Why I make pictures.
I’ve been making pictures longer than just about anything else. I started drawing before I could read or write. I could spend hours at the dining room table, with a pile of scrap paper and a box of crayons, laboring to render a cat, a daffodil, a tree, a horse, a Peruvian woman in a derby hat and a beautiful, multicolored, woven skirt that I found in a National Geographic magazine. It was a memorable and stellar day when my dad brought home a box of 64 Crayolas, with the built-in crayon sharpener. Some of the first words I learned to read were the names of colors: burnt umber, periwinkle, magenta. They were my magic words, my incantations.
By the time I started grade school, I had also started a self-imposed course of serious draftmanship. It was no longer enough to put colors on the paper. I was after accuracy, shading, realism. My parents didn’t bother buying me coloring books. That wasn’t art. Instead, they bought me books about drawing techniques. I felt triumphant when, at age six, I could render a rose, just after it was beginning to unfurl, the center petals coiled like a fountain, the outer petals curling out like waves breaking, the stem with its spikey thorns, the leaves with their serrated edges. It was an homage to the magic of the universe.
I drew and painted and collaged and quilted and embroidered and etched my way through school. I entered school art shows and won awards. After high school, I wanted to go to art school. But art, I had been advised, was not generally a practical way to make a living. I went anyway, after I left home, taking evening studio classes at the Massachusetts College of Art, while I worked during the day as an office manager for three computer engineers who worked for a semiconductor manufacturer. I would drag my half-finished canvases to work, hang them up behind my desk during the day, then haul them to class at night. My bemused colleagues began to look forward to seeing my homework.
Work, paying the bills, family emergencies, even romance and heartache, all the usual vicissitudes of life often halted my picture-making for months at a time. But somehow I would find my way back to it. I needed to. Making art was my psychotherapy, my soul, my church, my communion with the world, my gratitude for life itself, my expression of joy and longing and wonder. My father took photographs. He, like me, had a day job, but in the evening and on weekends, he would spend hours in his darkroom while I was growing up, often enlisting my assistance, developing rolls of film and churning out print after print. He liked the chemistry, the mess, the technical aspects of using the camera as a machine, the science of the enlarger. Mostly, he took snapshots of family events, or technical photos of electronic components that he would sell to trade magazines. Then, unexpectedly, when I was 31, he died. And I inherited his cameras.
Perhaps because my dad was more of a photo-journalist, not so much trying to make art as he was simply trying to record events, it would be several years after his death before I considered using one of his cameras as another medium for making pictures, another box of crayons for rendering my version of the world. But finally, I took one of his best 35mm film cameras on a trip to southern France. And I experienced an epiphany. I discovered that my way of seeing and interpreting the world could indeed be applied to a viewfinder.
I remember, in particular, wandering around by myself on a lustrous May day in Pézenas, the town along the Hérault river where Molière brought his troupe, “l’Illustre Théâtre” when he left Paris. I was reveling in the fantastic 17th century architecture, the small alleys, the bougainvillea dripping down balconies and clinging to walls of old stone. And I kept running into another picture-maker, a man who worked as a professional photographer in New York, but was born in southern France, who was framing the same shots that I was. He had a much better camera than I, of course, as well as an assistant who was loaded down with bags of lenses and film. But we were seeing the same play of light and shadow and color. We would part for a while, then once again find each other, attracted inexorably to the same scenes. We exchanged a few bits of conversation, but mostly we would smile and nod, acknowledging our shared vision. I felt like I had been welcomed to a secret club. Those photos would end up comprising my first art exhibit as a photographer.
Eventually, I went digital. Having grown up with the mess, the smells, and the imprecise hazards of darkroom photography, I had no sentimental attachment to film. With some trepidation, I upgraded my Photoshop Elements software to the full version of Photoshop. Photoshop was like an electronic box of 64 Crayolas. At first it was intimidating, but I discovered that the best way to figure out how to use it was to recapture my inner six-year-old and just play. For hours. I spent entire weekends snapping everything with my digital camera, then trying out every tool, every filter, every layer modifier I could find in Photoshop. I right-clicked and discovered new complexities. I bought a graphics tablet. I bought Illustrator, and went to RISD, and started taking art classes after work again. I joined an art association. I started submitting photos and finally began to get them accepted in juried shows. I was awarded Artist Member status in two art associations. I learned how to make my own website. I learned how to write html code. I became a full-fledged art geek. If it weren’t for making pictures, I might never have started this blog. And even if I had, it wouldn’t look the way it does if it weren’t for making pictures.
It still urks me when someone remarks that making art is a good ‘hobby.’ Generally, I don’t bother to correct them anymore. It’s never the people who know what it means to feel compelled to write, to draw, to quilt, to sing, to play an instrument, to dance, to plant a garden, to work with their head and hands in order to reach inside themselves and share their passion, who make such remarks. Even when I was too fatigued or sore or broke to do long photo shoots during and after cancer treatment, I still made and shared my pictures or my writing or shared in appreciating the creative passions of others. However ambivalent I feel about using the word ‘survivor’ to describe myself or anyone else who endures cancer and cancer treatment, there is one context in which the word applies. And that has to do with the survival of who I am and how I make sense of the world. I’ve spent many months since being diagnosed feeling loss, feeling lost, wondering who I was, unsure how or if I would ever fully get back to parts of myself. The long journey back to making art has ultimately been far more important, more crucial, than negotiating the shoals of cancer. It has represented my true recovery.
However huge and overwhelming cancer is, however much it threatens to take over our lives and our psyches, it is not who we are or even why we are. We are not our disease. We never were. That’s not what makes our lives and our presence in the world meaningful.
I’ll never forget The Carcinista’s profound post, Taking the Reins, when she articulated her decision to stop cancer treatment. “I want to go out in charge of my life, with a little dignity left. Blackmailing friends into coming to visit by making them bring offerings of Starbucks Chai Latte. Being able to sit at the dinner table and make my kids laugh […] Turns out what’s best for them is to have their mom AROUND and PARTICIPATING…”
So, I am participating. And relieved. Because the part of myself that has enabled me to participate more deeply and passionately and generously with the world has survived. And with it, I can find my way to the light.
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