November 9, 2014

Writing a Painting

Posted in Current, Fiction, Life, Poetry tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 12:21 pm by pstravlo

Below are examples of when I first began to think about how to write a painting. These are from early drafts of my first novel The Age Of Certainty (Unpublished.)

2009
Hesus gathered his notebooks and carried them to his car. The day was heating up pleasantly. The dew hiding in the warm breeze caressed his arm and face. He held the wheel around a wide curve and crossed over narrow gauge tracks, sped up to the crest of a hill where he could look down onto the village. Behind each house plots of irregular rectangles were carved out of the forest, shaggily defined by slanting grey plank fences or low stone walls, filled with cabbage and potatoes and onions, straight laced corn and sleepy sunflowers. Occasionally a few solemn cows grazed in a plot, balancing awkwardly up the steep hillside. It was as if the entire village was a static landscape limited to his current point of view, like a painting that so catches the essence of its subject that the viewer forgets it’s only a representation playing on his unconscious assumptions.

2011
Hesus gathered his notebooks. The warming air was pleasant, though dew still hid in the breeze, caressing his arms and face.
Hesus held the steering wheel around a wide curve, bounced again over narrow gauge tracks, stopped on the crest of a hill. He looked down to see the road split the village roughly in two. Low stone walls behind each house held back the forest in irregular plots tilled and filled with gardens, rough grey sheds, listing corrals, and the occasional solemn cow grazing awkwardly up the hillside. Farms wrapped over the undulating horizon, small orchards and rows of vines alternating with wide expanses of corn, wheat, and golden breasts of hay scattered dazzling under the sun. It was as if the village was a static landscape limited to his current point of view, like a painting that so catches the essence of its subject that the viewer forgets it is one representation stuck in time, playing on his unconscious assumptions.

And later in the novel:

2010
He was driven into that catalytic space between day and night where your perception is mutable and it’s all too counter to your experience to quite believe, like a painting that catches the truth of a sunset yet is so unique and poignant that no one would believe it was real unless it was a photograph, but you know that there is no way a photograph of what you are witnessing would ever evoke the feelings you are having and then you realize the experience might depend on being who your are at that moment in your life so it would be impossible to adequately describe to anyone anyhow when they passed through the second checkpoint and he was handed over to Sadiq. He was deep in Taliban country now

2011
His handlers drove him into the dusk, into a position so counter to his experience that it was hard to believe, like a painting that catches the truth of a sunset yet is so poignant that no one would believe it was real unless it was a photograph, but you know a photograph could never evoke these feelings, and then you realize the experience might depend on being who you are at that moment, so it would be impossible to adequately describe to anyone else anyway, when they passed through the second checkpoint and he was handed over to Sadiq. He was deep in Taliban country now.

Compare to more recent passages from my novel in progress, Reuel, where the main character is more painterly to begin with:

2013
Through a more or less closed door Reuel discovered a piano and a futon couch. He could see Mrs. Justice’s prints on the ivory keys and foot petals, some jilted to the left, some to the right, as if her elbows and knees stuck straight out whenever she made a sound. Reuel tapped one of the middle keys.
“Me me me,” he sang into a mirror on the far wall. It was out of tune, as if he lived in another world. “So so so.” In the mirror he looked through a window, saw the eagle gently deposit Mr. Justice into a Pena-purple bed of forget-me-nots in the backyard. He decided to explore the mysteries and romances behind the other doors.
Mrs. Justice’s closet smelled of mothballs and cedar. When Reuel stuck his head in each dress bristled, each pair of sheer gold stockings winked daintily along a stair step of horizontal rods. Virginal, never-buttoned buttons on her blouses smiled expectantly, and skirts lifted at the slightest touch. Inside a shoebox was a jumble of delicate red straps and spikes like poison darts. Another box contained elegant black pumps stuffed with tissue paper and out of another tumbled sandy rubber sandals that smelled like fish. Reuel closed his eyes and dreamed of soaring like a seagull over a beach, salty wind sweeping his sepia locks across the frothy ocean.

Later:

The man swung his legs over the far side of the futon and pulled on his underwear, then a pair of slacks dark and blue as shadows turning slightly cooler just before dawn. Salt and pepper hair formed a tornado from the top of his head down his back. Anabel slipped into a pair of bright green flats. Reuel remembered the green triangles perched on a wooden ledge like parrots staring at him from the canopy of a tree while he read her diary. He could feel the wet jungle air, see her gathering her brushes, folding her easel, failing to completely reveal herself on the canvas. When he opened his eyes the futon was a couch again and no one was in the room.

And:

He started reading the first story in the book, about two lonely people who dreamed of finding true love.
The lonely woman and lonely man lived very close to each other in the same city. They both loved animals, classical music, reading, were shy, and used proper etiquette even when only with their pets. The words were crafted into sentences and paragraphs that fit together in poetic harmonious purple-slate rhythms. Reuel ran his eyes over the pages like reverent fingertips over an intricately patterned melancholy-blue lined buttery marble surface polished to a smooth slippery sheen. Every time he was sure the two lonely people were about to come together some higher purpose made one turn a half a block too soon, the other look away just at the moment of truth.
Reuel decided where he wanted to be was to believe in miracles. One day the lonely man went to the art museum to see a large exhibition of his favorite artist. He walked for hours amidst the largest crowd he had ever seen at the museum. Finally the lonely man realized he had been standing in front of one painting for so long he wasn’t sure what time was. The author described the painting with such acumen Reuel saw it on the page, felt the woman’s eyes staring out tall windows in her wedding dress, felt the tension in the leg muscles of the man she was watching. He blushed, embarrassed that other patrons had been looking over his shoulder and maneuvering around him to see the masterpiece so as not to disturb him. For a moment the lonely man felt claustrophobic, he could feel someone’s breath on his ear, a tingle down that side of his body. It’s mesmerizing, the breath whispered. He turned to see the chamomile voice. Yes, he said as the lonely woman’s hazel gaze fell deeply and without qualm into his. Her skin was that melancholy-blue lined buttery marble surface, his face the perfect intricate pattern of her dreams, and his reverent fingertips ran over the love of his life for ever after.
The creative force of his paintings, Reuel decided, is greater than him yet contained within him, and can be shared by anyone, if only they realize dreams are more than mere wishes.

