The Internal Becomes External, Or… Emotion Transmutes Into ART

I’ve been painting images for a graphic book. I don’t know if it’s a graphic novel truly — that label evokes something like comics or cartoons, as they call it in France. But whatever this compilation of imagery might be named, it’s made up of eighty or so paintings. Some are oils on paper, one or two are on canvas, and many are acrylics on paper.

What I want to pay attention to here is that I find certain images stand out as most compelling. Overall, the paintings depict characters and scenes. They are light in subject matter or heavy, bright colors or black and white. A few are very quiet and only have minimal action; many are busy and loud.

But what calls to me is intensity. Intensity of feeling, of color, of stroke, of line, of story. There’s one image called The Empty Bed where a woman sits curled on a chair, head on knees, next to a bed covered with crumpled covers and a lonely pack of cigarettes. Someone has left town.

Or there’s the one I just completed called Abandoned where another woman lies curled in the fetal position on a bed as a man gallops out the open doorway.

Not all intense images are of domestic psychological drama. There’s the one of two Jews hiding at the Paris train station at the start of WWII —

or the one of a grown daughter catching her frail mother as she starts to fall.

It’s not as though the more forceful paintings are inherently more skillful or esthetically pleasing than the rest. No, it’s that they manage to reveal visually what has been up until that moment simply an internal state.

How does that come about? There is something we feel, it can be a matter of emotion or memory or idea, which then calls for a possible visual conceptualization. Like take the intimation of abandonment — maybe it starts with a kind of discomfort in the chest or stomach or even the head… a buzz or tightness or alert signal, perhaps familiar, harkening back to early loss or experience. Then let’s say the person sensing the discomfort wants to translate that perception into a tangible, material, expression. It could be written about, or spoken about. But in this case, the person, I, want to describe it visually.

And here’s the magic part. I ask myself, What does this experience look like? And just like that, a scene pops into my head. Oh, I think. There is a woman lying on a bed and someone is leaving her behind. Now where did that come from? Is it happening in that moment to me? Usually not. Did it once occur? Did I read it in a book? Did I see it in a painting? Maybe. But maybe not. Sometimes it seems to just emerge as I sketch, sort of like how writers describe a character starting to tell the writer the story rather than the other way around. For me I might start with — Here’s a beach. There is a palm tree and a sky and sand. Then I might just go ahead and paint that. The next morning while I’m meditating I realize there wants to be a woman and her old mother standing on the beach, and the younger woman is pointing at the beauty, and the old woman starts to transform into a bird flying in the sky.

Okay, I say. That’s cool. And while I’m adding the two women and start on the woman becoming a bird, I think Chagall. Did I see this image in a Chagall painting when I went to that museum on the Côte d’Azur six years ago while at that artist colony, La Napoule? I look up Chagall, and sure enough he has everyone flying around in the sky.

The point I want to make is this. Something seems to happen in life where suddenly a strong, deep and amorphous experience is transformed into something concrete and material and external. It becomes art. To me that seems unbelievable. I heard an artist tell the story of attending a concert and then deciding to create paintings for each movement of the composition she heard. She later went to meet the composer and brought her paintings. There were eight of them for the eight movements. Before she said anything, the composer pointed out which painting was a visual expression of each movement. He saw his work translated into visual symbolism and immediately recognized it.

Could that happen with non-intense communications? I don’t know. Am I simply pulled to intensity because of my cultural heritage, my personal history, my biology, my gender? Whatever the underlying reason, what I am taken by is the thrill of the process. Emotion leads to a desire to express visually, which leads to a kind of dream state, which leads to an image coming to mind. The image is put on paper or into music, or into a dance or a story and the artist says, Yes! That is exactly it. And she puts down her paintbrush and goes and pours herself a gin Martini. As Georgia O’Keefe is supposed to have said, Any day when I work is a good day. Maybe I would say, any day when it works is a good day.


What can I tell you?

1.  I read a quote in a book by Mira Kalman, “The realization that we are all (you, me) going to die and the attending disbelief — isn’t that the central premise of EVERYTHING? It stops me dead in my tracks a dozen times a day.” The Principles of Uncertainty, pg 46.

That is the story of my (me, Lydia’s) life since childhood. No pandemic needed.

2.  My boyfriend and I are sitting on the couch discussing an email I am in the midst of writing to my real estate agent and then one to my lawyer about selling the house I’ve owned for over forty years. The realtor is an active Catholic currently at a wake for her father-in-law, the other a Jewish Buddhist friendly with the Dali Lama. I look over at Jim, seated as close as possible without crossing over into and under my skin. I stroke his cheek and pick off a piece of something caught in his stubble, grooming. He notices and comments that there is food in my teeth, and I smile wide and ask whether it’s cream cheese from my delicious bagel, and he says it’s something red, and I am happy. It’s watermelon.

