Stories We Write in the Dark

Normally, this is a monthly newsletter about my current and upcoming art exhibitions, sales, and the paintings and ideas I've been working on recently. However, this post is about something a lot more personal, so bear with me and I'll get back to my art-focused content next month, I promise.

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One of these embryos grew into our daughter. (image created at UCSF Mission Bay Fertility Clinic)

One of these embryos grew into our daughter. (image created at UCSF Mission Bay Fertility Clinic)

My pregnancy was pretty easy. I had done three rounds of IVF—a process which is in no way enjoyable, although the science behind it is pretty amazing. During each cycle, I struggled with a lot of ambivalence about parenthood: what if I turned out to be a terrible parent? What if I found out I was one of those people who just doesn’t like their own kid? And how could I possibly live with myself if that happened?

When I got pregnant, everything changed. Pregnancy wasn't exactly, you know, fun, mostly because carrying around extra weight and having one's organs squished around to make room for a uterus the size of a watermelon is uncomfortable no matter how great the pregnancy goes. But I felt really good, physically and emotionally. If anything, I was euphoric. I felt curious to meet this new person who was growing inside of me. I probably read more than twenty books about child development. It was exciting.

I tried to have as few expectations as possible: labor never goes to plan, and there is no way to really be ready for parenthood. I did hope I'd be able to go into labor and deliver the baby naturally, and I hoped I wouldn't need any drugs. However, due to some ominous blood pressure spikes (and the fact that I'm higher risk as an over-40 pregnancy), my doctors recommended labor induction a few days before my due date. My wife and I agreed to this, and I happily swam a mile on the day I went into the hospital, with home-cooked food in the freezer, a clean house, and dear friends at home to keep the cats company. I felt I was as prepared as I could be.

My hopes were not realized. I was in labor for 44 terrible hours, and I don't think there was any drug available that I didn't end up having to take at some point. I basically didn’t sleep for four days. And after all of that, I had to get a caesarian, because the baby hadn't moved at all after two hours of pushing. The day of my daughter's birth was not the best day of my life. I heard her voice, I saw her face, and the doctors told us how strong and healthy she was. I was still pinned to an operating table shaped like a crucifix, trying to awkwardly balance her on my chest for the recommended skin-to-skin contact, while they replaced my organs and sewed me up. I was relieved that labor was finally over, glad the baby was okay, and happy for my parents, who were among the first to hold her and who were positively glowing with joy. I didn't feel much of anything else.

 

The night after my daughter's birthday, I completely fell apart. It was Mother's Day, and I still hadn't gotten any sleep. The baby needed to be changed and fed, and I was worried about my wife, who was also very under slept. Breastfeeding hurt. I didn't know how to do anything, in spite of all the books I read. All the fears I had during my IVF cycles now came flooding back, and I started crying hysterically. My mother, who had visited earlier that day, came back to help comfort me. This calmed me, and she went home to bed. I finally got permission to take a shower, and eagerly went to wash off the sweat, blood, and other childbirth-related effluvia. Then I realized the sound of the water had turned into the sound of babies crying. I don't mean that it was like crying, I mean I could hear the individual voices wailing, including the gasping breaths taken in between the cries. It sounded like I was surrounded by twenty invisible screaming infants. I finished showering, but I could still hear them, in the sounds of the water trickling down the drain, in the sound of my own breath, in the swallows of water I drank, in the hum of the air conditioner, in the background noise of the hospital.

I don't remember a lot of what happened after that. I remember my wife holding me while I sobbed on my hospital bed, shrieking “oh my god, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry" over and over at 1:00 AM. I’m sure my wife was almost as frightened by that time as I was. I remember making the decision together to call a psychiatric consult. The doctor who had gotten me through one of the most painful induction procedures came to our room and talked us down. The doctor reassured me that I didn't have postpartum psychosis, and recommended putting the baby in the nursery for the night so we could get some sleep. She seemed like an angel, like a guidepost at the end of the world. It was my wife who really saved me, though. Everything inside of me seemed to have been destroyed, but I knew I loved and trusted her. It was the only thing left that I knew for sure.

It didn't stay as bad as it was that night, but it would get that bad again and again, and it took a long time for things to get better. In the first six weeks of my daughter's life, I had no good days. There were times when I wasn't terrified, but those times were eerily empty and numb. I felt like a haunted house. I mechanically did all the housework I was allowed to do after my surgery, and I cried, and I stared into space. I was often immobilized between overwhelming fear and equally overwhelming guilt. I remember standing in the hallway between our bedroom and the nursery, unable to get into bed to rest, and unable to help my wife with the baby. I could not move. I was afraid of our daughter. I looked at her and I didn't feel much of anything, and it broke my heart, over and over.

I hated myself.

I wanted to die.

I was never worried that I would actually hurt myself. The thought of how much my death would hurt my family was always so much more unbearable than the idea of going on living—even living without the ability to experience joy, even living as a person I could no longer respect. It was a lot easier to convince myself that I didn't matter to my friends, but I knew that my wife and parents would be devastated. I knew my daughter would grow up without the opportunity to know me. Those things were always worse than anything else I could imagine.

Even after I started getting better, the desire to die would jump up inside me unexpectedly, almost gleefully, even when I was otherwise feeling happy. Me not existing anymore just seemed like a good idea, beneficial to the world, even like a gift I could give to my family. The baby was doing so well. My wife was embracing parenthood, and my mother and father were overjoyed. They all seemed so complete and beautiful without me, and I didn't want to mar their happiness. I wanted to rescue them from this terrible thing I had become, because I loved them so much. These thoughts of suicide, occurring during periods of happiness, were profoundly creepy and disorienting to me. The idea of suicide at least seemed more natural when I felt miserable and alone.

