Red Paper

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.

Example… I don’t know what this says 😦

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’m sorry.”

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. 🙂

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/10/20/rdp-sunday-forgetful/

Artists in the Family

“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.

Hippy Fords of July

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.

A cartoon my brother did for my Aunt Martha’s 80th birthday

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/10/12/rdp-saturday-shadows/

Fast Food, Uh, Tucker

“Let’s eat at Junk in the Bag.”

“OK,” I agree with my brother.

“They have 25 cent burgers. I’ll treat.”

1978 or so. We leave his apartment, a large two-bedroom above Poor Richard’s Bookstore (as was, it’s much more now) and walk down a couple flights of back stairs, around the bookstore and out into the bright Colorado Springs day. His wife and daughter are with his wife’s mom for the weekend. It’s OK with me. I love them, but I like hanging out alone with my brother more.

Junk in the Bag, better known as Jack in the Box is a few blocks away. We go up to the counter. Kirk orders four burgers, a bag of fries and some giant beverage. I just get a cheeseburger, fries and a coke. We find a booth and sit down.

Kirk and I bite into our burgers. By the time I’m half through mine, he’s finished two. “Someone’s suing Junk in the Bag,” he says.

“Why?”

“They say they’re not using real beef, but kangaroo meat. I think that’s crazy.”

“Yeah, but 25 cents for a burger?”

“You got a point. But still, I think people would notice, the taste’d be different. I don’t notice a blinkin’ difference in me tucker. It’s the same dinkum burger it’s always been, mate.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/08/01/rdp-thursday-dinkum/

Goin’ to School

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.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/priceless/

Forgive and Forget?

Garden of the Gods:Kirk's spot

Where My Brother’s Ashes Are

A lot of people have relatives who are addicts. The addict gets a lot of sympathy and the family might get some, but never as much as the “poor” addict. There’s no question that an addict shooting up or drinking him/herself to death is about as sad a story as there is. What I discovered over the years of attempting to help my alcoholic brother is that in the eyes of many of my family members he — because he was a problem and needed to be rescued — was more valuable than I was.

I was not aware that somewhere deep inside of me, I agreed with them.

As happens with drunks (my brother was a drunk) they either stop drinking, they die from drinking or they make the transition into becoming “incorrigible” drunks. My brother took the long way and by the time he died in 2010 he was 57, and I had not spoken with him in five years. I heard about his death accidentally. Someone trying to collect one of his brother’s innumerable debts contacted our aunt with the information that my brother had died. That message made its way to her daughter — my cousin — and then to me.

I was angry and abysmally sad. In order to save myself I had cut off direct contact with him. His persistence (and my trying to help him through various attempts at rehab) had led me to work three jobs. That sacrifice (and it was) was better than losing faith, better than believing his  words, “You don’t understand. I like being drunk. Why are you trying to stop me all the time?” But it took a toll and some of my friends, seeing the effect on me, stepped in, pretty much saying, “If you don’t stop, this will kill you.” They were right.

As the knowledge of his death sank in, I realized that I hated him for dying, for taking from me that burning coal of hope that there would come a day when he would decide that life, his daughter, his sister, his immense talent were worth more to him than being drunk. Now that door was irrevocably closed. I was then stuck with finding out how he had died; of what he had died; where he had died; what had happened to his body; if he’d died alone or in a hospital or? I was stuck with telling the family and facing their castigation, “Why didn’t you take better care of your brother?”

It’s very complicated this addict stuff. I had a lot to sort through and a lot to help my niece sort through. Then one day I saw a little saying somewhere — no idea where — but it said, “Forgiveness is accepting that you cannot change the past.” That was exactly right. I could not change my brother’s decisions in some dim moment thirty or forty years before. I could not change his nature, his childhood, his basic personality, his choices. Just as I’d had to accept that I couldn’t change my brother’s choices while he was alive, I couldn’t re-write the past to make it turn out as I wanted. And yeah; I was angry at him for making the story turn out like that instead of the way I wanted it to.

With that understanding, I began to find my brother again. Not the drunk, but the man and the boy I’d loved, my best friend, but still a person I had always known was not me. I forgave him for taking himself away from me (that was, after all, what I hated him for, for not choosing me over booze).  

Last March, I took some of his ashes to Colorado Springs, our home town, and with his friends made a little pilgrimage to a spot between a cedar and a juniper tree below a formation that we all climbed as teenagers. Some of my brother’s ashes mixed with the sand, some were thrown into the air by his friend. It was a great day; spectacularly beautiful, filled with love, cold-late-winter sunlight, vibrant colors and spontaneous song. One of Kirk’s friends remembered a song Kirk had written and banged out on the piano, singing along. 

Kirk, 1974

I still miss him, and though no longer angry or as sad, I still couldn’t quite “get” the puzzle of his choices, but a dream I had recently put it all together. In the dream I was in a hotel in Death Valley. I opened the drapes to the sliding glass door. My brother was outside, lying on the grass, smoking his pipe. I opened the door. 

“Kirk, I thought you were dead!”

“Naw,” he said, jumping up and hugging me. “I just couldn’t handle that reality any more so I left.”

(Based on the daily prompt: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/prompt-forgive/)