A memory of sweetness.

3.  It is a time of great conflict and worry. Mira Kalman writes, “Our history is tragedy and heartache — to the marrow.” The Principles of Uncertainty, page 56. Such is the story of the Jews. I know it in my marrow. I hear the update on Covid 19 and I think plague. I hear the cars of looters screeching around the corner and the yells of hopped up teens as they load the trunks with big unwieldy boxes and race away. I think Kristallnacht. There is no solution other than wholesale revolution, I say. My parents were both Communists. Vivian Gornick’s book of interviews of old Reds has been republished recently. Does she know something important? Is she singing my song? I’m too old to join the Revolution, but I may have to send a donation of some kind.

I am happy to contribute.

4.  The other night I listened to a discussion of the current state of affairs by David Frum, a conservative, and Peter Beinart, a progressive. They spoke well and long about the political crisis in the U.S., about the young and old voters, and what will we do now, this November, this critical time in our country’s history. I thought Hitler in 1933 as he took power and was enabled to act without parliamentary consent and without constitutional limitations. My foster father Mendel warned me over and over that it could happen again. I am no fool.

Here we are.

5.  It wasn’t Kristallnacht really. I was in L.A. and there were no Nazis, or at least they were not the ones looting the stores of Santa Monica. It was only kids, angry and hyped, getting their own. And yet, what is this time about, I ask. Is it the rise of Fascism, or perhaps simply a readjustment of an imbalanced world? The numbers have changed. White rich men are no longer the majority. Is this the justifiable fall of Rome, death of the dinosaurs? Are we passing the baton? And who is we exactly?

Where does an old middle class Jewish female fall — am I a good guy, or a bad guy? White or of color, rich or poor, victim or perp?

6.  I am due to die soon. Maybe not next week from the virus, but perhaps in a year or ten or whatever. Why am I still around anyway? Is there something I am meant to do besides eat and shit and sleep? Why are we all here, eating and shitting and sleeping and getting up and doing it again? I am looking for a reason to continue.

Sometimes I watch the ocean out my window and imagine being a fish or, better yet, a pelican diving for dinner. The sun bears down on the water creating a reflection so brilliant that I am dazed, my pelican eyes blinded for a moment, and then I understand. It is just that — the sun and its reflection, the sheer brilliance that blinds us to the answer, and maybe to the very question itself.

There is just this.

111 Years

This life. This life as it is this moment. This life as it edges closer to the end of this life.

I have been moving through this time more rapidly than I would prefer but with a clear awareness of the abundance I am offered. Perhaps offered is too personifying a word, since it implies an other doing the offering. Let’s just say I have come upon a period of tremendous gratitude of late.

For what, you ask. Ah. It is hard to respond without sounding trite or reductive. Perhaps it is simply the waking to an absence of what must have come before — a feeling of worry, what the day might bring, what responsibilities I might mishandle, what surprises might come my way.

I’ve never been good with surprise, the unguarded perimeter suddenly permeated by a stone, a shard of glass, an arrow, a missile, a wayward planet. Whoa, steady now. What sort of missive is this that has blasted through the skin of my existence and lodged deeply within my inner reaches, to be digested and integrated into the whole of me?

No, I don’t take kindly to surprise or shock or news flashes. I like a kind of predictable trajectory. So now in my later years when I wake each day to the sound of the undulating ebb and flow of ocean tides outside my window, I assume that this day, each day, will offer a sort of spaciousness to fill with the endeavors that have always given me pleasure, but at this juncture have outlived the other necessary activities of one’s adult years — work, children, house, social duties. Yes, there are still troubles to be struggled over, marches to attend, votes to cast, a sense of responsibility for a future for all of our children. And yet, nevertheless, I have the privilege to approach each day with the wonder of… will I write, or paint, or conceptualize? Will I plan outings with friends, or cook that chicken roasted with potatoes, onions, broccoli, and zucchini, or will I go for a long walk along the ocean, turning off as I hit the breakwater and continue to the canals? Will I swim in the pool, pushing through my intervals feeling the pressure acutely in the center of my chest — is it heart or lung, and then remember once again how miraculous to be in the body at this time in my own history.

I am drawn to a certain kind of feeling as I live my hours and days in the remaining segment of my time on this earth as a sentient human being. My older son calls that feeling ‘moments of great wellbeing,’ although when I described the experience to a friend recently, she named it, ‘moments of euphoria.’ Whatever the label, it is distinguished by a rush of both physical and emotional energy, a desire to skip or shout or simply exclaim that this is excellent. ‘This’ could be a quick peek at the sun hitting the sidewalk in just such a way, or lying down on the bed to watch through the window as the late afternoon daylight breaks into the reds and oranges of sunset over the water. Or stepping back while painting in order to make a decision and truly seeing the whole image. The feeling can crop up at any odd juncture — sitting down into a chair with a hot cup of tea brewing in front of me and an old dear friend across the table beginning a story about something important in her life, or… well, you get the point. I suppose everyone has those times. And I have no idea why they occur when they do or even why they happen at all.