The tension is between abstraction, like a dream you are trying to remember, and coherent narrative. A well crafted painting does a good job of balancing the tension. My goal is to achieve this balance in a narrative form without slipping into poetry.

October 25, 2014

Adumbrate

Posted in Fiction tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:19 am by pstravlo

PeggyAbstractLandscapeDixonInProgressArt 118

Adumbrate is to darken or conceal partially, to faintly foreshadow or resemble.
Starting thinking about adumbration while reading Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under The Sign Of The Hourglass. His writing is the closest thing I’ve found to my experiments with abstract writing; way more so than Magical Realism, either Garcia or Llosa.
Schulz gives me some sense of the difficulty in reading such abstractions. It’s not that the storyline is not there at all, not like some abstract paintings that are purely emotion; color and form and structure only. At this point I have doubts that writing could successfully reach the levels of abstraction that visual arts are privileged to. So far my pure abstract writing falls off the cliff of prose into the labyrinth of poetry, and as much as I love poetry that is not what this search is, not what these experiments are about.
To read Sanatorium is demanding, enjoyable work; it’s a challenge to follow Shlulz’s mind. To follow I must give up some control, allow my preconceptions to melt away. Here in a passage from a chapter called The Age Of Genius, the main character Joseph reels me in, insists I see with a child’s unbiased eye:
We stood in the semidarkness of my vast room, elongated in perspective toward the window opening on the square. Waves of air reached us in gentle pulsations, settling down on the silence. Each wave brought a new load of silence, seasoned with the colors of distance, as if the previous load had already been used up and exhausted. That dark room came to life only by the reflections of the houses far beyond the window, showing their colors in its depth as in a camera obscura. Through the window one could see, as through a telescope, the pigeons on the roof of the police station, puffed up and walking along the cornice of the attic. At times they rose up all at once and flew in a semicircle over the square. The room brightened for a moment with their fluttering wings, broadened with the echo of their flight, and then darkened when they settled down again.
The narrative is simple: a boy and his older cousin are looking at the boy’s drawings in his room, a window opens onto a square. At the end of the square are houses and a police station with pigeons on its roof doing what pigeons do. Breezes pulsate through the window.
Yet the passage is about perspective and causation more than how the relationship between the boy and his cousin advance the narrative. Breezes are calmed by silence and bear reflections of the distant houses into the room and give it its color. The fluttering of pigeons wings brightens and darkens. For the boy colors are reflections, wind determines sound, space is broadened by echoes and movement; his room, his necessarily limited world, our necessarily limited world, is a camera obscura. And it’s because of these limitations that it’s a wondrous place, a world of mystery and danger, surrounded by unknowns because anything is possible.
Drilling into a short passage like this is rewarding, fun, insightful, like a poem. The work is not too arduous because it does not take long. But it becomes tiresome at length, when the narrative and action must be subjectively gleaned from dreamy paragraphs of sparse action with unclear causes.
Here’s Ethan in Steinbeck’s The Winter Of Our Discontent expressing similar sentiments when confronted with his son’s interest in the contents of their attic:
I guess we’re all, or most of us, the wards of that nineteenth-century science which denied existence to anything it could not measure or explain. The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing. We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools, and mystics, who were more interested in what is than in why it is. So many old and lovely things are stored in the world’s attic, because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.
See the similarities of the above passages with my character Reuel as a naïve teenager:
Reuel loved mysteries and romances, so when for the first time ever his parents left him alone to go to his mother’s special appointment he climbed the narrow staircase from the basement and rummaged through their bedroom. It made him feel the way Merci, his mother, looks when she carefully teases tangled necklaces out of little cubbies in her heart-adorned ashen jewelry box. He arranged two gold necklaces on the glass-topped dressing table, admired in the mirror their delicacy, how they floated in the frame of chubby pink cherubs and grinning green sprites. Marbles of pearl he fenced in the chains of gold, tarnished silver-plated unicorn and satyr and elfin totems frolicked in a canyon turquoise bracelet, sparkling zirconia and ruby-like pebbles lay scattered in a glittering piece of time.
In the drawer of Merci’s nightstand Reuel sifted through silky things that had never been mentioned and discovered a blue-clothed diary secured with a lace strap and precious silver lock. He retrieved a thin skeleton key from inside the sparkling piece of time. The book fell open as if it had been waiting for him. He looked into the mirror, imagined flying out the window, over his neighborhood’s pitched rooftops, watched a perfect teenage girl perform a triple somersault into a backyard pool with scarcely a ripple, a handsome new father pick money like acorns from a stoic old oak, and a smiling gray-haired woman delight her fairytale grandchildren with stories of what she always imagined her life to be.
Here’s Reuel as an adult, an artist who never grew up:
Father Malley perambulated around the strange artist he tried to remember and watched him work. The priest squinted though the sun was at their backs, tried to make figures or images out of dripping blocks of orange and magenta and translucent green that could be rebirth or decay, and thin black and white lines teasing his eye from a lavender background. His gaze was mesmerized, and after some indeterminate moments Father caught a hint of himself in a triangle of gray-black swirling around the meal tent. The fajita grill’s smoke made him blink, charred beef teased his tongue and nose, onions and guacamole on a fresh tortilla formed to the top of his mouth. It was so real Father feared the painting was casting a spell, casting in a way The Shadow of the Cross, the mystery painting he charged tourists to view, seldom achieved.
Orange washed to sun-tinged gold under Reuel’s touch. Father finally recognized his San Francisco De Asis Mission Church amongst the blocks of color, the way the texture of the paint mimicked the texture of the drying plaster. Shadows lengthened and the walls of the church glowed. Uncertainty crept up his spine. He’d been in Taos almost thirty years and knew it would be several minutes before the setting sun made the walls of the church glow like the church on Reuel’s board. How could such a man understand this glow and Father not know him?
And finally Reuel as Steinbeck’s insane mystical child, more interested in what is than in why it is:
Reuel set up his easel high on Taos Mountain, overlooking the Pueblo. His brush flourished in the clear, thin air. Flute melodies filled his head and attracted many creatures. He painted cautious, delicate bodies with spindly legs and furry white butts, parents with their doe; tangled antlers hovered over a harem of sturdy, buckskinned torsos; and two anxious hooked lines the color of yellowed parchment coyotes skulked behind flamboyant strokes of pale green chamisa waving in the hint of a blue breeze. Reuel enjoyed his goose bumps.
Small black and white stripes of chipmunks clacked at Reuel from the safety of twisted gray piñon. At first the chipmunks were unsure of the scene he was creating. But soon they were chattering to the flutish melodies, munching on nut-shaped twists of Reuel’s brush, and flitting in fits and starts across the canvas. On the ridge above the gathering a hairy sling of black bear rummaged through unripe flashes of Indian plum. She stayed uphill and downwind, not wanting to scare her fellow Taosenos away on such a lovely day.
I want to push myself to write an entire novel the way a painter paints an abstract painting. It’s probably not fair to ask a reader to work so hard for so long, to follow a narrative that makes no distinction between characters’ imagination, dreams, and perceptions; a narrative structured only by form, color, shape, and emotion.
Yet I think to write such a novel would be an accomplishment. It would teach me about art, and not only the process, but the instinct, that primordial human spark that left its mark in the caves of Lascaux and El Castillo, the inspiration for jewelry and to knap a more perfect arrowhead.
There’s a common thread of humanity that the impulse to abstraction reaches back towards. It’s mysterious, anxious, frightening, full of doubt. It’s also the impulse that both makes us most human and ties us to other creatures, to whatever it is we share with all forms of life. It’s unregulated Time, Space torn free of measurement, freedom in its purest form allowing one to open Pandora’s box and not blink.
Writing is an art like visual arts because it can never be exact, no words, even in symbolic logic, are defined so rigidly that the beauty of ambiguity is completely absent.
Art is not the antithesis of science, as science itself is an art. This fact is not an indictment of science, but a reminder that its work, like creating art itself, will never be done.
And I want to write an abstract painting. I want to create my own Matisse, one time overcome that doubt that is the essence of abstract art.

