Paradise Lost

Last Thursday, I got fed up and lost.
Jack and I started taking a class together at a prestigious art-class-taking-place and despite an initial enthusiasm for the undertaking, several things happened during the second class that reminded of all of the reasons I hate taking art classes and have since I was ten. As we walked out, an hour before the class ended, I said to Jack, “look, the three things I think you should get in art school are a) inspiration, ideas, and infectious passion from your fellow students, b) a teacher who gives you useful and specific direction and c) facilities that you could not duplicate at home. Tonight, we got none of the three.” I wished I’d spent the evening at home drawing in my journal instead.

What I didn’t go into with him was the sense of being lost that started to well up inside me. I suddenly realized that my general enthusiasm for art school — a Nirvana filled with printing presses and - studios and challenging assignments and benevolent mentors — might just turn out to be an expensive illusion that will fritter away the best years of my boy’s life.

What if he finds himself surrounded with nihilistic slackers and trust fund babies with no talent and loads of cynicism being carelessly fed pompous claptrap by failed conceptual bores with tenure and resentment for anyone with a naive enthusiasm for creativity in a shopworn environment filled with squeezed out tubes of drying oil paint and broken easels? Instead of bringing home arm loads of brilliant lithographs and watercolors and bronzes, Jack will slouch into our apartment with tattoos, pendulous pierced ear lobes, a ton of attitude and excuses, and a generally wasted education that produced little but a gaping divot in my bank account.
Hearing our fellow students provide lengthy and incomprehensible explanations of their poorly constructed constructions and randomly daubed canvases, explanations that were crude shadows of the sort of pompous nonsense that cultural critics have mocked since the Salon de Refuse, I was brought up short, thinking, “Shit, I’ve got to make sure he gets into a decent liberal arts college so at least he’ll have a chance to go to law school.”

Anyhow, a weekend of calmer reflection and a 6 a.m. train ride to Providence, Rhode Island calmed me down. Jack and I spent a glorious spring day touring RISD, and my fears receded. The school was filed with amazing painting studios, enormous print shops and woodshops, darkrooms and kilns and endless hallways filled with beautiful art. The students all seemed serious and passionate and ran around carrying canvases and arm loads of wood. The library was humming with studying brains. The students seemed like professionals in the making and I only saw one girl with blue hair.

I don’t know if Jack will end up going to RISD or Cooper Union or MIT or Harvard Law. But I sense in him the same sort of enthusiasm for art that I had, abandoned, and then regained. An enthusiasm that I didn’t get in school, but in spite of it. Jack has been long-marinated in art and I think he’ll always have creative juice in his marrow. Whatever he does with his education and his life, I know it will be interesting and worthwhile.

Today we are on our way to visit MICA, another creative hotspot. On Monday we’ll check out Bard for a different perspective.
My faith in higher education is stored but I still don’t know if I’ll be going to next Thursday night’s class.

Where to?

Soon after Jack passed his first birthday, we started collecting his art. I have a shelf full of his drawings and paintings neatly stored in plastic sleeves, binder after binder of his collected works. So many of his passions – soccer, Warhammer, Pokemon, Harry Potter, Tintin,  drums — have ebbed and waned, but, through thick and thin, he has continued to paint and draw and make art for year after year. Certainly, Patti and I encouraged his interest, but Jack is the one who sustained it. He has a will of his own and no matter how many crayons and markers we bought him, he wouldn’t have continued if he didn’t have an innate desire to make things.

Jack has had a solid art education so far. He’s done some sort of formal art program every summer, in competitive programs filled with talented kids. He was accepted into the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and has spent the last three years augmenting his regular classes with two hours of  drawing and painting every single day. This consistency shows in his work – he can draw anything fearlessly and accurately, he has a great eye for composition and color, and increasingly he is taking bold and imaginative steps forward, challenging himself to do new things in new media. Recently he has decided he is interested in pursuing design. He loves typography, he likes problem solving, and the more he learns about all of the things designers do in the course of their work, the more intrigued he becomes.

