"St Thecla and the Deer" is slowly (I and emphasize "slow" here) coming along. I had electricians tearing apart the lower half of my house, including my home studio. My painting studio at Mainframe/Krab Jab Studio was an oven, due to the intense greenhouse August we're experiencing in Seattle. Plus, I was working long days preparing for what is now my last curatorial show.
As I've stated in an earlier blog post, I realized she's gotta go through veils of glazes to get where I want her, particularly with her skin tone. I actually went into the studio to work on that, along with adding her damask blue patterning on her dress. However, I really wanted to add blackberry brambles into the horizon line, and textured the grass, which I hadn't really touched in a while. I also felt that the deer needed more work, I hadn't done anything to it since I first painted it. I didn't get too far; after about three hours, the temperature in the studio soared up into the high 80s and a nice heat headache began to bloom. I started making rookie mistakes, and to boot, I've lost most of my good brushes ("misplaced" is probably more accurate) so I'm using spares, along with a makeshift mahl stick. All this is a recipe for potential disaster.
I probably have about 5 more glazes to apply to the painting ("glazes" are thin, transparent layers of paint that basically tint the surface of a painting). I want to do a little more definition work to Thecla herself, and soften up her hands. Her hair actually flows down her dress but I will add that after I add the damask blue pattern in. I have a few more weeks to work on her before she's finished and ready to varnish, frame, and ship out to France. I'm fairly confident I can get her to where I want, but boy did I learn my lesson on cutting corners in my process!
My dad took me to one of those gourmet cheese stores when I was four. I think he was looking for a cheese platter gift for his parents; I'm not really sure why we were there, actually. I loved places like that; they always smelled good, but most importantly, they often had racks and cases full of chocolate and candy.
While he was being assisted by the shopkeep, I ran free about the store. I had a bloodhound nose for the candy section and in less than three blinks I was standing in front of a large, long rustic shelf with bins full of all kinds of candy and chocolate things: malt balls, caramels, peppermints, toffy, chocolate wrapped in amusing animal shapes. Just the smell of it sent me into a sort of sugar high. I'm sure a dribble of spit probably dripped down my chin, eyes dilated, face flushed, the whole nine yards. I was probably temporarily insane.
I was like a crack whore - I had to have a hit, right there, right now. I shoved my little hand into the malt ball bin, which actually had a little scoop attached by a piece of twine, but fuck that. My hands were tiny and I was only able to fish out about three of them, and right before I shoved them into my maw, I could hear my dad from the other side of the store yell out, as if psychically tethered to my dopamine riddled mind, "Kid, behave yourself. I'm almost done, don't touch anything!" I froze. Shit. He knows.
I slowly, painfully put the malt balls back into the bin. Dammit, I thought (well, I probably thought something more like "gosh", but it felt like a dammit). I knew he wasn't going to let me get anything, and I can't leave this place without a heavenly taste of ambrosia that sat in front of me, taunting me. I scanned the shelves. To the right of me, parked conveniently waist-high, was a bin full of chocolate coins in gold mesh bags, the kind Jewish families dole out on Hanukkah. I side stepped myself on over, and stared at this golden heap of Yum for a moment.
I noticed that there were coins that had escaped their mesh bags and loosely settled about the bin. I grabbed one and examined it, flipped it over in my hand, inhaled its milk chocolate fragrance. I looked left, then right. The coast was clear. With little claw nails I tore into the foil and shoved that thing in my mouth, and oh my god, it was delicious. The foil hadn't even hit the floor by the time I grabbed another orphaned coin, and another, and another. The bromine sent me on a trip and for a moment I was gone, transported into another universe, Stanely Kubrick styled.
I felt a firm hand on my shoulder, then another hand grab my sticky little fist. I hadn't noticed my dad and the shopkeep coming down the aisle, didn't even hear him say, "Jules, what the hell are you doing?" I think he said it twice, I'm not sure, but suddenly I had two adults leaning into me, grabbing my little arms, peeling the remaining coins from my hand. Caught with the proverbial pants down, I knew I needed to think fast to get out of this jam.
"Jules, you're stealing, you can't eat chocolate unless you pay for it," my dad said. He turned to the woman who worked at the store, a pleasant enough looking girl with long blond hair. "I'm really sorry, she normally doesn't do this kind of thing."
The girl nodded sympathetically and looked at me and sweetly said, "Do you know what stealing is?"