July 27, 2014

Hixon

Posted in Fiction, Philosophy, Poetry tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , at 2:53 pm by pstravlo

The first time I met Hixson all I could see were his legs and butt dangling out of my Dumpster. I put my plastic bag of trash down and watched. He was wearing white paint-spattered pants, black socks and faded green deck sneakers. There was a hole at the right little toe. My wife Chandra and I owned what I considered an eclectic art collection and had just bought an old adobe house in Taos, New Mexico. The locals’ story was the town either sucked you in or spit you out, as if the only people living here were refugees who didn’t fit in anywhere else, and since we’d been visiting for years we decided to buy a second home to see how it felt.
Hixson’s legs shot straight into the blue sky as he dug deeper into the trash. It was a blue that in a painting I always assumed the artist had got it wrong, deep without growing dark, chalky but clear as mountain air.
I was surprised when Hixson rocked down into the sunshine. He was older than me, more spry and handsome, except for the gray stubble on his chin and no teeth. The bill of a ragged baseball cap with my company logo shaded his eyes. He stacked a few pieces of cardboard, lumber remnants, and an almost empty can of stain I’d used for my floors on the ground.
“How’s it going?” I stepped up to throw my bag into the dumpster, then hesitated.
“I’m done,” he said.
“Paul Hemming. Blue roof.” I pointed to our house, then offered my hand.
“Hixson,” he said, hiding his narrow eyes under the bill of my cap. Hixson picked up his haul and walked away.
A neighbor told me my Dumpster diver was an artist. The next time I saw him was in the parking lot behind the Sage Inn after three margaritas. I’d parked next to other cars along a latilla fence. It wasn’t until the heavy latillas directly in front of my car swung into my bumper and Hixson slid out from behind that I noticed all the cars were blocking a driveway.
“Hixson.”
He took off my hat and blocked the sun with it. Three inch tufts of hair stuck up the way my son tried to do with mousse. I felt a pang of jealousy. Hixson looked at me sideways.
“Paul. We met the other day. You were gathering some things from my Dumpster.”
“Yeah. I remember.”
Hixson looked around as if he was expecting someone else, or an excuse to get away.
“I’m blocking your drive.”
“You want to get high?”
It’d been years since I’d smoked pot. Now his blue eyes were directly on mine.
“Sure,” I said.
The latilla gate led into a Spanish courtyard, the kind you see in movies where all the rooms of the house are built around an open-air common area. There was a tan seventies vintage El Camino, a broken circle of adobe surrounding the wood supports for an old well, a warped plank porch and three twisted wood doors leading into sensuously sagging adobe buildings. Hixson creaked open a custom screen and led me into one of the buildings.
“Kitchen,” he said apologetically. The room was about twelve feet long and five feet deep. There was a hot plate, a dorm fridge, and just enough room for a skinny person to walk past the stomach-high junk. In two places near the ceiling the mud had disintegrated, exposing roughly three-square-foot patches of sixteen inch thick adobe brick walls.
We ducked under a rounded doorway and into the main room. It was maybe fifteen feet long and twelve feet wide, illuminated by a long, two-foot high window. Abstract paintings leaned against every white mud wall. Most were large; seven feet by five feet, four by three, some two by twos. The dirt floor was hardened with thin strings of primary colors, like the designer faux finish on my concrete garage floor I’d just spent hundreds of dollars on. There was a shin high wood table piled with brushes and tubes of paint, a glass jug full of deep canary yellow on a stool, a short table Hixson used as a chair, and on his wide, homemade easel were two sets of two paintings stacked on top of each other leaning against a large one behind. Hixson put the glass jug on the floor, pointed for me to sit.
“Wow,” I said. “Your work is fantastic.” I’d never understood abstract art and didn’t know what else to say.
Hixson pulled a shoebox from behind his easel, crushed a pungent green bud into a pipe, handed it to me and lit a match. I sucked tentatively, the tequila already swimming around in my head. Hixson took a toke and handed it back to me. I knew better, but to be polite I took another drag, this time with more gusto. He loaded another bowl.
I stood up slowly as an excuse to not smoke anymore and studied some paintings. If there was a theme it was blocks of yellows and grays and greens intersected by grids. But that’s too simplified to describe the streaks of red and the strained-peas greens and the way a few lines suggested landscapes.
“I really like this one,” I said, pointing to a grid of what looked like rubbed whitish circles on a mustard background that made my head spin.
“That’s going into my show.” He took another long toke, held it in.
“When’s that?”
“Next month.”
“I don’t know much about abstract art,” I suddenly confessed.
“Three O Two,” he said.
He could see my confusion.
“My gallery. I paint what I want, they take what they want.”
“One-man show?”
“Yeah.”
“That’s exciting.” I looked around the room. “Great old adobe.”
“Want to check it out?”
I followed Hixson through another low rounded doorway. In the small dark room were a single unmade bed and a small chest of drawers. When I leaned against a wall the rough mud finish scraped by forearm.
“Kit Carson’s house is on the other side of this wall,” Hixson said.
“The museum? How old is this place?” Hixson saw me looking at a blue plastic tarp hanging from the ceiling above the bed.
“Ceiling leaks.”
The tarp angled down past the foot of the bed. There was a water stain on the floor.
“Been kind of dry,” he said.
It was dark when I got in my car and drove around to the front of the museum. Hixson’s house was part of a one story adobe complex housing galleries, artists’ studios, a second-hand western shop, and the museum. I googled Kit Carson house on my phone. The National Register of Historic Places website said Kit Carson’s home was built in 1825.
All those lines and colors kept popping up in my mind. A few days later Chandra and I were shopping around the plaza and came across 302 Fine Art. The current show was Taos Moderns, abstract artists who in some way or another had a connection to Taos and were now all dead. I tried to make the lines and shapes and colors into familiar objects. It felt childish, like naming clouds. The moment I identified an elephant Chandra called it a unicorn and then that’s all I could see. Most of the time Chandra and I like the same pieces, but not with these. She accused me of being set in my ways. Erica and Shane, the owners, told me Hixson was as pure an artist as they’d ever worked with. They were going to take everything he could produce for the show. The next day I made an excuse to get out of the house by myself and went to see if Hixson was home.
