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.

Artifact

This is a monthly art-related (or at least art-adjacent) post about what I've been doing and thinking about. Welcome to the month of August!

General News

1. One of my tarot paintings, "Love" was accepted to a group exhibition at The Studio Door in San Diego! It will be on view from August 3rd to 26th. If you're one of my tarot customers and live in the area, it's really worth seeing the original painting, and it looks like it's going to be a wonderful show!

2. My drawing "The Sparrow and the sparrows" is up on view at Arthaus Projects gallery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania! Exhibition closes on August 11th.

3. I am participating in San Francisco Open Studios this year! Open Studios is a series of five weekends where local artists open their studios to the public and sell their art. The weekends are divided up by neighborhood, and my weekend is November 3rd and 4th. If you're going to be in the bay area, mark your calendars and PLEASE COME! I'll be posting more details as the event gets closer.

Painting in my home studio, photo by Jessica Palopoli (https://www.jessicapalopoli.com/

Painting in my home studio, photo by Jessica Palopoli (https://www.jessicapalopoli.com/

It's been a weird weekend. Over the last year, I succeeded in tracking down the movie that scared the everloving shit out of me when I was four years old, and I finally watched it last Saturday night.

If you ever have the opportunity of revisiting movies (or stories, songs, amusement park rides, pictures, or any other innocuous thing whose fearsomeness derives from the unformed and imaginative mind of the very young), I recommend doing so. You will find that you remembered some parts with surprising precision, and that other parts (in my case, most other parts) were largely fabricated. It is a glimpse into how utterly unrecognizable the same event can be when experienced by different people. I often think how miraculous it is that any of us can communicate with each other at all.

Me wearing my favorite elephant bathing suit (I still think the Pink Elephants song from "Dumbo" is one of the best things Disney has ever done), summer of 1983.

Me wearing my favorite elephant bathing suit (I still think the Pink Elephants song from "Dumbo" is one of the best things Disney has ever done), summer of 1983.

Now, of course, you would like to know what the movie was.

Embarrassingly, it was "The Horror at 37,000 Feet", widely known (among Shatner fans, at least) as William Shatner's worst movie—a made-for-TV production that first aired in 1973. The plot featured a haunted airplane, and ended relatively tamely, with two gore-free human deaths and one frozen dog. It was apparently still making the rounds on one evening during the summer of 1983, when my parents took me to their friends' home for a dinner party. The household children, who were several years older than me (and I imagine were secretly hoping to be entertained by putting a little kid into hysterics) were clustered around the TV, and of course I joined them. It appears I made it through almost the whole movie before silently leaving the room and rejoining my parents.

I need hardly say that William Shatner's worst movie was not, on second viewing, especially scary. The interesting part wasn't the movie, it was watching prototypes of all my nightmares since age four march across the screen for 90 minutes. Although I had apparently invented several scenes, my inventions had done a strangely excellent job of capturing the story and the characters' state of mind—better, in fact, than the actual movie did.

To conjoin a pair of disparate dictionary definitions of the same word, "artifact" (an unintentional or meaningless by-product of, say, a scientific experiment or photograph) turns out to be a valuable treasure-trove of historic information. Making up stories is an essential part of the pattern-recognition processes of the executive system. Our minds come up with a plausible narrative about what is going on and even who one is. These narratives never quite match with reality, but that is not their purpose. Without our stories, we would not be able to learn, to remember, to sympathize with others, to recover from negative emotions, or even to recognize ourselves. We would have no coherent identity.

I'm not exactly saying that such mental artifacts are either desirable or destructive—it really depends on the mind that's making them, I guess. Although every story we can think of is in some sense true, not every story is equally useful. However, I am surprised by how often our memories turn out to be deeply insightful fabrications, if that makes sense. Because isn't this, too, a form of art? Isn't reconstructing reality in a more human-sized way, in a way that distills its importance and meaning for us, what art is? And our minds do this all the time—it is fundamental to our functioning in the world. Many scientists even argue that this storytelling part of the brain is the cornerstone of consciousness.

Locust X Locust ( Chortoicetes terminifera x Robinia pseudoacacia )

Locust X Locust (Chortoicetes terminifera x Robinia pseudoacacia)

Speaking of finding important truths in trite places, the idea for my latest painting came from a misunderstanding I have always cherished. When I first heard the word "Locust", I thought the teacher had said "hocus" (as in Hocus Pocus). The association is now immovable; I always think of magic—of fairytale, joyfully implausible magic—when I hear the word Locust. Magic then becomes the foundation for all the word's other associations: penny-slice leaves clattering in the breeze (the black locust tree), destruction and ruin (the plague locust insect), species invasion (the tree), the dry, muffled snapping sound of the swarm (the insect), creamy and delicately scented cascades of blossoms (the tree), the judgment of God upon Egypt in the Book of Exodus (the insect), and so on.

The best part of making something new is always over as soon as it is finished. Artists and makers who feel the way I do tend to make the most intricately detailed things, because we don't ever want it to end. More opportunities for new artifacts, too.

