Painting as a tool for self-discovery and healing
Several people have asked about this painting, its meaning, components, and the process involved. I realized that many who were asking had contributed to it, mostly unaware of doing so by simply interacting with me during the process. I’m usually the only one who senses the unpredictably magical process that accompanies my painting; this time I will attempt to share it as a tribute and in gratitude to life’s utterly unpredictable script, humbly cognizant that I’m only aware of a minimal number of all dynamics involved.
1. September. I have a wonderful painting that belonged to my father. Its large, and it hangs in Isa’s room. I originally shipped it as a rolled canvas, and since at the time I hadn’t learned to frame, and stretch a canvas, I bought a cheap large poster at Ikea, and pinned the painting on top. In September I decided to finally finish the job, giving it its own good frame. As an unintended consequence I was left with a 140 by 100 cm poster on masonite with an attractive silver frame to use as a base for the largest painting I have done to date. That was an exciting prospect!
My partner, Isa, was in Switzerland renewing her passport and taking care of a variety of details in preparation for her upcoming 3-month adventure to Brazil and Ecuador, and I was conscious that this was my opportunity to prepare for what would be a drawn-out time of solitude. I enjoy solitude, so why was I concerned? As I looked for likely sources for my trepidation, I turned my gaze back … when had I first felt abandoned? Memories emerged of the summer of 1969, of my uncle and aunt telling me that I would be staying in Rhodesia for the long term, that I would not be returning to Italy after a holiday, as I had been told. I decided that in my next painting I would explore those feelings, without ambition to resolve, but with an openness to heal, if healing should come.
October 16. I’ve gessoed over the poster, let it dry, and faced the blank canvas. The first thought is “Shit this is a wonderful, big, empty space with a GREAT silver frame. Don’t screw it up!” The second thought is “I cannot screw it up if I hold no ambition but intent to heal!” Immediately two images come up.
1. A baby carriage, and I’m strapped to it. The feeling is of constriction — the seat-belt on the plane, but also the feeling of my life in Italy — constantly struggling to escape from structure, and play. My nose turns into a funnel suggesting my early conditioning.
2. My parents let go of the pram. They face in different directions. He is red/brown, concerned with social repercussions, tips his hat to me in farewell, and in greeting to an invisible cast of friends and characters. She is green, as someone mentioned “looking like Queen Elizabeth”, looks down at my first dog, Nani, long dead. Her hands let go of the handle.
The feelings are raw: abandonment, blame. Once I start to paint I remember a photo in which I have a sullen expression, my baby fat still drawing my features around a downturned mouth, under a bunch of unruly curls.
October 19. I realize that I wasn’t totally abandoned. I was sent to a place that actually offered me simplicity, and freedom within a safe context — Africa.
The shape on the right turns into an elephant whose tusks are bearing the carriage, and whose trunk is pouring fresh water into the funnel of my conditioning. The weather turns snowy in Italy, there’s a hint of a church. A jumble of stuff fills the funnel. A large setting sun emerges. Dark blue in Italy, blue skies, and ochres in Africa. I’m pink now. The funnel is pale yellow.
I post on FB and a dear colleague suggests it may be finished. Meaningfully, he warns me not to overpaint. I let it rest. It doesn’t feel finished, but I have NO idea where to take it.
October 20 — November 17. Isa is back on the island, and I resolve to dedicate this time to our needs. We hike, visit, beach, swim, eat. I realize her emotional preparation for her trip is as important as my own, and that she needs me to be available now. The painting stays on its easels in the workshop, maybe finished, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. Maybe I’ll hang it in my room when Isa leaves, and see how I feel.
November 20–23. I’m back in the workshop, after a couple of days adjusting to being alone. Partly I’m there just to “get back to work already, and quit feeling sorry for yourself. Should I start a new painting or risk further on the big mofo which I’m currently calling “uproot … me”? I don’t feel I’ve done this beautiful canvas justice, it doesn’t feel finished,so there is no risk in continuing with it. Such a lovely frame!”
A friend sends me a recording of Oliver Mtukudzi. I listen to it, and I’m floored: music from Zimbabwe! I look up Mtukudzi on Spotify and listen to him for days. All the while I’m painstakingly, mindlessly painting boxes which I fill with repeating african patterns that come from nowhere. I begin to fill up the space beneath the baby carriage. I have no idea why I’m doing this, except it feels good. The music feels good. The patterns feel good. For days … my feelings wonder in Africa. I start to recognize a few of the songs, and hum with the recordings. I eat well. I sleep sound. There are two animals that recur in these patterns: one is an elephant, the other a giraffe. I sketch a giraffe lightly using the same ochre on my brush, then leave it. On the right hand edge I paint a totem that seems to bear up the elephant.