“Want to get high?” Hixson asked as soon as soon as I was in the door.
We went through two bowls in five minutes.
“I’ll bring you a bottle of wine, for the weed,” I said.
“I don’t drink.”
He thumbed through a deep stack of paintings, leaning them against his body as he went. I got up and supported the stack while he roughly tilted each one away from the wall. The images passed by so fast it was like looking at a silent movie of a Rorsach test. Hixson lifted a four-by-three up for me to get a better look.
“I’ve been working on this for two years.” It was subtle, faded; a lemon-yellow grid, fatigue-green and pinon-gray dripping lines, red streaks, unfinished black circles, all on a dirty white background, like what my contractor called diamond finish when he plastered the inside walls of my house.
“Looks scraped,” I said.
“Several times.”
It took me a minute to realize each color or shape was a separate layer he’d scraped off and painted over, as if he hadn’t been happy with it but didn’t want to waste the surface. He pointed out a patchy bit of blue I hadn’t noticed, the faint ghost of some pencil lines showing through successive colors, said each layer was his personal history. Hixson handed me the painting and resumed flipping through the stack.
“What’s it painted on?”
“Hardboard. I make the frames.”
I turned the piece around, checked the corners, spun it three-hundred-sixty degrees along the edges. The hardboard was glued to one by two inch pine finish-nailed together. There was no back support.
“The frames are ripped from one by sixes. I used to be a carpenter.” He waved to a small table saw tucked into a corner.
“Is this finished?”
“I don’t think so, maybe. It started out simple. Then it kept trying to get complicated. I have to keep going until it’s simple again.”
Hixson grinned, but it was a serious grin, not mischievous. More like he thought I might be onto something. We pushed the stack back against the wall and he loaded another bowl.
On the adobe sill of the long window was a row of three inch by three inch pencil line drawings on cardboard. They were simple figures of animals on white gesso backgrounds; dogs, chickens, another bird of some kind, buffaloes, a fat mythological creature with a horn sticking out of its head.
“Pocket art,” Hixson said. He picked up several and put them in his shirt pocket. “I sell them for five dollars at the coffee shop.”
We walked down and ordered a cup of coffee. Hixson insisted on paying for his, was obviously a regular. He didn’t mention the line drawings to anyone, but Lola, an attractive woman in her forties with happy wrinkles wearing what I call a hippie-girl dress asked about them and bought a dog. Hixson stuffed the bill in his pants’ pocket.
“I’d like to buy some of those,” I said.
He laid them out on the table. The more I looked at each figure the more detail I saw, even though it didn’t look like he’d picked the pencil up more than once or twice with each one. The detail wasn’t drawn in as much as suggested, by a crimp in the line of a belly, a double curve on a limb, a V for a mouth that somehow was joyful and frightening at the same time. They reminded me of two Picasso prints Chandra and I had bought in San Francisco. I picked out a chicken, a buffalo, and the horned animal, handed Hixson a twenty. He reached into his pocket.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
He pulled out the five and held it out for me.
“That’s OK. I owe you.”
“No.” He pushed the bill across the table at me. “Honesty is simple. Everything that comes in, comes out. Nothing else belongs.”
It was like Hixson had gone into a trance. I wasn’t sure if I had offended or inspired him. He excused himself and left.
As I walked home it hit me that not only did Hixson not have a computer or a phone, there was no television, radio, or even a bathroom in his house. I imagined him sitting alone in his studio, painting, banning certain thoughts from his head. What kind of thoughts? It was beyond my comprehension. The only thing in my field of experience to compare him with was ascetics from Eastern Religions class in college. Now I realized even ascetics remained an abstraction to me, as if all of history was nothing but words in a book. The idea of consciously eradicating creature comforts and conveniences went against everything I had habituated myself to, everything that to me signified success in life.
Several Magpies swooped over my backyard fence like children so lost in play they didn’t realize they’d wandered into the neighbor’s yard. I plopped into a lawn chair. A pair of doves I’d been watching for days chased finches from our birdfeeder. Taos Mountain dominated my horizon. A few days earlier Chandra had wondered out loud how it was the mountain looked larger from here than from the Pueblo, which was several miles closer. I’d taken to staring at it, gauging how much the mountain filled the sky from various places around town. Sometimes its soft bulk was a modest monochrome, sitting small and quiet in the background. Then I’d look up to discover bulwarks of ochre and white-hot pink or royal purple joining forces with clouds to shelter Taos from the madness beyond. I was sure a mathematician could explain the phenomenon, how this or that triangulation in this or that light accounted for the spatial illusions, but that would be talking past what I was trying to understand. I didn’t care what it was made of or how the forest or snow or angle of the sun altered my perception. All I wanted to do was look up and see what kind of day I was going to have. Its mood filled the sky, assured me I wouldn’t be spit out. Three times at stop lights other motorists had to honk to get me to notice the light was green. I started riding my bicycle instead of driving, was continually fighting off feelings of guilt because others were picking up the slack at the office as I did nothing more than let Hixson’s art and this magical place impress upon me.
That evening Chandra and I flitted around to opening receptions at several galleries. An artist in the Kit Carson complex, Gino Mooney, opened his studio to take advantage of all the people walking along the street. There were a Mariachi band, free wine and snacks. Chandra and I sifted through the crowd and found ourselves in the Spanish courtyard.
