An astute cultural analyst once observed that writers who are artistically gifted work chiefly in line. Their literary intelligence seems to connect with the hatchings of a pen or pencil, but they rarely, according to this analyst, go much beyond that. I have, in my casual search for inconsistencies, found this theory to be sound. The fellow was right. Line people, as in linear, can write stories, but tonal people cannot.
I seem to be the exception - though talent, in my case, might be considered a moot point. I am, however, a practictioner, and I'm happy to say that I have breached the linear/tonal paradigm to become at least a tolerable painter and, on occasion, passable scribe.
I attribute this success - if you wish to call it that - to the influence of my mother.
When she was seventeen, she had a life-changing operation. (There are photos of her with a head-scarf on. The hospital folk had shaved her noggin for this operation and, while she wanted to be among, and of, her fellow creatures, she did not want to show them her denuded skull. This may represent the extent of her concern for social approval.)
The operation targeted a bit of her brain, which it attempted to outsmart or overrule. Apparently it was successful in this regard. But unsuccessful as a jumping-off point for a functional human being. It had, in fact, disabled her right hand, forcing her to learn everything she had already learned with her left. She fell to the task, however, with the eagerness of the reprieved. She had at least walked away from the operating table and wasn't blathering - something other brain operations caused so many other people to do. (Lobotomy was a viable preference at the time - just to put things into perspective. It enabled Mrs. Venable to insist that staff psychiatrists cut that "evil thing" out of her niece's brain. Rather scary, to think that otherwise-sensible people endorsed the circumvention of dangerous thoughts by means of a pick and hammer.)
I rarely saw my mother take a pass because she couldn't grip things with both hands. She simply used the "bad" one as best she could. When it was time to applaud actors at a theatre, she geared up for a vigorous appreciation, clapping both hands - the strong and the withered - to produce a satisfying conjunction. When she needed to hold something down for a signature, she'd take her right hand and make it mash on a thing that might otherwise slip away. And when somebody wanted to shake her right hand, she offered it and let the person shake it. It was not a virile encounter, but all the more courageous because it was all she could do. As with other handicaps that do not necessarily foster - but fail to interfere with - social efficacy, people forgot about it. She couldn't because functioning with a handicap always requires strategy. But she didn't let on and allowed everybody see what else she had to offer.
She had been a gifted draftsman with her right hand, so, as she learned to write again, she took her drawing skills along with her. As I have said elsewhere, I enlisted her as a sort of procurer, beseeching her to draw pictures of pretty girls for me. And of a particular pretty girl with flowing brown hair. (Such girls move me to this day.) But before she fell under my employ, she was drawing all sorts of things. And while none of these drawings survive, I remember the sturdiness of a nanny-goat's flank as she was about to rare back and kick something. I remember a horse that, with rearing head and field-annihilating foreleg, couldn't wait to get going. And two small children walking hand in hand, not as sentimental idealizations, but like kids who might get separated when one of them fell down.
So many women at that time gave up on dreams that seemed plausible and necessary before they had children. When I came along - and, then, my brother - my mother adopted the self-same strategy, with my father's implicit approbation. He didn't like women to do "funny" things - though he was not untalented in this way himself. He was merely applying the double standard that had been good enough for his father, and his father before him. He had not, in relocating from the Midwest to the Delta, come upon an enlightened enclave. Few of the fathers in our Memphis neighborhood would have given him much of a fight.
In those days, mothers stayed home. And went defiantly, if unostentatiously, mad. Or found handicraft projects, like the lady across the street. Who made "ceramics." These ghastly creations were crammed inside of a house that was not much improved by them. There was a boutiquey look to her kitchen and livingroom, and no comfortable place to sit. But if you were there long enough, she'd give you a tour of her inner life - which had taken such an appalling form.
I talked to a neighbor who had left her husband, with three kids in tow. He seized the house for himself, but she waited him out and has lived in it, now, for over forty years. But she never went back to her singing.
As I've said, my mother encouraged me, not necessarily to become an artist, but to see like one. She thought "the life" was, while cruel in the short run ("You'll have to get used to being recognized after you're dead"), a glorious adventure while it was happening. She talked about Van Gogh, who was to become - with the help of a somewhat ridiculous movie - poster-boy for the stereotypical artiste. The Life (as opposed to The Work) wasn't quite as important in those days - though people got around to over-appreciating it. Everybody knew about the ear thing - with which this incomparable creator has become embarrassingly synonymous. My mother emphasized Van Gogh's struggle and sacrifice - which had led, in his case, to beautiful things. She must have been thinking of all the people whose struggles and sacrifices amounted to almost nothing. In her years as a teacher, she saw them often enough.