But no matter the source, I am blessed with regular doses of that specific feeling, and even have come to understand that this life I have been offered is stocked full to the brim with opportunities to dip into it. Like fishing at a salmon run, or sunbathing at a California beach — the odds are skewed towards yes.

What I’m really saying here is that something quite astonishing has occurred. I had a period of what might be called challenge in my childhood. And somewhere along the road — was there a signpost even intimating that the terrain was diverging from one landscape to another — but at some point, my life went from the dark to the light. It had been years of storm clouds, and then I crossed over to the land of plenty.

And here I am.

I have been moved in this time — the Ericksonian phase of giving back — I have been compelled to spread, broadcast the news, to the young, to the weary, to those who are struggling. It’s the Buddhist mantra — all paths have pleasure and pain. I am the living proof. It is not possible for anyone to be exempt from this overarching truth. This too shall pass; it all will move along. But in the moments we are handed when there is bounty, I say, let’s rejoice. I am here to give thanks.

The counterbalance and most likely associated preoccupation in my day-to-day life is with death. Not a new orientation, but plentifully available nonetheless. Is it the grounding in a lifelong awareness of an endpoint that allows for great bliss, or do those particular moments of pleasurable highs add up to another equation? If allowed such incandescent times, will I use up my quota, and isn’t it just about now, or then, or when that the grim reaper will say, Okay, my dear, let’s leave a little bit of the goodies for the others. The starving in poor nations, or even in our own, say. The children with cancer. The women gang raped by villagers. The 176 passengers on that plane that got caught in the crossfire of political idiocy.

I read yesterday about a woman in the U.S. who had lived to 111 years old. What, ho? I say. Unfathomable. What might change if I had another four decades or so to go? Yes. I say, yes.

It is only now, so late in an already extensive life, that I am digging around in my family history, researching first my mother’s long life of heroics and now, at long last, my father’s time of narcissistic but talented existence, and yes, those two qualities often do coincide. I am locating translators to interpret his writing, finding people who reference him as a symbol of this or that trend in communist or Jewish history. My past as a trite example of gender relations through the ages — the long suffering mother, the renowned father who abandons his family, in this case more than one.

I would like to go the distance, if only to pass on to my children the knowledge of their very own ancestry, to bolster my newfound sense of pride in my story, really all the stories that came out of the War and now are spoken rather than buried away. I say yes, yet again. Let it be so.

Clearly there is wisdom that comes with age. We recognize and preach, it’s not over til it’s over, don’t lose hope. Life is long, there is great solace in the last third of the run. If I were to pick one mantra from this time it would be, you never know.

I never knew about euphoria when young. Or even wellbeing. I knew fear and anxiety. I knew the defensive manic state that raises the voice, energizes the body, leads to wild laughter and risk. Like a table of drunks at a bar — aren’t we all as happy as children? But no, this feeling I’m talking about isn’t a reaction to anything other than the breath in, then out, to the wind on the cheek, to the wave rolling forward and then back, to the moon and then yet again the sun the next morning.

Give me 111. That’s all I ask. Or 106. I’m not greedy. Honestly, I’ll take whatever I’m offered. And then lay my head down to sleep.

The Nomad

“You are a vagabond,” a friend says.
“A ‘nomad’ sounds better,” I reply.

I have been moving from place to place for two years, a contrast to the four or so previous decades when I remained put – in New England, a locale known for its generations of hunkered down, resolute inhabitants.

It isn’t as though I planned an abrupt change of mode, style, way to live a life. A rebellion one might call it, in that particular culture. It just happened.

All fruits arise from flowers, but not all flowers bear fruit. Have the last two years of movement been the precious fruit of my labor the forty years beforehand?

I sit with six friends in the living room of the house in which I spawned and then raised my two children, and we, my friends and I, all of a certain age, old enough to reflect on sown seeds and tilled fields, we speak of, ‘Where to from here?’ We are alluding to the imminence of death but also the period remaining as life.

We are sixty something, seventy something, eighty something year olds, and the question arises from my having challenged someone’s assumption of the predictable.

“I want to make a dinner, when you’re back home, to talk about what you have been doing,” my friend Claudia wrote to me in California a few months earlier. “I am provoked by your going off to Paris for a year and now Los Angeles. It makes me think about intention and whether I should take heed.”

