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I have been learning so much from painting since I resumed in earnest three years ago after a very long hiatus. (You can read more about how and why here.)
The first lesson isn’t about painting per se, but about planning. When I picked up my brush again, I began painting portraits from life as I had always done. That involved sitting opposite my subjects in a small studio, staring into their faces from a few feet away.
The pandemic put an end to that. In the spring of 2020, I decided to experiment with an idea I’d been pondering for some time. I began to make portraits of the people whose work had offered me insight, perspective, and wisdom. Although we’d never sat down to converse in real life, I’d carried on a dialogue with each of them through their writing, music, or painting. I chose people who catalyzed some sort of turning point in my younger life, all of whom had passed on. That was crucial, as I wished to depict them as angels. You can see one of the portraits — the great Nina Simone — on the cover of my forthcoming book.
The paintings and the writings that make up my book add up to what is undoubtedly the biggest silver lining experience of my life. No pandemic, no angel portraits. No angel portraits, no essays. No essays, no book. What’s more, my decision to add text to each angel portrait clarified what may not come as a surprise: that I couldn’t fully express everything I wished to in images. My love for words had to be represented too. Every painting I’ve done since then includes text. You can see some of them on the visual arts page of my website.
My strangest painting so far came to me as a mystery. I have always had a great fondness for Bernini’s sculpture “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.” Teresa of Avila was a 16th century Carmelite nun famous for the description of a life-changing moment of spiritual ecstasy described in her autobiography. Here’s a closeup of Bernini’s amazing sculpture. It is installed high above the ground in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. When I did get a chance to see it in person many years ago, I was disappointed to learn it had been positioned to inspire awe, easier to feel something about than to actually see.
There have been many interpretations of St. Teresa’s account of being pierced by a flaming golden spear held by an angel. To modern sensibilities, the obvious counterpart of her description is sexual ecstasy, but her experience of simultaneous pleasure and pain obviously has more than one correlate.
The first time I met my husband, we took a walk along the water in Richmond, California, where I lived. We talked about everything, but one moment stands out. As our walk was coming to a close, we mentioned works of art that especially moved us. Rick, a sculptor, knew Bernini’s statue as well as I. So it has always been in my mind, connecting us.
About a year ago, the idea of alluding to it in a painting of Rick came to me and I couldn’t shake it. The elements emerged gradually. He is strongly connected to the natural world, so instead of depicting him in a cloud of drapery, I placed him outdoors, reclining against a rock, nestled into a bed of datura. Here in New Mexico, we see this hallucinogenic plant every year. It carpeted our land during last summer’s abundant rains. In the Carlos Castaneda Don Juan books that were so popular in the sixties, datura (also called jimsonweed) was one of the substances than enabled the author to fly.
A raven family lives on our land. We feed these omnivores kitchen scraps all the time, but Rick also has a special and sacramental relationship with them. He traps rodents around his studio, and in a ritual he and the ravens have developed over the years, places their bodies on a large flat rock. The ravens watch from a distance, and as soon as Rick walks away, they swoop in to capture the offering. In the place of an angel, then, the golden arrow in my painting is gripped in the mouth of a raven.
Rick isn’t Jewish, but he enjoys studying and practicing with me. Recently he was given a Hebrew name to use in tandem with his American-Okinawan name: the text on my painting starts with “The ecstasy of Emet Noah,” concluding with a few words of St. Teresa’s testimony. Emet means truth, and while the name Noah is familiar from the biblical story of the flood, it also has encoded meanings of rest and comfort.
One thing I loved about making this painting was the contrast between the parts of Rick’s body that are ordinarily exposed to the sun, and the paler, softer skin that is usually covered up. The tenderness of this reminded me of John Berger’s statement in Ways of Seeing: “When in love, the sight of the beloved has a completeness which no words and no embrace can match….” But I did my best.
I hope you enjoy it.
“Born to Be Loved,” a live version of Lucinda Williams’ beautiful song.