No. 48 - Why Did The Chicken Commence Its Life's Work?
To get to the other side
Welcome to the latest issue of Feed the Monster, a monthly art practice journal for people who miss getting letters in the mail.
For those of you who’ve been following me for a while, today’s Feed the Monster will not be new territory. Maybe I just need to do this for myself—follow the trail of how I got from painting my mother’s face again and again after she died in January 2017 to where I am now: poised to start painting her story from start to finish in the form of a graphic memoir, and preparing for a show at the Victoria Arts Council in June 2022.
This trail has been both a meandering, blind exploration and an inexorable march toward loosening up and trusting to do what I feel rather than what I think I should be doing. I’ve allowed myself to follow my nose and it’s taken taken me to all the right places.
In Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she says:
E.L. Doctorow said once said that 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.
I’ve definitely been driving a car at night. I’ve learned that it’s a valid method of transportation.
Did it all start with the three paintings of my mother with Lewy Body dementia (above) from 2018? Possibly. But I had no idea at the time that I would eventually embark on this Life’s Work project. I’ve never tackled a project so large and so sustained. I’ve never worked on anything that I cared about this much. It’s not something that I could have conjured up at any other point in my life, and the path leading here was not a straight line.
I took a Memoir Comics workshop with Sarah Leavitt held at The Creative Good in the fall of 2019 (see the results above). I really enjoyed it, but I had no ambitions of becoming a comics artist. It must have sown a seed though.
I continued painting my mother, and by March 2020 I’d decided to produce a “visual memoir” called Life’s Work. At that point I envisioned it as a memoir that would include writing, artwork, photos, and journal excerpts. More than anything it would be text accompanied by paintings, but I hoped somehow the two would be more meaningfully intertwined than simply words accompanied by illustrations.
Hmm, I wonder how one accomplishes that? Graphic memoir—DUH. But it took me a while to get there.
In June 2020 I started keeping a sketchbook where I explored imagery that felt relevant to my story. I didn’t understand all of it—some I still don’t. I then started painting large graphic pieces in black ink on paper with that imagery (see above and below)—these pieces will be part of the show in June.
In August 2020 I posted here on Feed the Monster my first post-workshop attempt at memoir comics done in my sketchbook (see below), and wrote “I do ask myself why I'm insisting on using a graphic memoir style for this part of my project when I don't really know what I'm doing.” Ha ha—ask away! I was full of doubt because I’d never done it before, but I believe I was compelled to explore that format because it’s the best way to tell this tale.
My thought at the time was that I’d work things out in my sketchbook, and then improve upon my ideas in a subsequent larger piece. But after finishing the above sequence it was an unqualified HELL NO to that concept. Too time-consuming! Plus I would lose the immediacy that comes with first attempts.
Ironically, I struggled with attaining immediacy in the next pieces I did directly on 22 x 30 inch paper (see below). I stuck to a rigid grid of squares, which turned out to be a self-imposed prison. Plus I wrestled with how best to render the text.
If you’d like to read the text, you can see these in a larger format on my website.
The next one (below) was different—I was still using the grid but I forced myself to work quickly without thinking too much, and I used a bamboo brush for the first time so that I couldn’t get caught up in details or preciousness. Of these four on 22 x 30 inch paper, this one actually came second. I preferred the looseness and directness that I’d long been trying to attain, but I was still afraid that it “wasn’t good enough” so I went back to my prison for a while. Some lessons take a while to learn.
LEAN TOWARD WHAT YOU LOVE—not what you mistakenly assume other people will prefer. M-KAY?
I broke my ankle on Boxing Day 2020, and didn’t get back into the studio until March 2021. I started working on a sequence called How to Stay Safe as a Child about coping mechanisms that kids in dysfunctional homes often have. But painting that series was thoroughly bumming me out. I decided that although I’d only just gotten back into the studio, I was going to take a break from Life’s Work.
I’d just gotten a fancy new phone, so for the month of April I taught myself a simple video editing app and made my Collage Class. It was the perfect antidote to the emotional work I’d been doing: both the low-grade technical learning curve and collaging itself.
May and June 2021 I went full spontaneous and worked on a wall piece for Life’s Work (below) that came straight out of me with no filtration system in place. I was still working within a grid but I gave myself more room size-wise, and I didn’t stop to consider if the work was good or weird or wrong or too unpolished or garish or whatever else my brain might normally come up with. Well, who am I trying to kid—there was probably some static—but I just didn’t listen.
After that I started working in my sketchbook again (below), grappling toward what I might want Life’s Work to look like as a book. Somehow—I don’t remember how—it became clear that I wanted to paint the scenes and paint the text concurrently in a loose, intuitive style à la Charlotte: Life or Theatre?. Of course, I’d always known deep down that that’s how it would go… it just took me a while to catch up with myself.
I still have a few prison bars obscuring my view… a few more barriers to break before I’ll be doing the work I’m imagining for the book. But I can see it now in my mind’s eye, and singing coaches will tell you that if you can hear the note in your mind, you can sing it. I’m keeping the faith.
I spent a good chunk of autumn 2021 finishing the writing, and then I sent it in for editing to Jill Margo and Andrew Templeton at The Creative Good. I’m itching to put their astute and insightful suggestions to work and get the writing where it should be, so that I can then move on to starting the paintings for the book in earnest! But next order of business is getting all the work for the show at the Victoria Arts Council corralled.
And with that I’ve brought myself to the present. Thank you for coming for the ride!
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