I thought I understood what she meant, although it hadn’t occurred to me that my contemporaries would have their own projections in response to my decision to fly the coop, leave the nest, close down shop. I had retired from my longterm job as psychotherapist, applied to every artist residency I could find, and, as if the Jewish expression, ‘From your lips to God’s ears,’ was in fact the case… Paris accepted me. Six months away, and then another six added on as a bonus later.

It wasn’t easy to manage, I can attest to that — arranging a whole life into neat piles stowed away in the attic and the basement — but I had no regrets. I had been waiting eons for just such a moment, and it had plopped itself smack dab into the center of my life, just like that. Whatever smack dab means…

It was a dramatic juggernaut of a sea change. No more therapist, no more mom, no more New England homeowner. Identities scrapped like so much scree on a hillside, and new ones acquired.

“I am an artist and a writer,” I said to the other residents at my new artist community. Gone the formal calling card of Lydia, Psychotherapist, replaced by a new graphic image of sculptured forests and Lydia, Artist/Writer proudly declared.

I lived small, I lived large — a tiny studio, but in the City of Light. I spoke French badly with the accent of the detested foreigner, but I reclaimed a family history that reminded me this was home.

After years of bearing witness to individual suffering, tissues plentiful, a bottomless pitcher of empathy, I marched out into the French arrondissements, an urban wilderness chronicling eras, epochs of societal accomplishment and also disgrace. I absorbed culture like food after a fast. But I also inhaled tales of war, plaques marking deaths mounted on every second or third edifice, schools acknowledging, on their stone facades, the collaboration of the French in the killing of Jewish children in the War. I bore no responsibility. My family names were listed on the walls of the innocent.

I was sad about the past.
I was happy in the present.

The six women sit on my living room couch and chairs and sip tea. Claudia, the instigator of the get together explains her reaction to my decision to be away, to go toward, to be intentional.

“I live with endless lists of things to do,” she starts. “I cannot finish what I have set out to accomplish in a day, a week, so I do not think I will die. I will just keep crossing things off the list, and it will carry me on and on. Endlessly.” We nod, the others. We understand. “But when Lydia stopped all that and took a year, it gave me pause. Should I too consider a change or at least make certain that I am being conscious?”

I considered. Was that what I had done? Been conscious?

Movement is integral to the fabric of my personal and social story. The Jews, the diaspora, no homeland. Each period a new temporary refuge. The Poles will let us be here for a while. What about Morocco, Spain, the Ottomans, the Romans? Yes, we have been welcomed and then sent away.

And my parents’ ins and outs from Poland to Paris to Spain to the U.S., plus the four cross-country shifts of family domicile that gave birth to my description of self as bicoastal. Does that suggest a vagabond or a nomad, a survivor or an intrepid adventurer? Should I feel pride or shame? And would that in itself be a Jewish question, rather than evidence of a personal anomaly?

“I am happiest in my home,” another friend pipes up. “I can travel to see my kids, my grandkids, but the truth is, I have no desire to make changes in my routine. It works for me.”

I hear and cannot imagine. Where is the curiosity, the sense of adventure, the push to grow? Are we slowing down already? My heart is heavy.

And yet. This friend has had cancer. Her husband had his own malignancy. They know something I can’t even imagine. Plus they contribute significantly to the welfare of the community and volunteer up the wazoo. Why wouldn’t it be enough to do good work and to be settled in a stable home with loved ones at this time of life?

I slow my breathing. Different realities. Different histories. Some of these women may have grown up in situ – one home, one set of parents, one expectation. Create a life and cherish it. Who needs a bucket list when just being alive is the prize?

The group of women disentangles itself into this particular story thread and that. We are not at all the same. One woman has created a new career in the last few years and that feels rejuvenating. Another runs what sounds like an estate with a complicated business of airbnb rentals and writing workshops. She worries about ever feeling free to toss the whole enterprise and leave her longterm clients in the lurch. They adore her property as a sacred place of respite. How can we turn our backs on those who depend on us?

I speak to the group of leaving my forever therapy practice and saying goodbye. The ache of endings. And the subsequent discovery of new facets of my persona. Is a letting go simply an opening to possibility, and, if that is so, why do we all resist so strongly? Attachment vs. opportunity, security vs. adventure, old vs. new.

I do not imagine that my choice suits any other person than me. If others do try it on and reject it, all the better. It means that we all are considering, turning each new idea this way and that. There is no precedent for a whole generation with so many people living into their nineties, some to a hundred or more. There have always been outliers, but now we are privileged or burdened, depending on one’s point of view, with the expectation of long life.

The women in my living room drink their tea and listen to each other. We come to no conclusions. We will follow our various journeys through the years that are left to each of us, wandering the disparate paths that we choose or fall into, and we will simply require of ourselves to be awake. Is this how we want to be living? Are we aware of the breadth of choice? As long as we can consider with eyes open and nod yes, we are doing okay with, in Mary Oliver’s words, the one wild and precious life we are each given.

