Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death…

Rip-Not a Christmas Card face Rip-Not a Christmas Card interior

This card sits on my desk. I see it every day, look closely at it probably every month or two. And occasionally, in the 4+ years since Rip’s death, I fall completely apart; like today.

My particular choice to make art has led me to go sola, for a variety of reasons: some circumstantial–social, economic–and then there’s Fate; some temperamental. As I age into this life, one of the greatest challenges has been to understand that my relationships with people who are of primary importance to me are of secondary, tertiary importance to them, as most of my loved ones have families, whereas I do not.

Nowhere has the significance of this been more poignantly demonstrated than in death. People who were cornerstones of my life, whose absence meant an earth-moving destabilization, a complete re-making, have vanished in a bewildering void of external acknowledgement. My grieving has been done in solitude, my re-making, largely unobserved and unaided. I imagine there is good and bad in this. I know in partnership, we often shape ourselves to the peaks and valleys of the yin to our yang, developing as much in response to what our partners do and don’t do as to our own impulses. In solitude, I think we can devour ourselves, with no pride or perspective of the Other to pull one back into line with reasonable human behavior.

So today, when I began to unmake myself in mourning, rather than occupying myself with some distraction, I sat down to write it out. And then I looked to Rip’s message–of living on in friends–and I looked to my journals to remind myself that this cornerstone of my life had been real. I came across a letter I wrote him on New Year’s Eve, 2003, in the interstices between my first year in Oaxaca and the 6 months in 2005 to follow, when I was just embarking on life as a painter… I think it bears sharing.

It is no small thing, what generosity can teach us/make of us. His gift was extraordinary, and it does live on in me.

December 31, 2003

Dearest Rip,

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I am home in a contemplative mood. I just wrote a letter to my new niece, Echo Grey, to welcome her to the family. And in that spirit, I wanted to sit down and write to you as well.

It has been a tough year in a lot of ways. It seems to have flown by, and yet time seems suspended, and I can’t sense it at all. I was away for a whole year, and then I was back, not painting, but watching you paint for almost a whole year, while you prepared your show and struggled with my watchful eye and shared that entire process with me. Meanwhile I stumbled through understanding and trying to execute the presentational aspects of being an “artist.” In some ways that all seems like a dream—except that the present seems like a dream, too. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going, what my goals are for the short-term, and I realize that I need to sit down and map them out, so that I can conquer the big peak one face of the mountain at a time.

At this moment, all I can feel is how good it is to paint. Just to paint. I am finding myself awkward at it in some ways, too careful, too lacking in adventure, too lacking in the knowledge of how to use materials to do things differently. And yet I know I have the opportunity in front of me to learn it all, if only I focus my energies and use them for that purpose. I hope you can do the same. What am I saying? I know you WILL do the same. You are always doing the same!

I am feeling like you are as far away as when I was in Mexico, since I can’t jump in my car and go see you any time I want to. I really hope I will be able to change that in the next month or two.

But in the meantime I want you to know how deeply I appreciate your presence in my life. I really miss our weekly talks, and I don’t like that I am not able to tell you regularly and directly so that you can see how true it is that you are one of my life’s great blessings. The generosity you never fail to exhibit, as an artist and as a friend, gives me real hope. You share your art with me so openly, I have loved observing your process and being a part of it. It is a pleasure I am sure I will never duplicate again in my life. If ever I model again—and I don’t know that I will—it will never again be with this rare combination of trust and respect. I even treasure the conflict we had over it—I so appreciate the complete honesty that we both brought to it, and the willingness to understand and embrace our differences and continue to work together. You set a tone that is so unfailingly generous, with such integrity. I learn from you every day, even as I despair of ever matching you.

I honestly don’t know how I would have survived this year without your support. At the moments when I was most discouraged, you have said the exact right things to me, you have offered me your faith and confidence and support for what I am doing, when I have lost my own, and when I have been too tired or discouraged to ask for help. You have asked me the right questions about where I’m going and how I’m going about it, and when you have gotten the answers, you have wholeheartedly validated my course of action. I wish I could find the words to articulate what your faith has meant to me. Again and again it has helped me to re-set my course, to turn the fading headlights back up to full, to re-focus and move forward. It has reminded me of what I am doing and encouraged me on my way. This is a kind of generosity that I know is extraordinarily rare in the world outside of families. My own family did not really know how to do something like this, but because you are teaching me with your kindness and support how to have faith in myself, I am teaching them. And I am looking for opportunities to give to others what you have given to me. So I hope you know that your generosity goes on beyond just my life as well.

You are a miracle of a human being, Rip, and I bless Charla every day for having been so kind as to share you with me. I could not have imagined the world you would open up for me, that we would open together as colleagues. I have learned everything I know about generosity from you, and I hope that I will always keep that quality in my art, as you do in yours. I love and admire you from the bottom of my heart.

Happy New Year to you. I know this year will be, as ever, an adventure for you, as you set new challenges for yourself in your art, and strive to meet them. And whatever you do, you will still be turning out those glowing, alive portraits in paint that I love so much. Your vibrance is undimmable. Thank you for being my mentor, supporter and friend.

With all my love,

Montana

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