I’m writing this on a flight from California to Chicago, returning from wrapping up the last of my grandmother’s estate, a process which began seventeen years ago. Gran always was a nonconformist.
My grandmother had a fascinating life, but the portion of her existence which she imparted most strongly to me was her art. She was a painter and a lover of all the fine arts, and she gave me culture, from sketching with her in her dining room to playing trains on the floor of her painting studio (which doubled as the garage). She died when I was seventeen, but her paintings and many other belongings of hers have only just surfaced, so we had to collect them up and figure out what to do. Over the course of last weekend I documented, wrapped, packaged, and helped arrange safe transport for a hundred and two of her paintings, everything from eight-inch-square seascapes to three-foot-tall frontier towns.
She painted two for a local bank and then changed her mind and kept them; she painted three abstracts and then duct-taped them together, and when we found them I was the only one of the family members present who could point out the angels she’d subtly painted into them, much to my mother’s delight. Gran painted faceless women in white and boats that somehow look married to each other. She was stubborn and independent, and while she did sell pieces and paint pieces as gifts, her art was mainly for herself. Sometimes I think she painted a crap painting just because she didn’t want to mess around with perfection.
When I visited her, I didn’t really appreciate that she wasn’t teaching me sketching and painting as much as she was not to take any bullshit from anyone when it came to art — hers, mine, or others’. Her art isn’t always the most original or the most talented, but it is invariably honest. I know this, because I’ve seen paintings from the time when she was unhappy and suffering depression — when she was trying to be someone she wasn’t, for the sake of others — and they’re no good. They have no light, no subtlety, no depth. When she stopped taking shit from the rest of the world, she got a lot better.
It is incredibly hard to be honest to one’s art, especially when one is just starting to work. People want you to be something, and they want your art to be something, and very rarely will they agree with each other or with you about what that something is. It is necessary to take criticism and to accept it when it’s truthful, but before one can judge the quality of criticism, one has to know one’s work. Confidence in the honesty of the work, whether it’s any good or not, is vital. I don’t think I ever realized until this past weekend that she fed this to me along with cheese sandwiches and cups of apple juice.
It’s been a struggle, the past year and a half, to try and write — exhaustion, new jobs, illness, and perhaps some plain old burnout have made it difficult to hold coherent thought for the length of time it takes to write a novella, let alone a novel. I’m not sure if I’ve been honest to the work; I’m not sure if I haven’t been trying too hard to fuck around with perfection. And it’s not like spending two days lifting, wrapping, photographing, packing, and securing canvases has caused some kind of spiritual epiphany; mostly it made me tired. But it did give me perspective.
I sometimes wonder what Gran would think of me. I think mainly we’d be butting heads about the fact that I haven’t given her any great-grandchildren yet. I think she would be proud of some of my novels, at least, if she knew about them. And the rest she would at least be proud I’d completed, even if she might think they were a little ‘blue’.
Either way, I owe her a lot, for teaching me about honesty — and for the half a dozen paintings by her that were my commission for the work this weekend.