I’m really enjoying making these prints, not only the process (pulling the paper up is so satisfying!) but seeing where it can go adding different types of media and techniques.
I admit that I have not really been called to abstract art. I enjoy looking at it – my favorites are Larry Poons, Helen Frankenthaler and Gunther Fjorg. And, I’m crazy about them, but the list is pretty short after that. But, I also admit that I’m not the best at drawing, so I get frustrated when what’s on the page doesn’t match what’s in my head.
In loosening up my notions of what I do and don’t like and trying more abstract pieces, I have learned that I enjoy making color combinations, marks and other abstract techniques while I work over the more figurative stuff to get it just right.
In other words, where art is concerned, never say never and rule nothing out.
I am also experimenting with adding other types of art techniques and media to the page, incorporating Gel Pen details:
And Gold Leaf:
As is my process to avoid wasting products, I pulled a second print that came out with much lighter ink. To add interest here, I incorporated a portrait.
We will see where it takes me next.
“The courage to imagine the otherwise is our greatest resource, adding color and suspense to all our life.” – Daniel J. Boorstin
We were never afraid of cemeteries. In rural East Texas, they were often tucked into curves in the road near our houses, set against our properties’ back pastures and in other ways integrated into our daily lives as just somewhere else to be. The cemetery, while always a place of respect and to be treated as such, was also place to walk safely, to contemplate quietly, to “visit Grandma” and in our older and more mischievous years, to pass through on hayrides, and to park in and kiss boys. Now, I don’t like them after dark, but back then it felt normal to be there.
Our town’s biggest cemetery was just on its edge, past the local community college and in between the “ritzy” neighborhood and the evangelical campgrounds. It was alongside a major highway, and spread across many acres. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was larger than any of our city parks. It was certainly nicer and safer.
Late at night, we would visit this big cemetery, park our car, and walk. Reverent, careful to stay on the footpaths, we would scan the headstones as we talked. “Looking for Our Names,” we called it.
It was 1990-something and “Michelle” and I, with our friends “Renee'” and “Mallory” had just discovered The Smiths, particularly their “The Queen is Dead” release. We wore out those tapes in our cars: “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, “Boy With a Thorn in His Side,” and “Cemetery Gates,” among other tracks.
We were fairly privileged teenagers – middle class, stable families, no real barriers and no real experience with the malaise that Morrissey sang about.
But, by the time we were 16, we had already started losing young people – classmates and church friends and peers from other schools in our area. Just as cemeteries themselves were integrated into the fabric of our lives, so was the circle of life itself.
As we “looked for our names” we sometimes encountered the accidents, overdoses and suicides who had once sat beside us in Algebra class.
I’m pretty sure that “Cemetery Gates” was the theme song behind this activity, but now I think a more accurate soundtrack would be “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.”
Looking back as an adult, I wonder if our seemingly-cavalier relationship with graveyards, through this activity and others, was a way to normalize what was happening around us each year. Or if it underscored how normal it felt to be in such a place. I’m not sure that we lost more peers than other school districts, but our world was a lot smaller. Regardless of how well we knew the person, we did know them, almost every single one. There was a very defined hole in our daily lives after each midnight phone call. And back then, I don’t remember any special counselors, after-school vigils or anything like that. We went to the funerals, hugged grieving parents and siblings, and were released back into our routines to figure it out on our own.
There is a light and it never goes out.
When I think of Michelle, Mallory, Renee’ and myself, I think of us at that age, almost exclusively even though I am still in touch with most of them and am fully aware that they’ve aged as I have. (And by that, I mean with strength, grace and beauty of course.)
There is a light and it never goes out.
My lost peers, acquaintances and friends, too are in perpetual youth. We’ve outlived them by so many years. What would their lives be like? When we were still in the “same timeline” it wasn’t something we really thought about. Now, looking back over 25+ years that not everyone got to have, seeing my friends’ children approach the ages etched on some of those headstones, it brings a greater depth and a profound sadness.
There is a light and it never goes out.