Old Dog, New Tricks

I’m thinking about the insistence in creative writing on showing vs. telling. A workshop leader mentions that we are all storytellers… it is a natural human style, to tell what happened. She believes however, that scenes transform a tale into a closer experience, more alive. I imagine she is right. What do I know… or better put, I don’t trust that I know much. I tend to write episodically and with fewer ‘scenes’ than one might hope for. While I receive lots of feedback along the lines of, ‘beautifully written,’ I am not convinced that I couldn’t improve my game. Learn some stuff…

A scene: a writing workshop in a classroom at a local college. The participants include twelve, perhaps one or two more, writers of many skill levels. Each Tuesday we enter the large sterile space, drag some chairs, with arms that become little desks, into a semi-circle, and wait for our leader. She is often a few minutes late, not late enough to matter, but a perhaps unintended consequence of her arriving when the rest of the group is already seated is that her entrance results in a noticeably abrupt move from chatty-chatty to attention and silence. She doesn’t demand that, but there is something.

The leader is younger than I, but she is what could be called an old soul. She has wisdom — perhaps derived from her Indian heritage, but I would guess it was more likely a fortuitous genetic destiny already in place as a child. At any rate, the leader, Monona, collects everyone’s four pages of writing, and then selects one writer and has her or him read their pages to the group. We comment, in a predetermined order, and finally Monona expresses her response to the work.

Monona encourages the traditionally popular way of writing… prevalent at this particular juncture in history perhaps in response to the widespread revved up need for stimulation and action and the reluctance to take time with any aspect of modern life. Maybe it is a consequence of the Internet, or living in urban rather than rural communities, or simply the ubiquitous planes, trains, and automobiles, but whatever causes it, we don’t plop ourselves down on a sun porch with a thick book and leisurely inhale the pages including a long preface, introduction, and unimaginably slow beginning.

Start in the middle, the writer is now told… in medias res. Don’t take the time for an introduction to a tale, no one has the patience. Above all, put the reader into a scene, even better, create many. Lots of dialogue. Backstory only if relevant and urgent for the reader to know. Otherwise, chuck it.

Don’t tell us, show us, the writers in the class intone. Help us see the scene, don’t tell us when you can show us. As each writer offers that particular critique of their contemporaries in the group, I listen and wonder. Do I agree with this? It’s obvious from this blog that I naturally enjoy telling, describing, talking around a topic. What will happen if I stray down the modern path of sceneing?

I sit in my little student desk contraption and listen carefully. Mostly I listen to Monona. There is something here for me to learn. “Start the story when the neighbors stop speaking to you. Don’t make us wait. That’s the moment of conflict.”

She’s correct. But then again. I am attached to my old ways, worry that I will sound like everyone else. The MFA approach to writing — I remember an article in Poets and Writers Magazine years ago that described a particular style MFA graduates all seemed to have. And yes, it was similar to what Monona is suggesting.

But when she comments on another writer’s work in the group, I hear that she has something useful to offer. “This is a story about perseverance,” she tells one writer who has written about losing his hearing and then learning there might be a remedy. And I see that she is absolutely right. Seen from this angle, it’s a story with universal application. I too never give up. I can relate to this man’s tale. I wouldn’t have phrased the theme in the way she did, but as soon as she speaks, I realize it’s true.

At my turn, I read my pages, the story of a meandering relationship with a neighbor. And as I speak, I notice the particular places where a scene might replace a description. I envision going home after the workshop and rewriting and trying on a slightly more immediate style. Just to experiment with this piece, and see how it feels. No commitments yet. Simply a perhaps. Why not?

I am an old dog at this point, but I can still see intelligence when I am placed in front of it. I will engage with a new trick, or set of tricks here. It is a gift to open up to new and different, even if I’ve heard this particular instruction a hundred times before and ignored it, imagining that somehow it didn’t apply to me. I put my pen down on my notebook on the little desk, and cock my head to hear more. A little like meditating. Being present for this moment and then the next one. There is always more to discover. Even after so many years of a life.

The Edge of the Sea

I have moved to the edge of the ocean. So close that I could spit on it, as they say. Not really, but close enough that I watch the waves break and can hear the pound of the weight of water. All night I undulate to the to and fro of it all. It permeates my dreams, carving soft rounded edges onto the memories and wishes of my day-to-day life.

I am painting the ocean on my walls. It looks like surges of molten lava or an oil spill. I work to make it wilder and wetter and bolder. It will overflow the edges of the paper onto the wall and carpeted floor of my little apartment and sweep me out the door and onto the sand.

