On May 28th, my friend Tara Keens-Douglas and I are taking part in the Christie Pits Art Crawl.
It sneaks up on you. Especially when your life is basically in service of another person. It starts with mild irritation at seemingly normal things. Then, that ever present irritation dips and rises throughout the day leading to cycles of negative thought. For me, it also manifests as a hunger for decadent food or shopping- though neither of those things ever fill the void. I think it’s a sideways desire for richness and energy.
What is this? This is an existential need to center myself as well as a need to create. It’s a recurrent hunger that peaks when my days lack the time and space for grounding myself.
This is perhaps the hardest thing about being a mom so far – the desperate lack of time and means to regenerate my inner reservoir of peace and strength. I’m not unhappy, nor am I unable to care for my little girl. The need for existential grounding though remains a background thirst that grows and grows until I can’t ignore it anymore. I am getting better at acknowledging the signs. I haven’t yet reached a new rhythm that curtails this cycle of want, though I would like to build a better cycle with some built in time for grounding, each day.
The best ways for me to ground myself are through art, writing and yoga. This week I tried something new. I left all my gouache things on the dining table with some pre cut and prepared pieces of watercolour paper. I’m trying to make it as easy as possible to do a small burst of work. That seemed to have worked.
In addition, I have my yoga mat and yoga dvd ready to go as well. That system isn’t working AT ALL. I think I need to memorise the sequence and do it on my own when I have a sliver of time.
Writing has been more elusive. Where painting doesn’t require me to be coherent – writing does. I can paint in a headspace beyond words and be happy. It won’t necessarily be good – but it’ll happen and that’s all I really need sometimes. With writing though, I find that I need to more actively center myself in order to access the stream of words. I can’t satisfactorily sit and write for a 15 minute period unless, like now, I’ve been wanting to do it for a day and a half. So maybe I need to save up my words so that once a week I can commit a solid hour to it and let daddy take the baby.
These are the paintings I did this week. The black and white one I had planned on for a long time and I finally did it. It’s a piece I made for a friend.
I’ve been thinking about white pigment. When it comes to racial politics, I can give no merit to any view that holds race as a concrete thought form. For me, it comes down to pigment. We’re all just variations of similar tones. No matter how hard I try to see it, I simply wasn’t raised with the mental hooks onto which to hang ideas of racial superiority or inferiority. Perhaps emboldened by my artistic sensibility, my reflections on skin colour politics are always attached to pigmentation of paint.
Historically, people have died for the whitest white in art as well as make up. Lead based white pigments have caused a legacy of pain, death and sickness in those who used them. Nevertheless people have continually sought to appear lighter. This can be seen in the wide world of skin lightening poisons that pervade every culture. There seems to exist a strange and base instinct that suggests lightness will bring you bounty – even if it kills you slowly.
If only we could short circuit the assumption that lightness was inherently better. If only we could see racial gradation as the arbitrary thing it is. There is so much beauty in variation and so much bounty in natural reality. It seems the most absurd mind trap and yet we continue to abuse and destroy lives based on these arbitrary distinctions.
When I started painting people in high school (at around 17 years old), I first started painting light skinned people. I think I did that because light skinned people were primarily the people I saw in media (TV & magazines). They were also the people deemed most attractive in my social circles. Light skin automatically elevated you in the eyes of everyone around you. In an environment with North American TV amidst a population of darker skinned people, a light skinned person was a kind of social unicorn. I’m exaggerating a bit for effect but that’s essentially the environment I began painting in.
The point is though, that I began painting light skinned people and so I learned about tones of colour; how to mix paint to arrive at pigments that captured gradation of shadow and light as they reflected off pale skin. I learned that in order to paint lighter coloured skin, you travelled around the palette to include a range of pinks, purples, blues and browns. White skin therefore, was not literally white in any sense. Not even teeth are absolutely white. Painting teeth white, looks strange and malevolent.
Later on in high school, I wanted to paint people that looked like me. I had started learning my way around brown skin tones. I needed to visit other colours on the palette for my own skin tones to make sense. In fact I was hindered by the notion of whiteness in that it didn’t occur to me to mix my tones with white because I was not white. I mixed with yellow to lighten my browns and I was never entirely happy with the result.
Painting skin tone is a unique skill. The technique is very different from painting abstracts or landscapes. I think, in part, because of how ingrained our auto-response is to facial recognition, our tendency is very strong to autofill incorrectly. To paint a face I learned, it is very useful to turn your source image upside down, in order to confuse your mental autofill and allow you to paint what you see instead of what you think you see. The same goes for colour – you have to see the tones as literal tones in order to create resemblance. Only very recently have I begun to capture people similar to my skin tone, because I needed to build a mental map in order to arrive at the colours needed to create that semblance. Arriving there did indeed require some white, along with pink, orange, purple, brown and black. This is still a work in progress.
For most of 2016, I’ve had this canvas on my easel. I worked on it very slowly, adding layers upon layers of colour. For long stretches of time it just sat there in a semi-finished state while I looked and it and thought about it. What was nice in working on this piece was that I didn’t rush myself into shaping it into ‘something’. I let it be what it grew to be and only in the last stages did I really shape it into the beastie it is now. Because I didn’t rush it, I was able to bring to this piece some of the techniques I’ve practiced this year with the gouache.
This piece is called Drako, for obvious reasons (because it looks like a dragon). In terms of the inspiration behind it though, there was a phrase that had come into my mind in the early stages, ‘sometimes you need a map’. That’s because this canvas started out as something very different (tones of pink) and after the canvas sat abandoned for a really long time, at the beginning of this year I took it in a very different direction that eventually led here. Each piece in a sense is a voyage of discovery. More often than not this is an exercise in getting out of my own way to allow the image to form into something cohesive instead of forcing it in one direction or another.
My existential art map is something I’ve developed over the years and actually over the course of writing this blog to date. Writing my reflections on each piece has helped me map out my process. It gives me faith that in those moments when I stare at the canvas and think – my god this is garbage – that if I keep going, it’ll move past garbage and become something I’m happy with.
I feel good about ending 2016 on this note. Thanks for tuning in.