My mother died a few days ago and I want to say a little something about her influence on my early life - which has had lasting repercussions. For better or worse, I have chosen visual art, not as an identity badge, but as something to strive for. Few people deserve to be called artists; the most most people ought to want is to sculpt, paint, gouge, scrape, cut and get through it. That should be more than enough. If it isn't, it's well worth asking why.
My mother nurtured an interest that seemed so inbred that I never questioned it. I always drew - badly, but still. The human urge to record is ineradicable. Something moves you and you have to come to terms with it. Writers want to put it on the page. Musicians get to it through the ear. People who paint, etc., show what they cannot tell - or don't choose to tell because telling doesn't cut it. I'm sure there was a moment when my mother took me aside and presented me with a box of crayons. But I cannot remember it. Somehow the crayons just appreared and, while I made Superman leap tall buildings with them, I eventually found, in the reality of my senses, the kind of subject-matter that got me going. Cartoons were the gateway drug; past them, more complicated realities beckoned.
My father was, in part, responsible for my first attempts at mirroring nature. We fished at locations that were as unlike our sidewalk-and-curbstone universe that we could have been on the moon. These were wild places men could not see civilizing, but liked to mess around in. They were where we'd all started: inside of them, tribal rites could be observed, courage tested, and survival skills given the free rein they could not in an office. There, on the water, I saw my first cypress trees whose knobby intrusions knocked at the boat now and then. I was traumatized by the life that possibly lurked beneath them. "We won't sink, will we?" I kept asking. My dad said: "Shut up and get busy."
His competitive nature led the way. "Are WE gonna catch some fish!" he would say. I wouldn't care. It was enough, for me, to be in a place I'd never been. When we got back home, I could go off somewhere and think about it.
We arrived in pitch darkness, talked for a few minutes with the guy who kept the boats, and got into our gear. Even if you came unclothed, you were required to wear a life preserver - which hampered movement as any gravid thing will. Then we slid the boat down a kind of runway and eased it out into the water. "Hop in," my father said, "but don't rock it." As he held onto the boat, I hopped in and rocked it thoroughly. "Don't move," he said, as I twitched and shuddered. "If you're calm, the boat'll be calm with you," he added, with a sagacious air. He was absolutely right. When I got still, the boat got still with me. It's a beautiful lesson in the abstract, but impossible to put into practice. Who out of his element can be calm? My father did not address that question and never would. He just repeated the lesson.
Once encsonced, we baited our hooks with creatures I would not kill for love or money today, and waited. I was happily terrified by the notion that opportunistic Things could be watching us. Snakes might slither into our boat. Big swampy creatures could swoop in and scarf one of us down while the other moaned and pleaded. In movies of that day, apocalyptic mutants could get big, but they generally shrank. Vincent Price became a fly. As they got small, other unlucky actors were asked to do battle with oversized house-cats. While in that boat, I identified with these actors. Fishing seemed rather beside the point, but I did it anyway. My father, a quantifiable Thing, was watching.
It stayed dark for a long time; until the sun came up, the water's depth could not be plumbed. Darkness always exaggerates responses that, when illuminated, become less urgent. But that's the nature of darkness. You don't know what's going on, you're overexcited because you can't know, and you jump ten feet in the air when you hear a candy wrapper. Everything is imbued with Drama and nothing will change until you can see to the other side of the boat.
My father wasn't the fisherman he wanted to be. I, who aspired merely to live through the ordeal, did almost as well as he would - which infuriated him. My superabundant catches were "beginner's luck." My juvenile yanks had no style. My boat-shaking adventures were shameful to the eyes of a real fisherman. His measley hauls showed the grit of experience - which no beginner could understand.
The pictures I did were not spectacular. (None survive.) But I remember trying to get at real things. I was, in a few words, onto something.
How did this happen to a kid living on a patch of raw earth in the Memphis suburbs? I wonder about that from time to time and have to attribute my birth as a painter to the books my mother dragged in, the encouragement she provided, as well as the artistic sensibility she brought to everyday living. Not that she was deficient in pure aesthetics. Though her right hand had been disabled, she learned to make do with her left. When I became enamored of a girl with storybook ringlets, she drew this girl for me. With drawing in hand, I could admire her anywhere I wanted to. I'm sorry I don't have this drawing. I think I folded and creased it to death.
My mother came of a family that respected the arts as fulsomely as poor people can. My grandmother practiced Spencerian handwriting of the highest order; grandad enjoyed gaudy rhyme-schemes and homespun sentiments. To say he was a real poet would be stretching things. Let's say he could rhyme "thrill" and "rill" unashamedly and leave it at that. My grandmother was a beautiful woman who might, in this day, realize how beautiful and cash in on it. Given her own beauty, my mother's vanity was small. She knew how to pose for a photograph - though she didn't need to. Every photo of her looks gorgeous. I would even suggest that she looked better on the wing. Of course, that could be said of a lot of people. When one's features are animated, they have the happy life force of all beautiful things.
In any case, my early drawings were probably lousy, but I don't give a damn. I wanted to do them and, to want something as badly as I did put me in a delightfully precarious spot - from which I did not care to remove myself.
My mother's artistic talent was, as I said, compromised by an operation which had withered her right hand. After having written words and pictures into her bones, she was obliged to learn them all over again. Yet in a fairly short while, she learned to "see" with her left. Now that I remember it, I had my mother draw that girl lots of times. She was my first crush - which my mother willingly, but with, I hope, certain misgivings, fed.