My mom and I were always fanatics of the sea. Hours spent in transit – buses, subways, sometimes rides in the car of a family friend. Hours of anticipation but always coated with the dread of the unavoidable loss. Isn’t that the way of life – waiting, then getting, then losing. The Zen brilliance of it, but also a bitter dose of medicine. All good things must come to a close. When those childhood days of cavorting in the waves drew dark and all the alte cockers started packing up the blankets and beach-bags and umbrellas, I knew my first internal geyser of refusal, a resistance to the nature of the universe. No, I don’t want to go.

But how can I take myself to the furthest rim of the continent during this period when so many are suffering? Okay, it’s true that there is much to worry about these days… personally the ravages of illness and age are lapping at the feet of my contemporaries…it is only a matter of time, we all understand, until the roulette wheel stops at the number that signifies one’s very own moment. And then there is the perpetual forest fire of the political environment in our country. Yes, there were the midterms but even so… what can one find to balance out the stampede toward the fall of Rome? And the physical environment, the mother of all that feeds us… I cannot miss the onslaught of smoke and ash that drifts on the warm air gusts from the arid hills north of me. California is burning. We are all burning. Isn’t this when we each need to stand tall and do something? Yes, I say, of course. It is essential to step up and be counted.

And yet… the sea persists in its drive towards infinity… in and out, as I watch from my window, as I stand in front of the burning ball of a sun descending into the blue horizon line. Another day offered as though a wrapped gift of ruby or emerald, glistening, filling every sense available… the smell, the sound, the visual motion. An invitation to float above, beyond the moment into history. The dinosaurs, it reminds me, they came and went. There is an ending to all things beautiful… a day at the ocean in the waves, a month of warm weather and then it is winter, a life of richness and pain and then it is over. No, I say. I don’t want to go… we want more than Kavanagh on the Supreme Court, more than men carrying assault rifles into country music bars and schools, more than … and the ocean whispers its promise… each day a sunrise, each night a sunset. Tides, hurricanes, piping plovers, dolphins. All this.

Au Revoir – À Bientôt…

I’m sitting on the steps leading down to the city from Sacre Coeur. It’s quintessential Paris and yet not… all those who surround me are foreigners or newcomers – Africans strumming guitars and singing, Scandinavians doing Skype videos, laughing and shouting in tongues, Hispanic men carrying heavy cases of beer combing the crowd for potential clients. The sprawl of architecture glows below, soaking up the last rays of sun this early evening, a couple days before the summer solstice. The Montparnasse and Eiffel Towers poke their noses up like Great Dane snouts sniffing prey, above the uniform shorter, pale, more distinguished traditional edifices. I will miss all, yes, all of this and what it means. It means that I am the luckiest girl in the world. I will never forget.

What do I carry with me from an experience such as this year at the Cité…

Here’s one view from Giverny. Ah, Giverny, not my first time but then again and again.

“On continue par ici?” asks one woman to her partner as they meander through the gardens. “Pourquoi pas?” he responds.

French couples, and yes, also the tourists, stroll along the tiny stream paralleling, not without pleasing deviations, the Nymphéas pond. Moments of spring/summer heaven, now the day before the summer solstice. Hoards, busloads of tourists and then at midday a blissful break. They must all be eating, those French and foreign foodies, no picnics here, but in the Village of Giverny the outdoor patios are sans doute pleins. They love their food and their drinks, the French. Every restaurant and café and bar full at all hours of the day…an early café, then le petit déjeuner, then lunch – la grande bouffe, (the movie of that title a mind-blowing ecstasy of food gorging), and then the mid-afternoon coffee for a pick me up, followed by the apéritif before the dinner hour, and then the dinner, a smaller version perhaps of the lunch, and finally a dessert, perhaps a drink afterwards, and maybe late cocktails with friends. A full day and night of ingesting. Yum. Or not, depending on one’s view of the value of productivity vs. leisure.

I stare hard at the water lilies in bloom at this very moment, provoking an inner grok of Monet coming from breakfast in that joyful dining room and kitchen, carrying his easel and brushes and paints, wandering over to the lily pond. Just here or over there today? The light is filtering to the west, therefore …

Did he foresee this piece of land, this house, this garden inundated with Japanese tourists, screaming children, German fathers attempting the perfect photo? Like Van Gogh when I came across his story in Amsterdam a couple weeks back… did Monet imagine the fame, the appetite, the hunger, the longing for any detail about his life? What did he or Van Gogh eat for breakfast? Did they have lovers? Were their models friends, consorts, prostitutes? But were they, the artists, happy? Van Gogh and that ear suggest perhaps not – those years in the asylum of Saint Remy. Yet Monet, so portly, with his unusual arrangement of sick wife and lusty new love, plus this gorgeous spread, he surely would have had times, hours, days of bliss. I, for one, am in paradise sitting on this bench in his garden listening to the birds chirp. Tweet.

