Private battles

The other day I was at Lauralhurst park on my lunch hour, sketching for this picture — one of two for my friend-who-died’s daughter, so she’ll be able to see what his fatherhood was like. These have been very satisfying pictures to work on, though of course they are intense to work on as well.

Two ladies in their 60s came up to look over my shoulder at what I was doing. One of them started fumbling desperately for her glasses, realizing she may have lost them or dropped them somewhere. (She hadn’t, she eventually found them in a bag.)

“UGH. Never get old!” she said to me. “When you get to be 60 they should just take you out and shoot you.”

It was so cosmically messed up, telling a person who was drawing to a toddler about her dead father that it’s better to be dead than enjoy long years of life with the people you love.

I wanted to say this to her, but I was too thunderstruck to speak.

There’s that saying about how you never know what quiet battles people are fighting on their own, and so you shouldn’t go cavalierly diminishing folks or taking it to heart too much if someone is short with you or doesn’t give you back the kind of energy you are giving out. I always know that in the back of my mind, but it’s been interesting to be living that lately. To hear people say glibly, “I just DIED.” and think, no. No you didn’t.

Of course, who knows what health issues this lady is struggling with. Maybe she used to have a sharp memory and never used to lose anything. Maybe she just heard bad news. Maybe her lunch wasn’t agreeing with her. Maybe she too was annoyed that someone’s dog had just plunged into the pond and chased all the teenage ducklings away. I don’t know what quiet battles she is facing. They must be doozies.

Monster Drawing Rally 2016

All photos in this entry were taken for the Portland Art Museum by Cody Maxwell, and are used here with permission. There are many more pictures to admire here. 

All photos in this entry were taken for the Portland Art Museum by Cody Maxwell, and are used here with permission. There are many more pictures to admire here.

I read on someone’s Facebook page that “MDR” is the French version of “LOL” (mort de rire: dying of laughter), which is a great way to look at it really. The Portland Art Museum‘s Monster Drawing Rally is a big fun time.

This was the second of such events, designed to raise money for free youth programming at the Art Museum. It’s a pretty good deal for the artists as well. In exchange for rubbing elbows with one’s colleagues and drawing before an admiring crowd, one receives a FREE membership to the art museum for a year (!). I have loved being able to just drop into the museum for an hour or two to see a certain painting or visiting exhibition without having to make a big THING about it, so of course I was thrilled to be asked to participate again.

I was in the final session this year, and I arrived right at the beginning of the event so I’d have a chance to look around. It was because of this I met Linda Hutchins.

AND her incredible ink-nib-fingers.

I stood for a long time before her, dazzled by her little invention.

I told her I was dazzled, and she beamed and said she had been attending a metal workshops for a while. This event was the ink-nib-fingers’ debut! They make tiny little scribble beasts that look like something Paul Klee would have done if he’d had the luck to play with such interesting things. It looked SO FUN.

I also met a PNCA student named Jessica who was doing a paper-cut collage.

She cleverly had her sketchbook out for folks to flip through – which is a great idea that I may borrow for future events. It made me want to see more of her work, though I haven’t yet found a website for her.

Of course I also saw a bunch of people I know. Like Kinoko Evans.

And Lisa Congdon.

And Anisa Makhoul. (Apparently giving the volunteers a hard time. When I saw her she was drawing.)

I also saw pals of mine who I don’t have photos of, like Adrienne Vita, Phillip Stewart, Carson Ellis and pretty sure I saw my Lena Podesta as well.

I saw people I don’t actually know but kind of drool over too, like the little family behind Apak Studio.

It’s an interesting exercise to put a bunch of introverts in front of a live audience and have them draw for an hour. Some people find it trying. “How was your session?” I asked Rilla Alexander, when I bumped into her after her session. She said, “I learned I really need a steady table.”

Some people really clam up. I saw several artists this year with a stash of pictures already half done, which they would sort of finesse into finished and then hand off to the volunteers. I suppose it does make for a more polished product, though to me it is not in the spirit of the event — the joy of watching something get created, from scratch, before your very eyes.

Then again, I draw out in the world quite a bit and have a separate painting kit to do so, so it is easy for me to click into an informal mode. I don’t find it difficult to just sit back and draw monsters. I am not daunted by people looking over my shoulder and I am not afraid to do a bunch of potentially terrible drawings in front of people.

I have an “always be closing” attitude towards this event. Rather than spend a long time on one or two pictures I like to make a whole bunch of quick ones. Some I like very much, some end up being not to my taste, (i.e. I think they’re awful,) but maybe they would be someone else’s taste. Because who cares in the end. Some of them sold right away, some are still probably at the art museum’s shop and may or may not sell in the coming weeks.