Postpartum depression is quite common, affecting up to 1 in 8 parents in the first month after childbirth. People with a history of depression or anxiety disorders are most at risk, and because I had no such history, I wasn't expecting it to happen to me. In fact, although I didn't have expectations about labor or the new baby, it turned out that I had a lot of expectations of myself. I was planning to take on most of the baby care on my own, since my wife needs more sleep than I do. I was planning to accept only minimal help from my parents, since they are older and I didn't want to overload them. I was planning not to need much outside help, so we could save our money for things that were more important. I was planning to be a full-time mom for at least the first few years (and somehow also have time to continue my art career? Because art isn't a real job that deserves dedicated time?) I was planning to avoid costing anyone any extra stress, or money, or burdens of any kind.

Obviously, none of those plans came to pass. Thankfully, we had already lined up a wonderful postpartum doula, Rosangela Braganca, an old friend of my mother's (and a person I cannot recommend highly enough for baby care, sleep training, and educating new parents) to help us with the nights. My parents came over often, and gave us both so much love, understanding, and support. An astounding number of our friends reached out, offering company, babysitting, and home cooked meals.

Most importantly, I got professional help very quickly. Because my depression came on with such speed and severity, my doctors believe it was mostly due to the hormone crash after childbirth. I didn't know this when I went in for the induction, but Pitocin (a synthetic oxytocin used to induce labor, and of which I received the maximum dose) is associated with a 32% increase in postpartum depression in women without a history of depression.

Slowly, things started getting better. I had my first good day somewhere towards the end of June. I had more emotional space, more room to develop my own feelings. My moods felt very much like the weather: entirely outside of my control, but like an environment to which I could learn to adapt. I seized every opportunity I had, when the clouds lifted, to learn to care for the baby. Panic and guilt continued to consume me frequently, but I started having a few good days a week. By July, I was only feeling really bad at night. It could still get pretty awful (for instance, I had an hour-long panic attack during this period) but it became clear that I wasn't always going to be like this.

Seven weeks postpartum, on the first good day since the delivery.

Seven weeks postpartum, on the first good day since the delivery.

One day, I was taking care of our daughter (by myself!) and playing with her, while listening to one of my favorite songs by the Ditty Bops, “Wishful Thinking”. This song is about new relationship ambivalence, about the weather, about the seasons and about giving yourself time. Suddenly, it was a song about me and my baby. I could feel my heart pry open, grains of rust dissolving into powder. I shuddered as my heart gave itself a little shake (rust flakes drifting off in all directions), and shimmied free of the iron vise that had been squeezing the life out of it for months. I felt it beat again, making me warm all over, as I looked into my baby daughter's eyes. I fell in love just as the song ended, still singing along, barely choking out the last words before bursting into tears.

Depression is really good at unearthing all our deepest fears about ourselves, and I think it’s hard to know what to believe when we are in the middle of it. Professionals and people who love us will say that depression tells lies, and they're right. But aren't our deepest fears also founded on at least (at least!) a grain of truth? What if that conviction of worthlessness and meaninglessness is real, and joy itself is nothing more than a vapid illusion?

I know there are no easy answers. It would be foolish and presumptuous to propose a way out of the darkness that works for everybody. However, I have learned something that I think might be universally useful. When the demons come whispering their message of hopelessness, we don't have to stop our ears. We can listen without having to believe them. In particular, we ought to listen for something familiar. Aren't the demons forever plagiarizing our own personal stories? I can't say that the demons always lie, but I can say this with confidence:

Beware of believing in a reality that you wrote by yourself.

We can't reasonably decide to listen to our demons without also listening to everyone else. The truth is that our worst fears are likely to be every bit as overblown as our grandest aspirations. Most importantly, there is always hope. I really believe that. Things can always get better.

Always

always

always.

 

If you'd like to listen to "Wishful Thinking", here's the official video, starring the immortal Ditty Bops Abby DeWald and Amanda Barrett, who are actually married in real life and have been together since 1999.

The Face of the Abyss

This is a monthly newsletter about current artwork, influences, past projects, and upcoming exhibitions, often with some personal content thrown in. I will also include announcements when prints or originals are up for sale.

First, I have several exciting pieces of news:

1. I was invited to exhibit my art at Four Barrel Coffee (the Valencia Street location in San Francisco) this summer. I will be showing my "Composite Landscape" paintings, which will be for sale. Four Barrel is an independent, locally-owned coffee roastery and cafe that maintains a wonderful space for art. I'll post more about it when the show gets closer, but I'm very happy to be part of this exhibition, alongside other local landscape artists. The curator at Four Barrel asked me to make another landscape for the exhibition if I have the time and energy (he is aware that I am nine months pregnant), so I've been working on that. It's about halfway finished, based on several canyons from across the United States.

2. I finally have an online fine art store! I still have a wide variety of beautiful giclée prints for sale, and I’m selling one last original painting—"Flowers", which I painted last year. It is professionally framed in UV-protected glass, $700.00. It’s a special painting to me, as I was able to work from life instead of having to depend on photographs for reference; all flowers are from the San Francisco Botanical Garden. If you are interested in owning it, please email me!

Flowers  (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Flowers (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

3. My insect/flower painting series is finished! I have now made ten lovely paintings of superimposed insect and plant pairs, each one about a different interspecies relationship. Ten paintings are enough for a solo show, and I am officially starting a slow hunt for a gallery space to show them. When I find one, the paintings will be for sale, and I will probably make a limited run of prints available as well. Don’t they all look beautiful together?