Are artists happier, allowed to indulge in this childlike wonder? Imagination, plus skill, plus time, plus confidence, perseverance, stick-to-itiveness must lead to some sort of ecstatic wellbeing. Or is it the opposite? Individuals filled with angst and sensitivity and foolish optimism banging their heads against the wall, thinking, believing, this is it, my chef d’oeuvre, my best. Surely the world will receive the work with, with, …with what? Excitement, welcome, money, promises, fame, awe?

What are we all thinking? (Not to place myself within the category of Van Gogh and Monet, but still, there is the question…) Nonetheless, I, for one, simply wish for more time to keep working, wherever…Norway, Japan, France, anywhere. Many hours each day to do whatever it is one does with all that hopefulness…start new pieces, fix errors, throw some out, obsess about the others, just to be allowed this gift of moments, the freedom, space for the ideas to come, to marinate… to erupt….to please, to disappoint and then the need to begin again.

Ah ha, we say. I had an idea. Like the children we seem to be – no responsibility to anything beyond ‘the work.’ Would I do better to start that orphanage I imagined ten, fifteen years ago? More impact, for sure. There is no question. Art, writing, are filler perhaps, to stave off the underlying void, the base comprehension of yes, mortality. An avoidance of truth, like ants busily carrying those leaves hither and thither as if industry were an end in itself.

And yet, there is this – this openness, so distant from the preoccupations of business, of computers, of negotiation, of money, and of course, of death. This – Giverny, Monet, Paris, all heaven. For now just this and a goodbye.

Retrieving the Story | Retrouver l’Histoire

Empty Bed, Paris – Acrylic 43″ X 60″


Begging for Permission – Acrylic 43″ X 60″

Here’s an invite to my Open Studio at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris March 22nd, 6-10 PM, Atelier 8227, in the main building, second floor (last studio down the long, often dark, hallway – so push the light button!). Please come if you are in Paris that night!

Retrieving the Story is a series of ‘story paintings’ made in Paris for a graphic novel loosely based on my family history in France before and during War II, and in New York after the War. I am an artist and writer from the U.S. and create sculptural installations using charcoal, paper, and prose. My recent subject matter has been the family history in France and the search for a story that I was never told.

Retrieving the Story is part of a collective open studio by Lauréats des Commissions de la Cité des Arts and l’Institut Français.

S’il vous plaît venez à mon studio ouvert le jeudi 22 mars, 18h-22h, # 8227 dans le bâtiment principal, au deuxième étage (dernier studio dans le long, souvent sombre, couloir – alors appuyez sur le bouton de lumière!). Je ferai partie d’un atelier ouvert collectif des Lauréats des Commissions de la Cité et de l’Institut Français.

Je montrerai des ‘story paintings’ faites à la Cité pour un roman graphique basé sur l’histoire de ma famille en France avant et pendant la deuxième guerre mondiale, et à New York après la guerre. Je suis un artiste et écrivain des États-Unis et crée des installations sculpturales en utilisant du charbon de bois, du papier, et de la prose. Mon sujet récent a été l’histoire de la famille en France et la recherche d’une histoire qu’on ne m’a jamais racontée.

A Sense of Place

Ceija Stojka, The Women of Revensbrück

Ceija Stojka, Deportation in an Extermination Camp

The residency in Paris continues… it also keeps improving, which is hard to imagine, since it has been so gratifying all along. I sit with two artists who are drawing my portrait. One is from Serbia and the other from Iran, and we talk about politics and religion and our beliefs and of course, art. That night I go for dinner with an Iraqi artist and we also talk about our way of seeing the world, religion and art and being women. I go to French class and we talk about how each of us thinks about life and art and culture and meaning, and we are from Finland, and Iceland, and Austria, and Germany, and Egypt and Japan and yes, the U.S.

I do my work – write, paint, but I also live Paris. I take myself to a French film, La Douleur, based on Marguerite Duras’ diaries. I read the book years ago – it’s about the War. A German filmmaker here is making a film about Duras’ husband and has seen La Douleur, and we go out for drinks and yak about it. I am superbly engaged and grateful for this world where every street and many people have something current going on about the past. Oh yes, there are digital art fairs, le monde numérique and the Pompidou and the Palais de Tokyo have moved way past the times I am still living, but I am not alone here.

