how did climbing shape your life?Women in Early Climbing —
High Clip from The Dihedral invited me to write a blog post for her series, Women in Early Climbing. I struggled because I’m not a climber. I told High Clip, “I don’t think I can write this, you see, I’m not a climber.”
She said, “I think you are.” She said I had a climber’s mentality. I returned to the problem and then I saw the long-term effect of my early climbing life on everything that happened afterward and the person I became, am, now. I hope you enjoy it!
One of the days I was in China we rode our bikes to the (then small and pretty) town of Sha Hu (沙湖 Sand Lake) which was a little north and some other direction of our university. I don’t know for sure what time of year it was, but I suspect it was around New Years because there were many street artists or street calligraphers writing big black characters on sheets of thin paper that had been painted red. After the paper was painted red, bits of gold paint had been splattered on the surface. It was BEAUTIFUL. I watched the artists work for a while, enchanted by all of it.
Then I came back to Denver and tried to adjust to the weirdness of a bad marriage, a brother in trouble, and a place I didn’t want to be. My ex gave me a big, red toolbox for my art supplies. I decided to splatter it with gold paint and asked my brother if I could borrow his gold spray paint (he did air-brush type paintings with spray paint in the trunk of the car my ex had given him). Instead of saying “Yes” or “No” he began arguing artistic theory with me. Polemical people are prone to not listening and he wasn’t listening when I said, “They do it in China. It’s beautiful.”
“China, China, China, I’m sick of hearing about China. Red and gold don’t go together.”
Since I was feeding and housing him, I didn’t think this was really “the thing.” It wasn’t something to argue anyway, but my brother had a way of just getting in your face when he wanted to prove a point, especially if he had been drinking. I didn’t know (because he’d promised NOT to drink while he lived with us) that he was drinking secretly. Finally I just went out the back door, got into my car, and headed down the alley.
Before long, a dark form jumped out of the bushes onto the hood of my car and clung to the windshield. Think about that. Clinging to glass is no small feat. I stopped, hoping he’d be knocked off, but if my brother had a point to prove, he was relentless. He opened the passenger door and got in.
“I’m sorry Martha Ann. It’s your toolbox.”
“Whatever. It doesn’t really matter to you what I do with it, does it?”
“No. I’m sorry. Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. I just wanted to get away from you.”
I didn’t want to go home, besides, there was no way to turn around in the alley. I thought, “OK, so now I’m trapped in a small space with a firecracker. Let the party begin,” but it turned out well. We drove out of town, up to Lookout Mountain west of Golden. I am sure we did some looking out. We ended up talking and laughing and being sister and brother together.
Yesterday I began working on the Sistine Poster for the Baby Duck book launch. The big thing was the RIGHT background. It had to cover the foam core — 36 x 24 a kind of slick white that sucks light and energy out of any room it’s in. It BEGS to be behind something as it should. That’s its purpose though now it can be bought in various colors. I bought red tissue paper when I went to the store figuring “This’ll work somewhere.” When I got home from a short shopping trip (and the longest walk I’ve taken since I surrendered to the injury) I saw exactly what should happen.
I scored the foam core down the middle so I could fold it, enabling it to stand up.
I spray glued the surface of the foam core and spread the tissue paper on the surface. I didn’t try to make it perfectly smooth. It seemed that a little texture would be a good thing. After all, in China, these sheets of red paper were glued to doors and door jams and were NEVER smooth. Once both sides of the foam core were covered, I thought, “What now?”
It was clear. But HOW???? I hoped I had the little bottle of gold ink I thought I bought sometime, and maybe did, but no longer have. I have sheets of gold leaf, but you can’t splatter sheets of gold leaf. I have a tube of Gamblin’s Rich Gold oil paint but that seemed, seemed, seemed what? All I had to do was thin that down and splatter it from a brush just as I’d seen done by the street artists of Sha Hu.
Oil paint? I was doubtful, but it was my only option. I wasn’t sure if if the paint would dry overnight, or two days, or what, thinned though it was. I wouldn’t even know until morning how it looked since there’s no real light in my studio other than sunlight. But it was my moment and I took it. When I was done, my face, hair, hands, jeans, sweatshirt and glasses were covered with gold flecks. I felt so happy as I worked even though…
The whole time I worked, I thought of my brother.
Speaking of forgetful — I posted this thing without the pingback. 🙂
“You have to do like this,” my brother holds up John Gnagy’s book, Learn to Draw that we’d gotten for Christmas. It was part of a kit with pencils, charcoal, a blender (a paper pencil like thing pointed at the end), a eraser, a sandpaper pencil sharpener, a plastic pencil sharpener and some paper.
Gnagy was on TV, too, but we didn’t watch much TV. Parental controls were parents saying, “No, God dammit.”
I looked at the cone my brother was copying from the book, the early pages where Gnagy was teaching about shading.
“You have to see where the light comes from. That’s how you get three dimensions.”
