I want to tell you a story. One that reminds me of how important connection is in art making. I’ve shared this story with a few close friends and each time I retell it I feel its potency and meaning more deeply. And in sharing this, I realize that I’m revealing even more about myself – taking the risk of being seen – again! So here goes…..
A few months back I received an email from a man by the name of Edgar Barens. He had found my work on a Tumblr site and searched me out. He was looking for a painting for his living room and after looking at my inventory of available work, we decided that he would commission me to make a painting the right size for his space….which turned out to be 2ft x 6ft.
Now I don’t often do commissions because I find them quite a challenge. If the client is too prescriptive then I find myself getting too tight and concerned with the outcome and the work suffers. It doesn’t have the energy that I would like it to have. But I’ve been fortunate over the years to have patrons that appreciate my process and allow me “my” space in the work. This was the case with Edgar as well. He was great.
In getting to know him I found out that he is a director and film maker and had recently made a film called ‘Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall’, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2014 for Best Short Documentary film. This 40 minute documentary tells the story of the final months in the life of a terminally ill prisoner incarcerated in the Iowa State Penitentiary and the hospice workers, inmates themselves, that cared for him.
Edgar gave me an opportunity to watch his film and I was deeply moved by it. I found the story of Jack Hall particularly poignant and was left with a simple truth….that no matter who we may have become during our lifetime, death is the great equalizer. We are all fragile beings at the end of our lives, needing the love and caring of others to transition out of our bodies. This film communicated that so well in its layered, emotive way. Quite frankly, I thought it was brilliant…and I want everyone to see it. The message is powerful, and needed. Thank you, Edgar!
In discussing the details around Edgar’s painting I asked a few questions of him…what he was responding to in my work and what palette I should utilize, etc. He mentioned in one exchange that if in anyway his film inspired the painting, that would be wonderful…but, not wanting to be too directive, he didn’t make it a necessity and left it at that. You see his father was an artist as well and Edgar understands a lot about the creative process – allowing the artist to have enough space and freedom to do their work is important to him…and his work.
So I began the painting. It started off pretty well in its beginnings and then about mid-way along I got stalled. My mind started running amuck with the thoughts that often accompany doing commissions. Should it have more blue? Will he like it? Does the whole thing feel completely wrong? And on it goes. I really wanted to make a good painting for this very deserving patron….and it was getting sticky with expectation and self-pressure.
After a couple of weeks of this “stickiness”, and becoming increasingly frustrated with myself, I did the only thing I could think to do. I surrendered. I sat in my studio and spoke out loud “ I can’t do this!! Someone else has to finish this painting for me!” I buried my head in my hands and breathed out. “Let it go”, I told myself. When I looked up again, and focused on the unfinished painting on my studio wall, I saw it – the completed painting perfectly formed in my mind.
There before my eyes was the narrative (my narrative) of Edgar’s film. I hadn’t seen it before as I was working the piece. I don’t typically utilize narrative in my work, and really hadn’t given any energy to his comment about his film influencing the painting, so this was a surprise. A welcome, amazing surprise. I knew what I needed to do to finish the piece and I got back to work. It all flowed very quickly from that point on.
Once finished I sent an image of the painting to Edgar and shared the experience with him and the narrative that I was working with. Here is the beginning of what I wrote to him:
“I read this painting like a book from left to right. It tells a story – the story of your film. The left side of the panel represents the prison, the institution, its walls, the cold concrete enclosure – the history of lives lived there – layers of time building upon each other. In the lower left corner is a small patch of blue and it represents the spirit of those lives lived there. It’s small and weighed down by the heaviness of prison life – but there, as it is within all of us.”
A day or so went by and I wondered if I had completely messed this up, when Edgar finally emailed me back with his response.
He was flabbergasted (his words) by the piece, but especially to see the small patch of blue in a sea of grey. He told me that it reminded him of a lino cut his father did back in the 70’s when Edgar’s aunt and uncle were incarcerated in Spain for their anti-Franco political views. In his father’s lino cut he had a small patch of sky blue in a large, imposing brick wall – which was representative of the only patch of light and hope available to his loved ones during their imprisonment. Another aunt, who is a poet, was subsequently inspired to write a poem about that patch of sky. Edgar has never forgotten it, he tells me.
So what happened here? And how did it happen? I’m not certain I can articulate it clearly, but it feels to me that in the surrendering of control I allowed for another source to influence me and guide my direction. I rely on this often in my own work…trusting, quieting the thoughts, surrendering to what wants to come through in my painting. But never quite in this powerful way.
This time it felt more potent and externally guided because of all of the crazy connections that were made between Edgar’s family history and this painting. My intention was to make a painting worthy of Edgar and his amazing film. I am endlessly grateful for the muses that stepped in and finished that painting. Life continues to inspire me with its mysteries. We know so little of the forces at work in our lives.
Have you ever had an experience like this with your own creative work? I would love to hear about it.
You can find out more information about Edgar Baren’s film, ‘Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall’ through the film’s website: www.prisonterminal.com