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I’ll never forget the moment I saw Oriental Poppy (red poppy), a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe for the very first time. It was probably 1995. I was 12 going on 13, in an art classroom at the Jr. High School I attended in the suburbs of Chicago.
The institution of public school was never for me. I spent most of my life thinking there was something wrong with me because of that. I was dyslexic. I had learning disabilities. I never learned my times' tables after the 5’s. And I couldn’t remember anything that would later be a required answer. The teachers seemed tired and uninspired, or popular and like people that became the system entirely because when they were young it worked for them. Everything was opaque blue, gray, or white. Every wall, locker, floor, and ceiling. It felt like a prison. Every morning I would dream that the bus would break down or better, I would collapse and get to go back home with mono or some jackpot. No matter if I put in actual effort and tried or did absolutely nothing I always got the same grades - barely passing if I were lucky.
But there was Ms. Hyat. She was different. With her huge, bright art classroom. The only detail I remember about that room is the pitch of sunlight and open space. Ms. Hyat had spiky blonde hair and giant glasses. She always wore overalls or ripped jeans with glittery shoes. Her hall passes were things like a full-size foam Green Bay Packers cheesehead hat or a full-size pinata. She had a raspy voice and nobody ever got one over on her. To me, she seemed to come from the real world - the world where there was the kind of adults I would like to meet. The world where everything wasn’t opaque blue, gray, and white only. The world where there were skyscrapers and unfamiliar roads, neon lights, plane tickets, palm trees, and vibrant conversation. The world where I would never smell a cafeteria at lunchtime again. Ms. Hyat had a way of treating her students like they were a part of that world. Nobody else in that building communicated like that or laughed as she did. She was just cool.
Naturally, I loved her. I wanted to be her. I wanted to say the perfect thing and for her to think I was cool, or special, or talented. She taught us about modge podge, having brought in a bar stool covered in charlie brown comics. I thought it was revolutionary. I just knew she was a brilliant artist that wore bubble glitter globe rings and went to nightclubs like the girl in the beginning of the movie Stigmata. (Who at 12 going on 13 I also wanted to be, however, did grow up and become and had to un become, much to my demise and salvation.) I don’t think I ever spoke to her though, Ms. Hyat. I could never think of anything good enough to ask or say. But I always imagined it in my head. That I’d miss the bus or something someday and she would give me a ride home in her red bug car. Nothing of the sort ever happened.
One of the biggest wastes of time and worst spells of my entire life is the way that I put “art” in with “public education” and because “art” was a part of “public education” I decided long before I even tried that I was not good at art. “I can’t draw.” “My whole family laughs that we don’t have a creative bone in our body.” Art might as well have been math or science as far as I was concerned because I had never had the experience of liking anything I did in school to even know what that felt like.
So that day. Ms. Hyat puts Oriental Poppy (red poppy) up onto her projector. The projector takes up a very large portion of the all-white screen on the wall. I’m 12 going on 13 sitting in a dark room staring at the extreme vibrancy of the bright coral orange that makes up the painting. She spoke about it at length. I don’t remember anything she said. But I still remember the feeling of seeing a color that was that level of all-encompassing and vibrant for the first time in my life.
I can still almost taste the color. Or feel its warmth and glowing electricity as it stays in my line of vision. I remember my oversized flannel shirt because it was a scratchy material when I see that painting. I can feel the slight paranoia of my brown suede combat boots. I was always tripping on the laces over because I wanted to look like Adam Duritz in the Round Here video. I remember the moment with such clarity and intensity that it has never left me. In the midwest, in the mid-90s it was incredibly chic to have a southwestern themed house, or I thought so. Cow skulls especially. Our house wasn’t like that but some were. It was the pinnacle of home decor to me. I also loved wearing weird large hats, until all the kids in the neighborhood named me “Six” from blossom because I never shut up and my hats were amusing.
To my astonishment, this Georgia O'Keeffe woman knew how to paint in color in a way that was so deep and expansive that I could taste it - 1,800 miles away and 66 years later. Not only that but she wore big hats. It didn't seem like she got made fun of for it either. And she lived in the American desert. A place that to 12 going on 13 me was a vast mystery of open space and wind, and in that open space - no schools and freedom. A place I had only experienced as a concept for living room decor. Watching that piece of art - I had never felt so attracted to something that was a part of the school in my life.