A few days later I am on a walk in the Marais and par hasard (perhaps my favorite French expression, followed closely by formidable!), I stop by a gallery and am floored by the exhibit. It’s the work of a self-taught Rom, gypsy, artist, Ceija Stojka, and includes many amazingly profound paintings and drawings of her childhood in Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen camps. Some of it is breathtaking and reminds me of Munch and Kollwitz, two artists I revere. Stojka started painting at age 50 or so, and when I watch a film at the exhibit about her experience and life, I see her take gobs of paint into her hands, both hands, and then smear it over the cardboard canvas. The drawings are haunting… ghostlike figures, wisps of cloud, barracks, rifles, whips, but also les tournesols, sunflowers, in a field after the Liberation. Suffering and life beyond. She talks about becoming close to the bodies at Bergen Belsen for warmth and protection… the entrails had been eaten, so all that was left were piles and piles of skeletons and skin. I am riveted, just like when I first saw the amazing paintings of Charlotte Salomon and others who recorded their experience of those years. Knock out. I tell my friends here at the Cité and one knows Stojka’s work and wrote an article about her… Yes.

My connection to my own history is visceral here in Paris. When I discover photos or info in various archives about my family or parents, I experience an unfamiliar sense of belonging. The night after I saw La Douleur, which I found somewhat sentimentalized and too intensely dramatized for my taste, given the subject matter… who had really suffered in that tale? Was it truly the person waiting for news or the person imprisoned at Buchenwald and Dachau? But I digress – after the film I was walking home and noticing the people in the restaurants late at night, lovers at the table by the window, a group laughing at the pizzeria, smokers sitting outside at the sidewalk café under those lamps pumping heat into the frigid air, and suddenly I felt that I was my mother, in her body, walking these same streets before the War. A frisson of otherworldly visitation. And when another day, at the archives in Seine-Saint-Denis, I happened across three tiny ancient photos of my father in the Spanish Civil War, I looked at his face, shaded by a military hat, and saw myself.

I came to France to make art and write, but an unexpected byproduct, an outgrowth of the process perhaps, is that I have unearthed, or maybe the more accurate description would be, I have stumbled upon a lineage, roots, and a permanent sense of place. It is here. I am of here.

November in Paris

The fifth month of my Cité Internationale des Arts residency, a cold, dark rainy day in Paris. The leaves are still hanging on by their stems, as they slowly turn brownish but there’s promise of their clearing out in time to see the Seine and Notre Dame before new growth appears in the spring. The days slip by in a dash of sunlight or clouds, but they are foreshortened by the northern latitude of the city. Gone the 10:30 pm sunset…hello darkness by five. And yet those stalwart Parisians remain sitting in their big coats and thick scarves eating and drinking at outdoor tables on the street… no commentary on the overhead heaters pumping out warmth into the cold night air.

I have been accepted to remain here until the end of June, 2018, and the prospect of all that time in this city of beauty is a dream. Since my arrival I have painted several large paintings for a graphic novel – the first depicts hiding out from the gendarmes and Germans early in 1940 in Paris, and others are scenes of the mother in the novel getting hooked by, then mating with, then losing her lover, in the late 1930s and after. The novel describes the legacy of the War on the next generation. I also plug along on a novel in just text about similar subject matter but fictionalized to the max.

If one wants to write or make visual art about the Second World War in Europe, being in the Marais is an immersion experience. Not only is the Cité next door to the Mémorial de la Shoah, but on almost every street there are plaques listing who lived there and what happened to that person during the War. Each lycée, high school, has a plaque commemorating the children from that school who died ‘simply’ for being Jewish and with the complicity of the Vichy government. It took quite a few years for France to speak to the complicated arrangement here during the War, but these plaques were then created to acknowledge some responsibility for what happened. The War appears integrated into the streets of this arrondissement, but also is evident all around Paris.

Since my last entry I have returned to the city of Pau in the south of France where my mother spent the war. I went back to the archives and to the internment camp of Gurs to expand my knowledge of the confusion in my family about what happened to my mother during the War. I have been investigating the possible relationship between my mom and her employer, who seemed to have saved her from being sent to a camp, it would appear. Was he a Juste, a Righteous, like many French who felt compelled to help the victims of the War, or was he personally involved? Not easy questions to answer, but in my digging both there and in Paris I have managed to discover various details that will eventually add up to a story. In the meantime I came across a document in Paris with photos of my father when he was 23 years old being expelled from France for some activity… research does seem to offer results if one does not get dissuaded by bureaucracy and offices closed for mysterious reasons at unexpected times and many metro rides that result in very little information.

The Venice Biennale was amazing and Fontainebleau, Dordogne, Iceland, Beaune, Normandy, Brittany have all spiced the time in Europe. A visit to the internment camp of Drancy was sobering and offered archival evidence of an uncle’s time in Pithiviers and Beaune la Rolande before deportation. Thanksgiving came and went with a small dinner at a restaurant that caters to American tourists for the holiday, and it’s down to the final month before I take a break in the US for family and supplies. Then back to Paris for the months that build toward daylight again and late night sunset on the Seine.