slp last winter

SLP. portrait in progress

SLP. portrait in progress

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self portrait (vertigo)

Well there’s the sunday put in.

Hope yours was good, your evening too. I kept quiet, a little round of village stops and banter. Looked at a large raw work space above a shop and had coffee with my friends at the internet cafe. All very normal and breezy, but feeling like I was ready to crack with boredom under it all and not sure what I’d prefer… within reason. Tidied up when I came home, took to bed until dark, asleep with the windows open for the smell of spring.

Now gearing up to paint with a month it seems of uninterrupted time  ahead of me. So I must set to and work. The painting of the cowboy, me. looking out the door, an odd one to be commissioned now… does it not strike you as odd that the last two sales I’ve made were self portraits? I’m working across the bottom half of the painting these past two nights, drawing the banister rails and painting them in, one by one, eighteen in perspective, paint application in the style of David Milne, my home town painter. His widow was kind enough to label me her gardener when I was young and she let me stay in a city apartment full of his work during the year when I began to paint. Sometimes I see where I’ve absorbed some of his method, if not of his grace. The banisters.

Black, the light reflected off the carving white, repeated in a pattern of shards. Again I realized I was painting a pattern, in black and white, much like the African cloth I use as a backdrop or a prop in every painting or so. I read long ago that one becomes depressed when one recognizes a pattern in one’ self, and I must say I get unhappy painting patterns, though I persist, as if to do so is therapeutic, or training. One gets quicker at pattern recognition and rendering as it follows the fold of the cloth. I’m working from old photographs, dark in the originals and I lightened the source photo to intensify the light, to gain some definition… and realized the black cloth hanging over the railing in the painting was my very graphic black and white batik African cloth, which has a ritual nature for me, personally. Mud cloth from mali. . I wear it around myself in other photos from that strange shoot… a few weeks after my ex died, quite a while ago now. The other people in those shoots in that strange western style apartment won’t release the pictures so there’s this partial view of the days then. I’d just kicked an addiction to something that got me through a bad time. I’d been systematic, reserving suffering for later, putting all my withdrawal into one fourteen day period with occasional counsel on line from a forum of like-minded individuals.

I’ll take a picture of the thing and post it tonight when the banister’s all blacked in and the surface is all paint, no canvas. Milne always used the canvas as a colour. It seemed raw but he painted it sometimes to look raw against the colours he applied over it, assiduously, in the snow, in the bush, in a hut he built himself. I have an old magazine with some reproductions of his work and some of his new yorker style diaries. There’s a diagram showing how to build a Quonset hut out of saplings and bark. Hard for me not to romanticize such a man.
My dad was a trapper but he had a certain reverence for artists… he wanted me to be a survey draughtsman. He took me to see some Tom Thompson relics and told me some of the story of the painter’s drowning, but dad also knew of David Milne, a better and more obscure painter, who lived near the little Hudson bay outlet where we’d take his furs. I was not to hang on the fence to see the artist. The man couldn’t read or write well at all but he knew a David Milne when he saw one.

While I was painting this picture too, my old friend and painting teacher Michal died, so I’m letting the canvas show through and painting thin  like she did and thinking in terms of not identifying objects verbally as I draw them, of having no preconceived notion of the object perceived, of letting the canvas show throughthin layers of transparent acrylic lifted off here and there. Now I’m using these new water based oils… the way she drew hands so well, and they were always her own, that’s how she learned. We go, went back a long way.

When I came back here from San Francisco years ago she called me, a stranger, and we went to some meeting about the future of the town, and went to her place afterward and got drunk. On her elegant lawn the next morning she removed her blouse for the sun, to tan, saying she hoped I didn’t mind, that I wouldn’t be sick or anything. She introduced me to my ex. They were the parental figures of an rather vivid summer set. I’d spent a year observing portrait artists on fisherman’s wharf while I scuffled. I’d gone through old paintings unrolled from under beds in a real painter’s rambling old apartment, the impasto crackling, late at night while he told me stories. Lewis. That’s where I got the smell of it. Greasepaint har. He was awful good to me, as was Michal. And Heide Manns who worked the wharf doing portraits in chalk so I knew what I was looking at technically when I saw Bill Batten’s accomplishment years later and we drew close. Some estranged, some just disappeared, some still held true. Talked to on the phone from my distance here. My distance here.

Anyway, I do go on.  Likely I’ll go back into the painting of you on the bench next, that one and the one of you in the mask are in pure oil so they take time to dry between sessions. Meditative stuff, just waiting. You with your own grief there beside you on an urban bench, looking a little restless.

So I’m thinking about teachers while I’m painting this, about estrangement from teachers, the whole dynamic. So I’m training myself in pattern recognition while I paint hoping it helps me recognize patterns in myself, which may be a false equation. I’ve done this before for no real enlightenment. I listened to the radio serialization of the book “Pattern Recognition” this week.  Little meaningless cars. Romantic construction, theoretical deconstruction. Making love, making strange.

Sarah said that in the photo I’m working from the figure has the look of a caged animal. Our beastly avatars. Sounds blunt but I’d just kicked my addiction and now I had to kick my grief when those cowboy pictures were taken. I walked into a sickroom the other day and I could smell the drug. I felt nausea rather than desire. attraction, repulsion. I was writing that story then, wearing that cowboy hat like a fool, with the circus tiger as a symbol… same circus came through in my child hood as had the swarthy sword swallower who I was telling you I recall so clearly, har. It was Michal sent Victor the day after Bert died, to take pictures of me… she needed a skinny dissolute type, kinda Keith Richards with a bandanna and in spite of the way I looked, haggard, he just put me up against the wall and snapped pictures while we talked of other things, so used to the demands of studio had she made us both. They were good pictures too, off hand. I remember registering that they would be pictures of me at my worst as he initially raised the camera but you push things aside, they become incidental, the emotion is merely a colour etc.

