Friday, February 26, 2010

Life Speaks to Me in Signs . . .

And When It Does, I Listen.

As I said before, I am not new to being open to 'signs' when they show themselves - sometimes just when I need them and often when I least expect them. The next were a bit of both.

The second sign came to me the day after my return from Harbin in the form of a request. My friend and vocal instructor Scarlett asked me if I might create a special clay piece for her dear friend who is going through heavy chemo as well as a double mastectomy/reconstruction in the next few months. And would I include my own writings, which describe these pieces as ‘my life as a vessel’ – torn, carved, altered and delicately balanced?

I had been itching to get back into clay, wondering what direction I might take after finishing the 2D Dora and Anna commission. Just thinking about working on this theme again stirred my creative juices and of course, I agreed to do it without a second thought.

The third was an email I received yesterday from a dear friend whose daughter-in-law has just been diagnosed with breast cancer and who, according to my friend, would like to talk with me about my experiences, as she will be having a mastectomy/reconstruction in June. Of course I’m always available to share my experiences with any woman who has become a member of this sisterhood none of us ever wanted to join.

The final sign came again through an email from Joe, our friend and collector of my art over the years and who recently purchased one of the 2D series “Protector/Betrayer” which I created during my first bout with BC. He now owns the piece titled: “The Myth of the Cure.” (see August 2009 post - "My Life As A Vessel) And he wrote, “I wanted to tell you that after several months now it has been a source of inspiration living with your work of art. I love it.”

These signs have raised an internal mirror, which I can no longer ignore. I can see more clearly now who I am to myself and to those around me. I am the 64 year-old woman who lost her breast, and is no longer afraid to bare her body to the world. I am the creative person who has taken that loss and used it as her muse. I am the artist who takes her scarred soul and damaged body and with them, makes objects of beauty to be seen and admired and sometimes even loved.

Seeing this reflected in the internal mirror helps me accept a little more easily the deepening wrinkles and sagging skin, which is so obviously present in the external one. Not that I like it, but, hey, as I always say to my friends Nancy and Ricki when we go out every year to celebrate our birthdays together and I insist on taking pictures, “we’re never going to look as young as we do today.”

Do I take these birthday pictures as a sign?  Only when I can remember where I put them.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Time For Baring One's Soul . . .

and Other Body Parts.

I wrote this days ago and have been pondering ever since if this is the sort of thing I should post. It made me question what the purpose is of my blog. Originally, I thought it would be my answer to having a static artist's website. It seemed a perfect way to combine my artwork, and my creative process with my love of writing.

But now I wonder if this isn’t just another way for me to journal about life’s experiences and how they affect me as an artist. Should I hold back when something seems too personal? As a good friend of mine recently told me when I posed the question to her, “what is art if not the baring of one's soul? In my opinion, nothing is too personal when it comes to our art.”

So it comes to this then: Am I truly ready to shed my clothes and go running naked into cyberspace – scars, warts and all?

I guess I am.

February 21, 2010 -

Is there something about birthdays, which, as we get older, opens our eyes to seeing ourselves if not anew then at least in a different light? I’m not necessarily talking about taking a good look in the mirror although, that can also be a rude awakening. But every year, it seems to be a time to look inward, to have a little peek at who we think we are, to ourselves, to those around us. Have we lived up to our own expectations? Have we buried feelings, which are now so deeply covered we can hardly remember what we felt and why? Often, this looking comes not from some internal need to know, but from outside happenstances.

Which is what just happened to me.

I believe in signs. There have been many in my life - some, which I recognized at the time and some which, only after time, were obvious to me. This past week has been fraught with so many signs – some subtle, some hit-me-over-the-head obvious – that I had to stop and really take a moment to reflect.

The first appeared at Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing-optional retreat we visited this past week. It was the first time in eight years we were at Harbin, a place we often frequented before my body was changed so radically by scars and a new breast with its reconstructed but colorless nipple. It was eight years ago this week when I underwent that body/life changing mastectomy/reconstruction. Our last visit to Harbin eight years ago was a time of saying goodbye to the body I had grown up with and grown into – of reveling in it, still visually whole with merely a couple of almost invisible scars from biopsies and a laparoscopic gall bladder surgery.

At that time, I wasn’t sure I would ever feel comfortable baring my body so openly again. We took pictures. I have no idea where they are.

But there I was last Tuesday afternoon, unwrapping the towel, which kept me covered from the communal dressing room to the warm pool, and slipping into the exquisitely soothing waters, looking around, hoping to find at least a woman my age, if not someone with a scar or two. But no, mostly there were only older men, younger men and the beautiful bodies of younger women.

I was the only crone present. But a bit more embarrassing to me was the fact that no one, not one person had a scar anywhere on his or her body. There were lots of tattoos in interesting places, but no scars.

It wasn’t a big deal, really. OK, so maybe I felt a little uncomfortable, but I was there, wasn’t I? I didn’t hesitate to go into the water. I dressed and undressed in the communal dressing room. I had taken that leap of baring my body to strangers after all these years and so I gave myself big pats on the back for even showing up.

That evening in the Harbin dining room (where clothing is required – the old ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service’ signs clearly posted) I noticed a few older women, none of whom I had seen in the waters. My hope was that the next day I would.

