Days of the Dead Art — Montana 2016

NOTE: This post was started the day before the presidential election—the result of which is so disorienting, changing the world so dramatically in a single day—that I can’t imagine how to revise right now. So I’m posting, such as it is. Because art is the only response I can think of, just a focus on what I believe in and what I have to offer. Such as it is.

Early November in Montana. Battlestar Galactica is my distraction and reflection; Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa’s SeeSaw is my soundtrack; Death is my subject.

The Days of the Dead have been essential to me since I met them in the year of mourning for my mother’s lapse into violence. A year later, they helped me through her death. It was a ritual I could accept. Beauty and sorrow and acknowledgement coming from the community, from just folks, was better than the comfort offered by religion. There is wisdom in that tightly associated triad of religion, philosophy, and art…but what I can’t stomach in religion is certainty. Certainty leads to tyranny, oppression, superiority. For me, Catholicism was a cheat. The roles it marked out for women were too small, too dishonest. The comfort it provided equally so.

But the beauty always spoke to me—of ritual, of imagery—speaking for the Church, but also cutting through it to our shared humanity, our suffering, and transcendence of suffering.

This time of year for me has, for a while now, been a time of outpouring. I have created altars, and artworks to embellish and sanctify them.

Some have been almost unbearable, and lonely, like my Uncle Mike’s and my mentor Rip’s; but still, they were the only solace I could find, built by my own hand. Others, like my Grandma Jo’s, have been an agreed-upon-in-advance reunion, just between me and her, as she was added to my mounting count of the Dead. Still others have been a precious offering to and bonding with beloved friends, as we combined memorials for those lost from our lives, to call them back, sit with them, honor their roles in our lives, share their stories with one another, and hold onto what they’ve left us. Those ties run deep, for me, anyway.

 

This has also been a season when I make a lot of Art art. And a time I show a lot of Art art. In the reckoning with self and society that is Art 2.0: Stateside, I have tallied what art I have been able to make, within the constraints of returning to a day-job, over the last five years…and consistently, my biggest challenges and accomplishments have come during this time of year.

 

This year, I am in Montana, still camping out at a friend’s house, with few personal effects and none of the stuff of altar-making. So, in the absence of my own altar, and in the spirit of the push I am making to finally make art again—and also to advance this year’s work at BAVC to adopt new forms and skills—I’ve created two digital art pieces for friends in the last couple of weeks.

One is for my friend Amanda. It’s appropriate that she should be the focus of my first effort, as she can attest to the hideous months when I started learning Photoshop—and really, all things Adobe—while living at her house. At the same time that I was learning Apple systems. And also trying to get my new (to me) high-end monitors to work. Which is cruel and unusual punishment for anyone. But especially for anyone over 30. Without kids.

She had her own personal profanity soundtrack playing furiously from the second floor, with every black screen, cut-off support call, indecipherable Apple installation process, unduplicateable action that had been so simple and straightforward in class…my curses rained down on Apple, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Apple, Adobe Creative Cloud, iCloud, WordPress, Samsung, Apple. Me. Apple…

 

While I was there, I managed to get in just a little bit of volunteering at the Precita Eyes Mural Center. Unfortunately, much as I wanted to help paint a mural or ten, I was never able to work out a time slot around my BAVC workshops and House of Amanda obligations. But I did paint an eco-bag for sale in their gift shop, and that entitled me to attend Susan Kelk Cervantes’ Intro to Community Mural Making workshop. In taking the participants through the process she has developed, she asked us each to think about something important in our lives at the moment, and make a rough sketch depicting that thing. Then we were asked to share our pieces with the group and describe the “narrative” of each.  Then, as a group, we turned our drawings over, and collectively recalled a striking element or two from each person’s piece, from which we designed the rough outline of the collaborative mural.

The thing that was very much on my mind was Amanda, who (as I wrote in my October 9 post) has Stage 4 cancer. The fact that she was coming to the end of her life was a very present part of my day-to-day reality, so I depicted her, in the Mexican tradition we both love, as a calavera. My sketch was what I wanted for her: that she be surrounded by care and helping hands…and beauty, which was very important to her. Rodolfo Morales’ floating women came to mind. Images from the others in the workshop included a banner with rain/tear-drops, a drum and its vibrations, the baobab tree, the radiation/pulse lines of the heart—meaning “we are one,” birds, and a mother earth/moon face.

