My wife and I are in the final stretch, eagerly anticipating and fearing February the 28th. The doctors tell us that this is the day on which Margaret’s body tells the baby that it can no longer house it, and that it has to vacate the premises as swiftly as possible. We’re told that although the baby is comfortable in its current living quarters, it will be expecting to be ousted around this time, as any professional tenant warily anticipates the arrival of the sheriff at its front door.
And so, with pregnancy on the brain, and with lead paint in my fingers, I find myself drawing metaphors.
Tonight I sat at a cafe in a local bookshop, sipping a cup of coffee, leafing through a book I’ve been looking forward to conversing with. I looked across a few tables, though, and I saw an old man with a white beard, contented eyes, and hunched shoulders. He had a way of looking at nothing, his arm slumped over a chair, his eyebrows raised… I was so absorbed in the rhythms of his aquiline profile, that I found myself reaching for my pencil before my hand told my brain what it was doing. I sketched rapidly, I only had seconds. In the space of twenty five seconds, I had this sketch. Then the old man got up, grabbed his coffee and book, and slowly plodded away, pausing briefly to look at a magazine.
I was left alone with my sketch, and my thoughts. What had I just done? Why had I just entered into this fury of sketching, a twenty five second trance of scribbling graphite lines on paper? Why?
I was being birthed.
Long Island is currently undergoing a lengthy delivery, birthing me as an artist. Ordinarily, this region of the globe busies itself with its first three offspring: Money, Education, and all things Material. But, having had these three wretched children, Long Island decided it would give it another go, and try to birth a final child who appreciates both its parent and the world into which it was born. So really, the birth of this artist has more to do with the desires of the parent than the child.
I go several months without ever thinking of the word “original.” I never enter my studio, and think to myself “Now, what has never been done before? I really must do something original today.” I really just try and paint whatever it is that I feel, letting the humming engine of my emotions override the irritating dictates of the intellect. The conception of a painting is the most difficult stage, because I am trying to figure out what is actually true, consequently beautiful, in the world around me. I am preoccupied with the people and things surrounding me, and I am constantly plagued by the thought that I am not keeping up with the observed world. Murphy’s eyes, a Vietnam Veteran who is silent concerning his past. Margaret’s hands, holding her womb as if she were touching another person. Old work boots. Spackle tools on a bench. “Originality is more concerned with sincerity than with peculiarity” says Harold Speed, a writer from a time long ago. And then I remember the haunting beauty of the old Mexican folk song as it was sung by my friend Helene… “Todos me dicen el negro, Llorona, el negro, pero, carinoso.” Why did this song resonate? It was a song birthed by a people, and Helene was, for the moment, the vessel through whom it was coming into being.
There is a pendulum that began swinging eons ago, which in recent history has swung from the Dark Ages to the Modern Ages. It is a pendulum which swings between community and individualism. In the Dark Ages, it swung too far towards the community, so much so that the importance of the individual was squashed. Institutions crushed members, governments crushed people, religions crushed faith. When it could go no further, the Enlightenment, Martin Luther, and the French Revolution ushered in the idea of individualism, and in doing so brought about the change in direction of the pendulum. Several hundred years later, the pendulum has swung too far again, this time in the opposite direction. This swing has brought the pendulum too far towards individualism, creating a focus on the self that is more of a cancer than a virtue. And so, citizens matter more than the government, spouses matter more than the marriage, and artists think that they matter more than the people.
I think of all of the paintings that people have bought from me, and are now hanging in homes from New York City to Mount Sinai. I think of the paintings hanging in the home of my mother and father in law, and how each purchase encouraged Margaret and me. I think of all of the enthusiasm I’ve received in shows, galleries, in booths outdoors in the rain. Thoughtful books sent to me in the mail, emails from readers, newspaper articles, knocks on my studio door… All of this support enables me to say something about the world we live in. And suddenly I realize that this birth, this art, actually has nothing to do with me- it is a people coming to appreciate themselves. My favorite artists all seem aware of this sense of participating in a culture- Pablo Neruda belonged to the Chileans, and was birthed by the city of Valparaiso. He wrote such tender poems about the old women, with their little birdlike legs, going down to the sea to wash their clothes in the cold waters of the Pacific. When I visited Neruda’s home in Valparaiso, I understood his affection in his poems for the city of Valparaiso, and I understood the Chileans affection for this poet.