Ok, so I’ll admit it: I have a bad habit. My wife, Nan, knows, and when I’m indulging in it, she leaves the room. My kids know, and either shame me relentlessly or avoid the subject altogether. Times we were all together in a car, say, on a road trip, when the mood struck me, they would immediately put their earbuds in. A few friends know. Well, ex-friends, mostly. I’d love to say that with maturity, I’ve outgrown it, but feel it’s my duty to report that I once again indulged in it last night.
Not that ABBA isn’t relevant to, well, at least my creative process, at times – music, especially music involving amazing rhythm and harmony, is usually being fed to me via my Bose bluetooth headphones, times I’m really riding the wave, creatively. As for harmony, it’s nearly a curse: no matter how insubstantial or unrelated to my life the song’s subject matter – like Dancing Dream’s closing number last night, Dancing Queen – if the song has great vocal harmony or vocal/instrumental harmony like Boston’s More Than A Feeling, yeah, you bet, I’m feeling it.
See, I have over three hundred blog posts floating in hibernation from my first attempt at writing a blog in 2013 – 14. This morning, I typed “ABBA” into Blogger’s search engine, but it didn’t find any mention of the band, and I concluded that the post was one of the dozens that I didn’t simply hibernate, but deleted at some point later in 2014. Maybe the NSA still has them, but what they contained, perhaps chiefly the ABBA post, were things I had concluded, wisely or not, to blot from history.
Which ties into another bad habit, begun in the junior year of high school, which dogged me for decades.
It was as if I were late for an appointment, driving further from my intended destination on a highway in an unfamiliar city with no idea where I was or if I could turn around. With every mile of unfamiliar landmarks I passed, the realization of what I needed to do became clearer.
Tunson would periodically ask me how the painting was coming, and I think I probably left the impression that all was well. But all was not well, and so, with the exhibit just days away, I looked straight at the canvas and the incontrovertible mess I had made. Glancing at the rapidly dwindling amount of sand in the timer and feeling the mounting pressure needing a release, I did the only thing I felt would alleviate the situation. I flipped the stretcher on its back, pulled out the staples, folded the canvas up as compactly as I could, and threw it away. Burning it up and burying the ashes was what I wanted to do, though. I would have nothing to exhibit in the show that year.
it typically coincided with the pieces where I was pushing the envelope and venturing outside of my familiar home turf.
The stuff I was left with, however accomplished it may have looked to others, was, by default, the safest – the things, by and large, I already knew how to do before picking up the charcoal stick or the paint brush. It was as if I’d learned how to say a few phrases in a foreign tongue and then stopped expanding my vocabulary. To other’s ears, my limited alien speech would pass for something more than I, and at times only I, realized it was: stunted. Ingrown. I’d like to think that, sooner or later, I was going to have to deal with the problem head on, but after years of repeating the same behavior, it began to look like that might never happen.
While my ABBA habit isn’t shared, at least openly, by many, knowing me, knowing you, I think abandoning one’s creative work is more the rule than the exception. I wonder about you – did you ever abandon your love for painting or writing or playing piano? Did you ever tell yourself, “That’s not me” not because the fledgling creative practice looked, well, just like that – like a fledgling bird? You know – all awkward and ugly and temporarily unable to fly?
It wasn’t until I started my custom props business in 1998, many years after acquiring the bad habit of destroying my more creative work, that my problematic penchant and I faced each other.
What made matters infinitely worse, this time, was that I was creating this piece for a client, and had already been paid a deposit for half of the project. The check had been deposited weeks prior. Weeks where it had been transformed into food and mortgage and utilities payments. Payments that would soon be due again (compounded by the fact that the same was true of Nan). Hard place, may I introduce you to rock?
Wisely, Nan left me to brood. I sat down on the front porch swing with a glass of water and felt for all the world like Mohammed Ali sitting in the corner of the ring after the first few rounds of his rumble with George Forman – only Ali, at least, had tasted victory many times in the past. For me, all seemed lost. It was hopeless. There were no thoughts of getting someone else to finish the project for me; as with most I would take on, I couldn’t afford that option. And soon enough the problem would be my family’s. Questions began to filter into my mind. Why did I choose this stupid job, anyway? How can I get out of finishing this project?
It was then that Nan and I began to rob banks to augment our income.
Kidding. Our income augments our bank robbing.
I really knew I was out of the woods at last when a bird came out of the trees and landed on my shoulder.
There’s nothing – no, not one thing, that can’t be reclaimed – that can’t be transformed into something richer and fuller.
Why, ABBA itself, the original members, have been working on new material, after decades of leaving the spotlight. Can’t wait.
Back to my art journey: fast forward a decade, and I’m working on another display for a client, one calling for subdued, refined off-whites to fit the cultivated nature of a rotunda in a historic building on the college campus where I then worked. This time, not only do I begin the underpainting with the ‘wrong’ colors – gaudy, bright ones – but I’m doing so on purpose, and, more to the point, in full view of others’ eyes. A few brave souls hesitantly ask how things are going. I know they think I’m either color blind or turpentine-addled to be laying down such vibrant tracks, but I tell them it’s ok.
It’s taken me plenty of time to get to this point in my unfinished state. I may not have been here before, exactly, but I do know with the certainty of faith where I’m headed, and know further that I want just a hint of ‘all that jazz’, like the odd paths I’ve taken from time to time in life, to remain visible – a muted yet immutable witness to the journey, when all is said and done.
I’ve finally faced my Waterloo. Only, I’m the one defeating my own bad habit.
More often than not, that is.
To wit, a few summers ago, I was working diligently on a 8′ x 8′ panel for weeks before abandoning it.
No, ‘abandon’ is too benign a word – I literally took a hammer to it (and about four other large panels I could easily have resurrected). Not angrily, mind you, although Nan was a bit rankled. We’ll see if this blog post stands the test of time, or if it suffers a similar fate.
I’m the only one for whom the wholesale destruction, leaving only the following photographic evidence of the piece, felt good. Felt justified, in fact. I felt that the work was too self-conscious. As if every mark was made not because it was the right thing to do, but because it looked like the right thing to do.
Hand’s down, there’s a big difference. A subject for another day.