Our relationships with cemeteries may seem strange, or even disrespectful to some. But there was also a message in the familiarity. It said “we remember you,” “we aren’t afraid,” “we can still be where you are.” It said, “don’t be lonely.”
It said, “one day, our names will be here, or somewhere like here. But for now we are as alive as we will ever be, and in this moment, within this light of memory and shadow of loss, so are you.”
*This was a story I really wanted to get right, so I had a few versions of the art. While the top piece is my top choice, I liked this little messy one, too:
I don’t have a lot of time this week, but it’s important to commit to at least a few hours in the studio, both as a commitment to my art, and a way to make sure I prioritize something important to me. So, yesterday afternoon, I took out my Gelli plate and made some quick prints. I’m still learning this method and I really love it! It’s great for making quick pieces and having the validation of finishing something while taking my time with other things in the background.
I started with a few colors. Payne’s Gray is my all-time favorite color. I believe I have it in every medium – it’s just so versatile. Sometimes it looks blue, other times gray…it’s a good way to paint something “black” and still keep some nuance in the shade. I also used gold and a pale lilac. I use a mix of block print ink and acrylic paints, because I didn’t want to invest too much into the inks right away. As far as I know, they both work fine – I’m happy with my finished pieces, and both mediums wash easily off the plate.
Next, I take a small brayer and spread the colors. As you can see, a little goes a long way.
This is the first print. Pretty Straightforward.
One thing I really appreciate about this type of art, is that I can make many different pieces from the same paint spreads, and each looks a little different. (I could also have done more pulls of the first print for more similarity or a series.) Nothing is wasted. Here, I’ve laid out paper of different sizes, just to see what comes out of the process.
Before I placed the paper, I scratched some designs into the color. While I am sure there are specific tools or methods for this, I just used a plain palette knife, very gently.
Pretty cool. I like how, similar to clouds or ink blots, there are a lot of things to discover in these abstract shapes.
For example, I see a lot of city scapes or even highways here. The middle two remind me of a city and mountains. Maybe because I’ve had the Pacific NW on my mind. (I live in Texas – great barbecue, no mountains haha.)
I used a white gel pen to add in the smallest of details to guide the eye into seeing what I see here.
By now, the plate is pretty faded. But there’s still enough for one more pull. I use plain craft paper for the final print each time. Eventually, there will be enough to look like a series of abstracts that would look good displayed together.
All of this, plus cleaning the plate and tidying my materials took roughly an hour. While my heart will always be in figures and more narrative work, this was a great way to spend an afternoon, and got my wheels turning on how I can start selling art again without making it a whole “big thing” as they say. Stay tuned…
I bought a *Gelli plate and *brayer to experiment with printing techniques, and had some leftover test papers. I especially liked the way these bright rainbow colors turned out, and decided to work them into a new collage piece.
I used plain bubble wrap to make a dot texture on her skirt.
Leaping rabbits thanks to a stamp set. (TBH I’m not stoked about how the rabbits look. I think I should have used a thinner acrylic or ink vs. thicker ink. Ah well, that’s why I test and learn.)
*Affiliate links mean I may receive compensation if I recommend something you purchase. I don’t recommend products that I don’t endorse, and all content and opinions are my own.
Do young people have social dances any more? I don’t have kids, so I honestly don’t know. But before cell phones, texting, social media – all the things that make it easy to plan for yourselves and/or socialize without leaving home, the dance floor was THE place to be. My church hosted one every few months, and in between, there were school dances, Teen Nights at grown-up clubs, dance parties at the Episcopal church…we were dancing nearly every weekend. We definitely could not relate to the anti-dance histrionics of “Footloose,” because our parents knew that if we were all thrown together in one room, a chaperone in every corner, a few stationed along the walls, and one weaving through the crowd to move errant hands, then a dance was the safest place in town.
As I have mentioned before, my social group was largely unchanged from kindergarten on up. I made other friends at school through the years who I loved just as much, but as far as Saturday nights went, I was with the same ten kids, give or take a few for disciplinary groundings, etc. So that’s who became our dance partners.