Look, I'm four, but I'm not stupid. Of course I know you gotta pay for it. But I'm was four, I had no job, no money, and no self control. I also had a big imagination, and was fully aware that if I didn't pull myself out of this, I could go to jail. Or worse, they'd put my dad in jail, which would get me off the hook but I'm half Jewish and half Irish Catholic, and the genetic guilt alone would crush me, let alone being the family pariah, forced to sit at family dinners with my crazy cousin Gary, the other family pariah, at a little card table in the corner of the room, trapped within the billowing haze of his booze vapors and conspiracy theories forever more.
Four year olds under pressure can be unbelievably brilliant. They are fully aware that most adults think they're idiotic, even innocent. I was no exception; I had a shot at playing the innocent card, albeit once, so I had to make it good, I had to make it stick. So I batted my big dark eyes at the shopkeep, pouted my chocolate stained lips, and said, in my tiny squeaky voice: "I thought that they were free because they weren't in the bags, and no one is going to buy coins not in the bags, so it was okay, right?"
Cue the "aaaawwwww" from the studio audience, folks.
"No honey, they're not free, but you didn't know. Now you know," she laughed and patted my head. My dad laughed too and his vice grip softened.
She turned to my dad. "It's okay, sir, don't worry about it, no harm done. I'll get a napkin to wipe her face."
My dad thanked her, then leaned into me. "Do you understand now, that was stealing? You can't take what's not yours, even if it looks free. Did you learn something here today?"
I nodded. Oh yes, yes I did.
Thus began my childhood life of crime.
I swear to God this is a true story.
So in the 80s it was rather commonplace to send teenagers to psychiatric wards. Depressed, anxious kids were skirted off to places with inconsequential names like Willow Lodge or Fairfax, where they were dosed up with cocktails of antidepressants and valium and an abundance of talk therapy before being released to their nervous parents living on the dream that somehow their kid would be, you know, normal again. Or at least a little bit quieter.
I'll cut to the chase: I lost my virginity to a teenage ninja I met at a nuthouse.
At sixteen I was sent to Fairfax in Seattle. I was a depressed New Wave girl with swastikas cut into her arms, and that was a sure ticket to the psych ward in those days. Unfortunately Fairfax was the hottest place in town for wayward teens, and they did not have a bed available for me. The next best thing was the University of Washington's psychiatric wards. These were actually meant for adults but they would occasionally take the overflow of teens, so I wound up on their first floor, which was the least violent of the two wards. Less stabbings and random choke outs, so it was kid friendly.
I could write a whole novel about my stay at the UW, which was for three weeks, but I'll focus instead on how I hooked up, literally, with the other teen staying a few rooms down from me. Sean was 15 and got hit in the head, I can't remember how, and I guess his personality changed. He was fighting in school and having blackouts, but mostly, he truly believed he was a ninja. Other than that, he was a typical blond American teenage boy. Which means, of course, he was pumped full of hormones, and being cooped up in a psych ward with another teenage girl, well, heck, why not steal off for a makeout session between group therapies?
The orderlies kept an eagle eye on patients, so it was really hard for Sean and I to get any further than a 30 second feel up or a kiss or two. He wasn't really my type - beyond, you know, being a ninja - but he seemed like a nice kid and he was cute. I wasn't his type either, but he liked New Wave music and I seemed kind of like an exotic bird to him, complete with floppy bangs over the eye and side of my head shaved. But mostly I was female and not as crazy as the other females in the psych ward. So there you go.
He got out before I did, but we decided to keep in touch, which translated to us carving out actual private time together to get rid of that annoying pesky thing called virginity. I was going to be released to my aunt and uncle, who were acting as my foster kinship family. He lived out in Des Moines, somewhere "out there" south of Seattle, so organizing dates together was a little tricky. After I first got out, he bussed up into Seattle to meet me in the University District and we strolled around and not much action occurred. We decided it would be more advantageous that I come down to Des Moines, to his house. His parents generally did not know how to deal with a ninja son, so they left him to his own devices in his room, which translated to blissful privacy.
This is where things get weird.
We agree I come down on his birthday - he was turning 16. I get to his house, which is banal and suburban. I meet his family: Mom is nervous and overly helpful, Dad is older and quiet, his brother has an Asian wife that speaks no English, and his brother is a discharged Marine. His mom made dinner for Sean's birthday, so his whole family is there, and me. We all eat, I'm asked the normal polite questions people ask of new girlfriends, with the exception that no one talk about the psych ward.
