What Was I Thinking?

Why did I stop painting 20 years ago?

More than twenty years ago, after drawing or painting nearly every day from the time I could hold a crayon, I stopped making visual art. Why? It’s a bit of a story. Something that happened on New Year’s Day made me want to tell it.

My husband’s and my annual new year’s ritual has two parts. Before midnight on December 31, we write down everything we want to leave behind in the year about to end. Then—after blessing the past to remain in the past—we burn the papers to ash. Before New Year’s Day ends, we write down our desires and intentions for the new year, one to a paper. These are rolled into tiny scrolls, each tied with a length of thread and tucked away, not to be read until next January 1.

A gratifying number of our year-old intentions for 2018 bore fruit. But one scroll showed me something remarkable and exciting about my personal year. Last New Year’s Day I was working on a book. On a scroll, I recorded my hopes for its completion and the response I desired.

But mid-year, my dreams took a sharp turn. I’d been feeling stuck. I realized that I’d spent much of my time doing perfectly worthy things that others needed. But I wasn’t learning from them, my growing edge wasn’t engaged. I was shocked to see that I’d fallen into a long-ago pattern of self-exploitation, as I wrote in July.

When I was asked what had excited and stretched me, the answer was clear and simple: in April I made more than three dozen tiny drawings. My husband and I took our annual visit to his family in Hawaii, but we were rained out. No beach days. Tucked alongside a supply of books and papers, I’d brought along a set of brush pens and a packet of small cards inscribed with English and Hebrew words. These were “angel cards,” used in a form of divination and given to us by dear friends.

In Jewish mysticism, angels are messengers between worlds and beings of single intention, in contrast to the infinite complexity and contradiction of human beings. So each card carries a word that could be seen as the name of a singular angel: “spontaneity,” or “love,” or “moderation.” You pose a question using a formula that can vary as you wish: “What angel will support me in _________________?” or (if the idea of angels gives you hives) “What quality will accompany me as I __________________?” There are 64 cards in all, so plenty of potential for interesting juxtapositions. Questions almost always bring words and images that spark fresh thinking. Often, something is illuminated. Surprisingly often a new understanding clicks into place.

Most angel cards come illustrated. But except for the words, these were blank, an invitation to add one’s own images. During many afternoons of unending rain (bringing frightening floods, washouts, and isolation to northern island communities), we drew 64 images, dividing them between us. Here are a couple of my favorites:

and a wonderful one by my husband, Rick Yoshimoto:

The act of drawing—choosing my subject, rendering the outlines, adding the colors and textures—instantly took me back to childhood, when any moment I wasn’t required to be elsewhere found me hunched over a piece of paper, creating a world I vastly preferred to the one I actually inhabited. The first time someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered “artist.” I didn’t stop answering that way until the 1990s, when writing became my obsession and delight. At the time, I felt a strong pressure to choose between the two creative practices, and I chose writing.

What was I thinking? Three things stand out.

The politics of art. I’d been a lifelong activist, often involving my art work. I created posters and flyers for causes. I helped to organize a kind of union for graphic designers, an alliance for artists working for social justice and peace, other campaigns and movements engaging artists. I did illustrations for an underground newspaper. And when I wasn’t doing these things, I painted portraits of my friends and colleagues, showing and selling a little.

In the politics of the left of the late twentieth century, making paintings was widely considered a trivial, even decadent, practice. It was okay to do community murals and posters, to create work with social utility and community representation in mind. Anything else was likely to be dismissed as bourgeois and self-indulgent. In those days, I lacked the understanding to argue otherwise.

The gallery system. When I started organizing artists in the sixties and seventies, I often used the metaphor of Sleeping Beauty, the artist as passive object kissed into life by the prince, which is to say the curator or critic. (I wrote a little bit about it here nearly a decade ago.) That metaphor landed every time I gave a talk, often with a force that at first surprised me. So many of the young artists I met were brokenhearted from trying. It didn’t feel right that they had to work all night waiting tables to earn not only a meager livelihood, but the right to make art. I didn’t like the constipated way most critics wrote about art, nor the snobberies and power-games artists were expected to ante into, competing to be noticed and rewarded.

I was interested in economic justice, so seeing my paintings on collectors’ walls didn’t strike me as a worthy ambition. It felt like way too much me-me-me and not nearly enough we.

Dominant ideas about artists. A high bar was set for seriousness of intention (although, paradoxically, possessing the requisite seriousness could just as easily be verified with a flamboyant personality as through long hours in the studio). Demonstrating sacrifice was critical: finding your specialty and sticking to it was essential. I disliked being asked to perform either the sacred fool or the anorectic ascetic. I disliked the self-referential framework of contemporary art, sometimes validating work by labeling its artworld influences, other times condemning it for being derivative, situating power everywhere but with the artist.

Everyone knew there was a hierarchy, descending from great artists to merely good to isn’t it time you found some way to make a living? If you didn’t have a chance of being great—by your own judgment or the judgment of others—there was a strong sense it was best to make a quick, clean break.

These three were my thoughts at the time. To my younger self, they added up to a compelling argument to put down my paint brushes when I picked up my pen to write. But no matter how many times I add them up today, I can’t make the sum come out that way it did twenty years ago. I can only marvel that I talked myself into a corner, giving up something that had been a principal source of pleasure, healing, and possibility since childhood. I love to write and have no regrets about taking up that practice. But having succumbed to such flimsy ideas about visual art, that I do regret.

Things have changed. The ideological tests of the left have multiplied, but perhaps the fact there are more of them has weakened their power. The gallery system still has plenty of snobby and terminally ambitious people who make me feel like taking a long break in a decontamination chamber. But they have nothing like the earlier stranglehold on the exchange of art. Today I am by no means the only commentator who has shone light on art’s power to change the story and therefore the world. I doubt the pressures I felt, the mindgames I took part in, are distorting the lives of younger artists to anything like the same degree I experienced, although they are still felt. There are more thought-police in the world, but their power is greatly diminished.

I won’t post images from the projects I am currently working on until they feel ready to share. But I will say that one project includes both drawing and writing, the other focuses on painting, and the headiest cocktail I imbibed this New Year’s Eve was the freedom rushing through my veins as I recognized that the choices I foreclosed years ago remain open to me now. You can be sure that one of the scrolls I hope to unroll in 2020 expresses my desire to have 2019 offer another sip of that intoxicating freedom, and another, and another.

Etta James, “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.”

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