Constant rebirth

I’ve been reading David Heatley’s My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down, a recommendation from one of my amazing IWL friends. I flipped to the first page, just to see what it was about, and ended up reading almost the whole first chapter while sitting in my car in the library parking lot. This first chapter, “Sex,” chronicles every sexual experience he’s ever had, in chronological order; the second, “Race,” every significant encounter with a black person. As you can imagine, these convoluted journeys of discovery reveal as much about our world and relationships as they do about the author himself.


A sample of Heatley’s work, from the New York Times,

While immersed in Heatley’s tiny, vivid, gridded/paneled world (the NYT piece above looks much like the work in My Brain), I recognized his journeys of discovery as familiar to my present moment. I’ve put off writing about my IWL experience — and post-IWL life — because the workshop has changed my perspective so dramatically that it’s hard to figure out how to explain it. In fact, it’s a lot like a first sexual encounter. I remember after seeing my first erect penis, I looked at all men differently: “Oh my god, he has one of those too! They all do!” It was a little bit confusing, a little bit shocking, but mostly the world just felt new — and I felt new to myself, too. That’s how I feel after the IWL workshop. I could tell you all the changes (and later, I probably will), but the big impression is just: It’s all new. I’m new.

One of the grand new things is I can engage with certain kinds of art much better than I used to. It’s like how having an Etsy shop changed my outlook on shopping: working intensely with my creative voice has changed me as a consumer of creativity. I read Heatley’s book, for example, with much greater appreciation and respect for his honesty and his deftness with sensitive topics. In the past I never thought I could have this kind of relationship with another artist’s work. I wasn’t a bad audience by any means (actually I’ve been told I’m great in a theater audience), but the experience feels fuller for me now. It used to be that I could enjoy or dislike, I could critique or stand in awe, but I didn’t feel I needed to spend much time to do those things. But now I’m starting to understand how someone would want to just soak themselves in one artist’s work for an extended period. My powers of absorption have expanded! (The flipside to this is now I’m worried I need to revisit work I dismissed previously. Sigh.)

And speaking of absorption, this week I spent three days on a watercolor, which is a so-far record. It started on Sunday, when I ate my first fresh lychee at Erik’s parents’ house (they have them at Costco!?), and became fascinated with the peel. Erik said there’s a way to calculate the pattern mathematically and I wanted to see if I could do it. Turns out, no, but an idea (really a composition) was born: a collection of small portraits, self-contained within little cells like the segments of a lychee peel.

Faces stage 1

Faces, stage 1

I was excited at the chance to use so many of my magazine photos for small-scale portrait practice. It took me a while to pencil in all of the people, but it was fun. After that, the backgrounds were easy.

Faces, stage 2

Faces, stage 2: Background painting

Then came the slightly tricky and more time-consuming process of painting all the faces. I did these in several steps: first, a simple layer of color for the skin, with further shading and fine details added later. I did the hair the same way. I had to take a lot of breaks while the paint dried, otherwise I could probably have finished this painting in one (tiring) day. But it was fun having a single thing to work on for several days.

Faces stage 3

Faces, stage 3: completed

I’m not pleased with all the faces equally, but overall I’m happy, and proud of myself for acting on an inspiration, and tackling such a lot of painting. Erik pointed out that some of the faces look more painty (as in, they make good use of the drippy quality of watercolor), while some could have been done with markers. Hmmm. I like the markery ones better, but I don’t know whether that’s my aesthetic or just something I’m used to. I guess that’s another thing to explore!


8 responses to “Constant rebirth

  1. What a positive expansion! And beautiful paintings which resemble collages.
    It’s great to get lost sometimes in others’ work, helps you place your own better perhaps on returning. Appreciation of that sort can be like a deeper love, and that is what it sounds like you’ve gained. Looking forward to more insights. Thanks

  2. “It’s great to get lost sometimes in others’ work, helps you place your own better perhaps on returning.”
    Esther, that is a wonderful way to put it, and exactly how I’m feeling. Before, I didn’t have a strong sense of my own work, so I could only feel desperate inferiority (“augh I will never be this good!”) or haughty critique (“this person can’t ___ and doesn’t know how to ____!”). I was never able to fully engage as an artist, only as a consumer… but that’s changed now. Yay! Thank you for your amazing insight.

  3. My writer’s group has been talking about beginnings, all that has to be accomplished, what works, what doesn’t, etc. This post brings that to mind again. What do you think it was that so quickly caught you when you opened that book in the parking lot and dropped into the story? And on a lighter note, I remember that ‘they all do!” moment…

    • Well, the book starts off with the sex chapter, so of course I had to keep reading. 😉 But also, Heatley’s drawings and dialogue are simple, almost childlike, whereas his content is more complex. That combination really drew me in. Come to think, I’ve been told the same thing about my work, so maybe that’s why I was so enthralled to read his book!

  4. I like this. Great idea. You talk of immersion in someone else’s art and I thought I’d comment that that is what I like to do. I have self-studied the complete works of Miles Davis, for instance, in chronological order. Right now I’m immersing myself in Miro. I find it enriching to see how artists have developed and to take their journey with them.

    • Ooh, Miles Davis is a great one for immersion. I don’t know a whole lot of his music but I love “Bitches Brew.”

      When you study someone’s work, do you look at just the “official” finished work, or do you go into “behind the scenes” stuff too? For instance, with Miró, are you just looking at completed paintings or are you seeking out sketches, interviews etc, too?

      • In essence I try to find the most definitive auto/biography or two of their life and work and then work through everything in chronological order. So, for instance, with Miles it was a case of buying all his work, listening to it in context and putting myself in the time and place. With Miro it’s about getting into his paintings and sketches, such that you can find in printed material, and marrying that with his life through Spanish Civil War and so on. It really is quite satisfying.

        • That sounds great. Context is so important for me — that’s why I switched over to a History major from English! Biographies can have such a strong interpretation, though, I’d prefer autobiography if I had a choice (not that those are undiluted either).

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