Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Life of an Artist


“Take me home (take me home)
Take me home (take me home)
Ooh, baby let's get out of here”
Cher

It was a hot and lonely night, summer, 1980, the trailer propped up on cinder blocks, its wheels just a couple of feet above the dry earth, why didn’t we just hitch it up to something and take off and never look back?

In my bedroom, music playing, maybe I had smoked a roach and had a beer or something, when suddenly it felt like the weight of my life was too heavy, I dragged a dull long knife over my wrists barely scratching the skin. No that wasn’t for me, instead I went into my closet where the stacks of papers, drawings, written words, collaged thoughts and sketches lay, I began to rip them up instead, into nice and neat little bits.

Mom knocked on my door in the morning, she found me sitting in inches of torn paper, like a shag carpet made of the shredded past. I had obviously been up all night , she looked worried, I was tired, I crawled into bed. She went off to work at the clinic, where later she would call my sister in Las Vegas, Nevada. She agreed to let me come and stay with her for a while. I’m not sure if that was the most rational option in dealing with a potentially troubled teen, but our choices were limited then, sister would offer refuge, a chance to escape my pain. 
 
I had been visiting Vegas since in utero, would see it grow from a dusty landscape to what it is now. Mom’s family moved there in search of work in the sixties, bartenders, musicians and hotel workers. My sister moved there after spending over a decade in California, she was living in a studio apartment, starting her life over while beginning her career with a county job.

That was the time of the discotheque, one of the only times when my sister really let her hair down, uppers, downers, poppers, sexcapades, not in large quantities by any means, but just enough to nudge her up on the ladder of appreciation in our family of partiers.

She wasn’t really there in the way of let’s sit down and talk about life and stuff, no she was doing her thing and in turn she would let me do mine.  Once in a while she would sneak me into the bar where we would dance with one of our cousins, a couple of drinks after a disco nap, boogie down baby. I’d go home alone, they off into the night.

I had to find a job, anything, try the mall, it was within walking distance, so off I went and was soon employed by Diamonds department store. On my first day as the manager showed me the lay of the land, I noticed two guys, salespeople, men’s department, speaking to each other while hanging over the underwear display. That was when I first saw Emile, he was going by Neil then, I was going by Carlos.

My job was part time, I would go from department to department, all men’s stuff, suits to cologne, I needed to think fast on my feet and learn how to hide my tracks when stealing or coming to work stoned. There was that one time when as I was readying for my shift, I had eaten some kind of acid, thought that I would put on some make-up, get dressed up, walk to work, trip in the employee bathroom, I wasn’t the only one. 
 That was my first time away from what home used to be, from what it had become and how life had changed everything. It was exciting and I felt like some of my sadness was finally evaporating. For a minute I thought that I could make a go of it in Vegas, become one of those handsome blackjack dealers at Circus Circus.  

Emile pursued me, fast and furious, I wouldn’t give in but we became best friends, in that quick way that one does when young. I was interested in Dan, he was a department manager, looking back I’m really not sure why I was attracted to him. One night he came to the studio apartment, sister was away, we made out. It wasn’t until he was jerking off on top of me that I realized that I didn’t like the guy nor the idea of that casual embrace.

My diet then consisted of canned green beans, canned corn and donuts. Sister didn’t have any money, there never was much in the fridge, but we got along and that was all that mattered.
 Emile and I started hanging out, he’d come over, we’d smoke a joint, play the B-52s on the stereo and draw. Each of us with our own sketchbooks, colored pencils and pastels spread out on the table. I was still a bit shell shocked then and was quite shy, he found that very endearing, saw me as some kind of wounded virgin. I saw him as a real go-getter, smart, funny, talented and he was the vice president of the Las Vegas chapter of the Bette Midler fan club. .

He wanted to move to New York, study fashion design, I think that we both finally applied to Parsons, he would get a partial grant. That story would play out in its own time. We were just two teenagers then who started falling in love. He met my family, I met his folks, everything was copasetic.

Soon I began breaking out, my face would eventually resemble a hot and bubbling cheese pizza. It was quick, harsh and sudden. I felt like I was wearing a mask. Dan couldn’t look at me anymore, I was at odds with looking at myself, Emile didn’t care.

That night when we had his family’s place to ourselves, he ran his hands over the surface of my scarred face, it didn’t matter to him, he loved me as I was. I couldn’t move, couldn’t enjoy myself, unable to let go. I felt deformed but secretly reveled in his embrace.  

