STAY. an artwork that almost didn't
It was the largest canvas artwork of my career to date. A whopping five feet tall. I stared at it's vast blankness with all the nervy excitement of someone about to embark on an adventure. This was my challenge, the wide open white space of over 2,000 square inches.
I had no idea what I was going to paint, typical for me who often paints with no plan, no clear outcome or specific subject matter. Artists like me refer to ourselves as creative intuitives. We create by feel rather than by blueprint.
I started slinging paint like a crazy woman. With music turned up loud and rowdy, just the way I like it, I moved in a whir with whatever colors my heart desired. They were my dance partners, my lovers for the night. I don't know how late it was before I finally stopped moving. I have often joked that I live my life (and art) in two speeds : Idle and Fast.
I stared at the colorful mess before me. Then I saw them, two figures emerging from the chaos, a decidely curvy female and a young male lurking on the edge as if he would escape from this painting if he could.
I pulled out their shapes with more paint and as I did, words begin to surface like telegraph messages being delivered.
I need you.
Don't leave me all alone.
I wasn't sure what I thought of this painting and it's cryptic messages with it's cacophony of color. There was a love/don't love feeling about it. So I decided to hang it in my bedroom where perhaps sleeping near it would change my perspective. And it did.... somewhat. I began to bond with this painting that I had decided to call Stay though it still caused me to feel angsty whenever I gazed at it.
It reminded me of Hong Kong, a city I lived in when I was younger. I lived there just shy of seven years. Hong Kong is a dense urban environment. It has bragging rights for it's urban child Mong Kok, the densest city district in the world with over 300,000 people per square mile. In the years that I lived there I navigated crowded subways, double-decker busses teeming with passengers and bustling open-air markets full of domestic amahs and grandmothers as well as fish peddlers. It was a vibrant, colorful city to explore, a true international metropolis. I had an exciting community of friends including expats from around the world. While my friends back home went to college (or jail!), I went to Hong Kong where I learned much about the world, culture and what it is to be human rather than American.
It baffled me why all this energy about Hong Kong would bubble up in this art. I have not lived in HK since the early 90s, and my last visit there was over ten years ago. Why would all this Hong Kong energy show up ? And why is there an undercurrent of angst in all the excitement of this abstract cityscape?
After being up on my bedroom wall for months, I took it down. Perhaps it is just time to let this one go. It is not hard to start a new painting on top of an old painting. Artists do it all the time. God only knows how many originals people have in their homes that unknowingly hold dead art underneath.
"Tell me about this painting," said a recent visitor to my studio. I glibly replied that I was thinking about making it a Do-Over.
"Why?" she asked. "What is it you see that you want to do over?"
"I'm just not sure I like it," I said. "I've never been sure if I like it... even though it reminds me of Hong Kong, a city I love very much."
She indicated that she liked the painting, that she was drawn to it and wanted to know the story of it. I began to engage with this painting in a way I had not before. I had never told the story of the painting. I had merely stared at it as if it was a postcard relic found in the bottom of the kitchen junk drawer.
"See how it says these words?" I pointed out. I explained how the figures and the words emerged from the art unplanned. Stay. I need you. Don't leave me all alone.
"I wasn't thinking of anyone when I painted these words on," I explained. "
But I wonder now if it's because of the lonely feelings I often dealt with when I lived in Hong Kong, despite the vibrancy of the city?"
I began to reflect out loud as we studied the painting together.
"Perhaps that is why it makes me feel angtsy when I look at it," I surmised to my studio visitor.
My years in Hong Kong were a a paradox of feeling isolated and alone even though I was surrounded. Privacy and solitude were hard to come by, yet the angst of feeling isolated was not. It is that age old human challenge of feeling disconnected even though one is not physically alone.
The visitor enjoyed the talk about the painting and in the end, chose something else, but something interesting happened : I finally felt connected to the painting as it Is and am content to leave it be rather then end it's story and paint over it.
Stay. I need you. Don't leave me all alone.
These words, these messages from a lifetime ago, were the unspoken longings of a young American girl on her own for the first time in the great big exciting world. Her fears... my fears... of disappearing into the ginormity of Hong Kong's vibrancy emerged these decades later. It was like my little girl self and all of her angst of being abandoned, a core fear for the entirety of my life, had been waiting to be heard. The art became a kind of portal for her story to finally be told.
It was during my time in Hong Kong that I gave thought to ending my life. Such was my sense of disconnect from not only those around me, the community I lived in and the circles I ran with, but disconnected from my own self, from my own voice and my own sense of personhood. What did my life matter? On my darkest days, I possessed the distorted notion that no one would notice if I left the room of this life. I felt that I could vanish into a sea of forgetfulness. I wanted to vanish. As a young woman in her twenties, it was a crossroads of choosing to continue my life story or to become a dead forlorn painting buried in the graveyard of untold stories. It was an isolated time of an unbearable feeling of being utterly alone in the dark.
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, renowned trauma expert and psychiatrist
Bessel van der Kolk, talks about how unreleased emotions wait in the body until they can be felt and released. Mine patiently waited for more than three decades to show up in this painting.
Poet Maya Angelou said it this way :
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.
I managed to choose to Stay. To Stay With myself and to stay with my own story of discovering the grand adventure of being alive even when it is hard.
I learned I need to stay present with myself and to tell my stories. It is honorable and necessary, an act of self-love. I do so with my art and with my words.