I recently retrieved five paintings from my younger sister's garage. These muddy sprays of color evoke the atmosphere of an inhospitable planet, if anything at all. Painted in the final decade of father’s life, when both his eyesight and manual dexterity were compromised, I had considered them inferior to his bold compositions of the 60s and 70s.
Once I had the series of abstracts in brighter light, against an expanse of white wall in my foyer, I reconsidered their merits. The maligned paintings began to assume new meanings. I saw dawn, the swirl of consciousness against a backdrop of confusion and pulsing nebulae in the far reaches of outer space.
I hung three of them—one above the tall front door, another over the mantle in the living room and the third at the top of an interior staircase. My older sister came to visit. I showed them to her with a sheepish shrug.
"I like them now," I said. "Is it just that they're Dad's?"
"It could be glare," she said.
I knew what she meant. We'd talked about it before. How we treat our father's every sketch and painting as if it were a masterpiece. Our feelings for him create a glare that biases our perspective and precludes objectivity. Which is not to say the work isn’t brilliant. It may be. But we are not the ones to judge.
I climbed the stairs to the second floor, stopping halfway.
“Come up here,” I said to my sister. “Look at it from this angle.”
Side-by-side, we squinted up at the canvas over the door, a rhomboidal blue-gray smear.
“If you look really close,” I said, “there are actually three distinct bands of color.”
“Cool,” she said, straining to see what I saw. “So, what other rejects have you got in the closet. Maybe they’ll look different now too.”
A few days later, I was one of the featured authors in a local nonfiction reading series. My older sister came to support me. I stood on the stage in a midtown coffee bar and read from my memoir/art book about our father. The audience, comprised mostly of women of a certain age, sipped lattes or white wine and clutched their own papers in anticipation of the open microphone segment of the program.
As an introvert, each of these occasions in the relative limelight is cause for a few restless nights and an unsettled stomach. That night, my hands didn’t shake. I didn’t stumble or lose my place.
Out on the sidewalk afterwards, I inhaled the brisk evening air, pleased it was over and doubly pleased I hadn’t embarrassed myself.
“You were amazing,” my sister said, eyes shiny beneath a streetlight.
I turned to her with a dubious smile. She grabbed my arm and gave it a shake.
“Stop it,” she said. “You were good. No, you were amazing.”
“Now that’s glare,” I said.
I waited on the curb as she fiddled with the keys and climbed into her car.
As with our father’s art, my sisters will always encounter my writing with interest, affection and generosity. They had even enjoyed my amateurish murder mystery. The settings and characters were inspired by our San Francisco childhood. They connected with the story and filled in the blanks in a way that a reader without our shared experience, one who had to rely solely upon the words on the page, couldn’t have done. The reactions from my few other readers—notably confusion and discomfort at being the bearer of bad news—were proof enough of that.
For my father, art was a private pursuit. He committed his vision to canvas or clay then moved on to the next piece, seemingly disinterested and unconcerned with external opinion, with acceptance or validation, including from his own family. While I presume he was his own barometer, I can’t know how, or even if, he measured success.
I am not so autotelic. I do hope to be read.
A thing which is autotelic is described as "having a purpose in and not apart from itself."
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes people who are internally driven, and as such may exhibit a sense of purpose and curiosity, as autotelic. This determination is an exclusive difference from being externally driven, where things such as comfort, money, power, or fame are the motivating force.
I know that I can’t account for people’s responses and I’ve learned that for me it isn’t sustainable or satisfying to write with acceptance as the goal. The results are too transitory and infrequent, and the outcome one that is largely out of my control. I write to the creative impulse as Dad did, striving to get aspects of my lived life down on the page in a way that is truthful for me. A reader may like it or not, find merit or resonance in my stories or not, but will ideally not be at a loss as to what I am attempting to do.
Staying the course is easier said than done. Internal and external glare often intrudes—expectations, doubts, disappointment, envy, and on and on—obscuring what I am about, leading me down unproductive rabbit holes, until I am forced to take stock and get back to work.
I imagine my sisters will always be my biggest fans and that I will continue to discover new meaning in our father’s art. And, I will write about what matters to me as best I know how, which I expect to remain an elusive, expanding target. Also like my father, I intend to continue to do so into my 80s and beyond, should I be so lucky.
Because that’s what writers do. The rest is glare.
Here is a very cool and thought-provoking video Painting in the Dark - the Struggle for Art in a World Obsessed with Popularity in which Adam Westbrook talks about Vincent van Gogh and the benefit of doing creative work without the audience in mind.
You can find a related post on art glare from my blog about my father's artwork, here.