I now have eleven days until my due date, so labor could happen at any time now. Therefore, everything I start to do these days is begun with the understanding that it may be interrupted by what will probably be the most dramatic event of my life.

It's a strange way to live.

Consequently, I’m starting to do more reading than project-oriented work. Recently, I’ve been reading about Clive Wearing, the famous musician and musicologist who suffered catastrophic brain damage from herpesviral encephalitis in 1985, which left him with severe amnesia. His memory span ranges from only 7 to 30 seconds, and so is unable to form any new memories. He is currently 80 years old, and has been living in this unimaginable, present-bound reality for 34 years. His wife Deborah wrote a beautiful, astonishingly lucid and insightful book about his condition: “Forever Today: A True Story of Lost Memory and Never-Ending Love”. She describes how Mr. Wearing adapted to his condition by developing external cues that provide the temporal continuity his mind lacked: a stereotyped stream of wisecracks, familiar subjects and people (where he had better access to his old memories and felt on safer ground), and, of course, his music.

There are two separate cognitive networks for learning and memory. Fortunately for Mr. Wearing, these networks can operate independently, although in normal brain operations they generally operate in concert, supporting one another. This is how Mr. Wearing was able to adapt to his condition at all. While he could not consciously learn new information, he could learn implicitly—that is, he could form non-conscious memories that involved motor movements and action sequences, speech structures and mannerisms, and emotional response patterns. Thus, he could gain the ability to navigate a new home quite well, but he couldn’t give such direction to another person. He unconsciously began to unbuckle his seatbelt when he and his wife approached his nursing home in the car, but he was unable to consciously recognize the place as familiar.

As Deborah put it, it was as though he stood on a tiny platform, suspended over an unfathomable abyss. That platform represented his present experience, and without external cues to act as stepping stones that lead him forward—in a conversation, in an unfamiliar place, in his own thinking—he became utterly lost: insensible death closing on on all sides, endless annihilation stretching out before him.

Who else might have a special dependance on implicit memory processes? Babies and very young children are far less able to form explicit memories. For them, learning mainly consists of actions and action patterns, social-emotional development, language structures, and other non-conscious memory processes. “Infantile amnesia” is a term psychologists use to describe the phenomenon that makes memories from infancy and early childhood inaccessible later in life. To a cognitively impaired adult, the abyss is terrifying: to have a sense of self and then to lose all context for it is an existential catastrophe. To an infant, the abyss is familiar: perhaps the only familiar environment it has, at first. To an artist, a poet, a musician, or a dancer, the abyss is no more familiar than the landscape of the moon and no more terrifying than watching the sea. It is instead a valuable resource: of adventure, excitement, mystery, and inspiration.

I often feel now that I am on Mr. Wearing’s little platform, a cliff overlooking an unknowable void. Parenthood will change absolutely everything, and there is no way to know what might come. Anything at all is possible. It is, in every sense, a blind leap of faith. No one can know the abyss, but that leap of faith feels like home to me. It’s just another act of creativity: a reckless step forward into the dark, trembling with curiosity, hope, and joy.

Glory

This is a monthly newsletter about current artwork, influences, past projects, and upcoming exhibitions, often with some personal content thrown in. I will also include announcements when prints or originals are up for sale.

 

It's been a while since I wrote a post about the tarot deck I published back in 2014 (a full ten years after designing it), but it's still there, in the background of my life: still selling to customers all over the world, and still a useful tool to me in my art process.

The Cheimonette Tarot, published in 2014. Decks available for purchase  here .

The Cheimonette Tarot, published in 2014. Decks available for purchase here.

In case you're not familiar, tarot is very similar to a regular deck of playing cards. Like playing cards, tarot has four suits, which are in fact earlier versions of clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds: which were once staves (or polo sticks), cups, swords, and disks (or coins), respectively. Like playing cards, tarot has ten pip cards in each suit, ace through ten, and face cards, although tarot has four instead of three per suit. The biggest difference between them is tarot’s addition of twenty-one "trump" cards, otherwise known as the major arcana.

Many regard tarot and playing card decks as fundamentally different in the way they are used, but this is probably less the case than they realize. For most of its history, tarot was used for games and gambling (and still is, in some parts of Europe). When it did start being used in fortune-telling in the 18th century, it was often treated as just another amusing game one could play with friends. The cards and the symbols depicted on them gained more and more symbolic meaning from this point onward, with most of the present card meanings derived from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization devoted to study of occult traditions, and from which come the “classic” tarot decks most widely used in divination today. Tarot is now widely associated with spiritual practice, in which practitioners aim to use the cards to see into the future, and gain insight and guidance in the process. I'm in the somewhat strange position of practicing tarot very differently than most of my customers: I don’t use tarot for divination, I use it as a tool for exploring my thoughts, building narratives, and developing art ideas. I have no questions, no objectives, no goals; I just wander through the symbols and piece stories together from them.

This is certainly not to say that art can't be goal-oriented, or that ambition cannot inspire creativity. Different artists conceptualize and produce the art they make in different ways. For me, achievement is not a good motivator, and so the way I make art is not fundamentally different now than it was when I was a child. The skills that let me draw the things I want to draw in the way I want to draw them were certainly gained with a goal in mind, but this type of drawing does not feel like art to me, it feels like practice. For me, the real joy in making art is the dynamic exchange between visual qualities I try to control, and visual qualities I make no effort to control. In my superimpositions, I choose the objects I want to combine, but not their placement. This approach produces an endless array of unexpected conjunctions and tangents, creating visual puzzles for me to "solve". Watercolor is also inherently unpredictable. I can pick the colors, but I can never predict exactly how they will interact, how they will spread and how they will dry. Each work of art I make thus becomes a visual conversation between my own technical capabilities and the uncontrollability inherent in the process and the medium. In a sense, my paintings make themselves. The joy is in making them; the best part is over when the painting is finished.

