I caught my big toe on it, tripping forward before my eyes became accustomed to the darkness of the closet. Flipping on the light, I saw my heavy black art portfolio lying flat on the guest closet floor. It had slid down from its position wedged between suitcase and wall; well out of sight. On a whim, and with a sudden awareness that it had “presented itself” on this day, I greeted this old friend, unknowingly consenting to dance with the spirits contained here.
They did not disappoint.
I hauled it out of the closet, surprised by its weight. It landed on the seldom-used dining table with a thud. I must have had premonitions of what waited inside because I didn’t open it right away. We acclimated to each other for a day or so. I didn’t recall the last zipping up, but I did remember buying this portfolio from the Shangri-La of Art stores in Manhattan many years ago. In its younger days, the portfolio’s professional demeanor had heartfelt significance to me. It held impetus, and confidence, at a time when I sought those attributes from sources outside of myself. Genuine imitation leather, a sturdy zipper, archival black paper sandwiched between sheets of heavy acetate, it had all the earmarks of a deep respect for the products of the mysterious and cooperative craft of making “art.”
When I finally opened it, I felt a rush of pride for the colorful creativity. I had a fun jaunt through some early Graphic Design, careful drawings, and peaceful Long Island beach scenes in pastel and paint. I honored each with a quick phone photo and thinned these by half. I released from my care, a folder of black and white photography of people I no longer know, printed in my own darkroom and the heavy presentation boards of past assignments. Having moved many times in the last ten years, I am mindful of the weightiness of the “frames” of life. “Take the meaning and the love; pass the frame on.”
It felt nostalgic, it felt cathartic.
“Why do we need to drag things around with us, to prove to ourselves that something happened in our life that moved us deeply?” I asked myself. Isn’t this what a life is, a continuous movement? Creativity and curiosity stirred into a simmering pot of experience. That’s the life I imagine myself into daily. I patted the layout for illustrated children’s book fondly, gathering up all the “coulds, shoulds and might haves” and poured them into an invocation for a new wave of creativity for myself, “Let me bring forth what is here NOW.”
Of course, the paradox, the inside-out experience, waited patiently in the back of the portfolio.
“Don’t assume you will remember how it was,” it said. “Let the words, the photos, the scribbled notes and the artwork show you what life brought forth for your evolution. How can we tell how big this tree has grown if you don’t recall the winds, and the ice storms, or remember it as a sapling?”
They were together, at the back of the portfolio, seven collages made in the final months of my Mother’s life. There were more, this had been almost a daily practice. Some of these, I had judged unworthy at an earlier time. I can see the Formica-topped desk, in the rented home with the big windows, bad heat, and blue leather couches.
We had rented a home on the frozen shore of a lake in Saratoga NY to be close, to help, to care and prepare for what she had told me in early Fall was coming soon. We had left home and hearth, children, dogs and a precious practice in Santa Fe to be here. I cannot imagine what I would be writing today if we hadn’t chosen this path. I would not be even a similar person. “Showing up” is really only terribly painful and horribly difficult, if you don’t do it when it is needed most.
My most evocative collage is visually the most soothing. The only title is the date on the back: Feb 3, 2013. Ten years exactly in 1 day. Imagine my surprise! Feb 3 is propped up here in front of me bombarding me with so many screaming emotions it is almost too hot to touch. And yet…it is balanced and visually pleasing, unless you get close in and really look. I wonder if I was able to feel this when I glued these papers in place? I can see it now, and I feel compassion for myself in the maelstrom.
Did I see that the lotus leaf is sliced in half, creating a boundary between worlds that can only be breached by the deep purple of an amethyst crystal?
The world below, with its Cerulean blue fluidity, is beautiful and absolutely unavailable to she who dances above. Did I see that the legs of the young girl in the party dress are unnaturally contorted?
Her face, upon closer inspection, belies terror, not laughter. She balances on one foot on the tip of a pyramid cut from a photo of a giant multifaceted diamond.
The crown of her head is pierced by the sharp spines of the leave above her.
The falcon flying towards us screams his warning, “It’s coming, it’s coming.”
Did I know what I was saying then?
Do I understand what this means to me now?
And who is talking here?
The collage process started in a small artist supply and frame shop on the main street of Saratoga. I was buying some drawing pencils and I noticed a handwritten sign. “Mat board cuts, $5 a bag.” A large clear plastic sleeve stood leaning against the counter. It was stuffed full of every color, and size of scrap mat board. These were the inside pieces, that which is cut out to form the frame, the “discards” from the custom framing business. The photos came from donated magazines from the library, in an endless variety. It became my practice to work out complex feelings that could not be voiced via scissors and torn paper sitting at the desk or on the floor before the frozen landscape of northern New York. The rubber cement probably didn’t hurt either.
There was innocence back in January. “It’s Easy I Think” Jan 17 2013 shows us a dark winter sky and flight to golden freedom coexisting. Natural elements, the gilt of gold leaf, a feather, pine needles, and hope for easeful movement. I realize that today I still hold this image of the movement we call death.
Feb 19 2013 “Disoriented” created the day before what was later named, “The very good day.” A last day of grace. She felt good, said goodbye to beloved neighbors in a glow that preceded her gentle, generous goodbyes, amidst the smiles and deep sleep of Hospice support. In “Disoriented,” all my allies are here, water, feathers from those of the air, a single Oak leaf dropping back to the rejoin the elements. There it is: safety, resilience, and reassurance.
“A Hard Day in March 2013” This was not responsively made, it was anticipatory. By March 1 we were headed home, driving back to New Mexico. It is sad, bleak, grey and cold. I don’t remember it that way. I recall a deep disorientation, but I felt taped together, glued and tied with string, fully depleted but resting in “No stone unturned-ness.” We did the best that we knew how to do, and now it is time to rest and recover.
So why am I sharing these and what does it mean to me now? I have no idea.
There is no grand denouement or sparkling epiphany.
There is a continuous unfolding of the mystery of what it means to be alive as a human being. A continuation of my life that I share with others, close ties and tenuous threads that seem to break, but probably don’t.
Why did I write about this today? Because the portfolio slid down the wall and I stubbed my toe on it, and I got curious.
Maybe that’s all we need to have, curiosity and a willingness to look with compassion at what it is to be human.