Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Life Size

I've been painting big lately.  Something I haven't done for a long time, because
1. I thought I didn't have the space
2. I thought I had to worry about selling art and big paintings are a hard sell
3. They can appear grandiose.

But I did it anyway, because
1. I am no longer willing to be my own worst enemy
2. My spirit is louder than my censoring brain
3. I am remembering...

These three things
1. Winslow Homer
2. Mark Rothko
3. They didn't shrink themselves, and I don't have to either

How it feels

Years ago, when I had a studio space (that I'm still paying for with graduate school loans) and I wasn't so worried about the first list, I painted some really big paintings.  The experience of being in the painting was overpowering, it was the final plug pulled from the cord that tied me to the nullifying voices in my head, voices shrink me down to someone else's expectations.  What a rush it was, the first time I painted something as big as me.  The closest I can come to describing my experience is that it was a divine encounter with myself, which soon revealed itself to be a divine encounter with everything.  I communed with a paintbrush and pigments and gave this feeling form.  For me painting is alway part prayer, part meditation, part storytelling and part formal arrangement.  But in the scale of my own body, the ratio of each part tipped far over into meditation and prayer.  My body became such a vital part of the prayer, in this dance with the elements of the art.

I found this very hard to talk about while trying to be taken seriously in graduate school in the nineties.

The final product was disappointment.  I took the pill that makes you small and tried to fit in, finding myself a satisfactory academic success but a personal traitor.  I decided Academia wasn't a good fit for me and  I put away my giant canvases and settled for a shrunken, more cerebral, version that distanced me from the way I felt.  It made it easier to talk about my art, to think about what to say before I said it.  The ideas I painted about were fascinating to me, and I never had to worry about making a fool of me.  Inevitably I lost interest and was pulled away by a richly rewarding and demanding life as a single mother, teacher and business owner.  Although I have continued to paint and live as an artist, I seldom tried painting on that grand human scale again... until this month.  It felt like I had returned home.  I am realizing now that every painting I have done between 1996 and 2017 maps a long and winding worldly path back to this scale of Living with Spirit.

Winslow Homer

My first and only time at a Winslow Homer retrospective was one of the few times I have cried in public.   Not only in public, but in a crowded room of strangers.  I was caught off guard, walking into a room full of his larger than life canvases of marine life.  I stood in front of majestic women, waves, and fishermen - tears running down my face.  I thought, "I want to paint this way."  Not "I want to paint these things" but rather I recognized the feeling from my own experiences of painting.  I wanted to be able to convey that back to the world.  I understood, in this wordless communion with a room of strangers; it is possible to convey the feeling of the divine dance.  

Winslow_Homer - The Fisher Girl (1894)
Winslow Homer - The Fog Warning

After all, Nature Does it All the Time

Late Afternoon Sky in November

Mark Rothko

Even before my day in the Museum with Homer, I discovered something about art with Mark Rothko.  This time I was alone, much younger and even more self conscious.  Fortunately, at the moment I happened upon the Rothko multiform abstraction at the Milwaukee Art Museum, no one was around to distract me from what I saw before me.  I stood there, and it pulled me closer.  Staring into it, I felt myself fall and... sadness is not a big enough word.  I left the museum profoundly moved,  but the despair was bigger than me at that time in my life and I ran from it.  

'Magenta, Black, Green on Orange'  by Mark Rothko 1947
Black Gray by Mark Rothko

 Many sunsets later, I know Mark Rothko was also my teacher.

Sunset  Door County, WI

"I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however . . . is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!"  Mark Rothko

What I understand now, through a lifetime of painting and coming back to these lessons, is that Rothko's  "intimate and human" is precisely my "divine encounter."  They are one and the same, beneath the shapes and colors in a deliberate composition.   As Homer with the Human and Nature, and as Rothko with the Tragic and the Void,  I set out this year with my Ancestors and our shared Memory, to see what there is to be discovered in our journey together.  

So, I connected with a couple of Art World giants, and (hopefully) with neither grandiosity nor self deprecation, I compare myself.  I'm not claiming I can and will reach their heights of mastery nor success.  But I do understand them, as much as any artist who spends a lifetime making art can know.    

I am Usha

First in the "I am Usha" Series  9' x 5'

Second in the "I am Usha" series 5' x 5'

The goal of life is rapture.
Art is the way we experience it.
                                                     Joseph Campbell


Thursday, January 5, 2017

i am usha

The Dark. A natural and essential part of our existence.  Not evil.  Not inferior.  Deep.  Forceful.

