Can art, at times, predict the path an artist’s life might take without even the artist realizing it?
Can art be a voice for the collective unconscious?
I ask these very subjective questions like an anthropologist looking for the empirical. I ask them in retrospect already knowing the answers personally, but still not entirely convinced.
Years ago I recall reading an article about the esoteric musical iconoclast Captain Beefheart. According to this Musician Magazine piece, Captain Beefheart felt a terrible pain in his head and began shouting, “No, No,” in front of friends at the same time that, unbeknownst to all present, John Lennon was shot. Were the two musicians linked by some energy of spectral intuition that those of hypersensitive nervous systems share; some wavelength reverberating through the musical cosmos? Or is such psychic synchronicity actually mumbo jumbo better explained by random coincidence?
My own experience with hypersensitivity being tied to a larger event outside of myself is far murkier and far less immediate. It is in fact something which I forgot about until last year when I had some time on my hands and found myself going through one of my weathered manila envelopes of old poetry drafts. In that envelope I came across remnants of a journal with an entry dated July 31, ’90, 2 A.M. To paraphrase: Yesterday I finished the “Sides (Catch, Catch the Angels Falling” painting &, for the most part, I’m pretty pleased with it. It is not at all as somber as I 1st envisioned, but…earthy in tone, & a religious connotation…somehow crept in. So why has fear, a howling vacuum of doubt appeared? This feeling is akin to a dream I had while painting “Sides.” The dream is jumbled but I remember quite clearly… a friendly stranger standing in my room & his voice suddenly becoming that of a radio news announcer giving the news that a bomb had been dropped here in America by a terrorist from, I think, Libya or Iran. In my dream… I responded —Oh God, why am I not surprised, really, deep down…
The journal entry goes on where I describe waking and, without my glasses, looking at this large painting from my bed. I wrote about seeing it as being a gigantic skull, but the more I gazed the more I knew how the painting was taking me on a journey, a journey described by the images on the canvas but also a journey which, unfortunately, the journal charted as a twenty-something year-old artist’s circuitous drivel. To be or not to be, many of us would-be Hamlets knew Shakespeare’s Hamlet had nothing on us. Luckily, about a decade ago I threw out all of my journals with something akin to relief. Occasionally I just come across these stray pages stuck in some dusty envelope.
As far as “Sides (Catch, Catch the Angels Falling)” goes, oddly enough, over the years I’ve been asked if the painting and, later, the short collage-film Hold Ups, resulting from it, was my reaction to 9-11, but of course how could it be when the painting was done more than a decade before? Still, I can see some correlation. At the top of the painting are the faces of two women in traditional Muslim garb, their veils trailing down to African figures, obviously impoverished, anchoring the bottom of the canvas. Throughout the painting there are people who may be either falling or floating, and one of them, a dancer, is stretching his arms out very wide as if to hold, to catch them. But I intended “Sides” to be a spiritual painting, not one to promote us vs. them. No, just the opposite; the intention of the painting was and is to convey how as humans we must at some point, swap the pain occurring on both sides of a conflict; that only through empathy and understanding can we begin to heal.
Yes, murkiness. I’ve tried to live an intelligent and aware life, but there are times I realize that I exist and function more as a lighthouse beam illuminating mainly the shimmer of fog.
There are other cases in point I could bring up though I think to do so would be more the case of a mental block in search of its subject matter: a case with a broken handle and a false bottom, the point dry of ink.
Wet the tip then. Pry out the false bottom.
At the tail-end of this past summer I looked out the living room’s large picture window and had a sudden sense of déjà vu. Something about the late afternoon light falling on the jade green of a patio table’s umbrella, a host of magenta and blue morning glories climbing behind, triggered a bell inside of me. Summer on the Seine, I thought, the painting is here. How about that?
“Summer on the Seine” is a lush romantic watercolor done on canvas more than a decade ago, the impetus for it coming from a period of personal grief, a period which, like the preceding journal fragment, I mention against my better judgment. I was working in healthcare at the time the painting was done, working as a Patient Care Associate on an HIV hospital unit. Having worked in the healthcare field for many years prior, I was well aware of the importance of keeping a professional boundary line between myself and patients; how to cross it was a big No no. As a gay man, however, to work on an HIV unit in the 1990s was very important to me, a personal stake of bone-marrow essence even though I was not HIV positive myself.
