Seeking the Still Point Silence
Two weeks before my mother died, on a very lucid day, she asked me “what are you doing?” I love that phrase. What are you doing? It’s how my mom would start so many conversations through the years. No matter if I was in England, Arizona, Texas, 30 feet up a ladder painting, she would call and instead of hello, or anything else, it was always – “what are you doing?”
On this day my answer was – “running City Theatre”. Like many non-profits can do, that 60,70,80,90 hour a week kind of running. I had made a pledge to myself when things got crazy. I will put painting on hold and fully attend to the theatre with the hope that the universe would kindly return me to painting for my blood, sweat and tears commitment to keeping everything going during that wonderful time we call the “Great Recession” .
“Are you Painting? You should be painting, it’s what you do. “says Mom. Which was so lovely because at the beginning of my career as a painter my mother would ask when I was going to get a real job. Made only slightly better when I was a bit older and she declared at my first solo show opening which she and my Dad flew out for, that I must be good because several people had told her I was. Which I took as a bit of a left handed compliment. Later she would send unmarked letters to me with just pictures of things she liked which I would then paint and ship to her without letter or return address. I would find these paintings hung at her house and when I would say “nice painting” she would laugh and say, “well it just arrived in the mail so I put it up.” She had a great sense of humor.
“You should be painting it’s what you do. “ and then she was gone. But that 14 days in hospital, in hospice, without sleep, in a surreal world where the outside just ceased to exist. In a place between life and death, waking dreams, watching her talk to loved ones long dead, seeing her eat from empty trays and drink from a straw that only she saw.
I started thinking………. What ARE you doing?
By 2014 the universe did let me return to painting full time. When people look at my work from the 30 years prior to 2005 and then at what I am doing now they often ask how in the world did I go from that to this? I have lots of answers, but that time with her, that moment when I thought I want “Still More” for her. She was going where I was not and I found in that “The Still Point Silence”. And since 2012 it’s what I have been living, breathing and painting.
What am I doing?
I am painting, it’s what I do.
I hope everyone reading this is doing what you do.
Living it, breathing it and seeing it, really seeing it!
Art and Death
I flew to Austin April 19th. I missed Clare by two days.
She was battling cancer, she had been fighting four years.
Two weeks before that - April 2nd - Suddenly, a painting I had been messing with on and off for the last four years became urgent that I finish. You know the painting…… that canvas that goes up after you finish a piece and you have no idea what you are painting next. It’s been a globe, a bird, the sea. It’s been red, blue, and purple. I have pitched it out to the shed, turned it backwards and thrown a towel over it. But it always found its way back on my easel. I would think – “this time I am going to figure you out. “
Hal and I would talk. “How’s Clare? “ “You know” he would say. “New chemo, next chemo, infusions more tests. She is fighting so hard. “Is she painting? I would ask. I hope she is painting it would be good for her.”
And suddenly, I could not get that painting out of my head. It became a big abalone shell and in it was the shadow of an owl, the waves crashing, a figure rising up. I called Hal….. “How’s Clare?” “You Know” he would say. “She has been hearing owls outside her window, and asking me if I have heard them since I am only four doors down.” “The tumors are collapsing her lung, she is having trouble breathing. I am worried that she may have only a few months left.”
The painting took over. I just needed to get one more color on, one more line. A friend called and I always send her pictures of what I have going in the studio. She looked at the painting. She said “is this about your friend Clare?” And suddenly as if I had never seen it before because it was so close to me I realized …… of course it is.
Of course it is. Hal called he said “you better get out here.” “ I said I will book a flight.” “Try to get here Tuesday or Wednesday.”
I booked a flight for Wednesday the 19th. I kept painting. On Monday April the 17th I just stopped.. I actually removed that last few strokes I had applied. I walked into tell my husband Danny that it was done.
Hal called……. “You’re going to miss her by two days, she’s gone.”
Four years ago when Clare was diagnosed with Stage 4 uterine cancer they said 4-6 months. She said to me, “when the time comes, please come to Austin, not to see me but to be with Hal when I am gone because I worry about him.”
A bit of history……..
Like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or other groups of artists who choose to create a family or household, I am a part of a very close nit group of artists, who at one time, all lived, worked and played together. We created whole events, shows and parties together. We worked on projects, sometimes lived together in the same houses for years. The group had members that came and went, some moved away, others moved back. Some of us have never met, but we know each other’s stories, and have come to feel we know one another because we are all part of the household. I returned to Florida in 2005, but like I said, you never really leave and everyone still knows what everyone is doing due to the households glue, Hal Simon. Hal is a Cultural Anthropologist by education, a state museum’s curator by profession and a collector of artists by nature. This amazing household of artists grew up around him.
The Shadow behind the Light
David Morris wrote an article about me for Creative Pinellas last December. When he reached me by phone about the article, I assumed I would be one of many artists interviewed and perhaps a line or two would make it into the article. He was so interesting to talk to, that I actually kinda forgot our conversation was “on the record”. What occurred was an interview in which I talked about things I do not usually share.
I hadn’t previously put myself under the microscope on how my physical body and mental attitude create my method of working. I am usually thinking about painting, not, why do I paint standing up?
Strange to consider the body as the brush. And the quirky, over focus, INFJ mind that inhabits this body as the method. Odd to realize that a lifetime managing pain is the foundation upon which I make my living.
When I think about the artists who have influenced me, Frida Kahlo, Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, I think about their work but also how their world, their physical circumstances, and their personal challenges created the language that communicated itself through that work. Frida Kahlo wanted to be a doctor, her accident changed the course of her life. Yet in her work, the anatomy illustrations she studied occur over and over. They lend a searing honesty to her images. She sees both intimately as an artist but also with the objective detachment of a physician.
In the studio this morning I got 6 canvases going. All different sizes, 30”x40”, 24”x30”, 20”x24”, 8”x16” and 2 - 8”x8”. I am working from yet another opal (my last three series of paintings have started with impressions from looking at spider web opal). The stone instantly transported me to a place with winged insect people flying among ancient tress in the morning sun, grandmother’s stories of the little people that live in the forest, me laying in the grass on a spring morning off the Blue Ridge parkway.
I see all six paintings finished in my mind, I just have to peel away each layer one by one back to the first color then reconstruct. I anticipate 50 or more layers. I will use gold leaf in several. I am particularly excited about how the light will emerge differently on each canvas as this stone has many secrets to reveal. I have the canvases arranged across the back side of the studio, all six at waist to head level so I can walk back and forth and back and forth. I check the furniture behind me to make sure I can back up without falling over something because I have learned the hard way about that and have nearly tossed myself out my old second story studio several times. I spent an entire day just arranging the paint, and brushes because every new set of paintings I have to clean and completely organize my studio to enable my brain to reach a state of calm and focus with no distractions that break my concentration.
And so it begins again and I am fully present in a place of complete focus, no pain, no time. The world of these six canvases becomes the whole world and the mind and body become one instrument to touch the canvas.
YaeL Kelley lives and works at her studio in the Artist Enclave of historic Kenwood in St. Petersburg, Florida. Petersburg, Florida.