This progression from achieving control to being forced, either by choice or by circumstances, to forsake it is wonderfully exemplified in the sixes and sevens of the tarot deck. I have always seen the sixes as the "Beauty" cards. They represent a complex, stable harmony of ideas—the most successful manifestation of each suit's particular personality. The first five cards make progress towards the ideal world of the six, while the seven is the beginning of the end of the world. It's what happens after the dream of worldly success—as though glory-chasing were merely a developmental phase—that is the most fascinating and beautiful to me. The ways in which finite things come to an end will always be more interesting than the ways in which they may achieve immortality.

The Seven of Staves (2005). Ink, watercolor, prismacolor, and gouache on paper.

The Seven of Staves (2005). Ink, watercolor, prismacolor, and gouache on paper.

My favorite sevens are from the staves and cups suits, probably because imagination (staves) and emotion (cups) are the human faculties best adapted to handling confrontations with human frailty. In the Seven of Staves (above), mortality becomes a cherished source of wisdom and inspiration. The Seven of Cups (below) is about how frightening things can get when one wakes up from the dream of success and realizes that it's all just a story they wrote themselves. These awakenings can occur numerous times, and range from a true leader's realization that her followers are not friends—much less family—and that she is just as alone as she was before her rise to power, to the times when a narcissist is forced to recognize his cherished dream of himself and the esteem he commands from others as delusions. If acceptance fails to follow, this card, which I regard as one of the saddest and scariest concepts in the tarot, can become a prison from which one can never escape.

The Seven of Cups (2004). Ink, watercolor, and prismacolor on paper.

The Seven of Cups (2004). Ink, watercolor, and prismacolor on paper.

I do not mean to condemn those whose lives are built on goals. I think that ambition is a deeply human characteristic, responsible for many of the most wonderful achievements of our species. Nevertheless, looking at human beings in terms of achievement and its power hierarchies has always been viscerally distasteful to me. I am certainly not immune to glory-chasing; I want respect and admiration as much as most people, I guess, but I don't like wanting these things. Compared with the experiences I have as an artist, they seem sordid things with which to occupy my life. Having an art career is in itself a goal-driven activity, just like any other career, but this is not why I make art. Even if I knew that not one person would ever like any of my work, and that I'd never get one bit of recognition or affirmation as long as I live, I'd still have to go on making it, because art is something I love to do. Ambition is inherently oriented towards the future, while joy is an experience one can only have in the present. This is why all strategies for seeing into the future are inherently ambitious. I don't think there is anything wrong with ambition, but without joy, ambition becomes mercenary: a game of status-hungry schoolyard kids chasing the trophy of social capital.

When I was three years old, my family got incredibly lucky. We met a woman who lived in a house across the street from us named Tilly, from an island in the north of Germany. Tilly had been born into a big family that ran a tavern on the island, a job which she had loathed but faithfully worked at for the first forty years of her life. The British occupation ended, and her family offered to send her to America, hoping perhaps that she might marry an American. Tilly had always wanted to travel, and seized the opportunity. She landed in New York City, and after a few months of unpleasant work in a relative’s delicatessen, she took a Greyhound bus all the way across the country to another relative’s chicken farm in Petaluma. As soon as the bus took her over the Oakland Bay Bridge, she knew that she had found where she wanted to live: San Francisco, the most beautiful city in the world. The Petaluma relatives offered her a job on their farm, but Tilly preferred to try cooking and housekeeping so she could be in the city. They examined the help wanted ads, and found a Mrs. Brown, who spoke German and needed help running a large house by the ocean.

Tilly remained with Mrs. Brown for 25 years until her death, shortly after my family moved in across the street. Tilly, by then in her mid-sixties, was considering whether to return to the island, where she could have a pension and live in an old age home for islanders, but she ended up falling in love with my family, and stayed with us until she was past eighty years old. Tilly worked for us, but she was also part of our family. Even after she left San Francisco to spend her last years on her island, we all kept in close touch, exchanging phone calls and letters almost every week. She was like a parent to me, and I am probably even more like her than I am like my mother or father.

Anyone who has met Tilly will know what a presumptuous assertion that is. She was as close as it is possible to get to being a real-life angel. If this image suggests sanctimonious propriety to you, I should elaborate that she had a wonderful sense of humor, both about herself and the world, and that her humility and generosity were absolutely genuine. She never seemed to have any aspirations to be "good", and never regarded herself as particularly bright or special. Nevertheless, she was the happiest person I ever met. She admired others for their accomplishments as one might enjoy a magnificent garden, and was kind and giving to everyone around her merely because she took pleasure in being so. Unsurprisingly, everybody she ever came into contact with—even if it was just in pleasantries over the phone—loved and respected her. Every good thing she had in her life, no matter how mundane, made her feel like the world's luckiest person. Perhaps she appreciated her life so intensely and minutely because she had grown up in wartime Germany, and with so little personal freedom. Until she came to us, she had never had a room of her own. Having her own apartment was one of her greatest pleasures, and one which she never relinquished, even after moving back home to the island.

She made me want to be like her. I wanted to live life in such a way that I never took anything for granted. I wanted to take the same joy in patience, generosity, and kindness as she did. As anybody who has raised children knows, these are not inborn characteristics of the human condition, but with such a model before me, I acquired some of her feelings and attitude. It is now over two years since Tilly died in her sleep, at the age of 96, still healthy and living independently in a little third story apartment in her home town.