An assignment to re-create a pastel drawing based on Georgia O'Keeffe was given. I was actually giddy to do this. I could still feel the feeling of that color in my line of vision. I felt so much inspiration and hope in those moments because I knew that if I could feel something like that, I could create something like that. Maybe I would be one of those art kids. Or good at something. Or less disabled.
I was obsessed with blending the pastels. Starting with a black center, then red, then orange, then pink.. I also wrote a story about the picture and how just like the flower people are deep and dark at their core, but present the lighter parts to everyone around them.
I was so proud of that assignment. I worked so hard on it, imagining this was the moment when Ms. Hyat would realize that I was good at art and her best student. When the assignment was returned the next week there was a neon green post it stuck to it that said “re-do.”
I walked to her desk and asked why it needed to be redone. She looked up from what she was writing with a “seriously” look on her face. She told me for one, I wrote on the back of it. And for two I didn’t try very hard because I did the assignment on lined paper ripped out of a notebook. “It isn’t good work and it doesn’t make any sense why you would write a story. I need to be able to give you a grade. Since you really need the points, I will allow you to redo it.”
And that was the moment I knew with every fiber of my being that I would never be an artist or a student she even liked let alone best at anything. This will harbor a deep resentment for Georgia O'Keeffe, the art world at large, pastels, notebook paper, and oh yes. School. All of which will carry well into my thirties.
A few years ago I found that pastel flower on torn notebook paper in some box in my garage. I couldn’t believe it. I mean of all of the things to survive my life and still be there. But there it was. I stuffed it in the trash without a single thought - except wow it really was terrible and on ripped-up notebook paper. I was so distracted by thinking I could make something brilliant that I didn't look at what I was making.
Today I know that I needed to experience education on Earth in the exact way that I did. It was painful - but I learned everything I needed to learn the way I needed to learn it. I never became the system - and the system never changed me or made me believe that what I absorb is more relevant than what I can produce myself.
These days the work that I do is work around vision. True vision - and in that vision, I am given the gifts of expansion. That vision comes from the illumination of my mind. If there is something I think I do not have, it doesn't mean that it isn’t there - it means I can’t see it yet. I was born with everything.
I wanted to make a giant series of art about the I AM consciousness. It is simple. I am. I am Georgia. I am the desert. Adam Duritz. Ms. Hyat. The cheesehead. The Art.The sixth grade. Everything.
I am expanding. The colors get brighter. The mental and physical click/ urge to create large, vibrant, sparkly pieces of work that reflect the experience of learning what I am feels like an addiction. My art is expanding. My vision for that expansion is illuminated by my mind. The experience has always been here - it is the feeling that I felt when I saw that painting up on the projector in 1995. But the ability - to take my own experiences and filter them back out into the world as fine art from my perspective - has taken some time.
There is a woman that I know. She is an art teacher. Her name is Jeanne. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Every time she speaks I find myself leaning in to listen as intently as I can. She always teaches me something, and she has a grounded way of speaking that is exceptionally vibrant and relatable to me. I was thinking about school and art, teachers, senses, assignments, grades a lot as I painted this canvas. I feel like she is the wonderful art teacher that 12 going on 13 year old me needed - and today as an adult I see her out there in the world making a difference. I was putting all of those dots together as I created this painting.
Before my eyes, over time the flower appeared in the painting. The colors were so vibrant and grounded that I could taste the color. I stared at this canvas like it was 1995 and I was seeing Oriental Poppy (red poppy) up on a projector for the first time. I told the painting I would call her Georgia. She told me back that she would like that very much.
Sometimes there is a moment when a painting reveals her name to me. It’s like getting kicked in the stomach but in the best way. Georgia is the very first of this large-format 10 painting series of art where I stretch, fill up the room, fill up the canvas - and respect what I have become - and who I have always been even when I was walking it out and didn’t know yet. This is the series where I walk through this life and create this art consciously. My whole life I have tried to be smaller, accommodate everyone, dress the part, and shut my mouth. And I’m done with that. I am ready to be present, and brightly.
Like the rest of my art - this painting was inside of me when I was born. I simply had to develop the vision to see it so that the ability to create her could come. Part of that vision was in growing up not fitting into an education system and only learning what I was not.
Today - no matter what it is - I know that I am. All I want I already have and that is everything I need. I always thought I didn’t learn anything in school but I did learn the taste of the unmistakable vibrancy of a great piece of art. Eventually, later on, I also learned how to recreate that vibrancy and life force. Larger than life but still fitting within the frame.