Soon enough I couldn’t take it any more, what was happening to my skin, mom said that one of the doctors back at the clinic could help. So I boarded the bus, my sister and her new fiancé there to show me off, and Emile, filled with sorrow, me silent within myself. My new mask, some candy and a couple of bucks for the long ride home.  
  The next thing that I remember is seeing my family all waiting as the Greyhound pulled into the bus station, ma crying, still pulling wadded up tissues out from the bottom of her purse, everyone happy to see me. Ma said that she didn’t realize how bad it really was, told me about her twin sister who went through the same thing as a kid, so did my dad, that didn’t help. Soon I would get some care though, needles injecting medicine into the pus filled face.

As we drove home that day, me holed up in my new skin, I was back in that place, that city that I dreaded, going along for the ride with the ghosts that would haunt me for years to come.  

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bitter winds of winter and Zaguanistas --what's next?

Blustery winds send me inside to light a fire on Friday night.  I curl up before the fire with all the books on my table though back out to walk to the Farmer's Market on Saturday morning.  Hot house greens for braising.  It is invigorating --!  Wind on the face is shocking.  Brutal here in the high desert sunshine but somehow so alive I can't stop smiling.  That and a good friend moving to town.  A literary, drink wine, take a walk kind of friend.  Easy to be around without long explanation.  Nice.

My thoughts turn to spring, summer and a potential Zaguanistas kick off art happening on the 4th Friday of May.  Or Saturday afternoon -- Memorial Day weekend affair.  Stay tuned.  Talking amongst ourselves.  A potluck in the making. Details to follow.

I have just finished a piece and moving on in my mind to what's next? On many levels. I have a few ideas.  Still exploring the use of dresses and the use of text and how to combine the two. Photographs and mixed media. These wonderful vintage magazine tear outs forthcoming inspiration.  Simply framed, or deconstructed onto a piece of Victorian something.  That ceiling tin already distressed and inviting?  Eventually paired, perhaps, with the gifted wedding dress of old.  Or a glass of port. Or not. A long cigarette. However did they squeeze into those corsets?  Oh my.  No strong women Body Boot Camp at 6:15am.  Only piano and books and embroidery.  Hmm.  Books --?

I don't draw (well) and rarely, but I'm feeling inspired to do so as exercise.  Of the brain.  Like penmanship with shapes.  On small pieces of paper or panel.  Good paper. A gesture though not of the anatomy but more conceptual.  Mark making like stilllife.  Discipline without fear of failure or punishment.

It has been a good winter at El Zaguan. The comfort of neighbors though tucked out of sight, a hello in passing.  Max walks the dog. Adam at the laundry. Billy and Rudy on their way to the river with no water.  Bethany to and fro on a donut.  Greg gettng better sings acapella at Christmas.  And the others sweep and maintain and office and direct and enjoy.  Recycle.  The orchard is prepped and the garden coming soon.  A new bloom on the geranium in the window.  Thinking of pansies purple & yellow. A hike this afternoon. The papers on my desk grow and dwindle. Ideas breed and falter.  A laugh.  A tear.  Time. Life is good.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Life of an Artist


“well, the first time I lose I drink whiskey
second time I lose I drink gin
third time I lose I drink anything
'cause I think I'm gonna win
ooh, Las Vegas, ain't no place for a poor boy like me”
Gram Parsons

Summer, 1979, high school was over, hallelujah! I just needed to attend the summer class, half-day, a month or so, get that quarter credit, diploma here I come. I chose a class that instructed us on how to become a radio disc jockey. There were only a handful of students, mostly boys, mostly slackers. We were sincere about our desire to spin some vinyl, but during class when we were smoking joints in someone’s car, as the teacher yelled at us from the station door, it should have been apparent then that not one of us would become the next Wolfman Jack.

I had to take the bus to class; it was a long trip, filled with people whose faces couldn’t hide their disdain nor their confusion for my existence. It became clear that it really didn’t matter what I was wearing, people automatically would stare. You should have seen the gathering crowd at the mall. It was kind of like having a celebrity status, one that wherever I went, it was certain that I would be attracting a crowd of curious onlookers.

Summer school was over, I graduated, yes! That was one of the few lessons that was taught to me as a kid growing up, finish high school, stay out of jail, get a job with the county, I have done one out of three. Yes I did spend a few hours behind bars but that comes later.

