I have been an artist for as long as I can remember. Ever since I was just a kid I found simple delight in making things. Some of those earliest memories are from when I was five years old. I remember doing drawings of our cat sleeping using a ball point pen on notebook paper. I drew my mother sitting in her green Lazy-Boy where she liked to smoke and stare off into space. (Staring off into space was the depressed side of mom which was when she made a great model because she was statuary still for hours. The other mom was manic mom which could clean the house from top to bottom like a with a vengeance or perhaps laying out in the sun in the front yard topless.) Growing up with a mother who had a bipolar disorder and was often going off her meds meant that there was constant turmoil in our home. As I look back, not only did I get some much needed positive reinforcement from making stuff, but I also found comfort. As you know the more you do something the better you get at it and the more you are rewarded and the more your identity becomes permanently fused with your performance. Perhaps the creative zone I found became my safe haven. When I was a little older I used plastic molds filled with Plaster of Paris to make Disney characters which when dry and out of their molds I painted with Testors enamel paint. This was the same paint I used on my model cars that I bought at the Five & Dime. The drugstore next door sold 45s which is where, in 1969, I bought my very first record: Sugar Sugar by the Archies. That February my mother went to sleep and didn't wake up.
I just finished reading A Generous Vision by Cathy Curtis which is the story of Elaine De Kooning. Elaine was the strong willed, very talented painter married to William De Kooning who was one of the leaders of the New York school of abstract expressionism. Curtis writes: "Elaine mentioned in passing that her work was a way of coping with the jumble of thoughts constantly churning through her mind. Painting she said, is constantly an act of having to pull myself together. The built in structure of working in a series had a mentally quieting effect that allowed her to focus on the task at hand."
In the Summer of 2016 I found myself in a serious depression made even worse by a gnawing anxiety. I stopped being able to make art. This was to be my first real artist block in my thirty year career as a visual artist. Not only had I lost the refuge that had always been my go to to feel better but I entered a crisis of identity because if I wasn't making art I wasn't an artist and if I wasn't an artist, then who was I? Along with this identity crises was came the anxious question of how was I to make a living and go on providing for my family? After awhile I was able to pick up a back breaking job with a man who remodeled kitchens and bathrooms. My role was doing the tear out and carrying rubble to the truck. I only lasted in that circle of hell for a couple months. My next circle of hell was my job doing adult foster care at a mental hospital. My supervisors were all about the age of my eldest children. It was here that I had the wind literally kicked out of me with a boot to the stomach, a flesh wound on my forearm from a clients angry teeth, and a lot, a lot of spit in my face. I was paid $10 an hour for my diligent services.
Lost in the deep dark woods of depression my wife became exceedingly kind and patient with me through it all. She kept encouraging me to go back into the studio to find a way to begin working again. Eventually I heeded her advice I began a series of a still life drawings. I set up a still life in my studio of a clock sitting on a stake of books and a shell. This particular arrangement of items wasn't particularly exciting but it did become a place to begin. To make it easy for my self I decided to keep the subject the same. Every morning I would draw the same humble still life, just as it was, not changing a thing. Using different kinds of drawing media I let myself be playful with each session, sometimes really making a mess. I tried different things with water color, ink and charcoal that I had never done before. I didn't care anymore because I wasn't making these drawings to exhibit or sell. They were just was just for me. These drawings were for my eyes and my pleasure alone. Each session lasted around an hour and a half. Towards the end I would finish by writing into the drawing what ever I was thinking or feeling at the time. It was like making an entry into a personal journal where I could write what ever I wanted. I felt completely free! It was as if with every drawing, I climbed another rung on the ladder that was slowly taking me up out of my deep hole of hopelessness.
Interestingly, this series of little drawings lead me into an entirely new development in my painting. I got the idea to photograph my daughter Pearl and make several large paintings from the same photograph carrying over the same playful approach I assumed while doing my still life drawings. This new portrait series grew into the largest and perhaps most ambitious exhibition of my career at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art in Grand Raids Michigan one year later.
Sometimes the things we treasure are taken away for a time but then we get them back and when we do we have a renewed appreciation. We have a fresh outlook. This is how I chose to frame my own experience. I worked my way through a paralyzing artist block and in the process I rediscovered how art making helps me maintain my own mental homeostasis.