book my book group is discussing. But I did finish it and for the next week, I woke from nightmares very early each morning recalling the sounds of trains, the cries of babies, the hard leather of a boot pressed against my neck.

The novel is set in Poland during Nazi occupation and tells the story of Lena, a 89-year-old Jewish woman who at the time of the Holocaust was a teenager. The atrocities described cut me and surely fueled the nightmares. While asleep, I have been replaying some of the cruelties Lena, the main character faced. This is not the first or only Holocaust-related book I have read. Yet, it hurt more than any other. I'm not sure if it is because I am a mom and relate to the immense loss mothers must have experienced at the hands of the Nazis--losses I can not set down. Or perhaps it was that my husband who was Jewish and is now dead calls forth for me all those cowards who watched the Nazis slaughter innocent lives. There were thousands and thousands of people who killed men just like Rob and would have done so at any point in his life.  They would have murdered him as an infant, a young boy, a teen, a man--and millions more would have turned a blind eye and allowed it to happen.  The question of who we are, wakes me from sleep.

Lena and Karolina know that at the end of the train ride to Gross-Rosen, their two baby girls will be murdered. Of this there is no question. When Lena describes how she and her friend Karolina each throw an infant girl from a moving train in an effort to perhaps save their lives, I felt the very weight of my own son the first time I held him against my chest.  I felt this in 2017 as I sat in a chair in my home. I could feel the solidness of his small body. The smell of him. The way he fit just perfectly against me. All of this felt imprinted. Lena knows their only hope is to leave them for chance: Will they survive the fall?  Will someone find them in time?  Will someone care for them? Will they be turned over to the Nazis anyway?

And I wondered would I have ever had the courage to throw my son that solid living body and beautiful boy, out a train window in order to perhaps save him from the certain death he would know by Nazis.


II.

Old Man Watching (M.A. Reilly, 2017)
I'm not sure the nightmares would have come had murdered infants been all I was thinking about. From the start of the novel, I was disturbed by the wishful thinking Lena and her family engaged in when the German occupation was new. It felt too familiar. It felt like how I have been living here in the United States since Donald Trump was elected and began to staff the White House with Nazis.

Early in the novel, Lena explains the beginning of Nazi occupation,
“New rules came down every day and more restrictions were imposed. Still, we survived. We adapted. We would wait it out. We held tight to the belief that soon the world would crush the Germans and they would leave" (p. 25).
Lena's dismissal of the horror, the adaptations they made, had me wondering about home.


III.

I imagine, like me, you know where you were when you first heard about the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, VA this last weekend and the violence they caused. I was walking out of the MET, having just finished a drawing class and as soon as I heard the location, I immediately thought of a friend  who lives there.  When I got home, I sent her a message asking if she and her family were okay and was relieved to learn quickly they were safe.

Then the death of Heather Hayer was reported, a 32-year-old woman who while protesting the Nazis, was murdered by a 20-year-old kid from Ohio who drove his car into a crowd, reminiscent of the Nice, France terrorist act a year ago. This young Nazi killed Heather and injured 19 others. He did so with determination.

As expected, the US president, Donald Trump, spoke to the country.  In moments of terrorism, leadership matters. He said this:

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. 

I thought my head might explode when I heard him say and then repeat, "on many sides" as he gestured with his hands as if he could dismiss the whole matter like one calling for a bill at the end of a meal.

What sides?

A young woman was dead because a Nazi killed her on a street in America.  With his words and then silence, Trump signaled his support for the violent Nazis in our country.  Make no mistake, Trump invited them into our homes. His language was clear.  There was no ambiguity.

The very people who elected him as president were supported by the president. And they said so.

Andrew Anglin, the cretor of the Nazi site The Daily Stormer, praised Trump's response. "He didn't attack us,"he wrote in a blog post on the site. "[He] implied that there was hate...on both sides. So he implied the antifa are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us all." (from here).

It's 2017 and the Nazis are here.


IV.


Faced with increasing criticism from his own party, the media, and the public, Trump still took days to make a new statement. He showed us all who he really is by his comment on Saturday and his silence on Sunday. He's his father's son. Fred was arrested in his youth at a KKK rally. Like father like son.