And I did. As before, I slipped into the warm pool, after depositing my towel and my flip-flops at the top of the stairs. I perched myself just to the right of the stairs where I could actually sit on a ledge and out of the corner of my eye, watch the folks coming and going. Even in clothed situations, I’m an inveterate people watcher.

There were several grey haired women in the pool that morning. We gave each other the knowing nod and smile – this being a ‘quiet meditation pool’ – no conversations allowed. And I wasn’t surprised at all when a tall, lovely looking young woman eased her beautiful body with her perfectly perky boobies down the stairs into the water followed by an even taller broad shouldered young man, her obvious companion. They made their way to the far wall of the pool and like many other couples, noodled a little (overt sexual intimacies are strictly verboten in the pools) whispering and cooing quietly. There were others who joined us over the next while and soon with the sun warming the air and the temperate water relaxing me into a less anxious state of mind than the day before, I started to feel much more at ease.

It wasn’t until I glanced casually to the top of the stairs that I saw the sign.  There, with toes facing my black flip-flops, (which I was sure I took off toe end pointing the opposite way) was a prosthetic leg standing alone, without a body attached. I couldn’t believe it. Someone, like me, was in the water missing a body part. Who could it be? Of course I couldn’t tell since all I could see were people’s heads and sometimes shoulders and occasionally, frontal parts if they decided to float face up. But even before I saw who it was, (it was, in fact, that young Adonis with his beautiful woman) it hit me that each of us in the pool at that moment was missing a part, had a loss, if not physical, then certainly psychological, emotional. I was sure there wasn’t one person soaking in those waters who was completely whole.

When this finally sank in, I couldn’t contain myself and began to cry softly for my own loss. The grief I had never allowed myself to feel for eight years came gurgling out of me as I sat in the warm waters of Harbin, under a clear blue February sky.

We left the next day after enjoying another long soak. The young man with the prosthetic leg wasn’t there. I had only seen him that one time and then he was gone. But someone somewhere wanted me to know this fundamental truth, which was presented so literally for me to see – every one of us, one way or another, is missing a part. No one is truly whole.

I left Harbin feeling lighter than when I arrived, as if this had been a healing – a psychic laying on of hands or of the waters, if you will. I think we’ll be going back again, before another eight years go by.

Of course, there were more signs to come.  As I'll be writing in the next post.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Valentine for Dora and Anna . . .

through time and imagination.

Is it possible to fall in love with the subjects of a piece of art you on which you are working?  I never knew Dora or Anna, the grandmothers of my friend’s husband and my friend, who asked me to create this collage. And even though Judith has shared a few good stories and many pictures of them taken over the years, it is the women of these two pictures, who have captivated my heart. The more I work with them, the more I look into their young eyes, I find myself wishing I “knew them when.” 

My own inner workings, my own aesthetic sensibilities have taken these women and put them into unfamiliar surroundings – more Persian than European or 19th century American – and yet, with a touch of antique lace, they don’t seem at all out of place in this arched illusion. Perhaps my visual connection is creating not merely a 2 dimensional home for these women to share but rather a deeper place, a place they now share in my world, my imagination, my heart.

Dora and Anna, this Valentine is for you.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"April Is The Cruellest Month" . . .

Or Is It? 

Thank god it's finally February. February, for me, is the month of birthdays. Beginning with the 1st and on until the very end, my calendar is jammed packed with B-day reminders of friends and family who were born this month, including both myself and my husband. In a normal year, I look forward to February on so many levels – the birthday celebrations, the fact that days are becoming incrementally longer, and, thank god, baseball season is just around the corner. But this year the yearning was deeper. February couldn’t get here fast enough.

T. S. Eliot once wrote, “April is the cruellest month,” but not this year. Not for me. And not for many of my nearest and dearest. From major and minor disappointments in the workaday world, to being diagnosed with diseases to deaths in the family to anniversaries of dear ones’ deaths, January was rough. Has there ever been a study about more people dying in January than any other month? It would be no surprise to me if this was the finding. And then, just yesterday I found out my nephew’s dog died on January 24. My dear dog, Bisquit left her 13 year earthly life in January some years ago. Even our furry friends succumb.

But here I am, a ‘year older’ when, in fact, I’m really just a day older than yesterday. Greetings from all over have come via snail mail and cyberspace, text messages and phone calls, to wish me the best for this next year of my life. All I truly hope for is what my dear mom-in-law likes to say when asked how she’s doing – “I only wish I could stay just as I am.” I know what she means, that life would go on and we could stay as healthy, alert, engaged, and enthusiastic about living as we are right now.

Today, I can say I feel thusly blessed. I have begun work in earnest on the new piece, a 2D commission I call ‘Dora and Anna’ – using old pictures, material and lace from the era of these two remarkable women, the grandmothers of my friend and her husband. 

It compels me into the studio and keeps me there often later than I should what with a dog waiting to be walked and a husband who enjoys my company at dinnertime. Yesterday, I didn’t notice until I was almost out the door that my jeans were covered in paint at the sit line! In my excitement to get started, I didn’t throw on the huge old shirt I wear as a smock and just went at it unprotected in my street clothes. Luckily, the paint was acrylic and washed right off.

A week into it, February already feels good to me. No matter that Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow and predicted another 6 weeks of winter. Bring it on. Winter is merely a weather prediction and most of us will manage to survive till spring. Then come May let’s see if, indeed, T.S. Eliot was right about April or if January holds onto that depressing distinction for 2010. One can only hope we’ve been through the worst.