The dictionary defines "Glory" as high renown or honor that is won by great achievement, but it provides an alternate definition: “magnificence and great beauty”. Glory therefore includes ambition and joy: the bliss of success and the visceral experience of sublime pleasure. It also has a third definition, as exemplified by the phrase "gone to glory", which refers to a soul's ascent to heaven. Tilly was a Lutheran, and believed in heaven (although she preferred to believe in reincarnation rather than hell). Personally, I believe that joy and ambition are both necessary ingredients for a bearable mortal existence. Civilization is structured on ambition, and this is a reality whether or not it is an ideal state of affairs. Joy is a state that cannot coexist with ambition, and yet without it, ambition has no meaning. Perhaps this seeming contradiction is similar to my art process: the conversation that happens between taking and relinquishing control, over and over, until the painting is done. Perhaps Glory is a state in which the painting is never done: an infinite loop that offers an endless array of unexpected answers, and an unending wilderness of beauties to explore.

The Pleiades

There are five people in my life with whom I've had what I call creative relationships. I don’t mean to suggest that they were all significant others—in fact, only one of them was a romantic partnership. When I think of them, I see a tremendous beauty of mind. If they have any unifying traits, this is it.

I've been thinking of them for some time as the Pleiades—who, in Greek mythology, were the daughters of Atlas and the sea nymph Pleione. They inherited the animistic traits of their nature deity mother, and the weight of the universe from their titan father. I believe I see each of them for who they are, rather than who I wanted them or needed them to be (which is really the best and purest kind of intimacy). At the same time, these are deeply subjective relationships because these people hold such important places in my life. I know how burdensome this can be. I don't know that any of them even wanted such a role, but love is like that sometimes.

I will probably never stop missing them. All I can do is hope that I contributed something good to their lives, as well.

The Pleiades (or Seven Sisters) star cluster.

The Pleiades (or Seven Sisters) star cluster.

One of the beautiful things about love is that one cares more about the other person's happiness and well-being than about having them in one’s life. I am glad the Pleiad who died is free from a painful disease. I am glad my far-away friends have found a better life for themselves than they would have had here, and I accept the two relationships that have ended—indeed, I am grateful to have had these people in my life at all, even if I never see them again.

I am not exaggerating when I say that these people fundamentally changed who I am as an artist. I have a lot of sadness about the fact that I am no longer in close contact with any of them. As I move closer to being a mom, I find myself thinking about the people I want my daughter to know. She will find her own people, though, and she will likely to find herself and her work in different parts of the world than I do. Nevertheless, it’s sad that my Pleiades will exist to her primarily as stories.

This month I made a new painting in my insect/flower series: Gadfly x Lotus. Whereas, in the previous paintings, I experimented with convergent forms and species, I am now experimenting with symbols and concepts. It was a gadfly that the goddess Hera sent to sting the maiden Io, transformed into a white calf by one of the many love-interests of Zeus. She was condemned to wander the world as a cow, seeking relief from the bite of Hera’s gadfly. The hero Odysseus's men fell prey to the land of the lotus-eaters. As soon as they ate from the flowers, they stopped caring about their former lives, thereby entering a kind of dreamlike oblivion.

I think I'm not the only person who finds oblivion more frightening than suffering. One of my Pleiad friends, Wolf, was once in the hospital. I had never seen anyone in so much pain before. Finally, the nurses administered so much medication that it was a constant struggle to even stay conscious. Wolf became very frightened, and elected to lower the dosage, even if it meant dealing with a level of pain that was close to intolerable. I think I’d have felt the same way. Many of us would rather look a monster in the face than endure its presence in the darkness.

Gadfly x Lotus (Tabanus bovinus x Nelumbo nucifera), 2019. Ink and watercolor on paper.

Gadfly x Lotus (Tabanus bovinus x Nelumbo nucifera), 2019. Ink and watercolor on paper.

Another Pleiad I called Rabbit. Wolf and Rabbit probably did the most to inform my identity: both of them thrust me much farther down the road towards my ideals than I ever would have gotten without them. I'm not just talking about the perfectionistic drive to reach certain standards of personal achievement, I'm also talking about moral issues—which is always a part of my art: my social responsibilities, how I ought to treat other people, my duty to stretch my sphere of influence. I admire both of these people tremendously. Rabbit in particular seemed to symbolize what I myself might accomplish if I worked hard enough. She certainly deserved the high opinion I always had of her, but I see now that it probably wasn't a fair friendship. I was always struggling to keep up, and this likely had negative effects on my own progress, and may have damaged our friendship. Nobody benefits from pedestals—all they do is force people apart.

I made art with only two Pleiad friends. One is a truly brilliant poet named Raphael Matto (you can buy his books here), who informed a lot of my early drawings and writing. His work still helps me whenever I need to look at my art from a literary perspective. I still keep particular thoughts and feelings in some of his poems, perfectly intact and waiting for me whenever I need them.

The other Pleiad I used to call my steam-engine, and I am still learning things from our now long-past conversations, experiences, and drawings. Before I met her, I didn't understand how to make non-representational art, or even how to think in a non-representational way. I think mainly in pictures, and I think she thought mainly in numbers. I had always viewed numbers-based thinking as unreachable for me, but with her I saw that seemingly disparate cognitive approaches could be analogous. The categorical language of images and the quantitative language of numbers and algorithms had common ground, and there was a network of interlocking, subterranean tunnels between them. These connections, in the context of a person I admired so much—and at the same time, felt such close kinship with—have expanded the way I think. Many people feel lost when they look at abstract art, but it's really very simple: all you need is the ability to love something without knowing what it is. However, the implications of this are immensely complex. All of a sudden there is context for relating to everything; the edge of the universe is simply gone.