Then Sean announces he and I are going up to his room, please don't come up anyone. We are going to lose "it" now. My jaw dropped, and I turned beet red, but no one says a word, they keep at the eating motions, never missing a beat. His mom leans over, picks up his plate and just calmly says, "okay dear, we're going to be in the living room watching TV. You two can join us later if you want."
Sean grabs my arm (I'm still holding a fork) and leads me away from the table. The family is still eating, like nothing is happening. He leads me up to his room and closes the door. The room has posters of ninjas literally wallpapering every inch of wall space. The ceiling is painted black. He has several numchucks hanging off one of the walls, and he excitedly takes one of them down and shows it to me. Then he starts doing some kind of numchuck routine, whipping it around, behind his back, over the shoulder, etc. He got over excited and tried some kind of new move, some kind of flip around the elbow. The edge of one of the chucks clocks me right over the eye and I fell over backwards on his bed. "Shit, you okay?" he asked. Then "Please don't tell my mom."
He puts the numchucks away and pulls out his throwing star collection, and explains the lethality of each one. Then he starts tossing them all over the room. Yeah, safer than the chucks, just fling those suckers everywhere. I instinctively cover my head and duck, wincing with every thwop of a star embedding into something.
He ran out of stars to throw, and plopped down beside me on his bed, thinks for a second, then ran over to his record player. "You'll love this," he said. He puts on Dead or Alive's "Youthquake", drops the needle on "You Spin Me Round", then flings himself on the bed. He then proceeds to strip all of his clothes off. Mind you, I'm still fully dressed and nursing my forehead. I'm also having second thoughts about this whole transaction.
Sixteen year old girls do not like being virgins. I hated the term and all the connotations that went with it. It was something to be shed, like a snakeskin. And in my head, I wasn't really looking for perfection on the scenario, I just didn't want to answer that constant, stupid question boys asked all the time. So sure, being in this room with this ninja boy, a headache, and Dead or Alive -- I HATED Dead or Alive -- on the turntable was not particularly ideal. I looked over at this naked, grinning idiot through the curtain of bangs, and I think I sighed heavily. Sean grabbed at the collar of my vintage dress, and the button popped off and rolled under the bed. Great, now my awesome new dress is fucked up too, I thought. He didn't seem to notice my irritation, he probably didn't care much. He gave me a kiss, that softened me a little bit, but I was really weighing out my options at that point. Things were not going well. "This is the best birthday," he whispered. Um...really?
Yeah, I caved.
It was terrible teenage sex. It probably lasted about 10 minutes but felt like an eternity in Dante's Hell. Fumbly, really poor timing of movement, plus there was that hymen breakage that I'm telling you was like twenty hangnails tearing off all at once. Riffing off the squeaks of muffled agony, Sean finally wrapped it up in what was probably his own little boy-to-man opus, dug around his junk for a moment to procure his little deflated condom, and presented it to me. Good God, yuck, I said. He studied it for a second, like a scientist peers at a beaker he's holding up to his nose with pinky finger out, and he smiles at the latex sack of swimmers like one watches an aquarium of guppies. Grabbing his pants off the floor, he motioned for me to sit still. Before I could say anything, he opened his bedroom door, condom still in hand, and at the top of the stairs that faced the living room, announced loudly "I just had sex, Mom and Dad! Look!".
"Good for you, son," I heard his dad yell back.
"Do you two want any cake?" I heard his mom say.
"No," answered Sean, "Because now its Ninja Time"
He came back into the bedroom, shut the door and went to his closet and closed himself in. After a moment, he emerged all in black, in an impressively detailed ninja costume, including the black socks and sandals, head covering and bandana over his mouth. In his right hand, he held a very sharp and real looking katana. In his left hand, the floppy condom.
The record player restarted itself, and as "Spin Me Round" flayed the air around me, Sean leaped onto his dresser and began stabbing the air in earnest. From there, he dropped down to the ground, rolled, and hopped back up in front of me, whoosh whoosh went the katana blade, narrowly missing my nose. He leaped onto the bed, whoosh whoosh. I wondered how many imaginary adversaries were dying in that room, but more importantly, when was he going to disposed of that disgusting goddamn condom.
