I’ve been painting to remember lately. It’s partly because of the pandemic. I’m realizing that I need to pay more attention to the people that I care about and to make it a priority to spend time with them. Before Covid, there was all the time in the world. Now, not so much maybe. Another reason is painting the stories I want to keep helps solidify them in my brain for later. I’m aware of memory slippage happening as I get older. Details fade and sometimes whole stories. I wonder, was I really there when that happened? Why don’t I remember it if I was?
My father’s side of the family suffered from dementia at the ends of their lives, all except Frank, who was killed during WWII, Marianne, who committed suicide, and Ben, who died of a coronary. Six siblings out of nine. So odds are that I and some of my siblings will go the same way. It’s like a cloud that hovers over you, not quite solid but never quite going away, either. Every failure to come up with a name or word that I know that I know prompts the inevitable moment of panic and a rush of internal questioning. Is this the beginning of my decline? Am I going to go down the same path as my dad? Is there anything I can do to stop this?
I spend a lot of time researching how to make my brain do its job for as long as it can. I solve a crossword puzzle and a sudoku puzzle every day, read a lot, and push myself to learn new things. Mostly I try to remain hopeful.
So I’ve started painting memories of days spent with my family. One, it gives me an excuse to paint people, which I like, and two, it helps cement memories of a particular occasion in my head.
First I look at my photos and decide on a story to tell. Then I try to distill my feelings about the story into a painting. Here are three from my last trip to see my sister and her extended family out in New York state.
Mary Feeding the Chickens
This one is of my sister Mary and her original flock of chickens, now a few years old. She’s got a colander on her hip with red grapes in it. We had decided earlier that grapes, and specifically red grapes, weren’t very good. They tasted too sweet and not enough like the grapes we remembered as children. So these grapes became chicken treats.
Mary, me, my daughter Alice and her wife Sandra, and their daughter Maeve, had walked down the hill to feed grapes to the chickens. Since they were being cautious around all the new people, Mary leaned over the fence, hand full of grapes, to coax them closer. In my painting I removed the fence and the extra figures behind Mary. But I kept the house up on the hill and our trailer parked next to it. Also there’s the hint of the barn behind the trees on the left, which I may remove. I haven’t quite decided, yet. Mary’s jeans have grass stains on the knees because you spend an awful lot of time on your knees when you are working an organic farm. The weeds don’t pull themselves, you know.
Come out, chickens!
In this painting, I wanted to capture Mary’s step-granddaughter, Alice, trying to convince a flock of young chickens to come out from under their coop. Alice is fairy-like in her demeanor. She has long blonde hair falling over her shoulders and a joyful look in her eye. She refers to people as “humans,” and she is perfectly happy playing with whoever is available, including two-year-old Maeve. I wanted to remember her optimism concerning timid pullets and whether or not they could be tempted out of hiding by a handful of dirt, a stick or one of their own feathers. She tried all of those things without success and never noticed the one watching her from the other side of the coop.
Walking to the Barn
In this final painting, I took a photo of Mary as she was on her way back to the barn. I liked her upright form against the barn and the sunlit green grass. It’s a reminder to me of how her days begin. Up before the sun, out to feed the chickens, providing sustenance, and warm regards (“Good morning, sunshine!”). When I miss her most, I imagine myself walking in the dewy grass with her, and I feel better.
So much of how I remember is visual as well as emotional. Photos can be painful to look at sometimes, because so many feelings well up from them. I often put pictures away and close photo apps because it seems as though I might never stop crying once I start. I’m not sure why I want to cry but I’ll continue to explore it. I think it makes for better paintings. And paintings may soon be the only way I can share what I am feeling if or when the day comes that I no longer have the words.
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