Attractor 4, 2014. Graphite on paper.

Attractor 4, 2014. Graphite on paper.

The very first Pleiad I met died in 2013. Dr. Hudson was a professor who taught me to value what I found meaningful even when nobody else did. I had an artistic style that wasn't popular with my art teachers, and a writing style that the English department found "too weird". When I visited Dr. Hudson in his office, we talked about literature, travel, languages, philosophy, and science. While I didn't always feel understood, I learned that it didn't matter. All that mattered was that I loved my work. I’m not sure I agree that we should always believe in ourselves. After all, sometimes we really aren’t competent or trustworthy—nobody is. But I do believe, thanks to Dr. Hudson, that we should always, always believe in what we love.

He gave me so much, but I'm not sure what I ever gave him; he just seemed to enjoy talking to me. Perhaps being a father figure was simply a role he enjoyed—I know that he kept in touch with other students long after they graduated. He was never too busy to listen to me, never laughed at my problems, and was always fearlessly open, sharing his stories, his interests, and his vast knowledge and experience, whenever I asked. I know I probably needed him much more than he needed anything from me, but that is, after all, the nature of parenthood.

And I suppose I can make a return on his kindness to me by doing the same for my future daughter.

Gratitude

As I wrote in my last post, this year I participated in San Francisco Open Studios for the first time, at the beginning of the month. This was my first time doing any kind of formal exhibition (aside from participating in group shows), and so I wisely dialed down my expectations.

If it was only my friends who came, that would be ok.

If I didn't make many (or any) sales on the weekend itself, that would be ok.

Even if nobody showed up at all, it would still be ok.

As long as I got a chance to practice talking about my art, or at least displaying my work, that would be enough. And, while I was waiting for 11AM on Saturday November 3rd (the official opening time), I looked around at all the art I've made this past year, and it felt really good. I had already pre-sold about a third of the original artwork, so I knew that this was my last chance to be near some of my paintings. Every painting carries a lot of meaning for me. Each is filled with memories of what I was doing and thinking and feeling at the time of its creation. It's a trite sentiment, but it's true: every painting carries a piece of me, and there is one kind of bereavement when it is finished, and another kind altogether when it is sold.

Composite Landscape IV (2018); 9” x 12”, watercolor on paper (Sold: Somerville, MA).  References: Ithaca, NY; Shenandoah National Park, VA; Mount Davidson, CA.

Composite Landscape IV (2018); 9” x 12”, watercolor on paper (Sold: Somerville, MA).

References: Ithaca, NY; Shenandoah National Park, VA; Mount Davidson, CA.

As it turned out, that weekend comprehensively exceeded the expectations of my most optimistic friends. Every secret hope I cherished, when I wasn't busy wisely lowering my expectations, was left in the dust.

Friends (including friends and acquaintances I hadn't seen in over a decade), strangers, curators, and neighbors filled my studio for the greater part of the weekend. Orders from social media flooded in. One woman, who had done her research on my portfolio and who I had never met before, bought a piece of art that wasn't even up for sale: I had to dig it out of my closet and come up with a price on the spot. They came in waves. I was often so busy answering questions and making sales that my wife had to help. Altogether, about a hundred and fifty people stopped by. Given how far into the San Francisco residential boonies I am located, and how far away from any other artist's studio, I was amazed. I'm still amazed.

This wasn’t my first venture into selling my artwork. The tarot deck I created, and which was published via a Kickstarter in 2013, has continued to sell, reaching more than 36 different countries across all seven continents. I write each one of my customers personally, and they often respond, explaining why they felt drawn to my artwork, telling me about their home town or home country, and describing the creative ways they use the deck—in their psychotherapy practice, improv groups, performance art, theater troupes, retreats, workshops, meditative and creative practices, and the classes they teach. I've never managed to habituate myself to how touching and wonderful this experience is, no matter how often it’s happened. Every time a customer writes me back, even if it's just to say a quick thank you, I think about how they are using something I made, making it their own, and interpreting it and using it in ways I could not have imagined. I am humbled, I am grateful, I am honored, every single time.

 

Now the same things are happening with my paintings. Original paintings and limited edition prints are now hanging on the walls of friends, strangers, neighbors; they are now part of their home, their daily life. Frequently, I have gotten to meet these customers in person. As they integrate these pieces into their daily consciousness, discuss them with their family and friends, and share them with their children, my artwork will come to belong to them as much as to me. To me, this is the best thing about being an artist.

Limited-edition prints of “Lacewing x Maple”, “Beetle x Rambutan”, “Flowers”, “Moth x Iris x Columbine”, “Cicada x Catalpa”, “Brimstone x Thistle”, “Mantis x Orchid”, and “Locust x Locust”. (Sold: Bodega Bay, CA)

Limited-edition prints of “Lacewing x Maple”, “Beetle x Rambutan”, “Flowers”, “Moth x Iris x Columbine”, “Cicada x Catalpa”, “Brimstone x Thistle”, “Mantis x Orchid”, and “Locust x Locust”. (Sold: Bodega Bay, CA)

To use a somewhat crackpot metaphor, seeing a piece of art that I really love is like finding a poem I wrote when I was nine (my first really good piece of writing, which I have never posted or published and probably never will), inscribed on a tablet in a ruined temple on the steppes of Mongolia. It has always felt like a miracle that someone I have never met and with whom I have little in common can reach right into my secret soul, through the exquisite meaning and beauty of a single piece of art.

