Studio Visitors and Cake
Today is for cake.
So I create a cake; three eggs, melted butter, extra vanilla, orange peel. I pour the citrus sweet batter into the pan, leaving enough in the red mixing bowl for me to lap up and I stand by the kitchen sink, slurping the batter off a white rubber spatula. Some of the unctuous drippy sludge gets into my hair. It is summer and the leaves on the tree outside our kitchen window sound like a brook; an aural mirage of cool splashing water on a hot summer day. I lick the spatula distractedly, looking out the window, not painting today, but getting ready to have company over to visit the studio for a quiet private view.
It’s nice to have people over, one or two at a time, to look at my work. I prefer this to doing the open studio event where the invitation goes out to the general public and dozens of strangers walk through my studio. I absolutely freeze up and cannot think of a single smart thing to say about my work under those circumstances. But with one or two people here, I can track from one painting to the next and can actually paint (ha!—paint!) a coherent story of how my work works.
I open the oven; my glasses steam up. I put the cake on a wood grid trivet and let it cool for a few minutes. While it’s still steaming, I sprinkle granulated sugar on top and the steam helps glue the sugar down, creating a nice grownup and not-too-sweet topping. Actually, when it comes to cakes, I must say, I am not in the least grown up. I much prefer a vanilla buttercream sugar confection lavished in thick artistic “S” curves. If you ask me, people are much too earnest about cakes given times like these. Moderation is not what I want in a frosting during troubling times. To the frostingless, even cakes are part of the culture wars—too sweet, too fat, too many calories, bad for ya! Who cares! Life is hard and short. Point your hotrod at the cliff and accelerate! Sugar! Butter! Seconds! The world is a terrible place.
But for my studio visitors today, I restrain my evil buttercream twin, and prepare a nice modest grownup cake.
My company arrives. They pass through my open double gates; blue gates on which I have painted the Latin phrase: Ars Longa Vita Brevis. I run a very classy operation out here in the middle of nowhere although I observe that nobody has yet noticed the Latin. Oh well. By now I have the coffee brewed, the cake on its platter, little amenities lined up; cream, sugar, and ever my father’s daughter, cloth napkins.
For all my training as an advertising copywriter—training in the arts of strategy, market segmentation, product positioning, tone, manner and jingle-writing—I am miserable at selling my own paintings. Somehow I lack the killer instinct when someone shows a flicker of interest in one work or another. I don’t jump at opportunity. I never push, never have price tags on my work, and never even hint that I would be ecstatic to sell this painting! Is this any way to run a railroad? I hope you do not think that I just can’t bear to part with my paintings. That’s not it. I guess there are artists who can’t bear to part with their paintings. I’m not one of those. I can’t wait to sell my children! Off you go now! Run along; have a nice life!
Marketing aside, I am rather good at: “Have a piece of home baked cake? Coffee? Cream?”
I do my little spiel and point out the charm points in each painting that I show, keeping a wary eye on my guests to make sure they aren’t glazing over or getting faint. Different people have different tolerances for art talk and it all depends on the weather. The best of these recent visits included one very intrepid couple who even asked to see the stacked canvases in my garage. There is a special place in heaven for people who volunteer to flip through paintings in a hot dusty garage.
But you know the best part?
It’s when we sit down with our cakes and coffees and just chat about this and that. When it is comfortable enough for my guests to just chat; maybe they recall something from their childhood, or something they did in Bimini; when this happens, the visit is a success.
It takes a long time to look at a painting. I believe that the best way to see a painting is to sit with it for extended periods of time. Just to be with it. You don’t even have to be looking at it the whole time. Paintings work on their viewers in strange and subliminal ways.
To sit surrounded by a body of work that I have created when the sun is high in the west and the light in my studio is orange and I have company and we eat cake—this I like. The sun illuminates the painted surfaces and those surfaces are the closest I can get, they are the most accurate representations of the very best I can do to express to others what I think, feel, and believe. The paintings work on us and around us. We eat and the talk is desultory and someone wants another piece of cake. And if we talk a little bit about art, that is the frosting on the cake.
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I’m Sixty or Thereabouts.
The advertising agency I worked at in the late 70’s had one of those block-long hallways that went from the management wing into the creative wing. It was divided in the middle by a rank of six elevators that whispered up and down delivering us to our day jobs. Of course, the idea of a day job is not a management kind of concept; it was the art directors and writers who viewed things like that. While we were merely marking time before becoming painters or novelists or screen writers or sculptors or poets or rich, the people in management had careers.
It was a funny place to work, that agency.
First of all, every other light was turned off in those long hallways. So you walked along, alternately illuminated by round pools of light and then you trod through darkness for a few feet and then back into another pool of light and so forth.