"He had a very difficult life, but you can tell he understood that in other people. Remember 'The Potato Eaters'?"
I did. Chunky-looking people in a forest-dark room, with plumes of smoke coming up around them. They looked cramped and miserable, but somehow charged with dignity. Even then, I was attracted to the strokes, which had formed not only faces, but characters. These were the kinds of people who would have understood the struggles of our sanitation workers, which would come to a head a few years later. Or maybe not. When you're in a bad situation, you can't always think of other people. You have energy enough to help yourself, but nothing is left over. It is why the super-fortunate take an interest - when they do - in downtrodden things. They've got the commitment the lost people or animals they wish to rescue have had to abandon.
"People didn't understand him," she said, almost self-referentially. "If you're an artist, that's what happens sometimes. You just have to keep your mind on what you're doing. People will come around. You just wait and see," she said, with a little less certainty than she may have intended.
One day, I was experimenting with a black crayon, whose velvety textures began to engross me. Making them required a "touch", if little else: I flattened the body of the crayon out on a piece of paper and let it slide around. Or bore down hard, then eased up. When I did that, I got a dark patch, followed by a more delicate one, with a grainy look to it. I studied it with an idiot's delight - having stumbled on a fundamental truth that made so many things fall into place. I began to see these gradations in the hooked rug, on which I settled when I was drawing. But, when I looked around, they were everywhere else too.
"Look, Mom!" I exclaimed, pointing at the paper. "Look at this!"
She complied with an initial sense of weariness. I was always asking her to look at something. She was entitled to a momentary detachment. Her attention-craving son could at least theoretically hold his horses. But as she looked at these exciting new swatches, she understood their implications.
"I've been wanting to tell you about this, but I didn't want to make you do something you weren't ready for yet. But look! You've managed to do it all by yourself."
It was among my first instance of artistic exploration leading, without detours or byways, to an unqualified success. If this was the sort of instant gratification an artist got, it was worth looking into. Besides, noodling around with crayons was fun and it didn't involve the kind of strenuous effort that was synonymous, then as now, with "hard work." I knew I was onto something and was fatally encouraged to keep it going.
And the triumphs did come, as well as the delightful immunity privileged persons get just because they can do something nobody else can. From my earliest years in school, I was assigned to do the class murals - which were not as conceptually oversized as they were on the board. Yet my artistic sensibility was strained. Even as I discovered those gradations of tone without which one's grey areas will be lost, I couldn't apply them on a grand scale. My pilgrims struggled to emerge from pumpkin patches that were too big for them. And, after Giotto (though I can't say I was thinking of him at the time), I enlarged their flintlock muskets past what the laws of proportion would allow. Guns were essential, not only to American history, but to my personal aesthetic. They were shiny, they looked good from a holster or stirrup, and, most importantly, they killed things. The urge to represent often comes after the need to murder. Yards of war-celebrating canvases cannot be ignored - though many are in various basements, where they should emphatically remain. Yet because they come from who we are, we should not deny them - even as we, with a reasonable revulsion, sock them away.
At the time, my mother had not yet become a teacher. These were the "lost" years of her marriage - years of financial privation and emotional servitude. Aside from keeping my brother and me amused - and, as she pointed out in a personal memoir, protected - she was dedicated, at least mentally, to the eventuality of freedom. Pictures of the family seem, in this context, rather generic: the four of us (the photographer is unknown) squeeze together on the only couch or have a little shindig in front or backyard. In one of them, my brother is being stood up, as if to raise him personally above the muck of family angst; I am infected by a bit of raillery and am laughing; my father looks warmly present; my mother seems to imbibe the native humor of the event and go along with it. But the reality was more complicated.
Yet amidst all of her yearning for a way out, my mother upheld a private vow to keep me in paper and crayons. Personal vision can occur at any time. When it happens too early, the subject (or victim) is likely to burn out. Child prodigies become plodding adults - or forget genius and go for the cash. I wasn't one, but such vision as I have was already forming. A lot of talented kids make - after that sublimely delirious phase of color exploration - cartoons. Then they want to do "real" pictures, which are based on photography. I never did either. I was interested in physical realities that could be touched by the hand and transferred, by that touch, to paper. I was, in fact, more invigorated by the "space between things" than with the linear enclosures by which children and adults codify physical boundaries. For me, nature was becoming a holistic thing that found synergies in pulse and
movement; shape and color; in the effects of sunlight, and the miseries of weather-systems that have recently gone off their nut and will very likely continue.
