water weaves waves reflecting brick and weeds window refracting sun sprinkling light on playful crests weaving water waves
water weaves waves reflecting brick and weeds window refracting sun sprinkling light on playful crests weaving water waves
I lay flat in my small, urban yard and heard the cheering fans at Camden Stadium, the young urbanites at the bar at the end of the block, and the occasional radio rolling by in a car. I sank my body into the slate footstones, trying to unfurl the tightness stored in large quantities, imagining the Earth’s warm core seeping into me. Listened. The chorus of birds sang to their young, caught in the interstices of the cacophony of the city. The new leaves and pink and white buds on the crab apple tree were splayed with sunshine. I sat up and dipped my brush into amber, sapphire and emerald watercolors. The paper was fresh and white.
Buddy, my black and white cat, meowed to come join me and I opened the door. He settled comfortably under the tree, hoping the birds wouldn’t notice him. Suddenly, Buddy decided it was his chance to jump into the neighbors yard and try to find that orange tabby that lives somewhere in the alley. Yikes! Buddy is a rescue, with no claws and two teeth. The tabby outweighs him by at least 10 pounds. The orange tabby probably eats rats bigger than my cat. I ran out the gate, captured Buddy, and threw him back inside. He was indignant, but saved from his own intentions, as we all need to be at times. I went back and completed my painting. It was a glorious Sunday.
My recent post, “Creative Process on Tuesday,” explored creativity in a day. This autobiographical account examines how creativity swirled like water throughout my life, seeping through the cracks, and occasionally changing its shape by pouring into a different medium. That said, it is important to note that I had dry spells where I didn’t create much, and times when work and daily living chores were overwhelming and I didn’t sit down to make anything.
As a child and teenager, I experimented with drawing and writing but not in any disciplined way. I also learned to play classical violin and piano and taught myself guitar. I found that I couldn’t create music, perhaps because the training was so structured, although this did change as I got older. In college I rediscovered a love of dance and after graduation I pursued that love by studying modern dance and doing my own choreography. At that time though, I didn’t have enough confidence in my own abilities. Also, it was daunting that so many of the dancers had trained since they were little children. I decided to give up the arts (hah – the muse doesn’t let go readily) and go to graduate school to become a speech-language pathologist. This was the right decision for me. Relieved of the pressure of making money from art, I merrily continued to pursue the arts while in graduate school, just as a “little exercise” and a bit of journal writing. During this time I took up belly dancing. I remember sitting on the floor of my apartment, sewing a burgundy belly dancing costume by hand. My roommate exclaimed, “I thought all that graduate students did was study!” But I couldn’t leave the arts so completely.
After enjoying belly dancing for a while, I got bored because of the limited number of movements used in what was essentially a folk art. So I decided to take up Orissian temple dance. I found an excellent teacher, Ritha Devi, who taught me in her basement apartment in the east 90s in Manhattan. It was fortunate she had a basement apartment – the dance involved percussive stamping of the feet. The first dance I learned was Pushpanjali, a dance of offering to the gods. Orissian dance was very complex and involved not only fast footsteps but isolation of body parts, as the rib cage, hips and head often moved independently. In addition, the dance had mudras, or hand gestures that had specific meanings such as grinding sandlewood or the opening of a flower. (If you are interested, you can go to YouTube and find lovely Orissian temple dancing.)
I continued Orissian dance, as well as my own modern dance choreography. I got married and got pregnant. I loved being pregnant and on my due date, my husband videotaped my carefully choreographed dance about pregnancy. When my son was 1 1/2 years old we spent 6 months in India learning about the culture and going swimming at the beach in Orissa. When I came back, I got pregnant again and this time I was too tired to continue dancing. After my second son was born, I didn’t have the time to keep in shape for dancing and work on choreography so I gave up dance altogether.
The children were so cute I started drawing them with pencil. Mostly when they were asleep; otherwise, they were moving too fast! Then I started using colored pencils and not only drawing the children, but outdoor landscapes. My husband, who is an abstract painter, suggested I try watercolors. I found the fluid way that watercolors demanded some things be left to chance very appealing. Also, watercolors have great versatility particularly when used from tubes. And they were portable. I could take them to the park or camping. We started doing a lot of camping and I painted outdoors there. I became fascinated by painting the constantly moving water, whether river, lake or ocean.
Nine years after the birth of my second son I left my husband. I got a motorcycle and a friend gave me her father’s box of oil paints. Oil paints were delightful. It was like playing in mud. They could be put on thickly. They could be layered. And I could experiment more easily with where lines and colors went since I could paint in layers that covered previous thoughts. By this time my painting subjects were still lifes, landscapes and people. I carried my paints in the motorcycle’s saddlebags. I often portrayed my dreams. I continued to use my children as subjects. I also drew and painted my boyfriends. I would paint on scrap bits of wood I found in the streets, since construction was always happening somewhere in my neighborhood. I also used found metal as frames and would pick up scraps of trash that seemed interesting – colored glass, a tube, a curl of wire. As always, I kept journals that contained a variety of spontaneous thought, poems, short stories and sketches.
My father had taught me the importance of humor. Around the time I was still married, I started making little cartoon books such as “Camping with Children,” “Suburban Life” (for very urban friends that were moving), and “The Seven Year Itch.” I would also draw cartoons about funny events or conversation.
