36x36 Acrylic/ Canvas/ Resin/ Glitter/ Floating Wood Frame.
It seems like anywhere I go these days is after a very hot yoga class, so with my blue hair piled in a giant messy bun on top of my head, I tend to look like Gonzo from the muppett babies and like I’ve been in an oven. Today I am at the goodwill to find a carry-on bag for an upcoming trip. As always I take a quick look over at the art section. I am always on the search for antique frames. Today after flipping through a bunch of dusty, tangled large paintings from the Sears home section in the 90s in the giant bin I catch this - a white canvas in a 36x36 floating wood frame. (You know I love a 36x36 square best. The price of canvas has tripled in a year so this was a find.)
As I pulled the frame out I saw how someone had tried to make a pour painting on the canvas using black and white acrylic but had drastically overworked the paint and given up, discarding the canvas and frame to the goodwill. I stare, taking in the hope the person that started the painting felt. I could feel the pain of the frustration when realizing that pouring art only actually looks easy (worst and most expensive process I’ve ever tried to learn as an artist personally.) I wonder if they decided they would quit trying to make art completely after this failed attempt, or if they kept going anyway, but had to get this one out of their sight. I wonder who they were, and then I start thinking of the dozens of my paintings I considered failures when I was first starting out that I also discarded in goodwill and trash bins.
I take a moment to contemplate buying it between my thoughts.
An extremely tanned man wearing a baby blue collared Hawaiian shirt, Yoda necktie and black speedos rapidly approaches me. He has an unlit cigar in his mouth and isn’t wearing shoes. He’s yelling nonsense and making a beeline in my direction, flailing his arms. No matter what, no matter where - the strung out and unhinged always have a way of finding me and heading loudly in my direction. I couldn’t think about it anymore - I made the decision to buy the canvas and frame, swiftly pulling it out of the bin and turning in the opposite direction from the man charging at me. He does not catch us. I giggle a bit to myself. My life is always me running away with my art in panicked calmness.
I get to my car. She's a small car, a white mustang. And it wouldn’t be a year in my life if I didn’t buy some form of art supplies that do not fit in my car. For 15 very frustrating minutes, I attempt every strange position, short of snapping the frame in half with my front seat so that maybe it will fit. It’s hot out and about to pour rain. My husband is in a 4-hour meeting working at home so I can’t call him to come and rescue this canvas and me with his SUV.
I lean the canvas against my car. Giggling because nothing and nobody is coming to save me. This is always the space I operate best in any way, it just takes a minute. Progress- it used to take years. In defeated frustration, I press my back onto the car and sit on the pavement as the sky opens up and pours down on myself and the canvas. I consider walking back into the thrift store to ask if I can leave it there and go get the car it will fit in, but I have a call in 15 minutes that I can’t miss. So I just sit in the parking lot for a few minutes, watching the rain dust off the frame, wondering what to do.
I start to think back to a decade ago.
My mentor met me under a willow tree in the glow of a Chicago setting sun in June. She had a box containing a few hundred photos, all taken on film in Rwanda. She went to work there as a trauma counselor after the genocide in 1994. All of her photos were of children seeing their reflection in a compact mirror that she had been carrying. For most, it was the first time seeing their reflection. I remember her asking me if I could feel the light in their eyes, despite everything they had felt, seen, and experienced.
I told her I could. She clapped her hands in that gold summer sun underneath the willow tree and smiling told me “That is how you really see. You look for the light that you can feel. You follow the light that remains, not the story of what took it.” It meant nothing to me that day except the faint hope that maybe someday I would understand.
There were so many years and instances in my life when I have felt like the discarded, marked up, failed, and abandoned piece of art that I found in the thrift store. But someone took the time to teach me about what my light is, the power it has, and in turn how to read, experience, bend, and re-create that power and light all around me. She read every single one of my stories and that taught me that my stories were worth telling. That my writing was worth time. She spent years of her life pouring all of her best work into showing me who I was, and I don’t remember if I ever said thank you or made the amends she deserved for what a spoiled brat I could be when the work got difficult.
My thoughts return back to the warm, gray rain of the parking lot I’m sitting in. Taking one more look at the canvas, I take a deep breath and remember that if I adjust the seats in a certain way the canvas will fit. It works and in that moment I am reminded of what I am here for, who I am, and who always believed in all of it for me so that I could learn how to believe it for myself.
The canvas and I got home fine that day. I put it aside and flew to London for two weeks after bitching about the rain to my husband. I promised the canvas that when I returned I would make it into something sparkly and immersive. In the middle of the trip, I found out my mentor, whom I had seen a week before in Chicago and who sat with me under that willow tree in the golden sun all those years ago and in between, had passed.
It was the most immense sting of trying not to make a scene and cry my face had ever felt. I didn’t know what to do. I watched my husband and our friend chatting over dinner on the patio through the glass window as the information washed over every one of my senses blurring the scene. Closing my eyes I knew what I was looking at was about to change as soon as those words came out of my mouth, but that I could approach this with grace. The grace she taught me I have. So I walked outside. I said “Nancy G died. And I have to make a few phone calls.” And that was it. She would have admired my restraint.
Now that I am home again and bending art into what was once discarded, damaged, reduced and kind of lost in a world of junk I recognize her talent in mine. I get overwhelmed with sadness and wondering and so I go into my thoughts and back to sitting under that willow tree with her. I return to the simplicity of love. The simplicity of knowing. The simplicity of being. So far it is where I find the most clarity, and to me, this canvas - imperfect and been through a lot but turned into something anyway because of the time spent - looks the most like that place feels.
So thank you for reading all of that.