Two weeks ago, I headed out east on Long Island in my truck, plodding along Sunrise Highway. The air was warm, the sky was blue, and the highway was filled with traffic. And as was expected, there were the numerous bottle necks, where a stray SUV had gone off the road into the woods while the driver was tweeting. I was in a rush to get to a gallery in Sag Harbor, to see a painting exhibition of a fellow artist.
This artist fellow is a friend of mine, is exceptionally talented, and I’ve really admired him throughout my painting career. We met in Florence, hung out a few times, and have since had a distant, albeit warm, series of exchanges over the past few years. I wove my way through cars and trucks, hoping that I would make it to the gallery showing before it opened.
And as often occurs on long car rides, my mind began to churn with thoughts. Good thoughts. I was so excited to have a month or two of painting in front of me. As the baby is coming, the calendar is cleared, and the summer is free. I can paint. I can paint whatever I want. I can paint my wife and boys on the beach, I can paint my sister playing the piano, I can paint my father in law playing chess. I can paint the landscaper with the tattoos. Maybe the captain of the commercial fishing boat, the Dakota, will pose for a small portrait. His boat is docked down by Whitecap, here in Islip. His face is such an uncommon juxtaposition of weathered, brown skin, and clear, blue eyes. Maybe I can paint the baby who is coming, in Margaret’s arms, beside a window. I can paint Dino, the fellow who served twelve years in jail, and has spent the past twenty years working in inmate rehabilitation. Thoughts like these will make an artist drunk with anticipation.
And as the buildings on Sunrise Highway slowly gave way to more and more trees, other thoughts came. Unwelcome thoughts. I remembered the gallery owner who looked at my work, and said “We would like you to be a part of our gallery. But on one condition: no painting pregnant women. That painting would never sell. I don’t know why you ever would do that.” I recalled the sneer of the man with the pink polo, at the Washington Square Show, who said “What the hell are you doing, painting in Islip?” And the joy of painting gave way to the gloom of careerism. “What am I doing? Why am I in Islip? Why aren’t I the one having a show tonight, at this gallery in Sag Harbor? Am I not good enough? Am I too much of a maverick, some stupid cowboy that won’t conform, doomed to a life of saddle burns in the plains?” And as the last glow of light disappeared from the tops of the trees, and as the landscape turned silhouette, I chewed the cud of insecurity.
I arrived at the gallery quite late, and was greeted by friends. The paintings were stunning, the show was brilliant, the lights were bright, and I was happy for my friend. He pulled together an outstanding show. I wondered how I might compliment him in such a way that he could be sure that I was sincere in my enthusiasm- because I truly was pleased. I recognized many faces, spoke to many artists that I haven’t seen in a long while. I sipped Perrier sparkling water from a plastic cup. The colors sang, the figures dissolved into brushstrokes, and the light emanated from the canvases. But I was disappointed to see that he didn’t paint any eyes. Some galleries don’t like paintings with eyes. Eyes take the paintings out of the decorative category, and place them into some literary-esque category. Eyes risk narrative, involvement. No eyes anywhere.
The evening was wrapping up, and the after-party was beginning. I’d been to an after-party before, I knew how the deal went. You had to be invited to go upstairs, you couldn’t just walk up. Though there are no written rules, the code of inclusion is felt and understood by all in the room. I watched as a bunch of artists made their way up the stairs to the after party. The lights were dimmed, and I was among a handful of artists who were shepherded discreetly onto the sidewalk. Ten minutes or so passed awkwardly. I carried on conversation with one fellow artist, talking about this and that, about purple and green paint. A few last people slipped inside the door of the gallery. Only the other artist and I were left. As I spoke to the artist, he suddenly reached to his pocket, declaring “Woop, text!” He paused. “Oh, Kev, gotta go. Upstairs. Uhh, talk to you later.”
I stood alone on the sidewalk. I paused. I was waiting for the blow to hit me, the crushing feeling of being left out, the Rudolph-the-red-nose-never-gets-to-join-in-the-reindeer-games feeling. I paused. I could hear everybody laughing upstairs. I recognized the voices. This was it, that excruciating moment that every child of the nineties feared- I was Screech, and this was Saved by the Bell, and any minute now the sad synthesizer music would begin to play. I paused. Nothing. Crickets chirped. Where was the sigh that accompanied the let down? Why wasn’t it here yet? I paused.
And then, I suddenly knew that I didn’t belong here anymore. Not at all. I don’t mean to say I don’t belong in that town, or that I don’t belong in that geographic region. This gallery, this gallery owner, this particular scene… it wasn’t for me. There are no eyes here. They don’t want eyes here. They don’t want pregnant women in this gallery. There are those that hold beauty as an existence which is devoid of pain, or aging, or suffering. I used to agree. But my notion of beauty has evolved into something altogether different. And that’s all.
Epiphanies come instantly, though the framework for the conclusion may span years, even lifetimes. A sense of relief washed over me like a tide that had been out a long time, and now returned. I half jogged to my truck. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I called Margaret. “How are you, Maggie?” “I’m good, Kev. But I’m having some mild contractions. Try to come home in the next few hours.” “I’m coming home now. I’ll see you soon.” The whole ride home, I listened to Ricky Skaggs bluegrass, and a stream of thoughts rushed into my mind. The canvases I can’t wait to begin, the eyes I can’t wait to paint.
On the way home, my friend sent a text, apologizing profusely, as he didn’t realize the gallery owner had locked me out. As best I could, I tried to assure him that I knew it wasn’t his doing, and what’s more, I didn’t mind. Closed doors have given me much more direction than open doors ever have.
Today, as I bounded up the stairs to the studio, I could hear the chickens clucking in the yard. I set up a large canvas, and placed all of my paints on my palette. I reflected on the painting I was about to begin, that of my grandmother, “Nanny.” Nanny has a severe case of Parkinsons, and its effects are so devastating that she is uncomfortable sitting for more than a few minutes. I asked her, two years ago, to sit for a few photographs, holding my newborn Evan. The file has sat unopened for two years, and today I opened it. As Martin Hayes fiddled away in the background, I began to paint my grandmother.