Journal: Tuesday, September 24

"The Triumph of the Nightingale" - mixed media, 7 x 14 in (17.5 x 35 cm).

“The Triumph of the Nightingale” – mixed media, 7 x 14 in (17.5 x 35 cm).

In spite of my head cold, trips to the vet, money woes, and general malaise over the last couple of weeks, I did manage to get two new pieces of artwork done.

One is a fairly whimsical intellectual exercise, a “sequel” to the Max Ernst painting of 1924, “Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale“. My take on the theme — called “The Triumph of the Nightingale” — reuses several elements from the Ernst painting, such as the garden gate, a suggestion of the peaked roof of the little shed, and the flying bird, but condenses everything down into a vertical format, and folds all the pieces together more tightly. Ernst’s panic-stricken children are reduced in my work to a single body part.

Someone familiar with the original will almost certainly get the connection; someone who has not seen the Ernst painting can still appreciate the visual appeal of my picture, and perhaps enjoy wondering what it all means.

At least that was the theory: in practice, this work has not really gotten much traction with anyone. I don’t know what the problem is, really: is it too “pretty”? Too obscure? Too sterile? Too hermetic?

This sort of problem is not unique to art: when my friends make comments about sporting events, they often use language that is, for them, a convenient and accessible shorthand, but which for me is completely meaningless. They are so immersed in their context that they are not able to objectively assess the reach of that context — a creature born and bred in the deep ocean may easily forget that some organisms live entirely in open air. Likewise, my knowledge of art and literature can be a handicap when I’m looking for universal themes, since what I believe to be universal may only be so within a defined intellectual or cultural environment.

On the heels of that debacle, the next piece was an assemblage dealing with the idea of grief — drawing on my upset over the death of my cat Sebastian — called “Niobe“. In the story, the queen Niobe has a brood of beautiful, talented children whom she adores so much that she proclaims to one and all that they are even more wonderful than the twin children of Leto, Artemis and Apollo. Comparing your offspring to those of the gods is always a recipe for disaster in classical literature, and this instance is no exception: Artemis and Apollo are sent to teach Niobe a lesson in humility, and they do so by killing her children; one by one her sons and daughters die in her arms.

"Niobe" - mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

“Niobe” – mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

To illustrate the theme, I modeled a realistic human heart, studded with shards of glass, reducing the concept to its most visceral (pardon the pun) and physical level.

Here again, the piece failed to take hold with my usual fans. I did get some very positive responses from Mexican friends, who saw a parallel with the pierced heart that symbolizes the Virgin in much religious art in Mexico and Central America — they understood what I was doing immediately, and connected readily with what was, for them, a familiar image. Context made all the difference: a North American audience who sees a naked human heart as the stuff of horror films experiences something completely different than Latin American viewers familiar with the stark but comforting images of the wounded Immaculate Heart of Mary.

This is not a case of relying on a story that was not familiar enough; I think the image speaks for itself even without the context of the myth. Unfortunately the message varies widely from person to person.

Like riding a unicycle along a tightrope, constant forward motion is essential in what I do. If I hesitate, if I stop to think for too long, I tumble off the wire. I have to keep working even if what I’m producing is not succeeding, because it’s all too easy to let my native laziness take over if I give it any excuse at all. Finish one piece, start the next; if I get bogged down, set that one aside, move on to another. Introspection and contemplation — like what I’m doing here — are fine, but only so long as I can do them without coming down off the wire.

I’m not unhappy with these two pieces of work. They did what I wanted them to do, they feel right, they just don’t resonate well with the world outside my head. I’ll take note, and perhaps this experience will influence the next piece, or the next. More importantly, however, I will keep pedaling, and stay on that tightrope a little longer, and see what happens next.