I always try to learn about the artist, if possible, after I have seen their work. Sometimes I find an unrelatable personality, an ugly story, or an individual I wouldn't even like to meet. Maybe this sounds strange, but I am always pleased when this happens. It is rare, but I find a terrible person behind the art I love in maybe one case out of forty.

It is painful to find so much evil in the world. It is discouraging to be around people who do not share my values, and to read true stories in the news that are full of violence, hatred, and selfishness. Finding that a person who is otherwise hateful (say, Richard Wagner) has nevertheless produced a work of sublime beauty that has moved and inspired me is, well, comforting to me.

I believe it is a very human temptation to slide towards the annihilation of everything we find morally repugnant: ignoring the homeless, neglecting the ill, smugly denigrating the ignorant, or disowning killers, rapists, and abusers as human beings. Like many human temptations, this one runs contrary to the work I want to do in the world. Every wonderful work of art, music, or writing, every groundbreaking scientific discovery, every advancement we as a whole make towards truth and kindness and courage gives me hope. A person's works do not redeem their moral transgressions—the exquisite music Wagner wrote does not excuse him from mistreating the women in his life, nor from his contributions to Nazi ideology. However, it does remind us that we share a common human nature, which is, was, and always will be capable of the most hideous evil, world-changing accomplishments, abject cowardice, astounding strength, and profound love.

Impossible City

This is my monthly art-related newsletter/blog. It's generally about the new art I've made, news about exhibitions, and other art-related ideas I've been thinking about.

Art News

1. This year, I am participating in San Francisco Open Studios! This means that my studio will be open to the public for a whole weekend. My neighborhood's weekend will be on November 3rd and 4th, from 11AM - 6PM both Saturday and Sunday. My best artwork from the last year will be up for view (most of it will also be for sale), and I'll have a limited number of signed and numbered pigment prints for sale as well.

If you live in or near the San Francisco Bay Area, please come!! I would love to answer your questions about my art, say hello (even if I haven't met you yet), and/or graciously leave you alone if you want to look at my art in peace. There will be snacks and nice places to sit, and a weird-looking white kitty to pet.

The address is 110 Santa Clara Avenue, San Francisco. This is one of those unusual neighborhoods that has plenty of parking, AND is an easy walk from public transit (the West Portal MUNI station).

 

2. Fifteen of my original tarot paintings will be on exhibition through the end of the year at Azari Vineyards in Petaluma, starting in mid-October. The estate is an incredibly lovely place to visit—they even have a guest house!—and their wine is really and truly superb. You could take advantage of this beautiful autumn weather to plan a day trip to taste some wine, look at my paintings, admire the beautiful views of Petaluma Gap, and take a stroll around the grounds.

For those of you who don't know already, I published a tarot deck in 2014, and despite zero advertising on my part, sales continue to be pretty great (thanks to the photos, reviews, and videos posted by my amazing customers!). The only continent right now that doesn't contain any of my tarot decks is Antarctica—anybody know a tarot-lover in Antarctica?

 

“Treehouse”. Graphite on paper.

“Treehouse”. Graphite on paper.

As for the art I've been working on recently, I seem to be on a little bit of a hiatus. I'm done with my insect/flower paintings, and I've got a really big, interesting idea for my next series, but the idea hasn't finished cooking yet, so to speak. I know from experience that I can't rush these things. I just have to keep scribbling notes and sketches in my sketchbook and thinking about what it is, exactly, that I want to make.

When I'm developing an idea, I start chasing other people’s art. I spend hours in libraries, thumbing through picture books on history, urbanism, botany, ecology, neuroscience, marine science, or whatever. I spend hours in museums, sometimes spending all my time in one room, scribbling furiously in my sketchbook about a train of thought originating from a single sculpture and then racing home to look something else up.

Sometimes nothing else will do except wandering around the city at some odd hour, listening to the strangest and least music-like recesses of my music collection.

I don't yet have a good explanation for the new idea I'm working on, but I'm going to try anyway (after all, I suppose that's why you're here, reading this). I want to make art about impossible urban places: architectural interventions that make cities more accessible, more surprising, more imaginative. In particular, more human and less...institutional, I guess. Huge cave-dwellings, stretching out and interconnecting below the basements of skyscrapers. Treehouses installed in the recesses of highway overpasses. An entire apartment block gutted of its rooms and floor subdivisions, a shell for an empty, quiet, cathedral-like space, cut through by shafts of light from the vast wall of windows, with ladders and hammocks and bunks and bookcases covering the walls.

None of these ideas are in any way feasible, or even desirable, in real life, but that's exactly what I like about them.

I think there is something in me, as an artist, that has a great antipathy to anything practical. Perhaps this secret dislike extends farther than myself: maybe it’s shared by general scientists, or people who work in pure mathematics, or unpopular philosophers, or kids and teens who want nothing to do with the grownup world of trading 40+ hours a week of the only life they'll ever have just for the privilege of continuing to survive.

Anyone else? The rococo aristocracy, hobos riding trains, island-owning billionaires, anarchists foraging for meals in restaurant dumpsters and squatting in condemned buildings: people who try to place themselves far above or far below the mundane concerns of modern mainstream survival?

I certainly don't mean to propose generalizations. It remains difficult for me to imagine the variety of different reasons a person might have to long for the freedom of a permanently unrealistic world. I know that most seek to contribute in material ways to the world around them. An architect feels pride when she sets foot in a building she designed, and observes how the occupants use it. The world is full of research scientists who long to find a cure for cancer, a way to reverse global warming, a new innovation that will end world hunger.

I am no exception. I would not be able to live with myself if I didn't keep trying to find ways to positively impact the people and places around me. But I do think there are those of us who, while we know there must be practical innovations to change the world for the better, yearn for a world of pure ideas, where everything is possible.