“That’s Hixson’s house,” I told her.
“Introduce me to your crazy artist?”
At first I was piqued that Chandra referred to Hixson as crazy, then had to admit her only knowledge of him was from my descriptions of his personal deprivations. We knocked on the custom screen door.
“Are you painting?”
“No.” He stood a few feet back. Through the screen Hixson’s image was a mere suggestion, like the rendition of an historical figure who lived before photography.
“I want you to meet my wife, Chandra.”
“Hi.”
“You want to come over to Mooney’s studio?”
“I don’t like to be around so many people.”
“I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to bother you.”
“That’s OK.” Hixson closed the door.
“I can see why you’re so enamored.”
“He’s better one on one,” I said.
“You a friend of Hixson’s?” Gino Mooney had come up behind us. He was a lot taller than me, with a generous smile and wavy chestnut hair, a few strands of gray at his temple.
“I’ve been stopping by, admiring his work.”
“He’s becoming obsessed,” Chandra said.
“That kind of thing happens around here.”
“He’s so dedicated,” I said. “His whole life is art.”
“Sure is. Pulled all his teeth because the pain was keeping him from working.”
“What?” Chandra winced and crinkled her forehead. “Someone should have put him in touch with social services.”
“He had a consultation. Decided teeth were a distraction he could eliminate.”
“Oh my god,” Chandra said. “Did you try and talk him out of it?”
“Not my decision.”
“Never get a girl that way,” she said.
“He’s been with Natasha four or five years now. Puppeteer up at Talpa. Very talented.”
“Each to his own,” I said.
“Don’t even think about it.” She frowned and repeated the crinkle. “What’s he do for money?”
“Doesn’t need much. Museum lets him live in the adobe for free. Been here almost twenty years. Hell, I’m only paying a couple hundred a month.”
“For that storefront? Right off the plaza?” I said.
“Just the way things are done around here.”
“Do you have running water?”
“I do. Tom uses a spigot back of my place.”
A couple days later we went back home to work. The next month I found a glowing review of Hixson’s show in Santa Fe Magazine Online. The reviewer said Hixson was heir to the Abstract Expressionists. She interviewed a professor from some university back east who said he was using Hixson’s work to teach his students future trends in painting. Two weeks later, on the first day Chandra and I were back in Taos, we went to 302 Fine Art.
Hixson’s work filled all five rooms. The pieces were wonderfully, minimally hung. Each room sucked you in like a mouse who smells cheese in a labyrinth. Three rooms were dominated by ochre grids, two more with blocks of neutral color and bright dripping streaks. Of course that’s an oversimplification. The two year old scraped painting had a red sold dot on it. I counted eleven red dots.
“Happy with the show?” I asked Hixson the next day over a couple of bowls.
“Did you like it?”
“Beautiful in the gallery.”
“Chandra?”
I sensed Hixson was looking for confirmation. After all the self-denial, his shunning of Chandra and I that night.
“She said it was the best collection of abstract art she’d ever seen in one place. And we’ve been to MOMA and the Clyfford Still Museum.”
“Never seen them.”
Hixson closed the shoebox and slid it into its spot behind his easel. I picked up a photograph that had been under the box. It showed a triptych of black paintings hanging high on the wall over Hixson’s easel. On the left one was a red line, a gentle thunderbolt. The middle board was all black except for a small white square incompletely scratched in the bottom-left corner. On the right one a blue crescent, blue like the sky I never before believed was real, signaled a new day.
“A couple weeks ago a collector came by,” Hixson said. “I thought he was going to buy that.” He pointed at the photo in my hand.
“Is it at the gallery?”
“I burned it.”
“You burned it?”
“I couldn’t have it in here anymore.”
“Why didn’t the gallery take it?”
“I did it after the show was up.”
I remembered reading that Agnes Martin, another Taos abstract expressionist, destroyed months of work, over a hundred pieces. When asked why, she said they taught her how to do the real paintings. I stared at the photo, trying to commit it to memory.
“He called the gallery last week. Now he wants it.”
“What’d you tell them?”
“That I destroyed it.”
Hixson got the shoebox and loaded another bowl. We passed it back and forth in silence, while I thumbed through his new pieces stacked along the walls. Many of them seemed to depict more figures than grids or abstract landscapes. I wondered if he was trying something new, or if the change I was seeing was in me.
In the past whenever I applied the term brave it was to someone who’d performed a dangerous deed under fire or did the right thing in a difficult situation. But Hixson seemed to me the bravest of all. To find out what was really inside himself, what was true and not the product of someone or something else, he discovered it took a lifetime of never compromising. He scraped and stripped until he was naked to himself, and then he put that nakedness on display for God and everyone to criticize, ridicule, or learn from. Hixson was that gentle red thunderbolt hemmed in by darkness, he was that incomplete white square on the edge of reality, that blue crescent of unbelievable but very real sky of hope.
I pulled a painting from a stack and maneuvered it in the long window light. It was dark, but not as black as the triptych. A scratched out white line like the silhouette of Taos Mountain ran north of center. The roof of a triangle in that sky-blue sat under the white line of the mountain, and little gray checks that might have been birds flitted around. Finally, there was a red figure in repose under the incomplete blue triangle. The imperfections in the red lines were subtle, and maybe I read too much into it, but I took it as a short balding man who’d found himself in the shadow of something greater than himself.
“What do you call this?” I asked.
“Friendship.”
“How much you want for it?”
“I don’t sell anymore outside the gallery.”
“There’s something. I don’t know how to say it.”
“Then don’t.”
I leaned the painting on the front of the stack.
“Take it home. I want you to have it.”
I picked it up again, held Friendship at arm’s length, then put it back.
“I can’t. You taught me that.”
With a grin Hixson handed me a fresh bowl and lit a match.
It’s been four years since I quit my job and started tending bar at the Sage Inn. The first thing I did when I cashed out my 401K was go to 302 and get Friendship.