I came out of the workshop excited and inspired. I was feeling the weight of that sad and delicate and difficult time, and I had a desire to lighten it, for myself and for Amanda—but I just wasn’t able. There was a leadenness to what I drew, a shadow around even my imagination. The completely unassociated imagery of a group of strangers brought the light I was seeking, elevated the idea to something containing, possibly, a bit of grace. When I got “home”—to Amanda’s—after the workshop, I hoped to make a painting from this source material. But it was just not possible while I was there, even with my art supplies at hand.

So now I am in the mountains of Montana, 1,000 miles from my art supplies. But I do have that sexy Procreate drawing app and the iPad Pro I bought back in SF. My efforts with them to date have been pretty unimpressive; but I thought I could at least use it for composition, right? That’s something I’ve given minimal attention to in my painting. I rarely do studies—occasionally a sketch or two to compose the space or test a problem—the rest I work out as I go, especially the color part of the equation.

Once I’d started playing with the few paints I do have here in V.C., I remembered wanting to do this piece—in fact, for reasons I no longer remember, I’d brought the mural sketches with me. But I didn’t have a surface the right size—and I was a little worried about having time to make a painting, even if I could find a surface. So I decided, that, with the time and space to actually stick with it, it would be a good reason to use Procreate to do some kind of a digital “sketch” to use as a foundation for the painting I’ll hopefully get to do, when I can get my hands on my materials again.

Then came the next revelation, as I went to the internet searching for resource images—probably the most obvious thing in the world to anyone under 30, or any graphic designer on the planet—but pretty unconsidered for this old analog turkey:  I realized I could just use those images, rather than rendering from them. Eureka—it’s just a mock up, right?  The resulting sketch/collage wouldn’t be as specific or harmonized or beautiful as what I could do in paint…but it would be fun. And, in terms of coming up with a composition, darned snappy.

So I sketched and photo-collaged out the idea of Amanda’s “mural” in Procreate, expecting nothing more of it than to serve as a loose blueprint for a someday painting, maybe a nice idea to share with her. And it was, in fact, kinda fun!

amanda-mural-sketch-1

photo collage/sketch for La “Mural” Para Amandita

 


 

Then Days of the Dead arrived, and I was a little at loose ends, not having my tradition about me. I also happened to be looking for a thank-you to extend to my Virginia City friend Dave, who has taken me on a couple of 70-mile grocery runs. So I decided to try taking the digital stuff to the next step.

I’ve been aware that I needed to stick with the design and drawing software until I could actually turn them into useful tools. Procreate—and Photoshop and Illustrator and all the rest—are just like any computer software: you have to first grasp the concepts and language of the program so that you can even look for the “how to” of what you want to do. And then, you have to do it, often and continuously enough, to learn the function of everything, and to hold enough in your head to be effective. Until you put in the time to answer all your own questions, it’s all Learning Curve and no Art. I had stumbled through several attempts while at BAVC, but had definitely not gotten it all working. But Amanda’s sketch gave me a bit more confidence, so I thought I would try taking it one step further in a piece for Dave.

Dave is a good friend of my V.C. buddies. He’s a 70-something musician from England who is, following a notable career in rock, now something of a local light. He plays around the area, independently and with the occasional band, and is loved for his rough ‘n’ ready life story—the rock star tales, and equally moving, his stories of growing up in a World War II-ravaged England as the son of an American GI he never met. Dave lost his twin brother this year. It was a complicated relationship—they didn’t get along, and he didn’t much like his brother, though he clearly admired a lot of things about him. But he was a twin, and that’s big. Dave’s acknowledged he’s in a bit of a funk, and heading into his hermit phase as winter comes on. We’ve shared a couple of four-hour round-trips through the mountains and valleys of southwestern Montana, and in that time he’s articulated this loss that is chewing at him. In the face of his bereavement and feelings of conflict, I know an old powerlessness. There is no taking away another person’s loss; what comfort there is comes, largely, and eventually, from within—as we all know. It’s the getting there that’s hard. So, feeling how deeply this tradition has helped me, I thought maybe I could at least give him what art can offer. So I turned again to not just the calavera imagery, but to the sugar skull. The idea is that you acknowledge death in all of us—keep it close to you in life—by making it beautiful, and edible (that is, impermanent), and marked with your own name. So I placed the two twins together in Dave’s piece: the living one, a musician, and the dead one, who Dave has described as a “pugilist,” his brother; joined, in life, and in death.

 

 


 

About the time I finished Dave’s piece, I realized that I hadn’t been getting responses from Amanda to my messages. So I started asking around, and found out she had taken a fall, broken her wrist, had to have surgery, and was hospitalized. And again, I felt that sense of powerlessness, that inability to help, or to comfort…

So I decided to develop her piece, to send as a gift. Digital is so much easier that way. I wanted to make her smile—and I knew she would love being the subject of a piece. So I took what I’d learned on Dave’s piece and went back to the iPad.