Then there were the halls in the creative department. With a genius for hygiene and thrift, management had decided against carpeting for that wing of the building. Being an unruly pack of wet dogs, art directors and writers got black linoleum instead of carpeting. That way when we dribbled ink or rubber cement or pastrami sandwiches, the mess could be easily wiped up. Management were only part right. It was worse, of course. One trick of that era was to squirt a trail of rubber cement thinner starting under an art director’s chair and to drizzle it down the hall a fair distance to where someone would light it with a Bic. Such was the pre-computer era.
We had fun. I don’t believe people working at advertising agencies have such fun these days. We drank. We smoked. We came in late; left early. Our stunts created no litigation. There were office flirtations; harmless enough. One or two affairs; oh well. None of it ever showed up on one’s permanent record. No federal cases. Just people thrown together, working at nonsense stuff, bored or hassled, earnest or competitive, compensating for the facts of life; you gotta have a job, so you might as well have fun.
I had a pair of low wedgies back then, dusty purple suede, with a modest opening at the big toe, very comme il faut if you’re a certain type, but more creative than management if you know what I mean. Each of those shoes cost a hundred bucks! Amortizing that expense, I wore them every day. Purple was my new beige back then.
Don’t you just hate it when people say “back then”? I hate it when it comes out of my mouth. It’s so prissy, so dated and carries with it the grim tonnage of comments like: “Back in my day we really knew how to have fun.” And, “That was when a hundred bucks was really worth something!”
When I was fifty-five, we moved into a community where lots of people were sort of retiring. With all new people in my life, I discovered that I came across as neither fish nor fowl. It’s not easy to communicate yourself to new people when, currently, you’re a has-been with a receding chin.
It was all so ridiculous back then. Back then. Back then. We had no idea; none at all.
And what we had no idea of was this: that out of that period of our lives—when we were working, dispirited, at our day jobs—out of the trivial compelling angst that corporate life creates in a creative soul: the briefcases, the shoulder pad jackets, the jokey camaraderie and the urge for something really important to be doing and, then, the daily unremarkable self-medication of big bowl Margaritas, salt on the lips, and the burnt coffee coffee room with its broken furniture like skeletons of corporate offices past; the every other light bulb of it; the antics, the ogling, the deadlines in frantic seriousness—utterly arbitrary—the meetings, always late, with the requisite five hour maximum or until the first person leaves the room to go to the bathroom. The meetings, dispersing, straggling down the halls, the coffee, burnt, the concepts, burnt, the creators, burnt out. There were jokes in meetings and management laughed like this: Ha Ha Ha Ha HA! Five syllables, accent on the last one with twitchy glances around the mahogany table to see if it were okay, really okay, to laugh at all. What kind of world was this? And what we had no idea of was this: that out of that world would come the most important, most loving friendships of our lives. Love. That was what we created. Four of my most cherished friends are from that petri dish. Odd. All that seeming nonsense; such a great source of affectionate fidelity.
I could write a slogan: Out of fertilizer springs the flower!
That’s what I used to do, back then, amortizing my purple wedgies.
And they paid me to be glib. And my quickness back then pays for me today.
I remember so clearly walking into and out of beams of light in that long hallway, leaving at the end of the day—and do not see in your mind’s eye a small dispirited woman longing for her studio—for the truth of it was that I was probably leaving for the downstairs conference room—a dingy seafood bar where writers and art directors congregated, post mortem. But, nonetheless, there was a little thought balloon over my head: “Some day. Some day. Some day.”
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Goose Girl Grounded
Well now she has one fully operational wing. But she is rooted on heavy feet, heavily pregnant as she has been in many of my recent goose girl paintings. Is she defiant? Is that the quality of defiance in her bony right arm? Is her gesture a metaphor of “Stop!” Or is it a gesture of pushing, as if to push at the very edges of her confinement on my canvas? This I have painted before (see Daughter of Leda). Or is it the “Stop/Peace” of my Buddhist monk and chicken paintings? That arm is certainly thinner, but the hand is strong. And that wing; it has enough flight feathers to provide lift. But those feet! Thick, rooted, huge! She is still grounded, or surely would be, even if she took a running leap, flapping madly; she would spin around and crash.
This painting measures 36” x 72” and is stretched canvas on a magnificent strong wooden framework. The canvas had a flaw which I discovered as soon as I started applying a watery blue wash on it. The paint beaded up. It was as if the entire surface were covered in some kind of waxy substance. As the paint beaded up it looked like your car windshield when it’s lightly raining. By tipping the canvas I could make the paint drip in long interrupted strands. I loved it!