Then as now, Memphis abounds in weedy things - things that are not taken seriously, but flourish because people are too lazy, or unconsciously admiring, to cut or mow them. Some of these nameless entities bear tiny flowers; others spike out of the ground; still others laze in beds of pseudo-clover. Luxuriant strains of grass-seed become water-eaters householders most willingly oblige. Translucent carpeting proliferates along the margins of a house. And between the warped members of an old fence, honeysuckle twines disastrously, but exudes a wildly seductive fragrance. Upon contact, a fence-mender will re-think his mission and go somewhere else. Amidst these polymorphous things, ants and grasshoppers wander. Dig down and you'll run into the usual earthworms, followed by squishy grubs and the occasional ant-farm that can go ballistic, depending on how provoked it is. (Open-air ants are more peaceable. All they want is to march in queues and raise small hill-creations out of the dirt.)
I came into the house one day with a handful of flowers and tried to draw them - unsuccessfully, but with good intentions. I asked my mother why they were so hard to do. Rather than explain it, she drew a little flower herself, adding others. Finally, there it was: my bastard clump, now wilted, but triumphantly preserved.
"How did you do that?" I asked, pitying myself first and admiring her second - if at all. Tears of frustration were beginning to well. She could see that and was meeting them head-on, though she also knew to let them fall if they had to.
"You just look."
"The hard part is to choose one of them and do it."
"Try drawing just one flower and then go onto the next."
"Okay," I said, with renewed vigor and a sense of hope.
And so it happened. As I drew one, then another, the whole thing began to fall into place. I'm sure it wasn't a very good drawing, but people attach too much to the look of something. If some seed of progress can be discerned, the drawing is a success. It doesn't need to be exhibited, though it can be studied for its small, but quantifiable excellences.
Suddenly, the world existed, not in pieces - though piecing things together is something even the most holistic painters must do - but, again, as a single unit governed by laws that could not, at that time, be known. I had come into a very rudimentary understanding: if you take something in, you take it in the all-together. Just as that black crayon moved quirkily along the surface of the paper, putting down hard lines and/or blanchy-looking tones, your eye must move across and around things in order to get a kind of global feeling without which you really can't make a picture. My mother was the first person to alert me to this phenomenon: this holistic unity, this scannable universe, this block-and-tackle for the eye and mind. It is a sophisticated concept to which the average businessman - to puncture a familiar target - does not naturally gravitate. It upsets his sense of the grand design, which is multi-linear and dependent upon the suppression of good instincts. It also takes irreconcilable things and forces them to interact. In reality, a holistic design is unified by a webwork of ingredients from which the designer must, in the service of his or her vision, choose. That's why everybody's pictures are different. The wonderful Richard Dadd got into the nameless grasses of his native England and peopled them, not with ants and grasshoppers, but with living, if somewhat over-panoplied, human beings. He saw lots of things within his unity, but it is a unity still. The best of the Impressionists saw light as an all-enveloping force and that unified their pictures. Durer saw the enigma of personality drawn down by fate and mortal feeling. Rembrandt saw a divine order made of light-beams that aren't entirely optical, but resonate more spectacularly than the light we can see. He saw spirit in matter, but put matter first. No one has made "brick and straw" more tactile - even though he probably ceased calling things by their names. A holistic vision doesn't require them.
In the form of secondhand pictures, these artists traipsed across the small livingroom with its hooked rug and constipated television set. As did the vision of those flowers, which my mother had drawn individually in order to show me how they all hung together, as all living things must. As I occupy the space she knew better than any other, I feel daunted by the task of remembering bits and pieces from her life and unifying them with my own, which will be without her from now on. Yet those early lessons were invaluable. They taught me to keep tabs on the register while the store minded itself. She never told me how she knew this. It was acquired by hand and eye through an initial process few of us remember; then re-acquired more consciously after certain neural connections had been severed. Perhaps that unity was established this second time, as she struggled to see and write again, long after these skills were, in others, second nature. That was her triumph: as she jumped through familiar hoops with palsied reflexes, she got a better idea of how it was all done. And when she was making words on the page again - and combing, with a crayon, a horse's mane - she began to make connections the ordinarily skillful person could not. And passed them gently on to me - who did not have to struggle for them, but received them as most unconscious people do: with a sense of gratitude tempered by a sense of the gift's inevitability.
It has taken me fifty years to acknowledge that I haven't been entirely responsible for my fate, destiny, or what have you. I got a sort of push early on and will, for the rest of my life, remember it. A push from a hand that found its own force and, for better or worse, kept pushing.