I was thinking on the angels idea from my sketch. Rodolfo Morales developed a beautiful theme that he revisited many times in his paintings—the floating, usually dark brown, indigenous women. I have never read anything he said about them, but to me, they were archetypal feminine spirits, strong, capable, earthy, carrying their communities on their backs, lifting them up with their morality, their world-weary kindness, connected to the beauty and bounty of the land they tended, and reaped, and bled for…and offered. Their color embodied all the social complexity therein. I pulled images directly from one of his paintings.

From there I followed the thread of the mural workshop group’s imagery. The guy who shared the drum meant it to represent the vibrations of the universe, the “om”—which is certainly something I wanted for my friend at the end of her life. But, also, specific to Amanda, who is very prone to living out loud, a drum reflected beautifully her insistence on being heard. She is filled with musicality, constantly breaking into song, proud of her singing voice, her delight in music. She is also insistent on beating her own drum, on making a noise, both joyful and, as she will be the first to admit, sometimes obnoxious.

I researched the baobab tree, and found it is a symbol of life and positivity in a landscape where little else can thrive. It “… is known for its size and spiritual significance in many African cultures. …Dead relatives are buried at the base of these trees, where it is believed that the baobabs become imbued with their souls. It is fitting, then, that the fruit is used to bring high quality nourishment to the living.” Amanda loves folk traditions, indigenous belief systems—she integrated them with those of her own religious traditions, and in so doing, recalled her travels with family, their experience of several cultures around the world, and brought back both the power of their strong familial bond, and the humor and tolerance they all learned from entering into so many places not their own.

In the place of the circle of light and spirit surrounding Amanda in my original sketch,  I combined images from an ancient sun/moon god/-dess mask, and the serene face of the Buddha, wishing her both peace and light. As you may have noticed from the sketch, even in that group exercise, Amanda and her nurturing angels were placed, exactly where Amanda would always wish, maybe even expect, to be: at the center of everything.

la_mural_pa_amandita

First Draft of Digital “Mural” Para Amandita

Then, right around election day, I tossed this, and started redesigning the space and the quality of the borrowed/edited imagery.


 

An Aside. It has occurred to me that maybe productivity at this time of year is as much a product of election season as anything else. It is always unsettling, this upheaval of the American universe, the divisions in how its citizens think society should work, the profound failure of politics, as we practice it, to bring us confidence and a sense of constructive progress. And this year, the deep-seated social misogyny revealed in this election is enough to stymie any woman who has ever had the temerity to step out from the ranks and say, “No, I’ve got this. I think I’ve got the ability to do something valuable here, so please, permit me to lead this one.”

This blasting of the political megaphone is so exhausting and overwhelming–this year worse than ever before–that wtf else can you do? Just make some art. Put into the world something you believe in, some good, old-fashioned—dare I say it?—female empathy. And hope it makes some kind of difference somewhere. The way all people of good will do, day after day, forever and ever, as we try to edge this needle one fucking millimeter further in the right direction.


 

Post-Script, Post-Election. I had such unconscious faith in the outcome, that the day I began this post, I joked with my dad on the phone that I was getting myself ready to paint Hillary Clinton’s presidential portrait. It’d be only right to have a woman paint the first woman President, right?

Oh, unless Trump won, of course. In which case I’d probably have to fuck him for the job.

But, wait—who am I kidding? Have you seen me? I’m like, a seven! He would never!

I’d have to give him a blow-job.

Not so funny the next day.

Like so many people, I couldn’t even enter into that first surreal moment of the coming Trump Presidency. I sobbed, I looked for answers. And none of them were good enough.

 

On the second day, I went back to work on Amanda’s piece, in a desperate kind of earnest. That need to put something decent into the world, something made of love and beauty, was redoubled.

My soundtrack changed to Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, Solange’s A Seat At The Table, Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, and anything by Nina Simone.

A few days later, a friend from V.C. who is on the Montana Arts Council, invited me to their big annual Gathering. We were both feeling devastated by the election, and she offered it as an affirmation of life, of art, of loving and constructive values. I debated going. I felt a sense of urgency to complete Amanda’s piece. But I finally decided I could do both. So I attended the art show, met a lot of lovely Montana artists, watched and supported my brilliant friend while she did her magic, and worked on the piece in the evenings. I finished it on Sunday night, and started writing the story for Amanda in the car on the way home.