What I really needed to understand was how to handle the ever-looming darkness, the overwhelming emotional upheaval that would come every few years, the break-downs. For example like that first and worst one till then, when we were living in California. I was just a boy when it became explicitly clear that I was surrounded by people torn apart by crazy events while living in a crazy world. 
 My bedroom in the trailer was tiny, next to my younger brother’s bedroom and the bathroom. I was at the end of the tin house, my bed, coiled springs covered with floral patterned fabric, it came with the mobile home.  My closet stuffed with papers, work from school, journals, old drawings, letters, pages and pages of the past scribbled on them.

Something was bound to happen, some wall to come up against, some emotional upheaval that would not be played out internally. It was summer, hot, no trees, cinder blocks separating us from the desert. I grumbled as I fumbled over that wall. What lay before me was the vast dry vista, and beyond that the rest of my life.

It was dark by then, the mass of stars began to shine again, the noise of cars speeding by on the nearby highway. I could start walking, just go, something like in the bible, no money, no tools of sustenance, just faith. Wander as I wonder, off into the dark of night, return a grey haired smarty, just like Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments.

Okay, stop! I need to interrupt this story. So now I am living in Santa Fe, after spending nearly thirty years in New York City. The transition hasn’t been an easy one, but I ended up doing that whole prodigal son thing, and yes I did return with a lot of grey hair. But a recent event has compelled me to jump forward in this story.

I moved here with no connections, except a cousin, one of my favorites. I spent a few weeks on her futon, no plan in place, some money from sales, was not extremely delighted being here and my cousin was becoming not so delighted with me as her houseguest. I thought that I would look online for an artist studio, rent it for a few months and then split. Hell I put up with my cousin living with me in NY for months, she could let me stay a while, I just needed a place to paint and get out of her hair.

So on craigslist there was a posting, a residency, looking for a tenant, hmm, I have been in eight residencies already, always find the environment startling and inspiring, oh what the hell, why not apply to El Zaguan. 
My application was a disaster, the images were corrupt, they couldn’t open them, lots of misspelling and a real lease application, a lease? Huh? I have no credit history, didn’t want to settle down anyway, imagined myself couch surfing for a year. I have a lovely group of generous friends throughout the world, and then I would end up in rural Switzerland and find a nice French speaking German husband.

There was a frantic exchange of emails with the foundation that runs this place, they agreed to print out some things for me, it was all very last minute, I was just happy that someone in Santa Fe would be looking at my work. The day afterward the jury decided. I was notified that my application did not get accepted. I was fine with that, replied with a very kind email expressing my gratitude for the effort taken on their part.

The next day they called saying that the chosen applicant declined and would I like to come up and see the place, eek! I was not going to return that call, but I did. I tried on my own to take a look at the place but it was always locked up. I asked around, is this a good deal? Everyone said yes, so I agreed to meet with the director and look at the available space.

Whoa, I have gotten way off track, again. So the other day, one of my dad’s best friends from back in the day comes by, I hadn’t seen her since the party after my dad’s funeral, thirty-three years ago.  She was one of the people who helped organize the marches, the protests, heck I participated in my first hunger strike when I was fourteen, she snuck me a Snickers.

But like I mentioned earlier, after my dad died, these people vanished, the group that was inspired to help the poor, the underserved, the invisible minorities. And they all vanished when I was most vulnerable?
Thirty-three years later my dad’s best friend shows up, I had friended her on facebook, was curious about my father, maybe she could shed some light.
I had recently come across a political poster that my dad had printed when he ran for city council; it came from Mom’s trunk, the things that she dragged around till she died.

I gave the artifact to my dad’s friend, she was closer to him than I was. She tells me excitedly that her daughter will love this memento, because my dad was like a father figure to her child. I have heard this from a couple of other people since my return, makes me wonder what my dad, as a father figure, looks like, in their eyes, after all these years?

When I did move into this fabulous historic adobe walled complex living situation, just over a year ago, I began dreaming of my dad, I could see his face clearly. I hadn’t ever had dreams of him before. This dream scenario was always about getting along, doing things together, finding a mutual path towards happiness, family and love. I don’t dream about him anymore.

Oh, the header quote. Yes, I did get shipped to Las Vegas in 1980, lived there for six months with my sister, met the boy that I would move to the Big Apple with in 1981. The escape would take a year of planning, I’ll write about that next time.