As a speech-language pathologist, I had to develop ways to encourage children who did not naturally love language to learn to enjoy verbal communication. Believing strongly that creativity is healing, I thought up many projects that would involve both hands and mind. Among them were creating and decorating and flying kites, writing poetry from lists of words we made up while using our senses on walks outside the school, and what I called “the puppet project.” The puppet project was a two month project at the end of the school year. The kids created their own puppets from paper bags and construction paper, gave the puppets names and personalities, wrote their own plays, and then performed the plays for the kindergarten children. This was immensely successful and each year the children would ask if we would do it again.
During my time in New York City, I generally lived in artist communities. I didn’t always participate in the life of the community since I was shy about publicly displaying my work. However, I derived a great deal of pleasure and inspiration from meeting other artists and performers. I regularly went to museums, as I had done since I was a child holding the hand of my grandmother. I went to my friends’ plays and art openings. I casually wandered into the art galleries that were sprouting up like dandelions. It was good to have affirmation that doing this seemingly useless, and entirely uneconomic (with some exceptions, of course) activity was important. And there was the sheer energy that was impossible not to bring home and form into my own work.
When I look back, I realize that the one constant is that I always kept a journal. I use it to write ideas, sketches, poems, stories, and outpourings of feelings that I never wanted to tell anyone. I write in it when I feel like it, usually dating the entries. But there are no rules. Sometimes I will use it several times a day and at other times, days can go by without an entry. It is my companion and keeper of secrets and repository of many ideas yet to be fulfilled.
My grandmother, Nonne, and me
Imrana Sayed and Wick O’Brien have made their beautiful house by building and decorating in and onto an existing house in Staten Island. They bought their house many years ago but over time have changed it. Wick is a skilled builder. He redid the kitchen, tore off the roof, built stairs, and made the attic into a master bedroom with attached bath. Imrana is skilled at sewing. She regularly sews clothes or makes toys (like stuffed bears) for children. She sewed slip covers for couches and chairs as well as creating all the curtains. I think the couch they are sitting in is about to get a remake! Imrana also did a lot of the less skilled work that required patience and persistence, like stripping layers of paint from the original wood and refinishing it. Then, she decorated the house with found objects and friends’ artwork. I have experienced their hospitality in the house more times than I can count and it’s always like coming home.
Dining room. Painting by Mike Hamilton. For more beautiful paintings go to his website mikehamiltonpaintings.com Disclosure: He’s the father of my children, too. Makes beautiful kids and paintings!
Below is the dining room wall opposite Mike’s painting. The cross in the corner was actually a wooden mould for metal pipes.
A corner of the living room. My painting of a lamplit street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn was done at night in winter, under a street light and wearing many layers of clothing.
I saw this whimsical, carved and painted fence when I was bicycling around the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore. Although this is on the outside of the house, I consider gardens and fences to be part of the house so I included it in this part of the conversation.
Betsy Bennett is an actor, comedian, writer and also my sister-in-law. She decorated her apartment in an idiosyncratic way, with family heirlooms plus objects and artwork she found at thrift stores and flea markets. I found it delightful to stay at her home when I went to visit. In every nook there was a surprise!
For a taste of Betsy’s most recent comedy, “Assisted Living: The Musical” go to http://www.comptonandbennett.com
Although I love traveling, I am always happy to come home.
Thus far I’ve talked about the variety of creativity. I was first opened to creative thought by drawing and dancing as a kid. I remember climbing my favorite tree, a crab apple tree in the front yard, and discovering perspective by sketching the house across the suburban street. As I grew through adolescence and young adulthood, I kept journals that contained everything I was thinking in words and drawings, prose and poetry. I still keep these journals, although now they don’t have as much in them since I often write prose on the computer. Poetry, which comes to me at random times, is still in the journals and also on all sorts of random scraps of paper. The muse is chaos and does not come only when bidden.
And after a long hiatus, I am finally drawing and painting again. It feels like the world has gotten bigger and beauty is everywhere. My favorite prayer is a Navaho one:
I see beauty in front of me.
I see beauty behind me.
I see beauty to the right of me.
I see beauty to the left of me.
I see beauty above me.
I see beauty below me.
In that spirit, I hope you will enjoy these samples of my art.
Painted at Sparrow’s Point in Baltimore.
A sketch done of my son when we were on vacation at the beach in Rehobeth, Delaware.
This watercolor is of a wetlands near Kennedy airport in New York City. I attached it to re-bar that I found while wandering in the city. At the time, I didn’t know what it was but it looked like the perfect frame for a small painting.
One of my earliest oil paintings was done on wood I found. I love painting on wood and it is easy to find scraps that are being thrown out from construction sites.
A favorite corner of my home with two small paintings. The larger painting is of my sister Kim, sitting on a bench at Clark Gardens on Long Island. The smaller piece is oil on canvas stretched over hanger wire. The photos are of my mom and great-grandmother. There is a lovely porcelain cup given to me by Sensei Kiyota. The figurines are of Shiva and Laksmi. I picked up Laksmi when I was in India. My husband coincidentally had Shiva well before we met. Now they are together.
Both the above and below paintings were done when I lived and worked in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was still a rough neighborhood but was a growing artists’ community at that time.
Above is my guardian angel. She was painted after I had a horrific bicycling accident and my foot was run over by the tire of a street sweeper. My foot looked just like it does in the painting before the doctor stitched it up, although it was (thank goodness) still attached. After the accident my lawyer, Clay Evall, came to the house. Clay told me later that when he saw the huge truck tire in my apartment (which I had used to practice bokken), he knew I’d somehow get better.