So far, so good.

Now Jack is a junior in high school and we are putting together the list of colleges he’ll apply to this fall. The big question is, should he put all his efforts into polishing his portfolio and vying for a great art school like RISD or SVA ? Or should he go to a solid, creative liberal arts college where he can take some art classes, maybe even in major in design but also get a well-rounded education.

Now if Jack was good at nothing but art, the decision would be simpler. But the fact is, he’s a good student in all his classes, hard working, smart, critical but involved. He’s also a natural leader, a popular person who has always had his mother’s social skills.

For me, as someone who has long encouraged people to bravely embrace their artistic side, who wishes he could go to art school himself, this is no time to encourage him to toe the straight and narrow, to face the bleak future most art school grads purportedly have, saddled with enormous student loans that they must pay off by working in Starbucks for the rest of their lives. Art schools, we hear, are full of rich kids and directionless losers. We both know that’s an exaggeration. We both know that you should follow your passion and the rest will straighten itself out. We also both know that most of the passions of 16 year-olds are rarely long-lived, that Jack does not want to wake up in a  dorm room some day and wonder whether he’s actually learning anything useful.

There’s no simple answer to this common dilemma. We are going into it with our eyes open, accumulating impressions and advice, balancing pros and cons, and waiting to see which way fortune blows us.

It would be a lot easier to tackle this all-important crossroad if Patti was here to lend us her wisdom and hold our hands. But I think  she’d tell us to do what we’re doing. We haven’t screwed anything up too badly so far. Let’s hope we do okay on this round too.


—– Post script.

We just met with Jack’s guidance counsellor who assure me that Jack is in great shape for next year and that we really needn’t make any decisions at this point. I am starting to think this process will only be as difficult as we let ourselves make it.


Packing Patti

India ink, dip pen, Doc Martin's (Click to enlarge)

Patti loved clothes. She sewed dresses for herself, majored in fashion, worked as a fashion director and photo stylist, and always made a statement. Her closets bulged with beautiful things and I have long dreaded the day I would open them and have to decide what to keep and what should be shared with the world. That day came last weekend. My mum joined me and we began to sort her clothes into three piles: those that would go to her favorite charity, those that were too worn out to pass on. and those that were quintessentially Patti and need to be saved for posterity.

I learned a lot about my wife in this process, seeing everything she owned, thinking through her process of buying and wearing things, seeing all of it laid out like that. My mum was surprised by how much black she owned, for instance. One always thinks of her as a blazing pink peacock. I went through her makeup, her toiletries, every nook and cranny. And even though there was so much, it was possible to go through it all, to feel her mind at work, to sense the years passing by, to remember how she flossed her teeth and put on her stockings. I had a few tough moments, but eventually, we got through the process unscathed , then loaded Mum’s station wagon with bags and bags of stuff.

I’m glad it will be distributed on the other end of Long Island. I don’t want to run into people in the street wearing Patti’s old clothes.

As for the Isse Miyake, Oilily and Todd Oldham treasures, I left them in her closet and will next box and bag them in some archival way. I may do further editing, but for now, I feel like I have stripped her down to the essence of her memory.

I felt a load lift when we were done. Another chapter has begun — it no longer seems that Patti is just away on a trip and will come in the door at any moment. We are resolved to the fact that she is gone, but never forgotten.

Flotsam and jetsam

It began when I pulled my sweaters out from storage and saw how much of Patti’s wardrobe was in there too. After eight months, I need to finally confront the chore I have been dreading — sifting through her stuff, giving it to friends, the Salvation Army, the recycler, and archiving the rest.   It’s not just sweaters and dresses and jewelery. It’s all the stuff she left behind — wallets, curlers, thigh-highs, pills, and lots and lots of paper.