I was still working on that and researching the logistics of getting it printed on a banner for her, when I got a text that she had died.

I was literally knocked off my feet with guilt and sorrow. I hadn’t gotten my gift to her in time. I hadn’t given her that last knowledge that she was known and embraced. I had split my energies between my gift for her, and meeting a new art community. I had told myself I could do both—and I did. But I had known the end was imminent, and I allowed something else to share priority with this gesture to Amanda.

Deep down, I knew this was a push-back against death, a refusal to let it determine my immediate actions, to put me in its service, even though I knew this moment was heading directly to loss.

Eventually, after I sobbed myself silent, with the comfort and perspective of good friends and family, I understood that this is how it is. This is what my piece is speaking to: death is a part of life. While still living, you give your due to death. You do all you can for the dying. But you can’t control or predict death. You also keep living. So you make your offerings on the one hand, and continue to feed your life on the other. Because that’s how it works.

The result is that Amanda did not get this image that I created for her. I hope that it was, nevertheless, in some way, her experience. It appears the Fates had a different idea, that the purpose of this piece was for the living, not for the dying.

I was also reminded yesterday, by a story of the closing of Multi Kulti on San Francisco’s Valencia Street, of another precious element that should be included. One day, when I was living with Amanda, she complained of the ugly bruises on her arms resulting from her cancer treatments. I know she loved to make fun, and so on the way home from BAVC the next evening, I went by Multi Kulti to see if I could find a colorful tattoo sleeve she could pull over her discolored arms. There was only one in stock—a black and white Celtic-looking thing—and so I asked the owner, Reda, if he expected to get any colored ones in…and ended up telling him why I wanted them. At which he insisted on giving me the one he had in stock, as a gift for Amanda. He had never met her. He just offered it out of his own menschery. Giving Amanda not only the gift of an immediate response to her complaint—something she prized highly, trust me on this—but a random act of kindness from a stranger. And one I hope she was reminded of, every time she saw that sleeve, and, I hope, chuckled.

So this is my offering. To those who loved her. And, to La Gringita, Amandita, wherever she is. Salud, my dear.

amandas-mural-procreate

img_5978

 

 

 

 

Note Regarding Rights. The digital artwork in this post is purely personal, created as experiments, gifts for friends. It is a combination of my own photography and digital painting, and “collaged” images belonging to other artists and designers. It is therefore not for sale or distribution of any kind. Credit/ownership of various “found” images used in the creation of these designs is listed below:

Dave’s Calaveras

  • Sugar Skulls: 123RF and Shutterstock
  • RipCity: from a RipCity clothing company logo
  • Guitar hands: 123RF
  • Fists/Tattoos: Shutterstock
  • Wings: Dreamstime

Amanda’s “Mural”

  • Skeleton: I found the image on Pinterest. I’m unsure that I tracked it back to the artist, but the first pin I could find came from lion-s.tumblr.com
  • Birds: Shutterstock
  • Vibrations: The image is adapted from an illustration by Aleks Sennwald. A Google reverse image search will turn up multiple articles about gravitational waves in which it has been used. One is here: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/gravitational-waves-exist-heres-how-scientists-finally-found-them
  • Floating women:
    • The primary images were taken from a painting used as the poster for the Festival Rodolfo Morales in 2012 in Oaxaca. I was unable to find details/a title, but the image can be found here: http://www.oaxaca-mio.com/fiestas/festival_rodolfomorales.hmm
    • The women at the bottom of the piece are from “Los Colores de Oaxaca,” painted by Morales in 1996, and on display at the Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños in Oaxaca, Mexico
    • I superimposed the flowers from a painting called Canasta de Flores: http://www.artnet.com/artists/rodolfo-morales/canasta-de-flores-Ncbp8TZC1EqH1ZWkdBb-vg2
  • Line on banner:
    from The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

    When despair for the world grows in me
    and I wake in the night at the least sound
    in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
    I go and lie down where the wood drake
    rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron
    feeds.
    I come into the peace of wild things
    who do not tax their lives with forethought
    of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
    And I feel above me the day-blind stars
    waiting with their light. For a time
    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Rodolfo Morales was one of Mexico’s greatest painters–in a country filled with brilliant painting. Much can be found about him on the internet, but a few quick links:

I mentioned their role in the post, but credit and thanks are also owed to Susan Kelk Cervantes and the participants of her Community Mural Process Workshop at Precita Eyes Mural Center. 

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3 comments

  1. Every word, a gift, as is this exquisite work of art. You make this world a better place.

  2. Pingback: The Gift of Art | montana murdoch

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