July 24, 2014

Pet Door

Posted in Fiction tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , at 5:14 am by pstravlo

Reuel dreamed the mortal screams of a cat fight. Frodo and a larger version of Frodo circled each other. Their blood curdling howls rippled through piñon smoke leaking from the fireplace, burning Reuel’s eyes and nose. Larger Version attacked. The cats twirled above the paint splattered concrete floor of Reuel’s studio like beaters in a bowl of meringue.
“Wake up, Frodo!” Reuel screamed. He stepped into the middle of the room. “You can’t die!” Larger Version fled through the pet door.
Two days after the dream Reuel was at his easel when Larger Version pushed through the pet door’s plastic flap. Frodo was sleeping on the floor, using Reuel’s foot as a pillow, in a rectangle of warmth from the sun through one of the large windows.
“I’m dreaming again,” Reuel said. At the sound of his voice Larger Version once again escaped through the pet door. Reuel watched Larger Version run past the cross and disappear over the backyard fence. He sniffed the paint on his hands, ran his fingers through Frodo’s brindle fur, and felt his purring.
Reuel had seen people think of dreams as mere wishes, random synapses firing in their brains. But for Reuel dreams were just another door to life. Like the angelic flock of naked flying women who occasionally visited him, with their crow’s heads, blowing the moon to the other side of the sun with the flapping of their wings; or when Meister, his Golden Retriever, once or twice a year rose from his grave in the backyard to assure Reuel he’s not upset about being buried alive; there’s Reuel’s domineering wife, the one he meets for the first time each time she appears, awkwardly failing to seduce him; and that washing machine he crawls into because he doesn’t want to take his clothes off in front of everyone at the Laundromat. Sometimes the news anchorwoman repeats to the whole world how his paintings remind her of when she has sex, but can’t climax. His favorite is all those nights flying past landmark after landmark to visit his sister, Joy, and finding himself in the morning, worn out from the journey, sitting by his made up bed. And now he has Frodo protecting his territory, fighting off Larger Version, rediscovering the vigor of youth, the sinews of necessity, without a scratch, as if willing a myth.
Reuel relished lying on the bed at night, not knowing the time, patiently waiting for a train’s or owl’s hoot, tires or footsteps humming on the road, voices or Frodo whining, and the moon’s or sun’s glow to peek beyond the edges of the window blinds.
Reuel painted Larger Version into a series of landscapes. In one, he is delicate paw prints in the snow. In the next, he is the eyes of a mouse afraid to venture out of his hole. And in yet another, Larger Version is pungent piss, wet leaves, and balls of fur decomposing under a tree in the forest. Larger Version reminded Reuel how sane his love for Frodo was. Because Frodo’s love was unconditional, like a dream wife, and it was beyond imagination that an eighteen year old cat could defend his territory against Larger Version.
Talking to Joy on the phone Reuel told the story of meeting Larger Version. Joy asked Reuel if he was taking his medication. “Every night,” Reuel answered. “After I go to bed.”
One day there was a knock at the front door of Reuel’s home. He got down on his hands and knees, stuck his head out the pet door, and looked around the back yard. Finally Lola, the owner of the gallery sponsoring a solo exhibition of Reuel’s paintings, came into the backyard to see if he might be in his studio.
“What are you doing?” asked Lola. She was so beautiful that day the man following her seemed hesitant, as if entering Reuel’s world, with his sketchy black beard, dreamy eyes, and paint splattered overalls, was unfair competition.
“I’m waiting through my pet door.”
“I tried to call.”
“I don’t need to talk through the phone, if you want to come in.”
Reuel got to his feet and opened the door meant for people who think dreams are only wishes. He led them inside with a slow sweep of his hand, as if directing them into a pew at a funeral or a baptism. Lola’s long golden hair shadowboxed the suddenly timid sun, her nose protruded from between her wide almond eyes, falling in a false front towards her delightful white teeth, so perfect and inviting no one noticed how thin her lips were. Reuel watched Lola’s skirt flow around the studio, her legs bending naively, seductively, like delicate saplings in a cloth of willow branches. She swung a bottle of bubbly in reverse rhythm to her hips.
“This is Paul. He’s a great admirer of your work.” Frodo circled and rubbed Paul’s ankle, who was surprised when he found no cat hair on the cuff of his trousers.
“Thanks for including us. Is this what you’ve been waiting for?” Reuel waved at his easel in a backhanded manner. It held a canvas bisected by a row of weeping willow trees. Streaks of red formed a rectangle below the drooping branches. Inside the rectangle something not yet finished was flapping towards the viewer, like the pages of a book in the wind. Larger Version had passed through moments earlier.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Reuel felt Paul thought he needed to say.
“He’s becoming a collector’s item,” Lola assured them.
The mood was as genuine as newspaper philosophy, and it made Reuel uncomfortable, as if Paul was unsure what he wished for.
“You can’t have it now,” Lola continued. “Before all the paintings are hung together, there’s always some confusion. I’m positive Reuel will sell out. It will be worth so much more to you someday.”
Reuel scooped thick black paint onto a long brush and held it between his thumb and two fingers, like a conductor’s baton, waving it over the painting. Lola’s face scrunched in barely concealed horror. Paul held a sculpted smile, content to be in the presence of greatness. Reuel dropped his eyelids, puckered his lips, let his breath escape, then skillfully pushed the brush around the canvas. Sprouts of black paint distorted the underlying images before his eyes. Reuel lowered his arm and released the dream from his vision.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Lola groaned.
“He’s insane!” Paul said. He clapped his hands together and laughed at the low ceiling, finally noticing the multi-colored cob-webs hanging almost into his mouth.
“You might have been ruined,” Lola explained.
“It was a masterpiece,” Reuel said.
“Aren’t they all masterpieces?” Paul wanted to ask.
“This one needs to be scraped.” Reuel picked out a painting from a stack leaning against the wall under a window.
“Tell us about it,” Lola insisted.
The canvas was large enough for Reuel to disappear behind it, his voice thin as a beam of light, scattering particles through space and time.
“Frodo is defending his territory. Sometimes he needs to be petted. His whining hurts my ears when he wants me to think it’s time for dinner, but I hardly need to eat anymore, like a perfect lover.”