Our parents: “Tired of seeing this kid? Too bad, you’re dancing with him. No, there are no other options. This one’s a known entity. You can dance with him or you can sit down over there.” More or less.
Anyway, the pickings were slim. There was a group of nerds who clustered together and did the “California Raisin” dance to every song, and there was my mortal enemy who spent ages 6 to 35 trying to take me out, Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner style.
So that left “Eric.” He was taller than me, which was a plus. Good-looking, but I didn’t “like” – him – like -him, so there wasn’t any hormonal weirdness to contend with. He wasn’t caught up in the raisin dance and he wasn’t trying to throw dynamite at me. A catch! And an easy, low stakes dance partner.
But off the dance floor, things were harder for Eric and me. He was a part of the cool group, and I was in a… different group. I had it bad for his best friend, who thought I was an irritant at best and treated me accordingly. So, Eric was my friend away from school, and in school, he was something else. Meaner. Sharper.
But for some reason, at the time, that was okay. I didn’t know any better, and accepted it as the way things were. After all, if “Wile E. Coyote” could destroy my belongings, hurt me and be invited back over to do it some more, then what Eric did was nothing.
Anyway, I loved him. I still do.
After the drama of high school, we settled in to an easier, more friendly rapport.
But as some of us went on with our lives, learned about the larger world, made other friends and got a better sense of how relationships worked, Eric stayed the same. The last time Courtney and I saw him together, he took us to see where his trailer had burned down. He’d lost everything in an electrical fire, and was living in a half-finished shed behind his parents’ house. He did okay for a while. Proximity to his family was a good thing.
I saw Eric once more after that, in the late 90s. He was the last person I dropped off after a night out, and invited me to stay and catch up a little longer.
We sat in his parents’ garage into the wee hours, talking, smoking cigarettes, listening to the radio. Sometime just before sunrise, “Love Hurts” by Nazareth came on. Eric stood up and extended his hand to me. My old dance partner and I shared one last song, slow and even then, bittersweet.
In 2013 a friendly acquaintance and the object of many a schoolgirl crush was arrested on live TV, tackled to the ground in his driveway, charged and convicted with trafficking exploitative images of minors. We couldn’t believe it! Him? He was so nice! His family was great! You think you know someone.
Within a year, in a separate case Eric would be arrested, charged and convicted for a similar crime. Unless something changes, we will be in our sixties when he’s released.
When he was sentenced, I went down an internet rabbit hole and found five other familiar names in his prison system, for the same type of thing.
Maybe we don’t really know anyone.
It was hard to absorb. Even with all of his challenges and volatility, we always felt safe with Eric, at all hours of the night and in all situations. He had never laid a non-consensual hand on us in violence or otherwise. Maybe other young women had different experiences. I don’t know. I believe victims.
I won’t speculate on guilt or innocence because Eric was tried and convicted by a jury whose job was to do that. I’m not going to describe what he did or ascribe motive, because it’s not my story to tell. To say more would be disrespectful to his victim and the families involved.
But I can tell you what it did to me.
When you’re fourteen and someone says “this is your friend. This is your dance partner.” You don’t question it. “This is my friend,” you think. Once before a duet at church, Eric shared that his bestie had called me a “butt ugly b*tch.” (I was no such thing, not that it matters.) I bounced a peppermint candy off of his face, then we went on stage and sang our song. Beautifully. “This is your friend,” I had been told, my whole life. The implication was “Forgive him. Love him.” So that’s what I did.
I assumed that was just how it was, with certain types of friends.
My in-laws live in Houston, and when we drive there from Dallas, we pass the state penitentiary. I “wave” to Eric every time. Maybe that seems flip, but I don’t mean it to be. My husband doesn’t get it. How could he?
Every now and then, I think of sending a letter. Eric’s brother died by suicide when we were in junior high, the first domino to fall in many ways, for both of us. For years, Eric and I would leave notes on “Charlie’s” grave for the other to find. I’m not sure why, or how it started, or even if it was appropriate. But Eric and I had always found a way to communicate. It’s too hard now. I know my husband wouldn’t like it, and what would I even say? Even in offering love and friendship, I can’t absolve, which is different than forgiving. I certainly can’t forget and I know I can’t be part of Eric’s life anymore in any real way. It’s not just one thing. It’s all of it.
