Sunday, July 13, 2014


One-armed maple near Danville Vermont

“The way plants persevere in the bitterest of circumstances is utterly heartening.
I can barely keep from unconsciously ascribing a will to these plants; a do-or-die courage; and I have to remind myself that coded cells and mute water pressure have no idea how grandly they are flying in the face of it all.”

-Annie Dillard, Pilgrim At Tinker Creek

Dearest Readers,
I drive past this old weather-beaten maple a lot. I see her as Mother Courage, valiantly holding up her one remaining arm to shout out the joy of living, in spite of the odds.
I’ve been contemplating courage for the past couple decades, pushing the edges of my life to get simpler, and more daring...letting go and letting it rip. It’s scary sometimes being alone and maintaining confidence in this “foolishness” called art. Again and again I ask the same question with paint, line, fabric and performance. Who am I? Feelings? Face? Body? The only child of a Catholic mother?  
A quote from Henry David Thoreau gives me courage, “Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life…Known your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it and gnaw at it still.” Yes.

I like to anthropomorphize non-human things to imagine what it might be like to be a warrior, like that rugged tree. I made a tunic in 2007, that I call The Bravery Jacket. 


front and inside

It’s a pseudo West Point military style garment that I found on the street. I ripped out the constraining sleeves, covered the wool twill in wild painted hearts and infused the gauze lining with red yarn on the right to replicate oxygenated blood exiting my heart and lungs, and blue yarn representing the  blood returning without oxygen. I wanted a real “suit of armor” I could magically don in fearful times.

I even dared that same year to create the enemy, which I called “The Failure Cape”; a tapestry cloak trimmed with a mink collar, and adorned in shiny gold painted clay hearts. 

Hidden inside, however are the sad eyes of despair connected by lines of thorny branches.  May I never succumb to its cowardly charms.

Courage is about overcoming fear. About being persistent, and self-confident, or pushing through timidity. It’s about “alligator wrestling” as Annie Dillard in The Writing Life calls the process of pulling the writing (or painting) out of the mind and into the tube or drawing tool. It’s also about letting go of the vision at some point if need be, and valiantly pursuing what has emerged on the paper or canvas. She says, “You are wrong, if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page [canvas]. The [canvas] is jealous and tyrannical. The [canvas] is made of time and matter; the [canvas] always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.” The trick is not to give up on the piece simply because it has taken a different turn.

Courage she describes, is about going for the edges where the madness is. 

In the disciplined act of walking into the studio in the first place, I start conjuring the zone of wildness with things like cups of coffee, dark bold music like Coward by Vic Chesnutt from his album At the Cut, or an NPR podcast of On Being, a glass of wine or beer. 

The point for me is to keep the neural pathways open from the heart of courage, past the wasteland of the cautious, perfectionist mind, through the primitive amygdala and into my hand and chalk and brush.
71-Strong-11x17_pastel on bristol board

This week I finished the self-portrait of feeling “Strong”-which is #71 of 89 photographs of daily emotions that I shot in 2009 in my bathroom. I ignored the fact that the studio seemed lonely, too clean and uninviting. I set up my wall of blank papers and a table of media to experiment with loosening up my head and hand; like warm-ups for an athlete. In the photo below I’m about to start a portrait for a friend.

I begin with a tissue tracing of the original photograph in quickly-applied ink, to get the “lay of the land”– the shape of my emotional face. 
original 8x10 selfie_2009

This time I did only two trials.
The first one I stared at the photo while drawing, only occasionally glancing back at the paper to see what was happening. 

I returned to touch it up and make her somewhat believable. This I recognized as a hedge…a cautionary move that was not courageous, but not shameful either…just part of my process. Now I'm ready to let it rip on page two. By now I was having fun. With honesty and courage flowing, I created the self-satisfied thuggish self-portrait of Strong at that moment in time. This one worked.  Sometimes it takes much longer. Sometimes I have to stop and return later.

Tomorrow I will need to summon the courage all over again to walk into the studio.
This is the way I discover real life, and it is worth it.

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