I started going through the repositories that lurk in every corner. It’s a mammoth task because as I open every drawer and file cabinet, I find boxes, bags, envelopes, and loose piles of the detritus of life. Patti tried to organize a lot of these things but there’s so much still left. I find my willingness to edit quite viciously is much stronger than hers ever was. I’ll open a beautiful archival quality box and inside there are a few yellowing 10-year-old newspaper clippings describing an island she once thought might be a nice place for us to go on vacation. I find old receipts and pieces of mail, bank statements, recipes, printed emails, pages ripped from old mail order catalogs. All these things had some significance to her and she held onto them for years. They seem like trash to me.

But I hesitate.

Instead of throwing them in the garbage or transferring them to yet another file folder I have to parse them. Why did she want to keep this? What was the value to her? Is there something about her I can learn from them? What memories do they dredge up? So I separate the papers into categories of my own: receipts from gifts we gave each other; Jack’s school papers, stories and essays from third grade; notebooks filled with records of wheelchair repairs, insurance letters, hospital bills; letters I wrote to her from business trips; notes she left by my bedside or stuck into my suitcase; Frank’s vet bills from a decade ago; cards from friends; holiday letters and photographs; a folder full of songs that Patti was learning by heart so she could perform them at the library where she read  to children every Wednesday afternoon. And diaries, filled with Patti’s state of mind — getting mad at herself for the things that she hadn’t done, or reveling in the dreams she had, or how much she loved me, or how lucky she was.

I didn’t allow myself to feel much as I went through these stacks of papers, but just kept my head down and beavered through, sifting wheat from chaff, obsessed with getting through it.  But now on Sunday morning as I sit in bed alone and think about it, I can’t keep tears from  rolling down my face.

All of these documents were the building blocks of the life we had together. And now I have to arrange them into a monument to what we had together. As the pieces separate into  categories, they tell stories, stories that I want to keep for myself and for Jack. And for Patti, because I want so very much for her life to matter. Her last fifteen years were so much harder than they should have been, full of challenges and indignities and pain, difficulties that a sweet and kind and generous person should not have had to endure.

Now that the last chapter has been written and the book of her life is closed, some meaning has to come out of it all. I look for it in these piles of papers.Patti doesn’t have a headstone or a crypt, just a cookie jar filled with her ashes. I guess that by shaping these piles of paper into something understandable, I’ll be freezing the memories while they are still fresh. The river of time keeps flowing past and out to sea, carrying all of life with it. Sometimes we cannot see what is passing until it lies at some distance, but the current is strong and moments vanish around the bend, never to be recalled.

Hue and cry

Click image to enlarge

My sketchbooks have been becoming simpler and more austere over the years. I started just drawing in ink, then added color, then watercolors and then slowly turned back until all I have been using is a dip pen and black india ink.

Occasionally I’d get wild and add a little watered down sum-i ink. But mainly I relied on cross hatching and the varying line widths of my flexible steel nib.

Click image to enlarge

On the rarest of occasions, I would add a color,  a single solid  wash over my line, an earth tone or maybe two for the sake of variety. My work was increasingly about limitations and technique, playing with the simplest of notes and digging deep into  lots of combinations.

But in the past few months since Patti’s accident, I have gone hog-wild in an explosion of the brightest colors I could find. I cover each page with magentas and fuschias and sap green and cadmium yellow.

I even treated myself to the complete collection of Dr. PH Martin’s liquid watercolors, 56 explosive tones that even my camera cannot do justice to. These are fragile colors, they can’t be exposed to sunlight, but perfect to lurk within the pages of a sketchbook and then leap out at the reader when the page is turned.

It’s funny, this penchant I now have for the rainbow. Mourning is supposed to be conducted in shades of black and gray. But one of my love’s many nicknames was ‘Patti Pink‘ and she adored bright colors. Her memory has infected me and I want to commemorate it in the brightest colors I can find. My book is a feast of sizzling hues and she would have liked it that way.