She went through a Louise Nevelson phase. One night over company dinner there was a terrible clanging as of gongs of a sudden from upstairs. What had fallen? I said I thought perhaps one of her earrings. I dug her a lily pond one summer and she was hungover and mad at me for something and I asked her how deep she wanted it and she said for fucks sake just dig til I can’t see you any more. Bert used her as a character model for his novels , she was a crack shot, he was from cattle farmers, as he used us all and we performed and connived to hide ourselves under his patriarchal scrutiny. Michal and I  were pretty much estranged til right up near the end we caught one another’s eye with irony at a meeting about the future of the town. I got a little surly about cultural planning models and I hope I caught a hint of approval in her grin as she looked down in her lap and fumbled in her pocket for a cigarette and settled for a Kleenex. examined a boot.  Pulled the brim of something down over her eyes, the old Clint Eastwood thing.

The Vertigo of Liberty

I remember one day in summer nearly ten years ago at my mothers’ place, in the late afternoon it must have been, because the rosebush streaming with wild pink roses, the centerpiece of the visual memory,  was in that nearly purple shade you get there on the dark grass  at the lower corner of the house by grandma’s sun-room and garden. Bert, my ex, was sitting reading a manuscript with the glass of the sun-room between him and the rose bush, and I must have been up in the garden digging because the memory is aerial, visually. With the roses tumbling at his shoulder, he looked up at me, and I met his eyes for a moment leaning on my spade, and I remember him looking at me and  all the yards of our happy gypsy-hood with much love. My mother was standing on the other side of the glass  in a light summer dress, holding the black garden hose, holding the stream of water out for her pup who lunged and bucked for a drink at the gush and flow in glee. It was a happy image, bourgeois, gentle, bucolic, we were still fairly happy though Bert had slowed down considerably. I remember looking down at them and being filled with a sudden dread, so strong the world strobed for me and I felt a kind of core nausea at the base of my spine. I had to turn away to recompose my smile. I used to get that feeling at certain combinations of colour when I was a little boy, but I hadn’t felt it in some time. That’s why I recall it now so clearly, can summon it up to this day well enough not to try again for awhile.

So today we’re shedding a few hot tears tears for a high spirited prodigal dog, always reminding one of the joy of a walk, of the world of wonder and curiosity and all the great bounty of our affections and holdings to be defended. The bravery in clinging, the bravery in letting go. When a simple walk around the block is a danger, when the arthritic hand can’t hold the lead, such things, or wrestle with a doorknob to let him come and go. My family’s not a particularly weepy bunch for all our dramatics, we tend more to rage and sarcasm so there’s a greedy indulgence in quick scalding tears at the death of a mere dog, in  that old  utterance, that bitter sob, “it isn’t fair”, the creator is unfair, the point the book of job made calling that arrogant prick yawa to account and to seek wisdom, to manifest compassion. Jehovah  must have turned off his awareness of anything but his own creative and destructive powers and it was hard to forgive him whether or not he knew what he was doing.

She told me on the phone today about how he went  with his nose in the crook of her arm and I knew how that memory would sting like the needle you’d have to pay for. How that would signify a lot of other letting goes, like dominoes. How dread, as Kierkegaard says is the vertigo of liberty. Of being free of being. And beginnings.

OnFacebook, I sent out a note to the grandchildren. She’d be nervous at night. Be less likely to break her neck in broad daylight though with him like a billy goat on a leash. I noticed a friend was saying wise words to a friend who’d lost a cat. I felt something wolfen in my throat and i wanted to run rooftops and glassy streets, moonlit dust roads, it all goes so fast. I wanted to see him. Three hundred dollars for the ashes of your own damned dog for chrissakes. And likely out of a raked heap. elegant. wuddever.

Last walk I took with gumpy it occurred to me that he and I were both getting gray and cranky, still jaunty but certainly a lot grayer in the chin and lighter than we’d been. He didn’t rise as high as he once did on his hind legs at the end of a lead and for that matter, neither did I.  It was a rather cursory walk I felt, but for him it was the same, the same fascinating ditches, the little run down the rise, A gentleman at the medical center feigned appropriate fear. The big lad would soon be home and the little gray cars wouldn’t seem so meaningless. We’d done a lot of walking and thinking together, thought a lot about being tethered and untethered, of reeling in and letting go. The snow was going and there was roadside crust to crack with a boot heel, the rush of thin ice water. Made me think of summer on the patio at the only cafe, the creek would be high. He tugged as ever all the way, making his point, but he was glad to get home. it was good.

I dropped a borrowed woolen mitt and we had to go all the way back to find it, we both saw it in the distance like a dead black bird on the asphalt where we’d stopped where the chip truck would soon be, and I’m glad of it now and I won’t walk that shortcut for awhile without him. the same ditch just as interesting, just a marvel, he’d look up suddenly in bliss into your eyes, hoping you’d want to run down the side of the gravel pit, sure you agreed the flat world and the two of you striding it together were a miracle. A million times a day. As love will do.