Looking back on the situation, I try to connect the dots to see if the way he treated me had anything to do with his choices as an adult. I’m sure there is some commonality, in terms of respect for women, respect for boundaries and the lack of consequences in our fairly insular culture, but I know that it’s more complicated than that, too because not every bully grows up to break the law.
All this to say: Love hurts? It’s not supposed to, not really. If someone’s not your friend in all situations then they’re not your friend. If someone punches your boyfriend, it’s like they’re punching you, and they know that. I know that now, too. Love them anyway and forgive them, but only if you feel like it. Set better boundaries. Put the best of your love somewhere else. Life is long and bigger than your dance floor. YOU choose your partners. There’s plenty of people out there happy to break your heart, in ways you can’t even imagine. You don’t have to break your own.
*I struggled a lot with whether or not to write this. I still am in touch with Eric’s family who are wonderful people and have been dealt an unfair hand. And as I mentioned, I still love Eric. But at the end of the day, he chose to do these things and it’s public record. I’m not speculating, editorializing or really adding anything new to the story. It helped me to write about it, and maybe it will help others who are in complicated situations, to know they’re not alone. Names have been changed, details lightly fictionalized.
Think of the most embarrassing thing you did to get in front of someone you liked. “Liked,” I mean. Wanted to date. This thing you are thinking of – this act of bravery or creativity or a wild burst of assertiveness – I guarantee that I can top it.
Take, for example, Easter 1993. I was 16. My best friend, let’s call her Courtney, had just turned 18, and we had spent a busy Saturday being bunnies at our church Easter Egg Hunt. Our outfits were billowy onesies, cut from thick polyester and sack-like, with full hoods and wonky ears that gave us a slightly “off” appearance, similar to that kid in Pinocchio who turns into a jackass bit by bit.
I suppose spending the afternoon surrounded by old people who told us how cute we were went to our heads, because after the last Peeps-sticky kid was ejected from our laps, we decided that the thing to do, while we were still in these RAD costumes, was to pay surprise visits to all the boys we liked.
We efficiently combined a trip to the grocery store for chocolates with a pop-in on one guy who bagged groceries at the local Albertson’s. “Hi!” We smiled and waved our thick, rough mittens, bopping our baggy bunny tails to the Easter Candy aisle without one iota of self awareness.
At the next stop, a dog snarled and lunged at us, attempting to protect its maybe sleepy, maybe stoned master from the giant donkey-bunnies who appeared from thin air and wouldn’t lay off the doorbell. On our last stop, the young man’s parents were home and his mom thought we were really something special, even if our intended took his chocolate, rolled his eyes at us and went back to watching MTV.
It is an understatement to say that in those days, we didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’. We had big ideas, strength in numbers and no one to save us from ourselves, probably because they wanted to see how things would play out and be entertained by it. The way things played out in this instance, unsurprisingly, was that we were hot and sweaty and out $25 for Easter candy that we didn’t get to enjoy. None of those people wanted to date us, before or after. With the wisdom of age, it’s totally fine. Life ended up like it was supposed to for Courtney and me.
But back then, we had so much love to give, and it needed to go somewhere. So we did the best, and in some ways the only thing we knew to do at the time. We gave it away, not once stopping to consider whether or not our gifts were deserved. We just wrapped up all that love in homemade rabbit suits and took it into town with the great hope that someone would see through our goofy disguises to our sweet, terrified, baby animal hearts and love us back.
I turned 43 this week, and that milestone paired with a head-spinning run of funerals and news of ill friends has me thinking about my purpose, specifically how it relates to my art and what I want to express through it, and how it can outlast me and hopefully help others.
I’ve been an “artist” consistently since I left my last corporate job in 2016, starting as something to occupy my mind between obstacle-course technical interviews and spur-of-the-moment airplane trips. So, in the beginning, I just drew what I liked, and mostly still do. But I’ve struggled with my “why” and “how much to share.” Many of my friends and connections are people from my hometown, or people who know one side of me – the good side.
