Sunday, May 18, 2008

'Til Death Do Us Part

My sister and I very recently made a first stab at clearing out the storage unit that has held our mother's paintings for the last five years--ever since she went into assisted living and was divested of her home. I think I have said previously that my mother was a gifted amateur painter, working with oils and water colors. I have always believed she could have painted professionally, if she had elected to apply herself hard and go that way without regret, without looking back, but she didn't. Too much tradition in the way, too much doubt, too many children, too much homemaking, too many problems. And so little belief in herself that she let her paintings mould away in the basement, piled next to the washing machine.

In truth, she had many stinkers. My sister and I threw a lot out, a painful but necessary step to gain control over what was worth keeping. I should say that most of her very best stuff, the pictures I am proud to show anyone, had already been weeded out long ago, and hang today in her children's homes. Still, though, my sister and I came across ones that tugged us back to our childhood, paintings that hung on her walls for years, that are as much a part of our collective memory as she is.

We still have a lot of work to do, but the experience was a shock to me. It is painful to see what happens to an artist's work when she dies, when there is no longer a place for it in the world. When someone else says, "This one is a failure." Or worse, the person saying it has no deep and personal love for the artist. That, thankfully, was not our plight, but it makes me wonder about my own work--the novels and poems that, in all honesty, no one will care about when I die. I see you have to care about it ferociously yourself, while you are still alive, and not wait for death in the hope that someone will be kind afterward.

I am not sure I can do that. I, too, struggle endlessly with belief in myself as an artist, with belief in my own work. I am not sure I can be that ferocious.

ROAR!!!!!! There. A fragile but first step.

4 comments:

C.K. said...

I think you're right that we have to care ferociously about our work while we're alive. I think it probably won't ever mean quite as much to anyone as it does to its creator.

Then again, I think of some of my very favourite songs and have a hard time imagining that they could be much more meaningful to the people who wrote them than they are to me. Do you think music belong to everyone in a different way than literature does?

Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson said...

Interesting thought, Cheryl. Music does seem to permeate the brain in a way words possibly do not. My grandmother, born in 1894, told us how when she was a child she and her classmates had to memorize poems--she could still recite them in her old age--so maybe that kind of remembered recitation produces a word-music in your head that stays with you beyond the moment.

C.K. said...

It may been just a slip of the keys - or confusion over my mysterious initials. Just wanted to make sure there was no mistaken identity going on lest I start saying all sorts of outrageous things (not that I plan on it!) and you attribute them to Cheryl.

Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson said...

Yes, a slip of the keys (and brain.) Many pardons. "C.K." you are and will remain. (Now I must go sit in corner until face is no longer bright red . . .)