My brother was always able to talk about art in this kind of way, theoretically, abstractly. I couldn’t, can’t, don’t and am seriously frightened by it. I don’t know what kind of artist I am, but not the theory to reality type.
The kit ended up my brother’s. At that point I saw myself as a future designer of women’s clothing and that’s what I was drawing. I also got a Barbie doll that year (1964) and had discovered sewing clothes for her was a lot of fun. I was also painting in oils, landscapes from my mind.
The interesting thing is that my brother was a cartoonist from the very beginning, but he understood how “real” art was important to cartooning. Somewhere inside he wanted to be a “real” artist and he did some amazing “real” paintings, but there was always something missing from them. At heart he was a story teller but needed a page of squares to tell the story. His painting hero was Howard Pyle whose paintings definitely tell stories.
Years later, when we were both in our late twenties, walking on a snowy Denver street near my mom’s house, I got some useful advice from my brother. I had just taken down my one-woman show at Cafe Nepenthes in Denver. My brother didn’t seem to think much of the show — it wasn’t his “thing,” or, maybe, he was jealous. I don’t know. Artists in a family that doesn’t support art? Well, friction is inevitable. He said I was an “abstract expressionist” (which I had to look up, later, in my book, The Shock of the New) and he said my paintings were flat, lacking depth (that damned shadow thing again). I’d sold $1000+ which I don’t think my brother ever did.
Here’s one of the paintings from that show — not really a Modigliani knock-off.
At that point, I was taking a break from painting and was doing linoleum cuts having seen Picasso’s in the National Gallery earlier that month. I was talking to my brother about them and what I was trying to do. I explained how I felt making art was responding to a divine impulse. I told him how I was having a little trouble with the knives I used to carve my linoleum. “It’s easier if the linoleum is warm,” I said.
His response, “Well, Martha Ann, if you want to talk to God you have to play Black Sabbath backwards at 78 and you need some emery paper, honey.”
Fast-forward 20 some years to San Diego. My brother and his then wife came to visit from Northern California. On my wall was a “thing” I’d spent the whole summer making. It was the dark summer of my mental breakdown, but the products were pretty nice.
“Did you do that?” my brother asked.
“How I spent my summer vacation, Kirk.”
“Dammit, Martha Ann. You ARE an artist.”
He wasn’t entirely happy about that, either.
One of my favorite cartoons done by my brother depicts me, Aunt Martha and him in the backseat of our car. It’s supposed to be an afternoon we all — and my mom — went up on the Gold Camp Road near Colorado Springs to look at the golden aspen. In real life, my Aunt Martha was driving. She kept looking in the rearview mirror and saw my brother reading a comic book instead of looking out the window. She would then yell at him to “Look at the aspen!!!” My brother might not have put my Aunt Martha in the driver’s seat, but he accurately depicted the sense of the day and each of our personalities.
My little brother looks so bewildered in this photo, and sleepy. After our dad immortalized this moment, we headed out the back gate, across the Gustavson’s yard (otherwise we’d have had to walk on a busy street, a REALLY busy street with streetcars running on it) and on our way to school. Englewood, Colorado. 1958.
It was three blocks.
Of course I had no idea that it was also the first day of ten years of walking to school with my brother. 🙂
There were the days in Montana when we were staying with my aunt and uncle and Kirk started first grade. In Montana, their first grade was Kindergarten the first four months and first grade the second, so effectively Kirk went to Kindergarten twice. My mom always believed that’s why he never got the idea that you go to school to learn, not to play. But…
My aunt and uncle (and cousins) had four steers in the pasture. They were going to sell the steers that fall. I’m glad I did not have a perfect understanding of that because to me they were pets. Bret, Bart, Hobie and Chester I thought were their names. They were really Bret, Bart, Hobart and Festus or something, named after TV westerns I was too little to stay up and watch.
One of the main crops in that part of Montana in the 1950s was sugar beets. Trucks loaded with sugar beets roared down Central Avenue (which we had to walk beside AND cross) spilling beets along the way. “Pick up as many beets as you can when you come home, kids,” said my uncle. “We can feed them to the cows.”
Kirk and I were little kids, and we couldn’t carry a lot, but we usually came home laden with sugar beets. We got to put them in the cowshed with the other beets we were picking up from the railroad tracks on weekends when we all went out in my uncle’s truck and drove along the frontage road getting the beets that had fallen off the train.
In other walks to school, in Nebraska, we crossed a football field that was on one of the higher hills in our town beside the Missouri River. This place was amazing. Crossing the field one day I found a cecropia moth. In winter, the wind blew hard across the top and drifts could be higher than either of us were tall. Sometimes they piled up against the snow fences placed at either end of the football field and Kirk and I would climb up the crusted snow and jump down five feet to the foot of snow below. Other times the snow came at us (the walk home was straight north) like stars and spaceships. The mufflers my mom knit for us were usually crusted with ice by the time we got home on a winter day.
I liked walking to school with Kirk. I liked Kirk. I have a lot of stories like these — priceless to me, evoked by a photograph.