Thursday, May 22, 2014

flight pattern

I have a recurring dream about flying.

I have some kind of machine, sleek and simple like a saucer sled, and in the beginning I can lift up and take off without a thought. I can feel the surge of power propelling me upwards, the same as opening the throttle on a motorcycle: intimate, responsive, thrilling. As the dream goes on, though, the power drains out. It diminishes until I can only take off with great effort, or, finally, am left trip-stumbling along the ground, unable to make it go.

Each time I have the dream, the details are a little different -- the scenery from above, the mechanism of the flying machine -- but the trajectory is always the same. The exhilaration of the ability to take flight, followed by the crushing disappointment of losing it. 

I had this dream the other night, and it finally occured to me that it is exactly the feeling I have about painting. 

Sometimes it's so effortless and intuitive, I really do feel propelled forward, elated by the energy of it. 

The very next day I will expect to launch myself again, and will fall ass-over-teakettle into mistake after mistake until I resign for the day, cross-eyed and cursing. 

How does it work? How do I make the thing go? I have no idea. 

I talked to Jason about it, who is a writer, so he understands the fickleness of creative flow, and he said, "yeah, and you still have to start out each day expecting to fly."

It's taken for granted, this hallmark of making art. It's the quintessential cliche: ah, the struggle

I can appreciate it a day or two later -- it's just the nature of the thing, and there's no use in trying to understand it. But when I'm in the thick of it I want to break brushes, slash canvases, rend garments. I want to pull down the curtain and see everyone else's mistakes. 

It's lucky to fly, and it's out of my control. My work is to stand up again, arms extended.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

a good look

On the bus the other day I was sitting in the back near a small group of Australian tourists, and I eavesdropped as they chatted about their shopping exploits and temple visits. They were in high spirits, gabbing away and laughing loudly. 

My first impulse was to turn to the Japanese woman on my other side and apologize for them. I'm sorry -- they don't know how loud they are. On a Japanese bus, all is civilized and quiet: personal space is carefully demarcated, and conversations are discreet. In this setting, loud foreigners seem positively barbaric. 

I didn't want to be implicated by association. So I did that annoying thing that ex-pats do here to show they're not tourists: I avoided looking at my fellow foreigners, definitely did not smile, and waited for an opportunity to say something clever to my seat-mate in Japanese.

Then I realized what was happening. I was seeing myself reflected in them -- their English, their flushed faces, their gratuitous body language, in a way that I never see myself reflected in Japanese people. It was startling to recognize myself so suddenly, like looking into a mirror when I was expecting a window. 

This may be the most disconcerting thing about being a gaijin, there is a clear line between inside and outside, and an irreconcilable tension between wanting to be unremarkable on the one hand, but visible and recognizable on the other hand. 

Donald Richie sums up the feeling in The Inland Sea, "Like all Americans, like all romantics, I want to be loved -- somehow -- for my precious self alone."

I decided to let the Australians go ahead and be rowdy on the bus and enjoy their vacation, let the stereotypes go unchallenged. 

But it stuck with me the rest of the day: who is this self that needs reflecting? 


I spend so much time studying faces, reading the stories they hold, deciphering the light behind the mask.

When I paint, my concerns are purely about color and value and the quality of the brushstrokes -- rendering the marvel that is human skin, translating the planes of the features into a mosaic trompe l'oeil.

study for Amie, 8 x 10", oil on paper
When I'm done it's always somewhat of a surprise to see a person there. 

I study my own face too, sometimes with bemusement, sometimes with cool apprehension. As with my art, I am eager to know what others see, at the same time that I feel embarrassingly exposed. What makes a good painting? What makes a face open, like an invitation?

When I go looking for mirrors, I get windows.


Friday, May 9, 2014


It didn't take much to finish this piece... A quick swipe of yellow, a little extra white washed over the blue like a veil.

It's one of those pieces that, at the end, I wish I'd taken pictures throughout the process to remind myself how it evolved, but when I'm in the midst of it I can't be bothered. Who wants to format and sort and arrange a dozen images, each just incrementally different than the last? I should hire someone, maybe. 


In this case it would have been appropriate to document its accumulation of layers, though, because it's ABOUT layers. I guess all of my abstract work lately is about layers, but the title for this one came in a little flash and seemed so fitting: "The Irritation Creates the Pearl."

When shelled mollusks are threatened by injury or parasites or other foreign intrusion, they secrete calcium carbonate to coat and neutralize the irritant. It's the same distinctive irridescent substance that lines the shells themselves, called nacre. In the inner mantle, the soft tissue of the mollusk, around the irritation, the concentric layers of nacre build a pearl. I read that the mollusk will continue adding these layers for the rest of its life.

I wonder if we are capable of this, too... building beautiful concretions around our wounds and irritations. Scar tissue isn't merely defensive, after all, it has a certain luster. 

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to have just the one image. The finished piece. It contains all its layers, some of which are secret. Just like yours and mine.