At the time, it wasn't "cool" to be an artist. In order to achieve the respectability their moms and dads wished fervently for them to have, most boys and girls went into practical things. If art was mentioned, it was in the context of something else. A portrait of somebody important. Or the amount of money that was spent on one of those danged Picassos. The only person I remember admitting to an artistic act lived to regret it. Her compulsion was considered antisocial. And, after having had the ephiphany which makes good boys and girls do better, she cut it out. Boys rarely did "art." It was too sissy.
In spite of the artistic climate of a city that should have known better, my mother took me, fairly often, to the Brooks Museum, worlds away from us on its island of privilege - though anybody could go there. It was a bold experiment wealthy Memphians wanted, as they wished to reflect a growing city's power and prosperity, to try. When the dust settled, they had built a citadel among the hills and dales of Overton Park. It was rather grand. I remember entering a kind of temple, where the gods had decreed that, if one chose to say something, he or she should say it quietly. Amidst the almost perfect silence there, one could view paintings from the early Renaissance all the way to the present - or such present as the museum cared to acknowledge. It was my first brush with (Versailles be damned!) real grandeur.
When you're a kid, you soak things up. Coming to a museum allowed a kind of soaking-up jamboree. It's strange that so many people never see museums at all. In Washington, where I live today, our federal government, though cock-eyed in so many ways, has ensured, along the National Mall, that everyone who comes there can roam halls and corridors that dwarf the Brooks Museum. Let us hope that our lawmakers can remain sensible in this regard. No telling how many of our fellow citizens are buoyed up by the great treasure-troves of civilization. And for no money at all. It's almost subversive, isn't it?
With my mother, in Overton Park, on a weekend, museum-going seemed the most natural thing - unmarred by the teasings of a peer group that did not seek (or care about) artistic excellence.
Though a conservative institution, the Brooks Museum was far-seeing enough to display the works of Walter Anderson - which were done on ordinary typewriting paper! My mother recognized his genius - and proclaimed it, in spite of the museum's quietness fixation. "Look," she said. "That's a crab. See how it moves in the water? He's captured that." And so he had. From then on, Walter Anderson was my poet laureate; he brought nature to the hushed corridors of an art palace. And the palace was a lot better for it.
Anderson was a bohemian. And was said to have gone crazy.
"He was a troubled man," my mother said, "but that's not important. Just look at what he did!" She wanted to put a positive spin on the dichotomy of the artistic life. A lot of other moms might have been secretly titillated - and then run like hell.
On those fragile substrates, Anderson had managed to create an entire bestiary: of flyers, swimmers, crawlers, and divers. He slathered color with the happy restraint of a man who knew what he was doing, but didn't care. His brush never stopped to ponder a difficult plane or out-of-whack harmony. His pictures weren't merely spontaneous; like Michaelangelo's statues, they seemed to be inside of the paper already. They were inevitable creations, somehow decided upon before any of us were born. Not to say that he was an idiot savant. He was a profound observer and technician par excellence. He found the ball-joints from which small, but agile bodies swung around; he discerned the peculiar connections between these bodies and bodies that were not like them at all. He knew what happened when color and form were synonymous. Out of this combination - or, rather conflagration - new worlds came into being: new worlds that started with a common insight: we are all as one. Anderson did a radical thing; he immersed himself in nature - which was not a respectable occupation, but seemed so infinitely joyous that I asked my mother whether I might do it too. (Respectability was such an esoteric concept that it never occurred to me to worry about it.) I don't remember what she said, but her answer clearly satisifed me. Who could care about anything but this? Here, at the Brooks Museum, Walter Anderson - who died insane - prevailed over all the businessmen in the world. My mother thought he hung the moon and said so all her life.
I wish I could point to an "Ah-ha!" moment, during which I was infused with the Artistic Process. But I don't think there was any. Nothing I tried in those days amounted to much - though why should it have? I didn't know anything. Hare-brained enthusiasm was all I had. And while I'm sure my mother didn't care for everything I did - who can distinguish the occasional gold-brick in an avalanche? - she praised my efforts even-handedly and eased them down an open road. The books kept coming: the Impressionists, Van Gogh, Velasquez, and scores of others. I looked through them, pondered their various excellences, and kept drawing. My mother seemed to like having another draftsman around - though her skills, hobbled as they were by the accident, were far more nuanced.
I sometimes wondered what happened to her artistic ambitions, moored in an arid Memphis, bereft of the connections that might make them soar. She had passion. She understood Mystery. Had she set out to do it, she could have could walked in the sandy footsteps of Walter Anderson. I saw that in those nut-brown curls. Why not now?
Now always bled into later. And later was considered too late.
She'd help me do class projects I couldn't get a handle on myself. Children can be so cruel that it takes an adult, not only to mediate their cruelty, but to use it to their benefit. I was supposed to create a sort of diorama in which the early English and ancient Indians appeared together in some kind of quasi-harmony - which was the myth we were given to believe about them. I had no idea how to three-dimensionalize motion, but was unwilling to admit as much. I was also unwilling - given my limitations - to do the project. When I got up in the morning, I saw those whites and Indians at lethal loggerheads (the anti-myth that was truer to form) and, after succumbing to a momentary admiration, I began to berate my mother for having done my homework for me.
"I can't take this into class. I didn't do it." I stamped my feet like a horse. Sound and fury. Signifying a damaged ego and nothing else.
"It was your idea."
"I don't care. I won't show it!"
It won third place in a competition that might as well have pitted Claymation greats against me. I was at sea and knew it. She had mastered the medium overnight. I eventually cozied up to her.
"I'm sorry," I said. Thanks for helping."
She hugged me and said people need a little help now and then.