Darkness is intense,  and so widely misunderstood.  Who has not used the word "darkness" to describe something ominous and threatening; when in truth it is simply the unknown.  It takes a brave deconstruction, followed by an honest reconstruction, of language, culture and history to fully understand what darkness truly is.  It takes conquering the fear of the unknown.

One thing I have had to admit to myself, in these times, is my own reluctance to go deep and wide.  To be honest with myself and to keep Looking.  Especially when it is hard to look, when what I see before me is greed and unimaginable cruelty.  The Horror.  Looking at the world with my eyes wide open and my heart wide open feels like a punch in the chest, leaving me breathless.  I begin the year 2017 with the humble realization that I, too, have been hiding from my own intense darkness. 

What I learned as a child:
What one sees in the dark will not be believed.  
Turn on a light and it disappears.  

What I learned as an adult:
Leave the seeds of your own imagination and intuition in the light of the bright sun. 
They will shrivel and die.  
For they need the cool damp soil, the long dark nights and rain.

Finally, I not only understand darkness; I thrive in it. I am learning to see in it.  I need to go into darkness to fully understand myself and the world.  There I have found a deep connection with my ancestors.  My ancestors are my connection with the unwritten past that I carry within, making them the seeds of compassion for myself and all life.  

In the light of day we learn we are all one in the world, and we reach out to the sun.  In the darkness we learn we are all one in the universe, and we germinate.  

Darkness is where seeds germinate.

My journey into this acceptance takes me into the mythology of my patrilineal ancestry and my Sanskrit name, Usha.  Let me be clear - India is more than the land of chai tea and asanas, colorful goddess memes about enlightenment and little brown men in tree poses.   That is the surface of India, the travel brochure ad, the guru's full page ad.  I love my yoga classes and I appreciate the West's need for something to ease the imbalance in its own culture.  I struggle at how often that leads to a narrow vision, the appropriation of only a slice of a monumentally complex culture, existing now in a country devastated and transformed by Neocolonialism.  There are certainly many Westerners who consciously address this problem.  And I respect the complexity of American life, being a part of it while I sometimes bristle at it.  I have driven home frustrated from at least a few yoga classes, when, chatting after class, I have tried to explain my own experience of India.  I lack the words as much as the culture I live in lacks the understanding.  It is an impasse that has led me to create a world of art surrounding this name, Usha, and all it represents.  You cannot embrace the shiny surface of India without swallowing the darkness that is as much hers.  And this goes for all of spirituality, all of nature, all of this existence.

Usha is also a character I have worked on in several stories.  Often intensely personal work,  I seldom felt comfortable having my stories be public.  They are stories that reflect my most personal struggles, my relationship with my Indian father, my outsider status, my stubborn pride over an identity I fail to fully understand.  Usha has been a protagonist in a private monologue.  She journeys into darkness, giving me the courage to reveal these stories and the imagination to create new ones.  In the dimming light of the Empire's Lies I feel the time has come.

 I am one of many.

Sometime in the 70's:  a day in the life of Usha.  

"I am Usha" is not about history and a retelling of ancient myths.  There are piles of books for that.  It is my personal discovery of an unknown lineage through the journey of visionary art making.  It is my own solitary conversation with my ancestors when I wear my Sanskrit name.  It is a change that occurs when you see your present self through the eyes of your cellular memory.   It is more than a name, and more than an exploration of culture; in the end it is a search for meaning in the abyss.  Implicit in the search is the release of old norms of thinking, a rejection of dogma, opinions and assumptions.  What replaces these untruths does not reveal itself immediately and an uncomfortable darkness descends.  Uncomfortable because it is the unknown, the one thing feared so deeply.  But Darkness and Unknowing have become my closest confidants in this language of art I have developed in a lifetime.

"I am Usha" is a journey into the mysterious understanding of the necessities of darkness that ultimately leads to the light of communicating and connecting with the world.  Each of these cannot exist without the other, making me realize "I am Usha" is my way of joining the divided parts of myself as a mirror to the divided world I live in.  It is my hope that this creative vision quest will unite past and present, illustrating the illuminating potential of darkness.  In the end this is all I ask of my art.  

Note: all paintings are my own, painted between 1994-1997.
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