As there is infuriatingly yet today, in the 1990s a certain amount of stigma was attached not only to those who are HIV positive, but sometimes those who associate with them, an ignorance which did and does set my teeth on edge. Fortunately alternative forms of family can develop in the face of such adversity and the hospital unit I worked on had that sort of bonding. Not necessarily all, but most of the staff had a passion and conviction while working on the unit, a sense of being part of a larger cause, almost but not quite, as if being on the frontlines. It was the patients who were (and are) on the frontlines. We who worked on the unit were witnesses quite often not just to their suffering, but the manifold facets of their human spirits. These ranged from desperation to courage, often running up and down, back and forth the fever chart between. This was the time before the disease became better medically managed in this country, and many patients would be on the floor for weeks or longer. Most, depending on new infections, would return time and again, and many died there.
I worked on the unit for five years.
I left maybe a year after “Summer on the Seine” was completed. I left yes, not only because I had crossed a linewith a patient, though not in any way sexual, but because that crossing was an indication of how far over the edge I was in my own personal life quite outside of the hospital realm. No wonder prime time melodramas like Grey’s Anatomy or Chicago Hope have been so popular. They present the personalities and passions behind the scenes of what can transpire in life or death settings. They hint that those who may have a vocation, an investment in making better the lives of others, might be falling apart themselves.
My personal plight was a far less Nielsen polls high-ratings block buster. It was a very private not too unusual scenario of being in an unhealthy relationship and not knowing how to get out. In a way I am empathic by nature and found my compassion could be channeled more constructively by bandaging a patient’s Kaposi’s or holding ice chips to the lips of a woman whose radiation nerve damage prevented her from lifting her arm, rather than, say, listening to my then-partner of seven years cry over his vodka about the latest robbery to our apartment by a trick he swore he never brought home in the first place.
Not that I am making excuses for myself. I was in my mid-thirties. I tended to and listened to both the physical and emotional soliloquies of countless others and many times did care about, even love, them, without falling in love, so I take responsibility for that. I (as the therapists out there might applaud), I own the fact that when a patient I’d been caring on and off for five years whispered to me, “Stephen, you are my own dearest love,” I found myself thinking the same of him right back. Furthermore, I’d been in a fog about this. It was a revelation to me as well. I mean it’s not like we had a prior set of circumstances outside of the hospital which could even be construed as friendship. What we had was five years of him combating an illness and I sharing in his often spiraling anxiety about it. What we held between us as our fingers touched, was five years of him sharing with me ever-widening glimpses into his private world: the places he’d traveled, the business he did, the house he designed and had built, his dreams, fears, humor, pride, kindness and hopes. It’s not as if I opened up about my own life likewise, except with some sort of philosophical gentleness and laughter, nothing of great detail because he was a patient.
How odd to be remembering all of this and so much more about that actually brief interval, yet even as I write of it I know what I am choosing not to share about that man, and about myself. I still feel protective of him you see. I realize what intimacy we shared may not ever have occurred if not for the knowledge that he was running out of time. I still have a sense of anguish over that, anguish that an aberration to his HIV status caused a strain of fungal infection to go out of control and eventually take over, anguish that on the evening he died I ran through the rainy streets to again be by his side but was too late.
He went and I was not there.
I believe however that my not being there was another sort of wake up call, a recognition that due to my own neediness borne from my torturous relationship with my partner at the time, I made too much of my own importance in that other man’s life whereas his life, in and of itself, quite apart from me, was so big. Even the word torturous creates the concept of a saga, some tempestuous Latin triangle, when I know in reality AIDS has torn many a long-term lover from the arms of his beloved. I know in reality that it is gladiator lovers like that which paintings such as “Summer on the Seine” should truly be painted for and perhaps even by.
In other words, like my grief, I did a work of art out of an unintentional pathology, albeit not a particularly stalker one. Indeed I felt I was doing it out of homage, love and respect, and a way to still feel close to someone I loved, but what if that was all illusion? Can real art come from such a quixotic experience as opposed to truth? I ask this because I know when I gazed out the living room window and saw the jade umbrella, the morning glories twining up, I finally was existing in that truth, and lucky to do so. It was as if the umbrella and morning glories I painted on canvas years before, the watercolor washes of the cloud-suited lovers “Summer on the Seine” depicts, was somehow superimposed upon the actual outdoor scene.
Did the intention of that earlier painting summon the future actuality? Were the brushstrokes calling for it to come into my life in a different time, place and partner? Don’t the majority of us in our collective unconscious feel that as not just a want but as a need?
The questions I started this essay with flow into the questions I end this essay with. Are you out there? Can you read me? Are words typed out like questioning brushstrokes on a quest to be known and do they shape destiny? Is it mine? Is it yours’?
Stephen Mead is a creatively-frustrated secretary who works for a very nice university in New York. Much can be learned of his multi-media work (done outside the day job), by placing his name in any search engine. His latest Amazon release is entitled Our Spirit Life, a poetry/art meditation of family heritage and the evanescence of time.