Saturday, January 13, 2007

Humble Beginnings

Like many artists, I've struggled for years with inspiration blocks, technical mastery and changes in creative direction. My design background didn't foresee the turn my work would later take down the fine arts avenue. But the more I paid attention to what styles and techniques interested me, the more natural it seemed that such a turn would occur. I became interested in altered books, collage and mixed media of all sorts. Texture and surface treatments fascinated me, and I continued to struggle to find ways to incorporate them into my illustrative work, with little success. I began keeping visual journals as a way of exploring new ideas. Over time, they slowly became a way of also monitoring progress and new styles of craft.

Finally, I had the presence of mind to take a studio-based workshop for art teachers to explore their studio work. What erupted was the surfacing of something that has forever been on the back burner of my mind which I finally decided to explore. What I was not expecting, was the result it would have on the people around me and the connections I would make and the conversations I would have with otherwise total strangers.

I'm not an overly religious person and never have been, but I am fascinated with religious imagery, and there's none I love more than Catholic stuff. All those chipped plaster statues, sad-faced Madonnas and stained glass images of armor-clad saints is about as romantic as you can get, in my view. And apparently I'm not alone. My workshop required that I create some sort of "portfolio" of work, preferably with a theme. I've been interested in religious themes for a while: the imagery, the mythology, the symbolism, etc. This seemed a good time to try it out. I created a series of mixed media pieces, all based on a vivid memory of Catholic significance from my upbringing. Technically, everything fell into place for the first time. Each day as I worked on these pieces, people would come up to me and tell me about things they saw and places they went the day before and how it reminded them of me and my work.

"I was in the North End last night and I saw this shrine and I thought of you..."
"I was driving home yesterday and I saw this grotto on the side of the Mass Pike and it made me think of you..."
"I have this statue of the Infant of Prague in my house that belonged to my grandmother..."

Everyday I had several of these conversations, from Catholics (both fallen and devout) as well as non-Catholics. People who told me about friends of their's who joined the clergy, pilgrimages their parents made, their spouse's overexposure to the doctrine that turned them agnostic. It was fascinating. Not the stories, but the fact that they WANTED to tell me these things. People would seek me out during lunch and bond with me over this. It was as though they were comforted by talking about it, as though no one ever gave them a vehicle by which to speak this stuff. To me, it was like, "hey, this is cool and kinda funny, look at how sweetly crazy my family is!" To fellow Catholics, they knew. They knew EXACTLY what I was looking at, what I was saying. Some seemed to find my interest charming or quaint. But people who grew up with this, as I did, knew how it was much more complicated than that, as the few fallen Catholics who were not so comfortable with my work already knew. I wondered what is it about this topic, about this imagery that just makes some people's skin crawl???

The more I thought about this, the more I had to think about what I found so appealing about it. I knew it was more than just delightfully creepy images of bleeding hearts and tears of blood that got me. It was all the memories of the women in my family: my grandmother, my mother and my aunts, and how quietly these women take this stuff to heart. How they all adopted the Virgin Mary as their surrogate mother when their own mothers died and how they talk about asking the saints and spirits for help like you'd ask to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor. Of the summers I spend in Ireland when it was still very much "old school", full of superstition and weirdness and totally alien to my 7 year old mind. I realize now that I wouldn't trade those experiences and memories for anything.

So here I was, dwelling on this part of my past that up until then had been limited to laughing about at family gatherings, and I realized that I was seeing a beauty in these images that many people are running from. No one gets freaked out when you have a statue of Buddha or a menorah in your house, but have a glo-in-the-dark framed hologram of the Sacred Heart and get ready for questions. People shirk this display. Or should I say white people shirk it. I started looking at how other artists use Catholic imagery and who the artists were who used it successfully. Artists of Latin, Haitian and African-American heritage think nothing of using Catholic symbolism as a integral part of their art and do it with ease. I understood then that it's because it's a part of who they are and they don't make excuses for it. More importantly, no one expects them to. It's "charming" when a Puerto Rican artist uses Catholic symbolism in their work. A white artist risks being judged.

"What are you, really religious or something...?"

Talking to the Catholic artists in this workshop made me realize that no matter what, this stays with those who grew up with it. No matter how much you try to run from it, it follows you. And clearly, as much as some are running, others WANT to talk about this. Instead of running, I want to embrace it, and hopefully let people see these things the way I do, and take comfort in them, as I do. Because when I look at these things or think about the act of lighting a candle in an empty church, there's a power there. Not necessarily a divine power (which is a another issue) but an emotional, atmospheric power. I think about how my aunt will light a candle for something as simple as not missing a phone call, something so ordinary and mundane, which she carries out with complete confidence, and there's a beauty in that.