At that moment, I heard a distinct rapping coming from his bedroom window. I looked over, and in my horror, I saw three teenage boys, tapping at the glass, apparently hanging off a branch of the large tree growing beside the house. All three are dressed exactly like Sean.
"Sweet, its my crew!" says Sean, and pulls the window open and the three boys crawl in. Now I have four pimply, teenage fucking ninjas standing in front of me.
"She's pretty," says one.
"She's not naked," says another.
"Did you guys do it yet?" says the third.
"You guys are late, dudes," says Sean, giving them all hi-fives (he finally set the condom down).
"Are you fucking kidding me?" I yelled. And yes, I was fully clothed, minus one missing button. By this point I was off the bed, and I'm sure my face was a nice shiny shade of fury. All four of them were giggling like morons. In the background, Pete Burns is belting out "I need your loooooovvvvve". ...
Then suddenly, like four startled cats, they all start to ninja in some kind of weird ballet of whooshes and hops. It was like I wasn't even there anymore. I looked about the room in disbelief, not so much horrified as I was mystified, like I had visited some lost tribe on the Amazon and a strange never-seen-by-white-man ritual struck up on a foreign timeline.
Without a word, I turned and walked out of the room, down the stairs and into the living room, where Sean's parents sat watching TV, laugh track booming. His mom looked up at me and smiled.
"Are you having a good time?" she asked me.
"I want to call my aunt. I want to go home." I think that was the last thing I said that evening. I sat in the kitchen, silently, alone, until my aunt arrived to pick me up. Not a word did I say when my aunt rang the doorbell, just a silent, swift exit. I could hear through the ceiling the continued thumps and bumps of four teenage ninjas triumphantly executing their dance of fecundity, no doubt with a dirty old dick balloon in the left hand. I never saw Sean again.
For years, I told no one this story. I finally relayed it during an interview for a documentary film called Lost. The filmmaker laughed so hard during filming, she had an asthma attack and accidentally knocked over the camera. That's gold, she said. Pure gold.
As I'm working on this painting called "Saint Thecla and the Deer", I've bumped up to a chronic problem with the figure, namely, how to handle her skin tone. She's in shadow, and the reality of shadow is that its not black. There's a myriad of tone and color in a shadow, including reflective light, and I'm kind of flying blind a bit with this painting because the photo was shot indoors with a lot of ambient lighting. I finally had to convert the reference photo to grayscale to keep myself from getting confused with what I'm trying to do vs what I'm seeing in the photo. I'm using a Waterhouse painting for the palette reference at the moment.
The reality of the situation is that the painting needs to build up in glazes, which are transparent layers of paint, mostly medium based vs paint based, so the particles of pigment are suspended in the medium. This allows light to pass through and bounce back, giving paintings a luminosity, as well as allow the eye to "mix" the colors. Its also incredibly time consuming.
I naturally like to glaze, and often my paintings will have 8 or more layers of glazes on them. Its a slow process and I'm a slow painter, so when I am hitting a deadline, I start to panic a little, which was the case with this painting. I tried to cut corners and paint the figure opaquely, but I'm kind of a shitty impasto painter and it was coming out very garish. I had to wipe down hours of work more than once on this. A few days ago I had to resolve to just suck it up and build up the glaze layers, so I've applied a few of them, a glaze a day, to the figure of Thecla. I've been slowly warming up the shadows. I jumped the gun with the blush on her face but I'm glazing over that with some yellows and pinks later this week. I actually went over the whole figure with a greenish gray, just to bring the values back down so I can rebuild, so she's still a little grayish.
The only thing that's close to finished is the birch trees behind her. That has been glazed a few times and I'm happy with them. Don't they look happy, like they're saying "hooray!"? I didn't intend that, but it works. I'll be adding some brambles on the horizon, deepening the grass (and add some flowers) and of course keep working on Thecla and her deer. I've got about a month to work all this out -- her dress is complete fabrication, I'm adding a blue damask floral design to it based on a Fortuny dress, but ultimately its fantasy, all made up. Made-up folded, patterned fabric is no easy task, lemme tell ya.
Anyway, I have several glazes to go on this but I think its the only way I can safely traverse these waters to get where I want to go. I've tried the "other ways" and floundered. One of these days I'll improved with a more opaque, impasto approach, but I'm terribly out of practice, seeing as I've only put out three paintings in the last year that are full blown oils.
But its coming along!