Sometimes I carefully select the objects in my paintings and arrange them to tell a specific story. Other times I simply select several items I’m drawn to for unknown reasons, arrange them in a way that looks pleasing to me, and then paint what I see. And then wonder what it means.
This is a recent painting of mine. It’s of three random items that just seemed to go together. An arrangement I stuck on my wall without much conscious thought.
It consists of a small knick-knack, a jewelry holder that would have sat on a woman’s bureau to maybe hold her rings or a necklace when she took them off at night — a trinket to hold trinkets. An old skeleton key on a red ribbon and some dried flowers hang behind it.
What does it mean? Does it hint at the impermanence of life, the delicateness of all things? Do you see the possibility of the plaster of the wall crumbling away, the nail slipping, and it all falling to the floor and crashing into pieces? Or does the light just look warm and make you feel good, like sunshine on a spring day?
Perhaps the items were hung on the wall long ago – a key to a lover’s cabin in the woods tied to a ribbon red like the blood that rushes to flush her cheeks when you kiss her, some flowers she tucked behind her ear one day on a walk through the field…
…Items stuck on the wall to collect dust for years until a great grand-daughter cleaned out the house for the estate sale. Maybe there’s a black widow spider hiding behind the ribbon ready to bite in defense when disturbed. Maybe…
I don’t know, maybe it’s just some crap I bought at a yard sale (but I doubt it.)
Why am I such a misfit?
Too timid for the cool kids; too weird for the mainstream. Wondering where my work truely fits in.
Perhaps I don’t let myself say what is fighting to come out, programmed to censor myself, preoccupied with what others will think and say, struggling against some expected confines of what a woman my age should be (whatever the fuck that is) that I absorbed along the way. Worried about embarrassing my sons with my subject matter (But they’ve told me they don’t care if I paint dolls with vaginas!)
Scarred and scared from the manipulation and betrayal of a most recent relationship (But I kicked his ass out! I was triumphant! But the damage remains.) Semi-paralyzed with anxiety, doubt, insecurity… Fuck that! I’ve got “bells” too! I’m gonna put on my happy clown face and paint them!
The shirt. His shirt. The shirt he wore the first time I laid eyes on him. The time I fell madly in love with him, when I felt as if I’d found something I’d been looking for all my life. When I stopped looking and it walked in the door of the gallery with a big warm smile, carrying a newly finished sculpture. I think I stopped breathing
This painting, Miss Kitty and the Not So Cheerful Cherub, is currently in an exhibit in the gallery at Friends Homes Guilford, here in Greensboro, NC called “Our Brush With Tales – An Interactive Exhibit with Five Artists and Two Storytellers.” At the opening the storytellers preformed the stories they created inspired by, or in response to, the displayed paintings.
When I submitted this painting for the show I wondered what the storytellers would see. It was interesting to hear the stories that were told around my painting. But it was almost as if the act of storytelling, the performance, was more important than the story or the actual narrative of the artwork itself.
(You can come up with your own story, if you like, before you read on!)
One story was told from the point of view of the objects: about a bad kitty who harassed all of the objects or characters. The clown, troll, stuffed toy, and cherub were all carefully described along with the hideous acts that were perpetrated on them by the mean kitty. The books on the shelf were described in detail, including a recited poem from the pages of The Cheerful Cherub, as if the storyteller actually opened the book and read it.
The other story was about a reminiscing mother who comes home after dropping her son off at college. She walks into the son’s bedroom and sees the shelf, just as it was left by her son as a child, and describes these sweet, cliché memories of his childhood. And I thought, really? Does that really look like a shelf that would be in a child’s room?
I wondered what the storytellers really got from my painting – if their initial impressions differed from their presented stories, if their stories were censored in any way, or if they were so puzzled by my painting that they had to invent just semi-related stories.
The exhibit includes printed versions of the stories that were told along with the artists’ own statements about their particular painting.
Here’s what my painting is about…
I survived Jeff’s death. We were planning to be married. The morning I found him hanging peacefully, finally free of pain, my whole world was shattered. But I understood. I accepted. That didn’t make it hurt any less. I grieved. And I painted.
I fell in love with Jeff’s things the day I met him, his belongings an extension of who he was. We both had an affinity for old, sometimes obsolete items. He taught me to appreciate things as we found them – usually worn and covered with dust, loved and left behind.
After Jeff’s death, I continued to cherish his things. I looked to them for answers, for comfort. I continued to collect things in his absence. I combined these things to tell our story – various still life scenarios in oil paint like this one: an abandoned stuffed toy sits on a shelf next to his books, daisies wilt in a sunny yellow vase, little troll and clown smile as if remembering a happy time, a silly cherub plays with a noose on his ankle, and a moth hovers briefly, visiting.
On Saturday mornings together we would go scouting to rescue vintage and antique treasures from yard sales and estate sales. These things surrounded us in our studio and in our home. Many would find their way into Jeff’s artwork. Now they find their way into mine.