But the more I think about it, the stories that I really want to tell – my stories and the stories of my peers – aren’t all good. But they’re so powerful and interesting.
There’s a trend lately in TV and movies about 90s nerds, but I don’t see my experience there. Don’t get me wrong, I was absolutely a 90s nerd. But not the funny, madcap type who solves everything by senior prom. I made horrible choices. I hurt people and prioritized people who hurt me, and honestly, at 43, I greatly miss the former and hardly even consider the latter. It wasn’t all roses, and it wasn’t an experience that can easily translate into “cringe humor.” And by that, I mean, sometimes young people died. I was flying without a net. There weren’t always happy endings, and there was no playbook for what my peers and I wrestled with, and in the era of the anti-helicopter parent, we were left to figure it out for ourselves, mostly. At sleepovers, our parents would throw pizza into our rooms then leave us alone to do whatever until sunrise, as long as no bones were broken. Like a “purge” scenario but make it alt-rock and landline based.
I have wanted to tell these stories, but haven’t known exactly how to do it. When I was in high school, I drew comics which have long been lost or tossed in my parents’ house. I think I had more nuance and bravery in my writing between 18 and 25 than I do now, for sure, and I hope I can get there again.
I am compelled to tell these stories now and it’s vitally important that no one gets hurt in the process. To address that, and to avoid the “you/she/I didn’t look like that” comments about the art, lets just say all this is “inspired by.” Names will be changed, along with major identifying characteristics. And, I promise, no one will come across worse than me in the telling.
So, the opening painting is “someone like me” in 1992 in a Babydoll dress that “an Auntie” made, knee socks and a cigarette. Yes, I’m putting a pearl-clutcher out there early. I smoked. And I loved cigarettes. My favorite were cloves, which tasted like Christmas as they shredded my lungs. Also, I was a truant.
My junior year of high school, I was on the newspaper staff and yearbook staff, both of which allowed us to leave campus for “ad sales” and honestly, half the time I’d just stay gone. Where I spent my time varied, but sometimes, in my infinite teenage wisdom, when my Dad was working the day shift, I’d go home and just hang out, forgetting that my house was surrounded by retired family members with a direct view of our garage. I’d smoke in my car and skip school and not think twice about anything beyond how cool I must look.
A few years later, my grandfather was coming out of surgery anesthesia and asked my mom if I still smoked. “Smoke? What are you talking about?” She thought it was funny that he would get that idea. I agreed. “Yeah, Poppa sure was out of it. Me, smoke? Hah. The rantings of an old man, for sure.” (For context, he was probably in his 60s at the time. And of course, his rantings were correct.)
And that’s the kind of stories I want to tell. Stories of being given just enough leeway to make my own decisions, and some of those decisions being stupid, and then clawing back from them successfully or less so. The stories of getting caught up in things you’re too young for and figuring it out on your own, and of outcomes good and bad. The thrill of discovering life, real life, for the first time. The joy of sleepovers and church dances and how it feels when the 90s hometown heartthrob who looks like a young Julian Sands meets you again in your twenties and how that goes for everyone when it’s real life and not a rom com. What it’s like as an adult to know that the person who called you names and tried to punch your high school boyfriend in order to hurt you is incarcerated for acts way worse than anything he ever did to you. What it’s like to look back in your 40s and realize that your frenemy, your biggest nemesis to date, is – plot twist – also the person responsible for many good parts of the life and perspective that you enjoy now.
I titled this post “Living in Oblivion” because of the 1990 Anything Box song. It was the first non-Top 40 music I had ever heard and in many ways, learning that there was music beyond what I heard on the radio opened the gate to everything that came after, in music and in life.
To sum up a very long post, these are the types of stories I’ll be telling in my art and words for a while. Motivational quotes are good and so are dress drawings and I’m sure I’ll be back to those soon enough. But this is who I am and why I am, and however complicated, this is what I am bringing to the table.
So, if you’re still with me, and I hope you are, please pull up a chair.