November 23. I paint the giraffe nestled under the elephant. Its mouth sniffs/licks my belly-button
I post this phase of the painting, and I’m stunned — a relative outpouring of positive feedback compared to what I’m accustomed to receive for my paintings.
Out of the blue I receive an email from a friend in South Africa I haven’t heard in years. He says I was strongly in his mind this morning, and asks me to look at this web-page, paying specific attention to the story of an old Italian man who finds himself drawn to a music concert taking place in the square below his apartment. I don’t understand. Later a second email from my friend stops me in my tracks while painting. It reads:
“The bass player’s description of the old man who watched the concert from his window, which he had previously kept closed for fear of burglars, was such a good story, I thought… Reminded me of a time at the Hohenort (a hotel in Cape Town where we both worked for a time) years back when your father was visiting. I was manager of the hotel then. Hope you don’t mind, but I want to share this…
We were hosting a raucous wedding party on the lawn in front of the hotel. The drinks were flowing, the music was loud and the wedding guests were laughing, dancing and singing and having a good time. It was early evening and we hotel staff were feeling anxious that the noise levels were disturbing to the people staying in the hotel, your father being one of them. While doing my dutiful rounds, I spotted him up in his hotel bedroom, leaning out of the window, watching the proceedings below. However… all my concerns were quickly set aside when he came running down to the lawn… and joined right in the singing and dancing with the biggest smile on his face. It was great. Here was an old Italian man in a foreign country who couldn’t speak English having a ball with people he had never seen before.
Aaah, the joy and simplicity. A wonderful moment that brought me to tears, then and now.”
I look at my father in the painting, and feel his presence envelop me. I feel new emotions emerging, chief amongst them … compassion!
That evening I’m with friends celebrating a birthday. She, an artist, gives me a large picture book to look over: “Die Farben Afrikas” which she later lends me. It is full of the most outrageously colorful images of patterns from West Africa.
That night I receive the first communication from Isa from aboard the ship taking her from Las Palmas to Salvador the Bahia.
November 24–30 — Inspired by the book I fill in the spaces above me in Africa with color (greens and yellows) and shape. A baobab tree … several acacias silhouette before the sunset.
Then … I turn my gaze to the left hand side: Italy. I decide to contrast the Africa patterns with native Venetian ones. All I seem to find on the web is the Venetian flag of the Serenissima republic — symbol of the history of the Veneto region, where I was born. Its very garish, but I decide to use it. I waver with placement, and decide to risk it — I paint it behind my mother and father. Its a lot more painstaking work — not as easy as Africa. My feelings are more intense. I look for appropriate musical background, and decide against Vivaldi, and choose Rondo Veneziano, simply because I remember we had an LP in the house, and its music may stir further memories. The contrasts with the African patterns and with that big dark carriage are so jarring that it pains me to proceed.
The best part of the flag is the winged lion of St Mark, but because of the flag’s placement I can’t fit much of him — only the head, the tip of one wing, the paw … and a stone tablet on which the paw rests. I decide to copy the inscribed letters. They don’t seem to be words:
PAX TIBI MAR CE EVA NGE LISTA MEUS
When I’m done, I read them again, and I’m flooded with tears. They are in Latin. They refer to St Mark, one of the 4 gospel writers, and patron of Venice, whose bones were recovered during one of the Venice-led crusades, and supposedly buried in St Mark cathedral. But emerging in my painting from behind my mom, they seem a direct message from her: “Peace to you Marco my evangelist”.
That evening I cry very very very happy tears. I eat fresh fish. I sleep like a prince.
I realize the painting is almost finished, the healing intent has borne fruit in a most cathartically unexpected way.
I add the gondolas, pigeons, a hint of the ducal palace, and my beloved Dolomites (object of my fiercest pining during those first months in Africa), with me skiing hell-bent for the funnel. My last act is to finger paint mixes of red/brown on my father, and mixes of green/yellow on my mother to strengthen their presence, but also to touch them again. Lastly I finger paint my own face, then my arm … and part of my leg, foot, and belly.
I’m at peace. I don’t care what anyone thinks, this painting rocks! And Isa is doing just great in Salvador … ;-)