Friday, December 27, 2013

this one

I'm starting to do portraits for my own pleasure. I feel incredibly lucky to be busy with commissioned work, but I put so much pressure on myself to do them a certain way that I end up being unsatisfied, even when the client is perfectly happy.

I don't know how to break free of that, except to do a whole bunch of work that isn't automatically waiting for approval, even if it's only in my mind.

This was a good start:

I saw the photo on a friend's page, of herself as a little girl, taken by her father. It has the cool liquid light of film from the 1970s, and the expression in her eyes is positively disarming.

I don't think I did the photo justice, but for once I was focusing instead on what kind of painting it would make. This kind of departure is good.

I have been chafing against my own limits for so long, and it finally feels like I'm doing the work that will expand them.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

christmas claw

I almost bought a fake Christmas tree at the hardware store. I seriously considered it, hideous and overpriced as it was. 

I am usually the one to push for a tree, and for holiday decorations in general, but it seems like I am always scrabbling things together at the last minute, suddenly aware that I am the adult who needs to make this happen. We have moved so many times that we have never really accumulated any decorations worth reusing, and this year, of course, we are half-way around the world without even our five Christmas tree ornaments and pitiful strands of tinsel.

So that's why we were at the hardware store, the kids having their minds blown by little mechanical reindeer toys that would repeat exactly what you said to them, while I waffled about buying an expensive Christmas pom-pon.

I decided against it (and against the reindeer too, much to the kids' dismay), hoping instead to maybe find a place in the mountains to discreetly remove a pine-ish shrub. This is how my imagination works, for better or worse. 

A few days later, as we were walking home I saw a parked pick-up truck with its bed piled high with tree-trimmings from some groundskeepers doing work nearby. The workers were nowhere to be seen, and the pile was well above my head, so I hemmed and paced while debating whether it made sense to risk spectacle or personal injury to dumpster-dive our Christmas tree.

But they were conifers of some sort, I reasoned, and they would be free. But they were also wiry and pokey and wedged in tight. After a few tries, I gave up. 

We headed home and I felt like I'd missed my big chance... The mountains were practically delivering a tree to my doorstep, and I'd done worse than Charlie Brown and come home with NOTHING.

So we psyched ourselves up and went back to the truck. This time the workers were there, and I asked, very politely of course, if we could have some branches from their truck. They not only scaled the precarious pile to give us branches, they helpfully trimmed them with their hacksaws and shook out the bugs and dead needles. I thanked them profusely, and we proudly dragged our anonymous conifer bouquet home.

Arranging the branches into a tree-like shape turned out to be a lot harder than I'd anticipated, though, and I broke a sweat on our front stoop wrangling the stems into a bucket that I'd weighed down with a brick.

When I finished, it actually looked pretty good, especially in the front room alcove which is meant for ikebana. I felt kind of proud of making an appropriately hybrid Japanese Christmas tree, and we decorated it with paper snowflakes and origami cranes. 

Just right, I thought. Kind of sculptural and dynamic, even. The perfect little tree for our little house. 

Then, a few days later, Isla accidentally knocked it over, spilling water and makeshift ornaments all over the tatami. 

I did my best to salvage the presentation, but could not for the life of me get the branches arranged in the same way. I had to untangle all the lights, all the tinsel, and wrestle with it anew. 

Instead of looking like a graceful swirl with swooping cantilevered gestures, it looked like a giant green claw sprouting from the wall.

Not as pleasing as the first version, but I was not about to upset the tenuous balance I'd achieved between the sideways branches, the small bucket, and the brick.


And then Auden accidentally knocked it over.

Amazingly, none of the water spilled out that time, but all the ornaments and pine cones and sundry paper creatures came out, and the lights and tinsel again became a game of cat's cradle gone awry.

I considered chucking the whole project. We don't even spend any time in that room, anyway. 

But I'm incredibly stubborn, more so than those torqued-out branches that resisted every single combination of physics and prayer that would allow them to just please stand vaguely upright for another week or so.

Our tree now looks like this:

It's not even a claw any more; I don't know what that is. It's a motley mess. It looks like exactly what it is, which is a bunch of  scraggly branches wedged into a small bucket, weighed down with a brick, and incongruously bedazzled with gold stars, red bows, paper ninja weapons, and pine cones. 

But it absolutely cracks me up every time I see it. 

This is what it feels like to be in Japan: awkward, haphazard, intermittently sparkly, occasionally knocked over and rearranged. 

I don't know if the kids will retain an authentic memory of this tree that I fashioned for them out of random trimmings destined for the chipper, but I already know that I will be telling and re-telling the story of my most unique and unforgettable Christmas Claw for years to come.

Merry Christmas to you!