And now Donald Trump has invited the Nazis to come out from under the rocks and slime and parade down Main Street, full of swagger and spitting hate, and designing murder. He has invited white supremacists into the White House. They dine with him. They fly alongside him on Air Force One. They advise him.

Make no mistake, we should not adapt to this, turn the other eye, wish for better days, hope this maniac settles.

Empowering hate is what Donald Trump does most consistently and most well.  He is divisive, mistaken, and unable to function as president. He and Vice President Pence must be removed from office because they harm us.

Their choices harm us. Their allegiances harm us. Their overt support of white supremacists harm us.

Impeach Trump and Pence, now.


Monday, August 14, 2017

#PoetryBreak: Grand Mal Seizure

(Desert Panels, M.A. Reilly, 2016)

Grand Mal Seizure
                    - by Molly McCully Brown

There's however it is you call,
& there's whatever it is
you're calling to.
July, I sew
my own dress
from calico & lace.
August, they take it
off me in the Colony,
trade it in
for standard-issue
Virginia cotton.
Not much room
for my body in the
heavy slip; maybe
that's the idea.

                               For awhile the abandoning
                               was rare & then it was not
                               & would never be again.


                               Imagine you are
                               an animal in your
                               own throat.


The dormitory has a pitched
dark roof & a high porch.
We are not allowed outside.
Instead, we go to the window & make
a game of racing dogwood blossoms
knocked down by the wind.
Choose your flower as
it falls & see whose
is the first to hit the clay.
I beat the crippled girl every day
for a week. The trick is to pick
the smaller petals.

                               Most nights, they knot
                               the bed sheet in my mouth
                               so I will not bite my tongue.


                               Lay out on the pine floor:
                               rattle your own bones back
                               to the center of the world.


In the beds, the smell
of kerosene & lye.
The girls wake themselves
one after another:
spasm, whimper, whine.
Outside: cicadas.
In the distance: the bighouse lights.
Another truck comes loud up the road
bearing another girl.
There is whatever it is
you're calling to. There is
however it is you call.





(opening poem from  The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, Persea Books)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

#SOL17: Manhattan through an iPhone

Disappear with a Good Book (M.A. Reilly, Whitney Museum, 2017)


There are lots of ways to tell a slice of life.  This week I wanted to do it through images. After being in Europe for a few weeks I was glad to be home.  For a few days I made images of Manhattan--mostly midtown and downtown. I made all of the images using my iPhone.

Below is a brief video showing the images. The main app I used was the Hipstamatic App.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

#SOL17: I will arise and go now

Forgetfulness (M.A. Reilly)

I.


From somewhere in the high heavens, the places I could not see, far beyond my gaze, there was a future floating down. I was alive, feet on the earth, so I could not outrun that future and slowly it covered me up.
There is, my dear friend, in the heart of every living being, the will to go on. 
KAO KALIA YANG, Your Threads Have Come Undone: A Letter to a Grieving Husband


The words quoted here are from a letter, Kao Kalia Yang wrote to a stranger who was deep in grief. Her words are poetic, brave, fierce, and so very, very right. I have been struggling to understand what it is I have mostly learned these last two years and it is the unquestionable understanding that the will to live is an untamed pulse.  Something fundamental urges adherence to living when the self is less sure of breath. 

At first I didn't feel. Shock insulates, slows the blood. Then I resurfaced and forgot. Each step in the day was a moment to anticipate Rob. I surfaced and remembered and it hurt in ways that defy language. When light began to creep in, to sink below the shut eyes of doubt it was largely because of the company I kept. Awakening happened alongside others deep in their own bereavement--mostly women I met in grief circles. In time I shared and shouldered sorrow and joy, and these connections rerooted me to the planet, to earth. I was feet to the soil. 

A day or two ago, a friend, Sandy, commented on a set of images I have been making this summer.  The presence of blackbirds can be found in so many of my paintings and truthfully I had no reason I could name as to why their presence in each painting was so prominent. She told me what I simply had not seen:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life

Birds in Flight (M.a. Reilly, 2017)

You were only waiting for this moment to arise 
- The Beatles

II. 

What now feels like a million years ago, though it was just the summer of 1990, Rob and I traveled north of Sligo to visit Innisfree. There we were rowed across the lake to the island and spent the day in Yeats' bee-loud glade. Born there was the promise of something permanent and something also fleeting.


I will arise and go now.

 And I am.