So right away I decided to go with that flaw. (I even hope for more canvases to be like this in the future). I saw that the whole thing looked transparent. Transparency is an effect I have used lately in many of my goose girl paintings, but I usually create it by painting on the surface of the canvas and using glazes to imitate depth. With this canvas, the paint was repelled from the surface and the droplets provided an infinity of scale in the depth. Because of the beading, I could use the white color of the canvas to simulate air or ether. The air behind and around the goose girl feels bigger and deeper and, at the same time, it is farther away from the surface of the painting than in any of my previous paintings. Goose girl comes forward assertively and the space around her goes back for light-years behind her. So my eye is drawn first to her, then it searches the complex universe of objects and non-objects which surround her. Yet this goose girl’s body is transparent too, so—on second thought—perhaps she would not weigh too much to float a bit if she were inclined to flap with her new wing.
Where to now?
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Love and Hugs in These Times
Remember when we were little and car radiators blew up all the time? It might happen on Sepulveda, right after the tunnel. The red stick dashboard thermometer jerked up and back, then up and up, warning us of the impending explosion. With the engine compartment hissing and shrieking, my father would pull over to the shoulder, weedy with its suspect wads of soiled Kleenex. Then he’d bring out his white folded pocket handkerchief to use as a kind of hot mitt. He would toss it at the radiator cap from a little distance away; dance back a few steps to make sure it wouldn’t blow from the fluttering impact. Then he’d gamely jump forward again and use the folded handkerchief to keep from getting burned. Grabbing at the evil steaming thing, he’d release spitting pressure with a few quick twists. Scorching orange rusty water geysered into the air. Did car radiators really blow up back then? I mean blow up like the atom bomb? We little kids knew about atom bombs. Would the car radiator do that, form a mushroom cloud and kill us all? Or was this just a somewhat welcomed domestic and quite manageable emergency for a man who had real worries in the back of his mind and who happened to have, also, a white folded handkerchief in his pocket? Begrudgingly, the mad radiator would fizzle into tentative dÃ©tente; the handkerchief ruined.
A man’s handkerchief, pressed, folded, drawn out of a slacks pocket, can dry tears. Comfort comes as you open the folds and immerse your face into the sweet-smelling cloth. You don’t see many pocket handkerchiefs in these times, filled, as they are, with tears.
Monty Python used white handkerchiefs knotted in all four corners and placed on the head to create a gross, clueless, preverbal dolt; funny how a knotted piece of white cloth on your noggin can make you look like an idiot.
The white handkerchief, folded, is for cuts, for apple cores and spills. It was for Christmas presents in flat rectangular boxes. Surprise! It joined laundry in a tumble of white gesturing squares, warm from the dryer. As the year progressed from the holidays through to late summer, the white handkerchiefs died off one by one, lost, I suppose, to a variety of soggy catastrophes. The remaining handkerchiefs got thinner, becoming almost transparent—suitable scrims for doll’s dramas.
I seem to remember that my father used the handkerchief when we had an airplane. He did his own mechanical maintenance on our little craft, head deep in the shadows of the downhill sloping tail-dragger Cessna 140. There were greasy wires and parts and a lot of twisting and some banging. And I remember him wiping his hands on a white piece of square cloth. Surely not! Surely he would have used a chamois or an old remnant of wing canvas, not his folded white linen handkerchief.
Now, at eighty-five he is small and neat and quick. He wears pressed slacks, with the creases centered on his thinning legs, and a kind of mock turtleneck knit shirt. Over this, and in spite of it being rather hot this summer evening, he wears a dark green cardigan sweater. He is angular and stick-limbed; his shoulder blades press beneath his shirt. His familiar heavy eyelids are softly folded drapery over his grey and blue eyes. He reaches into his left pants pocket with a steady liver spotted hand and draws out a folded, pressed, white linen handkerchief. He unfolds it and refolds it, a methodical little confirmation ceremony, and replaces it carefully, keeping it flat, in his pants pocket.
“You still carry a pocket handkerchief.”
“Oh yes. Always carry a handkerchief.”
It is a quiet little instruction, softly spoken to me, a small life lesson, conclusive, tidy, and useful.
Today I hear him again; he is on my mind this afternoon. And I recall that afternoon last summer. I hear his soft, newly elderly voice, and I see that afternoon unfold like this: his precision in the ceremony of the handkerchief, his observation, with one finger raised so that I would listen and remember, he pointed upward to emphasize his personal findings on menswear etiquette.
“Oh, yes. Indeed, yes. I always carry a clean white folded pocket handkerchief. You never know…” and he drifts off.
And, yes, I never did know.
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