Artist Date 106: Altered But Recognizable

From the 2015 Chicago Macy's Flower Show "Art in Bloom."
An ode to Henri Matisse. From the 2015 Chicago Macy’s Flower Show “Art in Bloom.”

My friend Matt recently asked if I was still “doing the Artist Date thing.”

I am somewhat taken aback. It reminds me of being asked if I am still dating Insert-Man-Here — an inquiry often made when I have ceased to talk about a man du jour. It is the cousin question to, “Have you heard from Insert-Man-Here?”

The answer to both is usually, no. If I were, if I had, I would have mentioned it.

But Matt isn’t asking about a man. He is asking about my commitment to myself and to my craft. I wonder if I have ceased to talk about it, to be engaged with it, or if he has just not read about it lately.

The whole exchange scratches at the part of me that knows I haven’t been as committed to the practice as it is prescribed by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way” as I once was. The part that bristles at my skipping weeks, writing about them much later and occasionally allowing others to join on my intended solo sojourns — my imperfection.

I do not mention any of this. Instead, I sy, “Yes,” and add that I have just completed two years of Artist Dates.

A week later, I have not been on another.

I tell myself I’ve been busy with the seemingly incongruent actions of preparing to leave the country for a year and trying to secure additional work while I am here. Drafting resumes, taking software tests and going on interviews; ordering background checks and searching for best prices on airline tickets.

On the eighth day following Matt’s original inquiry, the universe sends a second messenger — this one, a bit more direct. Dorothy attends one of the Thursday Weight Watchers meetings I lead. She is in her 70s and is the kind of woman I hope to become — active, engaged in the world, growing, learning, giving back.

She asks if I have been to the Annual Flower Show at Macy’s.

I have not.

Dorothy sees this as an invitation to make an invitation. She tells me about the show, its theme — Art in Bloom — and how she, a master gardener, and others have breathed life into it.

When she is done, I commit to it, to her, to myself and to my process. I arrive on the 9th floor of the Macy’s flagship store on State Street a few hours later, Artist Date 106.

I smell the exhibit before I can see it. It is moist, warm, green — like the Lincoln Park conservatory where I have spent many Chicago winter days warming myself. I do not expect it.

Flowers are planted into shapes like Matisse cut-outs. Whimsical. Vibrant. I think of the cracked frame holding a Matisse print in the living room of my Mission-neighborhood apartment. Of my then boyfriend sitting on a Pilates ball, losing balance, and rolling into the wall —  knocking the print off of it.

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Ode to Piet Mondrian. From the 2015 Chicago Macy’s Flower Show, “Art in Bloom.”

Grid flower boxes in primary colors with thick black lines are an ode to Piet Mondrian. I recall the Mondrian show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York many, many years ago — entering the fashioned artist’s studio and swing dancing inside of it with my friend Jason.

I remember my friend Teresa’s mother taking me to the Macy’s Flower Show in San Francisco — on our way to her daughter’s theater performance. She went every year. It was her tradition. Returning to it in Chicago nearly 20 years later, the show becomes a chapter in mine.

I peer through a doorway on my way out — classic paintings are being projected onto a wall of white flowers. Michelangelo’s Mona Lisa. Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Raphael’s Sistine Madonnas.

I wonder what my own life might look like projected onto a wall of white flowers.

Fragrant. Lush. Harsh edges softened. Altered but recognizable, I think.

A lot like it already is.

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Raphael’s Sistine Madonnas. From the 2015 Chicago Macy’s Flower Show, “Art in Bloom.”

Artist Date 57: California, Coming Home

My friend Sherrod was the first artist I knew personally who made money at her craft.  Which meant she covered her expenses and then some.

I remember seeing her painting on Liberty Street, where I lived in San Francisco.  Victorian houses in oil.  She was prolific.  One night, as the sun began to go down, I invited her in for dinner.  It was the first time she met my then-boyfriend/now ex-husband.  Being somewhat filter-less, she named him “Pretty Boy” on the spot.

