25 years ago I wrote an article for Radix Magazine, a journal on Christianity and culture. The article is an interesting look into my process so long ago when my children were small and I was wrestling with family of origin issues through my painting. It is also a very transparent look at my spirituality at the time. Many aspects of my process and my art as therapy have changed and evolved since then, but this is an interesting record of my early days as an artist. My apologies for the photos--they're scans of old slides.
My Canvas Family
As I paint in my studio behind my house, I can hear my children, ages two and four, inside with their father or their Russian babysitter. When they were tiny, I craved a chance to paint undisturbed, but in the studio all I could paint was them, their tiny hands, their snuggly bodies. Now my work had returned to more metaphorical and narrative themes.
Often ghosts from my own childhood appear on the canvases, uninvited. Often my mother’s face appears, twisted by mental illness. Often my paintings are prayers coming from a deeper place in my heart than the words can reside. I can put on a pretty good façade in my daily life, but I can’t hide when I paint. Sometimes in these corners of honesty, God can confront and heal me as well.
The paintings that follow represent some of the surprises and transformations that sometimes occur in my work.
I wanted to paint a reunion with dear friends I missed. I remembered how, when I lived in the Sierras, the blue mist would rise from the valley beyond my back door, and I put a new canvas on the easel. I painted my friend, Nancy, on her porch, leaning toward me with her arms outstretched, her little girl clinging to her knees. I began painting myself running to her excitedly, but it was too effusive. Instead, I drop my suitcase and look up hesitantly with my hands open but my arms at my sides.
Some people see the figure looking down from the porch as a crucifixion. A few days after finishing the painting I recognize my mother’s face on the woman leaning on the porch about to totter off the step stairs and my own face in that determined child, gripping her knees and keeping her balance. I’m also the visitor, dreading her embrace but longing for it at the same time.
It’s a painting of yearning, longing, and reluctance. It’s a painting of Christ. It’s a painting of my mother. Aren’t they all intertwined as I cloak God in all the twisted definitions of who a loving parent is?Inside/Outside
Usually before I paint, I spend a half hour in my studio writing in a prayer journal. My aim is to get to the heart of where I am in my journey with God and to be as honest as possible about my need for him. Those prayers and scriptures that follow often have a strong influence on my paintings.
In an attempt to share with God exactly where I was, I determined to create a painting firmly rooted in the present. There I am, pushing a stroller, silhouetted in blue against the window of a popular restaurant in my neighborhood. Some observers have commented on the whimsy and playfulness in the piece, but one family shuddered and confided to me that they thought it was of a child going to get her father out of a bar—an event that had happened repeatedly in their family.
It took me two months to recognize the faces of every member of my family of origin, both alive and dead, in that restaurant, and myself in three stages of life, passing outside. For 11 years I’ve tried to separate myself from the dance of my family—the entrenched life-scripts we interrelate with—and have felt relief in the distance, but loneliness as well.
I’ve created six paintings over the years of people gathered around a table. Most have started as sketches drawn on napkins when I’m surrounded by friends. In an attempt to prolong the experience of their companionship, I recreate the dinner parties in paint. I can cover canvases with friends, but invariably and involuntarily their faces swirl into the ugly family confrontations of my childhood. Any time I open a woman’s mouth, the others listen in surly, resentful silence.
Make the woman talk. Make the others listen. A woman can speak without being crazy. But the first woman I ever heard was my mother, spewing out rage and anguish. I scratch and claw my way through a painting of people in a restaurant. There I am, speaking calmly, telling a story. Some figures are detached and distracted, but one person leans forward to hear what I have to say. Can God be interested as well?
For months, even years, my mailbox flamed and smoked with furious letters from my mother, writhing in her mental illness. I felt creatively blocked by my own hyper-criticalness. I am on the verge of giving up painting. I’m always on the verge of giving up painting. Why pay a sitter to care for my children so I can go to a small room and be terrorized by a white canvas? I go for a walk, put laundry in the dyer, go into the house for a cup of tea. My children’s sitter, Mira, growls at me in her Muscovite accent, “Why am I here? Go out and paint!”
I begin a new canvas of a woman waving a cloth near burning books and letters. I think I am painting a self-portrait of me faming the flames of anything that represents my mother, the voracious reader. But the woman’s position is wrong. She’s too close. Is she trying to smother the fire she’s started? And what am I to do with my own rage?
Three months ago, my mother had a medical crisis that catapulted me back into close contact with the family I’d tried to distance myself from for most of my adult life. Suddenly we were sitting together in emergency rooms, detox wards, and retirement homes.
My older brother arrives at 7:00 a.m., and we drive together to my mother’s green house in another part of the state. All the way, he talks about how multiple small strokes and medication have softened her, making her gentle and dependent. We spend the day at the house, cleaning and sifting through rooms of books and snapshots and angry letters. So much violence in that house. I was always so afraid. The ghosts are still there, and they cling to my clothes as we leave.
They’re still lingering when I go to the studio the next morning. How can I paint? Five unfinished canvases are waiting for me. Miserable failures all. The ghosts remind me, “You’re Carol Peterson, really, and Carol Peterson is not a painter.”
I put away four of the five canvases, saving a 5’x4’ surface. It’s faded green, the color of my mother’s house. Five birds fly around the ceiling. My mother swats at them with a towel, my brother grabs at her arm, my sister cries, and I watch from a crouched position in the corner. Thirty years later, our roles are still clearly established in painful detail.
I cover them with dull green paint. Instead, a lone girl reaches up her arms as if to imitate the trapped birds’ flight. The room is still green. It’s still my mother’s house. I’d live to leave it, but for now it’s where my heart is. I’ll just have to paint through the green. There’s a mystery about this painting, perhaps a feeling of hope within my mother’s compressed walls.
I painted another hide and seek game. But as I painted it, it became a game gone wrong. Some of those children are really scared. Is it a game at all? What are they hiding from? What thundering knock, what thundering voices are fueling their panic?
This painting was too dark for me. Then, as a seeming afterthought, I give the woman wings as she peers into the dark. OK. God is there, even when I’m terrified. I add a child crouching under the bed, ready to watch what will follow from a safe place. And I, too, am crouching in the safe place of my painting, sensing God’s protection as he illuminates for me those feelings I try to keep under cover, feelings of longing and reluctance and rage and loneliness and hope.