Most of the painting was blinding yellow streaks of cloudless sky. Three cottonwood trees in exquisite detail drew the eye down and to the left. An adobe church telescoped away towards the bottom, right of center. It’s wide double doors stood wide open. A cat in stained glass looked wistfully from a window. In the graveyard out back a herd of cats was having a meeting. Adog eavesdropped from a branch of one of the cottonwoods.
“What’s the title?” Lola wanted to know.
Reuel could see Paul didn’t understand. When no one responded, Reuel thought again, Conscious Dream.
“It might be Unconscious Wishes,” Reuel said.
“Really?” Paul asked.
“Reuel, excuse us for a moment.” Lola led Paul into the kitchen. “Now do you understand? The whole universe is trying to get through his door. Each sale for him is like losing a lover. Let me see what I can do with him. Don’t mention money. You can write a check, forty thousand. Wait here, put it in my purse and open the wine while I talk to him.”
“Which one?”
“Does it matter? Every one’s a dream.”
Lola left her purse and went back to the studio.
“He’s so insistent. Reuel, I know you don’t like to do this, and wouldn’t ask, but this is a wish come true for Paul. And once he buys one, your paintings will be every collector’s dream.”
Reuel set a blank canvas on the easel and starting scratching paint onto his palette to match the color of Lola’s hair.
“I can try to get him to eight thousand. But you’ll have to let him take it today.”
He outlined Lola’s figure on the canvas, making her body glow brighter than the sun through the window behind her. The pop of the cork from the kitchen startled Frodo. He left through the pet door. Reuel decided to make the window out of stained glass.
“I’m glad we see things the same way. It embarrasses Paul to talk about money. That’s great. Keep painting, it’s a nice touch. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Lola went into the kitchen, checked her purse, looked through the cabinets, and washed three glasses. She led Paul to the studio and stationed him where he could watch Reuel work. Then she poured each of them a glass of bubbly. Paul raised his to Reuel and took a sip. Reuel got down on his knees, stuck his head out the pet door, called Frodo, then went back to his easel and put the glass on the floor by his feet.
Lola picked up Unconscious Wishes and held it up for Paul to admire. Reuel observed Lola, closed his eyes, and stroked two sinuous saplings onto the canvas. Then he added wings and a crow’s head, a moon beyond the sun.
“It’s a wish come true,” Paul started.
“When that door opens, let’s go through it,” Reuel said.
“To have your dreams,” Paul said.
Lola made a cross with her index finger and thin lips. Reuel was sketching a washing machine around her body, so everyone could see her spinning through the window. He was flying across the backyard landscape for inspiration. The flap of the pet door swung open. Frodo passed into the studio, hugged Reuel, sipped the bubbles. There were paw prints in the snow, hinting at a path from the cross marking Meister’s grave to the washing machine.
“Beyond imagination,” Reuel said.
“He’s entering his own little world.” Lola whispered to Paul. She handed Unconscious Dreams to Paul, downed her bubbly, and picked up her purse.
Reuel looked at the door meant for people who know only wishes, saw their footprints in the snow. Suddenly Larger Version appeared, blocking their path. He and Frodo let out simultaneous blood-curling howls. The fireplace was leaking smoke. Paul veered to one side, hoisting Unconscious Dreams in front of his face. Reuel watched Larger Version sink his claws into the calf of Paul’s trousers. Paul kicked his leg as if he was a madman, but Larger Version’s claws caught in the material. Frodo went through the pet door. Lola tried to get a hold of Unconscious Dreams, and it looked to Reuel that the three of them, kicking and screaming, snow particles frothing in the air like smoke from a fire, were whipping dreams and wishes into a sacred mating dance. Reuel’s paintbrush flew across the backyard. It was as if he could predict what steps they were taking before they took them, their movements as familiar to him as the landscape between his bedroom and Joy’s home. Paul fell to the ground. Larger Version freed himself from Paul’s trousers and went through the canvas as if it were a pet door to get at him. Frodo leapt into Larger Version from Paul’s side of the canvas. The two cats locked onto each other, howling and scratching in an ancient choreography of flying snow. Paul ran away. Lola escaped through the pet door to the safety of the studio. Her skirt was covered in paw prints, snow clung to her buttocks. She reached out to Reuel, threw her arms around his ankles and announced, “I have always loved you, longed for you, I want you now.”
Reuel looked down on her, then closed his eyes. He stroked his canvas in flourishes, felt Lola run her hands up his legs, pull herself to her feet, press herself against him. Her thin lips touched his cheek. His brush waved non-stop at the canvas. Lola slid her skirt down, unbuttoned her shirt. She was the most beautiful woman Reuel had ever seen, and he was determined to render her faithfully. Her breasts appeared under her clothes, her buttocks a perfect heart inside her weeping skirt, spinning for all to see.
His passions spent, Reuel dropped his brush and lifted his eyelids. Frodo lay motionless in the snow. Lola dressed awkwardly, then silently went through the door meant for people who only believe in wishes, as if Reuel had stolen all her beauty and locked it into the canvas, leaving only what was ugly.
Reuel painted and dreamed, forgetting he was there. In the backyard cats gathered around the cross. The images on the canvas appeared without Reuel closing his eyes. Larger Version went up to the cross, turned to face hundreds of cats. His howl was like sex without climax, or a thousand ancient women mourning. For the first time Reuel understood Larger Version. He howled about Frodo, how their love was necessary for his sanity, and without love it was impossible to get out of bed, sleep, create, or fly through the sky. Reuel went through the pet door.
A few days later Lola came to pick up Reuel’s paintings for the exhibition. She called first, but, as usual, Reuel didn’t answer. No one came when she knocked on the front door, so she went around the home, to the door meant for those who only wish. It was locked. Lola peered through the window. Reuel’s palette was smeared with paint, a canvas on the easel. She looked around the yard. There were thousands of prints of paws in the snow.
Lola walked all the way around the house, knocked on the door again, and checked to see if any windows were unlocked. Finally, she crawled through the pet door.
On the easel was a painting of the back yard. It had a richness of detail she hadn’t seen in Reuel’s work before, but still maintained that dreamy quality that experts used to identify it as a Reuel. There was a small cross next to the big one, and two mounds of fresh dirt. Hundreds of cats filled the yard, and Larger Version was giving a eulogy. A golden retriever watched. Lola never saw Reuel again.

