Flowering Grasses

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Flowering Grasses

When I started my blog, I’d accumulated years of stories about painting. The posts came easily, as if I was emptying an over-stuffed attic. I didn’t anticipate that eventually the attic would be empty, and the blog would catch up to my life in present-tense.  But that’s what happened, and here I am with the blog on my heals, as insistent as my cat clawing me to be petted. There’s no other way to move forward: If I want to keep the blog, I must draw from what’s happening now.

What’s happening now is that I’m in transition in both life and painting, and these transitions bear the marks of messiness and uncertainty, grasping and letting go, finding balance in the back-and-forth lurch and lull of emergence. Since May, I’ve been setttling into a new rental house and painting in a new studio.  Posts and paintings are coming more slowly, and patience has never been among my virtues.

During this transition, I’ve been painting grasses. I started several grasses paintings just before I moved out of my old house. I loved the old house and didn’t want to leave it; the owners had to sell it and I wasn’t ready to buy. I lived in the house for three months as it sold, showing it to prospective owners and watching as its quirks and kinks were exposed, inspected, and gradually repaired or accepted for what they were.  My friend Emi remarked that this was the first time she’d known me to stay in a situation that required a protracted goodbye, and she was right. 

Transitions are part of life, but I’ve never been particularly graceful at them, given that they do require patience. When I see a transition on the horizon, I want to run towards it and get it over with, even if I’m not looking forward to what’s on the other side. There’s something uncomfortable about waiting it out, about living through that gap between what is and what will be.  In one sense, our whole lives are the lived in that gap, but since much of what is coming does not forewarn us, for certain periods of time we manage to believe that things are stable, solid, and certain.

I was in that happy illusion of stability when I got word the house would be sold. Perhaps as an attempt to hang on, to take the house with me, I started painting this patch of its backyard grasses before I moved out.

Flowering Grasses 2

Maybe because it was spring and the flowers were coming in atop the long stalks, soft as overcooked pasta shells or baby ears, maybe because I felt a special season of my life closing, maybe because I didn’t yet know that the contentment I’d found in the old house was as portable as my painting supplies— whatever it was, I started painting the grasses frantically, and I brought the half-finished canvases to my new house where I’ve been working on them ever since. Here are the paintings in process from a couple of weeks ago, in the new studio.

Flowering Grasses 3

 My new house is different from the old one, but it turns out that I’m as delighted by life here as I was there. In the yard, different creatures just as worthy of worship grow. The grasses aren’t flowering, but many plants are, and there are delights like the herb garden, the massive century plant I see from my back patio where I drink coffee, and a fabulous tuft of grass in the middle of the lawn whose closest relatives are on the shady side of the house. There’s the wren who feeds her babies in a ramshackle nest outside my kitchen door; I spy on her while I’m cooking. The windows here are larger, the birds louder, the cars and dogs quieter, and my mostly-outdoor cat (feat. below) even decided to stick around. Life is different and the same in all the ways it matters most.

Flowering Grasses 4

Grass painting in process

Amidst these transitions, I’m painting differently too–a little more rough and wild. I didn’t set out to paint differently, but the grasses turned out to be an unwieldy subject, like trying to brush the kind of hair that never quite goes straight, and when I tried to paint with my normal, carefully controlled strokes, I grew frustrated and neither the process nor the outcome felt right. As a response to the frustration, I started experimenting with more wild, spontaneous, and joyful marks. However, when I stood back to look at my results, I felt lost. The new way of painting felt better, but didn’t look quite right. Late in May, despair settled in, the kind that whispers I should stop painting and writing, have several kids real fast, never think about art or writing again, and that nobody would fault me for being such a dedicated mom. Here was a grasses painting when I felt this kind of despair:

Flowering Grasses 5

At these times, I’ve found it helpful to give it a couple of days before I paint again.  In other words, patience.

So I went to a full-day silent yoga and breathing retreat at the beautiful Casa Micanopy. I spent time in my body being a body, just moving and breathing. I returned home, approached the painting, and within an hour, finished it with virtually no thought or struggle:

Flowering Grasses 6

Blooming Grasses (1)
36 x 36″

I hung the painting in my office, over my therapy chair. It’s a silent reminder to me that a process, when given proper attention and care, will eventually yield blooms. And it turns out that ragged flowers are flowers all the same.

As for the raggedness and time required of any real transition, the grasses paintings took a lot of time, and I just finished them. I don’t know what’s next–maybe more grasses. At any rate, I now appreciate grasses. Once I started painting them, grasses went from ordinary to extraordinary. Suddenly, I saw new types of grass everywhere, big ones outside my work building, baby grass hedges, striped spider grasses, wild brown poofs of grasses, grasses I’d been walking past every day but never noticed. It turns out there are wonderful grasses all over campus, my neighborhood, my town–grasses I find as contagious and irrepressible as Muppets. It’s like I’ve unlocked the Grasses level of a funky eco-videogame or discovered a secret Sesame Street Does Grasses episode.

Flowering Grasses 7

Blooming Grasses (2)
36 x 36″

 And of course, the grasses haven’t changed; I’ve changed. Which makes me think: If something as ordinary as grass can become extraordinary simply because I began a process of creative engagement with it, how many other “ordinary” grasses of my own life are just waiting to come alive through the same kind of attention? Perhaps to keep painting and writing requires seeing my life which such eyes. What a radical choice, too, in a world that encourages us to downplay attention to our own lives in favor of media streams that over-sensationalize details of other people’s often-fictionalized lives.

Flowering Grasses 8

 Blooming Grasses (3)
36 x 36″

Right now, the grasses in my new yard are doing the wild things they do. The wren is bringing food to her babies, and the small and big changes continue to unfold. I can’t rush any of it, but as I stop and ease in, there’s no need to. I can appreciate the details: the new grey sofa whose cushions are beginning to know me, the black-and-white checkered linoleum kitchen floor, the odd angles of pots on their new rack, the way the absence of a dishwasher means I’m washing dishes by hand and enjoying it. There’s the fact that, in a new home and a change I grieved and resisted, I find myself surrounded by a portable contentment in creative solitude, where the images and words may come more slowly, but come they do.

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