That year Pretty Boy bought me a copy of one of Sherrod’s pieces for my birthday.

It was a view of Dolores Park, from above it, and downtown San Francisco in the distance.  Done in watercolors.  Light.  Almost cartoonish.  Nothing like her other work which was darker and moody.

Pretty Boy put it in a white-wood frame he found in the alley and hung it over our bed.  It followed us from San Francisco to Oakland, Chicago and Seattle – where I left it – a little piece of our first shared home.

I get emails from Sherrod now and again, telling me about her shows in the Bay Area.  But I hadn’t really thought about her work much until now, standing at the Art Institute of Chicago.  I am at the “Dreams & Echoes: Drawings and Sculpture in the David and Celia Hilliard Collection” exhibit – Artist Date 57.

My friend Jack suggested it.

I like the sketches in the process of becoming – Degas’ “Grand Arabesque,” Matisse’s “Still Life with Apples.”  The ripe, sexy suggestiveness of Rodin’s “Leda and the Swan,” Povis de Chavannes’ “Sleeping Woman.”  The eerie, ethereal quartet in Toorop’s “A Mysterious Hand Leads to Another Path.”  But I don’t quite see how it all hangs together.

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Francis Towne’s “Naples”

Francis Towne’s “Naples: A Group of Buildings Seen from an Adjacent Hillside.”  An accurate, albeit not terribly inspired, title.  It is from 1781, done in pen and black ink, with a brush, and black and gray wash over traces of graphite.  Italy.  But all I see is Dolores Park.

I am wistful and happy at the same time – remembering this place I used to call home, where the sun wasn’t a stranger in January and, rumor had it, Tracy Chapman lived on my street.  This place where I met and married Pretty Boy.

It is the second time I’ve rubbed up against California today.

“Nevada Falls, Yosemite Valley, California,” painted in 1920 by Marguerite Thompson Zorach.  The dreamy, translucent watercolors whisper to me of Sherrod’s Dolores Park.

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Marguerite Thompson Zorach’s “Nevada Falls”

I know the view.  I’ve seen it many time,s driving down from Badger Pass to the Yosemite Valley floor, coming through the tunnel carved into granite.  Surprising and spectacular.  I’ve hiked a part of it, along with Vernal Falls and the John Muir Trail, forming a loop.  I was with Pretty Boy and our friend Tim –my first foray into camping.

We stayed in Curry Village in a canvas tent cabin with a wood platform and a single light bulb.  Tim threw baby carrots to the squirrels, although the signs all around instructed him not to.  Hilarious – until one scurried into our tent.

We bought water and painted wood disks strung on elastic at the adjacent store.  “Camp beads,” I exclaimed, handing a strand to Pretty Boy.  Not unlike the ones he had given me off his own neck on our first date.

I got boot bang on the trail descending and had to rip off my toenail.  And once back at Curry Village, I jumped into the Merced River, and then sat on a rock, drying and shivering in the sun.

After that trip I graduated to a real tent, the lightweight kind I could use to backpack in for a few days.

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Marc Chagall’s “Das Haus”

“Das Haus.”  The Marc Chagall woodcut jumps from the wall.  All four woodcuts, displayed in a row, do.  But it is Chagall who paints my heart.  Lead glasses my heart.  Woodcuts my heart.

A house erupting from a man’s shoulders.  According to the placard, it was produced following Chagall’s exile from Belarus.  “…the work can be seen as an image of the artist metaphorically carrying his home with him.”  Like the movie, Up.  Like the painting in my living room, “You Can Take It With You,” that I bought from my friend Scotty before leaving Chicago in 2011.

I return to the placard at the exhibit’s entryway.  It ends, “Even with its diversity of artists and time periods, the Hilliard collection possesses a remarkable consistency in sensibility: these works are unified by their ability to transport the viewer to other eras, other worlds.”

Chagall’s house.  My stories.  Towne’s Naples.  My California.