Journal: Thursday, September 12

My friend Sebastian, in better times

My friend Sebastian, in better times

My best friend Sebastian died this afternoon, snuggled up in my arms, whimpering and snuffling, trying to purr as I scratched the back of his neck. He had been suffering for several days from a very high fever that evolved into a rampaging anemia that turned his skin yellow and robbed his blood of the ability to transport enough oxygen to keep him alive, no matter how hard he struggled to breathe. He was frightened, and in pain, and he knew that, just like always, I was there to make it all better. Instead, I held him while the veterinarian injected him with a quick, silent poison that ended his life within seconds of my giving her my assent.

I know, intellectually, that death is a fact of life: I’ve outlived friends, said goodbye to family, and buried literally dozens of pets over the last fifty-five years. I know that we all die, and that a world in which we didn’t would be a grotesque and horrible place; I know that immortality could never by anything but a cancer, changing and deforming the very organisms it preserves.

Emotionally, however, every loss still hurts, burning with a different mix of denial, guilt, grief, anger, and loss. Emotionally, that elegant intellectual understanding of the proper sequence of birth and life and death and new birth smells like nothing more than a steaming bucket of excrement.

As human beings, we have always seen ourselves as perched atop the pinnacle of creation: second only to God; stewards of the Garden; the naked ape clinging to the very highest branches of the tree of life. For reasons too complex and too deeply-seated for me to ever articulate, it is important to me that the creatures in my care live without fear, without pain. I know perfectly well how artificial an environment that is: any living being in a natural state would not survive a day if he — or she, or it — did not know fear and pain, know them and understand them at a visceral level. Still, I feel the need to shelter my pets, to prove that I am greater than the arbitrary whims of nature. I defy entropy, thereby demonstrating that I am beyond it, above it, superior to it. If I were honest with myself, I would admit that what I’m doing is more about broadening and deepening my own sense of self-worth, my notion of my importance in the grand scheme of things, than about the animals, but if I were honest with myself, I wouldn’t be in this position in the first place, trying to drag the universe down these strange and difficult paths.

Sebastian depended on me, he depended on my omniscience and my super-natural authority to make his world a happy and secure one. He depended on me, and I failed him. The fact that success was not even remotely possible means nothing, at least for today: he knew that I would always make things right for him, he trusted me, and all I could do was end his life. I grieve for him, for the absence of him in my day to day life, but I’m also angry, outraged that the god-human image of myself that Sebastian and I created between us proved to be such a frail and useless fraud.

I did my best for Sebastian, or at least the best I believed I could do at the time. I know this. I really do. Eventually I will go beyond knowing and I will actually believe it, and the guilt and the anger will diminish, and the grief will mature, and only the loss will remain, the faint smell of smoke left after the fire burns itself out; and with time, even that will mellow, and I will remember Sebastian with pleasure and not with the gut-wrenching reminder that he is no longer in the next room, curled up in a chair, waiting for me.

But that’s tomorrow, or the day after. Not today; no, not today.

"...
And you find yourself
In a great house with many windows open
Running from room to room, not knowing where to look out.
Because the pines will vanish, and the mirrored mountains
And the chirping of the birds.
The sea will empty, shattered glass, from North to South.
Your eyes will be emptied of the light of day
As suddenly, all at once, the cicadas will fall silent."

(Excerpted from “Thrush”, by George Seferis)

 

Journal: Tuesday, September 3

From “Mathios Paschalis among the Roses”, by George Seferis

...
Her aunt was a poor old body, -- veins in relief, 
Many wrinkles about her ears, a nose about to die;
Yet her words always full of wisdom.
One day I saw her touching Antigone's breast,
Like a child stealing an apple.

Will I perhaps meet the old woman as I keep descending?
When I left she said to me "Who knows when we shall meet again?"
Then I read of her death in some old newspapers
And of Antigone's wedding and the wedding of Antigone's daughter
Without an end of the steps or of my tobacco
Which imparts to me the taste of a haunted ship
With a mermaid crucified, when still beautiful, to the wheel.

(Excerpted from “George Seferis: Poems”, translated from the Greek by Rex Warner, Nonpareil Books, 1960)