June 7, 2014

BLUE BRACELETS

Posted in Fiction tagged , , , , , , , , , at 7:14 am by pstravlo

BLUE BRACELETS

For so long we wanted to model dresses in Abuela’s shop. To be pretty girls with such pretty costumes, exotic as jungle flowers, with reassuring touches. But now our friends, our boyfriends, will see us. I think she is going to cry. We all want blue bracelets.

Abend Gallery is publishing a book of the images and verse from Cuba An Adventure in Image and Word. Should be out in about a month.

May 31, 2014

AMERICAN DREAM

Posted in Fiction tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 4:50 am by pstravlo

Wanting to experience Cuba is a silly, romantic notion
It could just as well have been the Amazon, or Mars

We gawk at The Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco
It’s beautiful pink tower watching over Sancti Spiritus
The Assemblea Municipal with its Roman columns
Peach in the Caribbean sun
We meander among the statues and gardens in Plaza Major
Look up to Che’s noble countenance
Atop his Jeffersonian mausoleum

We declare entire towns World Heritage Sites
Fill them with our monuments
Reassuring monoliths that define
How we see ourselves
As if we have built Mount Everest

We saw something similar in Dehli, Kathmandu
Bangkok, Juarez, Chiapas
Pedi cabs, bicycles, donkeys
Surrounding us in a chaos of purpose
Yaks, horses, fantastic trucks
Motorbikes and all manner of quaint utilitarian carts
Transporting hustle, bustle and hope
Everywhere everyone afraid of each other’s intentions
Of being taken advantage of
Of Losing
Creative energy desperate for the American Dream

Except Cuba is arrested development
A communal society of scarcity
Less buyer beware than we are all in this together

A street vendor hawks his wares
And when we throw up our hands
He patiently tells us it is a national holiday
Gives us directions to a wonderful festival
A young couple walks quickly up behind us
Follows and eavesdrops
Latches onto us
Takes us for dinner and dancing
A boy on a bicycle chases down our car
It is obvious we are lost
So he leads us through a labyrinth of narrow winding warrens
To the casa particular we have booked for the night

It is a dark stairwell
Small windows
Jungle flowing over the roof
Claustrophobic
We cannot bear to enter

Walking along a canal
The sunshine reflects gloriously
Off the pastel surfaces
A motorbike accosts us
Peter?

A young boy smiles welcomingly
Pressed against his father’s back
The man’s friend booked our room
In this fine man’s, this fine boy’s, home
We have made other arrangements

He is crestfallen
His son looks at him quizzically
We apologize, hand him ten CUC
He does not want to take it
His eyes ask
How can we live together
If we do not mean what we say?

We are bound more by what we cannot fathom
Than what we can see we have in common
Tiny insulated tribes cowering
In air conditioned houses and cars

Our small plane touches down in Nassau
All of us who can come and go as we please
Disregard our matronly stewardess
The plane still our taxi
Hustling and bustling to be first

She claps her hands
As if rapping our knuckles
We look up to her
Like the son looked to his father
I wonder:
What did the man tell his boy
About the American Dream?
And she answers
What is wrong with you people?

May 30, 2014

DOS ABUELAS

Posted in Fiction tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 6:10 am by pstravlo

DOS ABUELOS

We are drawn in through a window or the frame of a painting, by reflections and tones, surfaces and textures, Dos Abuelas competing since they were chicas for dolls and babies, and our attentions.

May 26, 2014

RAWN LINEN

Posted in Fiction tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:02 am by pstravlo

RAWN LINEN

Some thought it cheeky, but others endearing, two women wearing the same thing, with one arm pulling close a shoulder, the sides of their touching hips swooshing as they walk barefoot along the beach, ponytails skipping behind like ecstatic puppies. Soft as a cool summer pillow, or grating like the canvas of a palm used to work, the sensuousness of Raw Linen.

May 22, 2014

DANCING IN THE STREET

Posted in Fiction tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 6:38 am by pstravlo

DANCING IN THE STREET

She’s ageless, larger than life and nimble as a sprite, carefree, wise, and if she inspires fear, it is from the certainty she knows things, that her life is happier, this woman of big wet sloppy lipsticked kisses Dancing in the Street.

May 20, 2014

TERRACED TOBACCO

Posted in Fiction tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 6:14 am by pstravlo

TERRACED TOBACCO

It’s been a long road. Each terrace is a milestone, a relief to my thighs, my back, an artificial landscape that’s been here so long even the island accepts it as natural. Row after row, sweet smell of tobacco drying in the sun, hemmed in by prickly bushes that tear my thin trousers. It helps to imagine the road as a fast flowing river, blue with little white caps carrying me along. I feel at home detouring up and down the rows, trickling like irrigation ditches that come and go with the barely perceptible seasons. I want to stop at the white roofed buildings, see if they might have something for me; to eat, a place to lay my head, maybe forever. It might be better than anything over the hill.

Peggy painted over Terraced Tobacco, it no longer exists. I felt compelled to post it because the verse the painting inspired, its blue road, the long white roofs, the horizon over the hill, speaks to me, puts me walking through my vines and lateral acequia ditches in Taos, always on a journey, even when at home.

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