The first paintings came from a place before thought and intent. An automatic response to the non-time I was living in. The paintings felt like fire, like an indulgence I was crouching towards.
As soon as my baby was nestled into my chest in the carrier, or in his own little bed, I would lick my lips and get the supplies together, humming with my mouth, humming all over.
In art school my best work came a few days into a creative bender, when I hadn't slept or eaten or treated myself quite like a human. In that hallucinatory space, dazed by normal people's mornings I would shut out bright green trees and sunlight to nap, and at night under fluorescent lights and a mess of half started paintings I would find new ways into myself, animal and brave.
So when I found myself a few weeks into motherhood so easily able to summon this maker-spirit at just a moment's notice, I'll admit I was surprised. She had eluded me for my much of my twenties, when my work was more intellectual and formal, about photography and painting, about how my art fit into the puzzle of other art. The “creative process” at that time was more creative bondage - I would sort of have to hold her down and choke the art out. Not much came easily, until surprisingly, this wonderfully soft and stunning person became part of my daily life. Something about his birthday being a scar which was healing on my stomach, brought the creator-maven back. Even during pregnancy, my swollen self seemed to hum with poems, the potential of creating universes unleashed, and yet I was mentally preparing myself to step fully into his service and out of my own. I was even looking forward to it, I was tired of hearing only my own thoughts and needs. I was curious about parenting because of its bigness and its mystery, because of how I felt I wanted to do it differently than I had seen it done before and finally because of the unexplainable hormonal forces that spun in my body and mind compelling me to find out what life inside me felt like. But I didn’t think that motherhood would make me a better artist. Not just better, but better exponentially, to the point that I have all but erased my past work and many ways, self. Less shy, more direct, impatient, frustrated, inspired, so intensely alive.
There are two emotions which floated easiest to the surface in those early days, and still now, two years into parenthood. They fuel the paintings and these words. They sustain me and undo me in quick succession, multiple times a day. There is love and there is anger.
Love is the moment I heard him crying in the hospital, and asked my husband in a somewhat yelling disbelieving voice, "IS THAT HIM? IS THAT HIM CRYING? IS HE OK?"
Not skipping a beat, in his nonchalant grumble he said "Oh he's here, and he is very alive." He was chuckling as he carefully handed him to me, both of their eyes electric.
Love is being in a room on a Friday that has six people in it, and then a moment later, seven, because one of them was just removed from your belly and began.
Love is the boy on my chest looking up at me for the first time in that searching but found way, an eye in a hurricane, a supernova, and at the same time through all that light my husband is petting my hair and the doctors are saying I was losing too much blood and they had to take him and me I was laughing inside and I thought-screamed to myself "It's fine, It's fine. I can die. I brought him here and he is perfect and I'll never be happier."
Love is his little red handprints blooming against me, his sloppy kisses, his proud dance performances, his words and sentences that are not yet words but just joyous sounds stumbling their way towards meaning. Love is him not needing to do or prove a thing to anyone to be perfect. My own self-image is dwarfed by that love, it is a lesson I will be teaching myself for the rest of my life.
And then there is the anger. I spend a good amount of my creative energies trying to express just how hard it is, in what specific ways. I try to map it out to help my husband understand it, to help myself see it. My paintings are red, the type of red I imagine my insides to be, the parts that fabricate life, the kind I first saw as girl of eleven in my underwear, the carnage of decades of menstruation, muted for nine months and concluding in an explosion of life and blood.
The marks I make are part word, and part glyph, they are also wanting to be numbers, to help me count. To help me count myself. To see the time pass, to catch it as it's passing and put it on the paper. To capture the forty-first day of motherhood. To capture the two hundred and eleventh, each one unique and its own, each one there and then gone forever, the red painted sticks on the sheet just a skeleton of all the love and anger and change I feel everyday. The love is a natural byproduct of parenthood. But anger, that's an unnecessary and man-made problem. It's not natural at all to be so angry about parenthood, it's an indication that something doesn't add up.
The anger comes from being invisible. With my son I work all day making milk for him and feeding it to him. I am bending over and arching my back, twisting my wrists and ankles and neck in impossible contortions, reaching for things, holding him, catching him, chasing him. I am wiping things up, I am getting lost looking for lost things on the floor, I am tired beyond coffee, beyond sleep. I am angry that this work is not seen on my tax forms, on any form when I put my employment status except sometimes homemaker. There is no room on the form to be both does that mean I have to choose one? What does this form mean? What do I have to show for making a home? I am angry my mother and her mother did this and were not better rewarded for it, by me and by each other, and by the lucky men who placed the children in them, and the world for accepting these people we make as gifts but not paying its dues to the people who birth them. I am so angry for the silk worms, who spin a silk thread a mile long around themselves, the caccoon a self made womb to become a moth, but instead we boil them, take the silk. I am angry that I love the silk.
The anger is ripe and pure and almost full of glee. It's a red anger, I see red and I paint that, on the white hot rage of the paper. In the sleeplessness, in the swirl of words I want to write down but didn't have time to because my mind was never free, the blank page emerged as a way forward. In the past, the page was a precipice I didn't feel worthy of filling up with myself. Now the blank page was food. Or I was food. It was waiting to be swallowed up, and the red paint on the tip of the brush was the tongue and both the paper and me are tasting each other. I drag the tip against the page and a line appears each minute.
In new parenthood life becomes five minute stretches. Five minutes to eat, to shower, to poop, call someone, check email, walk the dog. Can you imagine the delight of using a whole five minutes to cover a blank page with red marks? I started to play with the marks, what if each x red mark represented five minutes I spent nursing, and a circle for soothing him as he cried, a triangle for changing a diaper? And so his actions drove the symbols of my paintings, sculpted their composition from just love and anger into lines and time that turned the chaos of my days into order, into a chart with a key and a legend until the moment someone asked me when I was going back to work or if I was bored at home with him and I could furnish the evidence at least to myself, at the very least a dutiful scribe of the most mundane tasks which are occurring in a million variations of care all over the world at any given moment.
I am proud and full of accomplishment and my eyes may sometimes well up with tears at the sight of a blank page going away when it’s just me and paper ravenous for each other. It feels selfish and the laundry is not going to do itself but I hear Shirley Jackson in my ear saying close the door, let the house fall apart, keep your mind free, you have created this universe and it is yours, yours to let fall into disarray, yours to lose control of. Shirley Jackson wrote "The Lottery" she wrote many books and stories and she had many children and a house. She died in the sixties when my parents were just kids in Warsaw who didn't know each other yet, and yet the little egg that would become me was already there in my mom and my dad was already probably charming little girls into trees to kiss but it would be another twenty years before I could be born and another thirty before I would become a mother and would learn that Shirley Jackson lived in Bennington, Vermont where I went to college and I would feel proud to have shared the world with her even if it was only half of me at the time, and that we shared a forest and a few streets and a college because of all the heroes I had ever read about, none ever made me feel as inspired and as alive as Shirley Jackson, the writer and defiant housewife.
My red paintings show minute by minute what my son is doing, what I'm doing, they take the domestic and try to turn it into math, into art, into money, into anything that isn't just the nothingness that a day of child care and house-wifing produces. I am creating as an act of defiance. And yet the depth of my own self-doubt appears even as I spread out years of paintings in front of me and they fill up the walls and the floor of a long basement. They are trying to tell me something or I am trying to say something with them but the truth is that many moments I feel that all of that work doesn't really amount to anything because I did not make my family more secure financially and I did not use my mind and body for retirement or savings. Until I saw that the paintings were telling me that I count, that in using my mind and body to count my time with my child it was a way to show that this most rewarding job of all time also had a cost.