Once a picture is finished, you raise your hand to alert a volunteer in a blaze orange lei. They take the picture to a drying rack, slip it into a plastic sheet, label it with one of your stickers, and then it goes off to the bidding wall.

This is where the funds are raised.

I like having other people take care of all that, because again it lets me focus more on the process itself. And the result of that process. The look in people’s eyes when they see something getting made.

And the feeling you get when people stop before what you’re doing.

Finally meeting artists you’ve admired for a long time.

And the inspiration — and opportunity! — to make a little magic of your own at one of the many tables available near the concessions.

It’s all just a very cool thing to be a part of. I hope I get to do it again next year.

Just another path

My friend died. He has been dead almost three…four weeks now, as I write this.

I have been writing about it, writing a whole lot, but whenever I sit down to write to a person (or in this case: people) I tend to clam up.

It’s so much easier to write to no one, somehow, that it is to write to someone. It’s so hard to bring people up to speed, so hard to really explain HOW I feel without unearthing so many stories and details that most people just don’t want to look directly at. I wonder if it’s like how war veterans feel. If you weren’t there you can’t understand what it was like, and even the stories can’t quite encapsulate everything. It’s like trying to explain a dream — even if you explain the internal connections, the feelings that arise when THAT elementary school / church parking lot blended architecture come to mind — you still somehow miss the color of that thing, or the sound that this person made, and it all just falls so short. So you barely try. You just stick with key points and let the other person sort it out. Dead. Rare sarcoma. Three months. Cachexia. Two year old daughter. Beauty. Kindness. Community.

I have been writing long, beautiful letters to a fellow “death midwife” as we’ve been calling ourselves, and that has been easy because she is so hungry for all the details I remain somewhat fixated by.

Death is such a divisive thing. I sneak out the news as best I can — because I mark this time as sanctioned time for grieving, whatever that looks like, and therefore I need people to know I am going through Something Unusual. Though of course by and large, because I’ve been doing my grief work all along, I find that I am mostly okay with it all, and it is other people who cannot handle it, or are struck down by it — the tragic nature of it, the suddenness, or even just the death itself.

I am privileged to be acquainted with many excellent local illustrators, and at one of our recent monthly get togethers I managed to repel everyone in earshot aside from Rilla Alexander and Meg Hunt, who both had their own stories to tell on the subject. One finds extraordinary comrades down in the trenches of death. But one also finds people whose mouths harden to a rigid line, unable to entertain the idea in any capacity. Unable to even open the door a crack, never mind invite it inside out of the cold. Which is hard because I’m standing out there, with death, getting soaked by rain, and it would be so nice to come in out of the cold for a moment.

One also finds wobbly, unresolved prior-griefs that bursts forth whenever you mention the one you are carrying. Eyes redden, faces gurn, tears well up and spill over cheeks — tears you yourself no longer shed when you say the words “Travis” and “dead” or “died”. Those people invite you into their bedrooms right off the bat when really you just need a dry towel and maybe to borrow some socks.

At first I was confused by my propensity to WRITE about it so much but not DRAW about it, but then I remembered that I have read something like…6? 7? books about death in the past two months. I have not similarly increased the rate at which I look at pictures. So I changed up my morning routine to involve less email writing and more picture-looking, and on Tuesday spent a good many hours at the art museum.

Of course, I found death there too.

I think I will be interested in death for a long while yet.

And I’ll let myself do that — I think if I try to push it away too much right now, while I’m so fascinated by it, I’ll end up avoiding it altogether, which I above all do not want to do. I have learned that closing down one mind-valve all too often shuts down many, many other valves in my mind, and usually they are tied to the parts that I need to function normally. Particularly the curiosity and the wonder. And I need those things to be awake. So I do my best not to censor what interests me.

“I know you like to know about things,” Travis said to me almost a month ago, as he explained his accu-pressure bracelets. I do. I exceedingly like to know about things. They are so much easier to draw about if you KNOW about them.

As it turns out, I know very little about this part of grief. The storm after the storm. The real work.

Perhaps that is also why it’s been harder to draw about. And it’s all the more reason why I need to stay here, out in the rain, and pay very close attention. I need to take all the notes I can on what this is like, so I can start picking apart what it even is. So that I can paint it.

The other thing I need to paint right now is the practical stuff, the better days of  Travis’ life as I knew it, what I knew of it, for his daughter so she’ll have tangible things to remember him by. After my visit to the museum I walked to a coffee shop and ended up sitting next to a woman from Brazil studying English from a little work book, chatting with an earnest local guy. And I started noodling in my sketchbook.

And that was a pleasant surprise. And so the next day I worked on it some more at the studio.

So in a way he’s back alive again in my studio. And it’s really intensely gratifying and strange. And lovely. Looking forward to the coming days.