To be honest, that kind of world really doesn't sound important, even to me. It sounds like the insipid fairyland of a very spoiled child who never managed to grow up (welcome, by the way, to the deepest of all my fears about what I really am).

Nevertheless, brain scientists and psychologists tend to believe that it is important. They describe us as existing within a "layer of thought", which acts a neurological buffer between our own impulses and the sensory information we receive. Our ideas, our beliefs, our worldview, and our moment-by-moment experiences are often largely intellectual in nature. The social sciences are full of studies illustrating that people get by on dreams even more than they do on realities. Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz, knew this. “Ever more people have the means to live,” he wrote, “but no meaning to live for.” Not only does this world of impossible ideas help us survive, it does so by being the most desirable part of human experience—by imbuing it with interest, joy, meaning.

I always end up believing that this impossible world is important, and not because of all the scientific, political, and moral arguments backing it up, either. I just believe in it because I can't help loving it, even if I and everyone else turns out to be wrong, and it really is just a waste of time.

It is my own core belief. If this isn't true, then nothing is true.

Death is Young

This is my monthly art-related newsletter/blog. Usually, its contents include new art I've made, news about exhibitions, and other art-related ideas I've been thinking about. However, August has been pretty rough, and so I wrote about pet death, family, and life history. If you'd rather look at the art I've been working on, please check out my new art-only instagram account, @edengallanter.

 

This month my sweet, two-year-old cat died of cancer.

One day she was running and playing, and jumping into my lap every time I sat down. The next day she started acting sick, and after two subsequent visits to the hospital, the doctors told me that she had cancer—lymphoma. It was incurable, and she was only going to get worse. We arranged immediately for a vet to come to our home to euthanize her, and she died in my arms. It was so shockingly fast.

If you've ever had a pet to whom you have a special connection, who follows you around the house, who trusts you, and just wants to be near you all the time, you already know that this pet feels like family. Whatever the world family has come to mean to you, it acts as a soft, warm cocoon around your heart. Family, whether made up of biological relatives, caretakers, close friends, partners, or pets, is one of those parts of life that appears to me to be fundamental, and vitally important for survival.

I am very close to my parents, and I know how lucky I am that this is so. Many people I know have bad luck in this regard. They have parents they are unable to connect to, or unable to respect. Some have parents who were cruel, or violent, or neglectful, or who abandoned them. I am fortunate to have parents I can love and admire, and who have always, always strived to be loving, supportive and faithful to me.

My Father. Charcoal on paper.

My Father. Charcoal on paper.

My parents are also quite old—especially my father, who turned ninety this year. I am writing his biography. This is both intensely pleasurable for my father, and incredibly difficult. There are few happy memories of childhood and youth to detail; an overwhelming number of his recollections are marked by loneliness and tragedy. It is an incredibly intimate experience to do this with him. He has now told me stories he hasn't told anybody else. Sitting with him, holding his hand, sometimes crying with him, while listening to these memories that have been buried for so long, touches me deeply.

In writing a story, we are always haunted by the story's end.

Both my parental grandparents died suddenly of cardiovascular disease in their fifties, his elder brother in his forties, and my father himself survived a triple bypass when I was in the third grade. Nevertheless, he is ninety, and I couldn't help wondering what it would be like when my dad passed away, as I was spending my last remaining days with my sick cat.

Anushka. (August 2016 – August 2018)

Anushka. (August 2016 – August 2018)

There is no real way to prepare for tragedy. I believe that the best we can all do is try to face the inevitable, and accept the fact that the world we live in gives us an illusion of control on a truly immense scale. There was no way for me to prepare myself for losing a very young and beloved pet to cancer. All I could do was focus on what mattered, when it happened. I wasn't ready to say goodbye, but I knew that the most important thing was my responsibility to take care of her. In this case, that meant protecting her from suffering any more pain. I stayed awake every night to sit with her. I could barely eat—food choked me. Grief can fill you up and bury you at the same time. The world around us faded. I couldn't even feel the chill of the house, sitting on the floor with her at 4:00 AM. I sat there, with my dying cat leaning against my leg, and I thought about what it would be like to lose my father.

The culture I live in has shielded itself from death. Death happens in hospitals and dark alleyways. Open casket funerals are increasingly rare in this country. The processes of mortality are more secreted away from us that they used to be. But isn't death as natural as the ocean? Can't death be as gentle as the wilting of cut roses, which leave behind a subtle fragrance even after they have faded? It seems to me that life is very short. Living in perpetual fear of tragedy isn't realistic, but at the same time I believe I ought to make the most of whatever time I have with the people I love—my little family, my close friends, and the small number of people who have profoundly inspired and changed the course of my life.

I don't have an answer for grief, or for the inevitability of future grief when you let yourself love someone. Grief is a living creature, with its own logic, its own desires, its own food. All we can do is care for it as tenderly as we would care for anything else we loved.

 

suppose
Life is an old man carrying flowers on his head.

young death sits in a café
smiling,a piece of money held between
his thumb and first finger

(i say “will he buy flowers” to you
and “Death is young
life wears velour trousers
life totters,life has a beard” i

say to you who are silent.—”Do you see
Life?he is there and here,
or that, or this
or nothing or an old man 3 thirds
asleep,on his head
flowers,always crying
to nobody something about les
roses les bluets
                    yes,
                              will He buy?
Les belles bottes—oh hear
,pas chères”)

and my love slowly answered I think so.  But
I think I see someone else

there is a lady,whose name is Afterwards
she is sitting beside young death,is slender;
likes flowers.

- ee cummings, Tulips & Chimneys