The Life-Cycle of the Angels

Many tarot books describe the first 21 cards of the deck following the Fool card—otherwise known as the major arcana—as the "Fool's Journey", in which the Fool progresses through 21 stages of existence. In the Cheimonette Tarot, one could just as easily call this the Angels' Journey. The Fool transforms into the Angel in two ways, both of which are represented in the narrative sequence of the major arcana.

The Biological Life Cycle

            If you have been following my recent work, you've seen my recent botanical/ entomological paintings, which experiment with different pair relationships: morphological (maple tree samaras resemble the wings of lacewings), geographic (the Southern Catalpa and the tredecassini 13-year cicada have intersecting habitats), morphological (maple tree samaras resemble the wings of lacewings), and chromatic (the petals of white columbines have the same hue—even down to their rose-mauve shadows—as the wings of the white moth). As I learned more about each of these species, I became familiar with their life cycles, which are often incredibly detailed and bizarre. For example, periodic cicadas remain underground in their larval stage for the majority of their lives, progressing through several morphological stages as they feed off the sap from tree roots. At last, they "hatch" out of their hardened larval bodies into the large, singing imago (the winged adult) at which point they mate, reproduce, and die over a span of only a few weeks.

Magicicada tredecassini x Catalpa bignonioides, (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Magicicada tredecassini x Catalpa bignonioides, (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Acer circinatum x Chrysopa perla (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Acer circinatum x Chrysopa perla (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Aquilegia vulgaris, Iris sibirica x Haploa reversa (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Aquilegia vulgaris, Iris sibirica x Haploa reversa (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

The Cheimonette Angels

            The 21 cards of the major arcana organize different primary concepts of human experience. In the Cheimonette Tarot, the Fool (card 0) takes two overlapping routes to become the Angel (card XX): in one sequence, the Fool simply grows wings (card XII: the Hanged Man) and finally reveals the Angel nature it had all along (card XX: the Angel); in the other sequence, twin angels divide (card VI: Love), separate (card X: the Wheel) and converge (card XV: the Devil), and finally combine to become a single Angel (card XX), by appropriating the human qualities of the Fool.

The Fool (2002). Ink on paper.

The Fool (2002). Ink on paper.

            These two parallel life cycles of the Fool/Angel can be thought of as interrelated, symbiotic life cycles of different biological species: sometimes mutually beneficial or harmful, sometimes competitive, sometimes parasitic, sometimes merely commensal. The two angels in Love (VI) are locked in a shared gaze of mutual support, trust, and safety: the perfect foundation for great freedom, experience, and exploration. In the Wheel (X), the angels have separated to form two independent bodies, working together to turn the wheel of time, dreaming their private dreams. In the Devil (XV), separation has become painful and the angels are reuniting catastrophically, seemingly in the act of annihilating each other. Only by becoming human can they be whole again, and they at last take on the animal characteristics of the Fool (its two tails), and resurrect as a single being, with the flower of immortality from the Tree of Life growing from its body, and the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge for a heart.

VI: Love (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

VI: Love (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

X: The Wheel (2003). Ink and watercolor on paper.

X: The Wheel (2003). Ink and watercolor on paper.

XV: The Devil (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

XV: The Devil (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

            The other life cycle is simpler and gentler. It represents not the fall of a God, but the apotheosis of a mortal. Even though the Fool and the twin angels have different characteristics (the Fool has its tails, and the angels have their wings), they are arrestingly similar creatures: bald as an infant, androgynous, and seemingly sexless. This insight is personified by the Hanged Man (a card I should have renamed as gender neutral), hung by its own tails in a window of one of the Moon towers (which appear in both the Priestess and Moon cards). The Fool in the Hanged Man is clearly not compelled into its position: as a symbol of its freedom, it holds an unattached chain between its hands as a plumb weight. Out of its back grows incipient wings. It is passively waiting for its transformation to occur, suspended between the strange world within the Moon tower and the outer world occupied by us, the observers. Its eyes are open—which shows that waiting is perhaps not so passive as it might seem. It believes in its own potential for divinity. In the Angel card, we can see that the Fool's conviction was justified.

XII: The Hanged Man (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

XII: The Hanged Man (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

XX: The Angel (2004). Ink and watercolor on paper.

XX: The Angel (2004). Ink and watercolor on paper.

            Plants and animals tend to have precisely as much as they need—and no more—to survive. If their lives are hard, they usually have the ability to endure those hardships. Animals are exactly as intelligent as they need to be, and so are we. Our own phases of existence are less apparently intricate than those of the 13-year cicada, but they are profoundly detailed nevertheless. The world we live in today is both of our own creation as well as far beyond our control. We experience reality as a web of probabilities: a fine mesh made from our own sensory experiences and from trusted authorities we use as outside sources of information.

           But I believe that these probabilities rest on a set of core beliefs. Whether those beliefs are religious, scientific, philosophical, or emotional in character is of little importance. What is important is that there is a fundamental particle, somewhere, in all of us, that will bear no division, no scrutiny. Our blind spot.

"If this is not true, then nothing is true."

Not all of us must reach that part of our life cycle where we are called upon by circumstances to shatter our fundamental beliefs. When we are, we often become even more hard and immovable, so that our shells may be the easier to shatter, our hearts more easily broken. To allow the possibility that the imago, winged and singing, may emerge from the ruins of truth.