The Clear-Out Dream

I recently turned sixty. A number artists of my generation are moving away or quitting. Some are giving up for health reasons. Others are discarding paintings and equipment to downsize for moves to homes nearer to children and grandchildren. Or other interests have capture what’s left of their time and energy, and they feel like they’ve made enough art to last a life time. One friend had a spiritual awakening that superseded slow gains made working at the easel.

I’ve recently received clearing-out canvases from a few retiring/moving artists. They’re piled up in my studio next to a rack of 200 paintings I made over the course of 38 years. I’ve got more work stashed on another rack and inside my house. I’ve begun to think that I’ll never buy a fresh canvas again, but will just paint over old canvases that no longer make the grade. I can’t see the point of adding numbers to my “oeuvre”. I may be self-digesting the record of my career but have found that very few are interested in said career.

My wife and I are joining folks our age in considering one final move, one more fresh start. We’re paring down our book collection and trying to lose our turntable, stereo equipment and records. The house seems cluttered and cumbersome, and the thought of boxing up possessions for movers daunts us. We want to nibble away at the pile to gradually diminish our load.

I occasionally get flashbacks to a time when painting was new and every finished piece gave exciting revelations. I long to be 25 once again, to have fresh adventures in a world of wide open possibilities.

Last night I had a dream. I noticed that someone had bashed in the door to my studio. Robbers had taken tools as expected. Then my lumber and work table disappeared. The painting racks yawned empty.

I felt oddly freed. I could start over and begin my career anew. Possibilities might come from across a clear horizon no longer blocked by a hodge-podge assemblage of painting debris.

Then I noticed that my easels, paints, brushes and palettes had been taken too. All that they had left were a few bare tables and cover sheets. I bent down in anguish and cried out, “They took my easels!”

The dream told me that I might want a fresh start, but I’m not ready to quit just yet.

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The In-Betweens

Ohio leans hard enough against Pennsylvania to feel like a way station between the East Coast and the Midwestern corn belt. It’s rural and industrial (or used to be), progressive in urban centers and conservative in farm towns. Either/or, neither/nor.

When I return to Dayton I often get the feeling that I’m caught in the in-betweens. No one and no place is definitely one thing or another. As soon as I start making assumptions, I’m surprised to find their contradictions.

And I’m reminded of how it felt to be an adolescent, of hoping for and dreading the future, of knowing the things I wanted from life without knowing how to get them. I couldn’t stay a child when everything around and within pushed me into adulthood, but resented having no clear map for the journey forward.

I once became acutely depressed in my early twenties. I’d been trying out a semi-bohemian lifestyle of working at a grunt job while painting late at night. I burned the candle at both ends to see how that felt, but discovered that I had no enduring desire to drive myself into an early grave for the sake of ART. I decided to move back home and finish college, but the prospect of making the transition to a more normal life gave me a sense that old dreams had drifted away before new ones had arrived. Numbness set in as I began to close my studio and pack, and I remember that my lowest point came when I found myself watching back to back re-runs of “The Love Boat”. I couldn’t tear myself away from the reassuring spectacle of ordinary folks finding happy endings.

I suffered through another “in-between” during my first wife’s pregnancy. We’d agreed that I would stay home and take care of the baby while Judy pursued her career as a biological researcher. I’d never even babysat before and felt overwhelmed by the looming responsibilities. Judy gave me books to read, but I never picked them up. I told myself that I’d figure things out as I went along, but avoidance was my real disincentive. Annie, of course, came along anyway, and I did manage to learn how to care for her. And while I struggled with new mental and physical challenges (lack of sleep, out of balance back from walking with baby on one shoulder, bewilderment from the realization that my life no longer belonged to me), I still felt more comfortable with the actual struggle than with waiting for its arrival.

Now I’ve entered another transitional period involving religion. I became allergic to traditional Christianity in my teens when a nun assured me that “my soul would be lost” if I didn’t attend the local Catholic high school. I realized that her concern centered less upon my spiritual welfare and more upon exerting control over one of her minions. I’ve recently begun attending a Presbyterian church, and the kind influence of the pastor has moved me in the direction of renewing my faith. This sounds positive, but I’m left with that same old in-between feeling. Cynicism has become comfortable and confirmed in news reports about the Catholic Church. But I’ve discovered a group of people making a sincere effort to live in faith and feel drawn to join them. This feels odd after all these years…

I’d ask you to pray for me, but that sounds hypocritical. Maybe folks could meditate in my general direction, and we’ll see how this works out.