There are numerous reasons why artists make art. Some wish only to create beauty or represent the world as they see it. Some choose to explore their own consciousness making visible the invisible. Others make art simply to become rich and/or famous. However, I was impressed at an early age by Mark Rothko who said, “There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing.” I aspired to good painting. But as a young artist in the nineteen sixties, discovering what I had to say and trying to find a form that was compatible with which to say it wasn’t easy. The abstract art movement had morphed into pop art, op-art and photo-realism. With post-modernism chose at hand you could throw a brush in any direction and land on subject matter to paint. I was searching for mine.
It came to me in my studio one day in the form of a phone call from my mother. At the time, I didn’t see it as subject matter. Her voice was calm, almost matter of fact. My father had suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed his entire right side, including his facial muscles.
“Don’t be upset when you see him,” my mother said as we stood outside his hospital room, “Half of his face looks like a blood hound and he cries a lot. The tears don’t mean anything,” she said, “it’s just what happens with a stroke.”
My father smiled a crooked smile when I walked in. The tears were streaming down his face. Conversation was difficult. He could make himself understood with a word here, a phrase there, but it was frustrating for both of us.
I returned to New York unsettled. My father was forty seven years old. I was twenty six. I began to suffer what felt like simulated strokes just before falling asleep at night. In the beginning, I knew they were related to my father, a psychological reaction that I hoped would subside. But as time went on, they continued and week-by-week became more intense. I now began to believe it was physical. It felt as if all the blood in my body was surging into my brain. I was checked for possible brain tumors, heart malfunctions. Nothing. It was hard to believe, particularly in 1964, that an emotional experience could cause such physical reactions in my body. This went on for two years sometimes even happening during the day while I was on my feet. I was afraid for my sanity when I decided I had nothing to lose by trying to paint the sensations that had been disrupting my sleeping and waking life. And that’s how I began a series of paintings that would give me the lifetime challenge of making art that reflected emotional truth. I called this first attempt my “screen” paintings – large three dimensional figure drawings made of window screen trying to visualize my body in crisis.
Technically, I used a masonite panel as the base, over which I etched lines into plaster creating raised surfaces representing the muscles in the body. I then folded and stapled ordinary window screen over the etched flat surface to create the translucent skin of the figure. Window screen is a grid of aluminum wire and when laid over the raised straight plaster lines underneath, the paintings create a pattern that move as you walk by them. I defined the face and body by further applying paint on top of the screen. The paintings were my attempt at visualizing the sensation surging through my body leaving me feeling exposed. Slowly, as I continued to make these paintings, my ‘head things’ were less frequent, but, on occasion, even so many years later, after an anxious week, I’ll re-live the experience just before falling asleep, but the fear is gone. I only have to look at those early figures, though, to remember.
Eight years later, on one of my yearly visits to see my parents, I decided to tell my father what happened. His right side was still paralyzed but with the aid of a metal leg brace and a cane he could function on a limited basis. He lived until he was seventy-eight. His facial muscles had returned to normal and his speech, if not fluent, was understandable
“Remember when you told me that when you had the stroke it felt like all the blood in your body got shot into your brain?” I asked, trying to start the conversation.
“I never told you that,” he said, puffing on his pipe. “Truth is I didn’t feel anything – must have been your mother who told you that bit of nonsense. Just like her – overactive imagination. My leg collapsed walking into the kitchen. I fell to the floor. Your mother was there. I never lost consciousness, I never felt a thing.”
I told him about my two years of simulated strokes.
He smiled when I finished the story. Moving the dead weight of his right arm off his lap with his left hand he adjusted the leg brace and stood up, leaning on his cane.
“I think we could both use a beer,” he said.
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