Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What Gets in the Way

This week I have just finished three new paintings - a new Tumacacori mission painting that shows the mission from a distance through the shade of the trees, as well as two smaller works - one of the Tucson Barrio and another of the Sutherland Trail in springtime. Spring here in southern Arizona has been a wonderful inspiration to paint things as bright as paloverde blooms and brittlebrush flowers that are all around us.

The other day I found myself thinking about the kinds of things that get in the way of an artist doing their work. Oh sure, we have all been privy to those occasional feelings of "if I could have only..." and for the most part I think that's a useless emotion. I always loved a beautiful line from the Live song "Run to the Water" that goes "today we lived a thousand years, all we have is NOW." But at the same time I realize that obstacles do exist, and though I have tried not to make too big a deal out of it, the biggest thing that gets in the way of what I want to do in my life is, and has been, my health.

Some of you know - some may not, that I have had back pain for many years. This little adventure came to a head in the middle of 2009 when a schwanomma tumor was found in my spine, right in the middle of my back. It was actually growing inside the sheath of my spinal cord, and gradually had pressed my spinal chord down to a very fine filament which was all the remained to transmit nerve signals to my lower body. 4 days after it's discovery I was rushed into surgery, and was delighted that the surgery was a success. Recovery was slow and painful, but I gradually got back all the feeling that I'd lost in my legs, and the terrible ordeals of nausea, weakness, shaking, etc in my lower body was gone. But back pain persisted and still does to this day - partially because we know that my last MRI revealed inflammation still in my spinal cord. However I am able to do about 80% of all I could do before, and as it regards life in general - things have gotten much better. Still, on many days I paint, activities as menial as squeezing paint out of the tubes and putting it onto the palette can start the pain. A dull, stinging pain that weakens the muscles in the center of my back and makes it hard to breathe. So many paintings of mine - how many I couldn't know, have been produced while in regular, and sometimes very extreme pain. I've never wanted the works to reflect pain, mind you. I've always preferred that they represent a rejection of a pain-filled mentality. A striving for something beautiful despite the discomfort experienced while making it. I told my wife a few months ago that few people will likely ever appreciate how much physical discomfort has gone into the making of my paintings - yet this is so mostly because I try to de-emphasize it. Some know about it, some don't. Yes, I am a chronic pain sufferer. And I am also very aware that many people have to endure physical ordeals worse than mine, and that has to make you keep perspective.

But, the story doesn't end there. (I wish it did, ha!) In 2007 I had a golf ball sized cyst removed from my jaw. It had corroded a good deal of my jawbone and required surgery to take out. Add 2 more dental surgeries. Countless abscesses in my crowded teeth - more than I can count. Swollen jaws because of it. Add bad eyes - so bad that I can't see beyond the tip of my nose without strong contact lenses. (Just like a painter to be so blind, right) Add a deviated septum in my nose that makes it hard to breathe, and hard to sleep. Add periodic sleep troubles and the resulting exhaustion. Add lactose intolerance. Add tinnitus, ie, chronic ringing in my ears - also a disturber of sleep. And that's just what I can think of...not that the details of each of these things are important, per se. The overall result is that getting me ready and healthy to paint requires all the coordination of a space shuttle launch - and frequently I have painted when I felt horrible, lower than dirt.

At the same time - painting in spite of all these things has been something that helped me through the worst of moments. A mere 2 weeks after my back surgery in 2009 I was back to work on "Giants of the Desert III", stiff, barely able to move - and thinking to myself so this is what it feels like to be cut inside.

I could not go without saying that in addition to painting pulling me through all this discomfort - my lovely wife and son have had the same affect. The fact that I take care of our son during the week has forced me, on many days, to forget my own aches and troubles, and concentrate on taking the best care of him that I could. He was so much good therapy, because a kid just wants to be a kid - to have fun and go to the park and do kid things. My desire not to have him miss these things made me pick myself up, time and time again.

But that's life, isn't it? We could wish to be beautiful, or taller, or to have spines without tumors in them - but wishing alone would never do. The key thing is simple, plain old wisdom. That we do the best with what we have, and that's the most we can ask for. In my case, trusting the best of my paintings are preserved and appreciated by the countless collectors who have bought them - then the pain that marked their creation won't have defined them, and it won't have defined me.