As things go in my artist life, when I’ve plunged far enough into ennui to be stagnantly frozen–something itches its way to just under the surface of my awareness. It finally erupts into an overpowering urge to create–something, anything. Earlier this year I had shifted my classroom windows to a garden filled with butterflies and other winged beings. All cut paper. It’s a wonderful, lighthearted process. Splash paint inks onto both sides of bristol, then use the shapes the merging inks make to form floral and insect shapes. In truth it’s kid art with a little sophistication. Or a little more mess.
When the latest push to work emerged, the papers were closest at hand. As I began building several books, I recalled I’d months ago promised an artist gift to several friends. This reminder energized my splashing, folding and forming. Butterflies began to rise from a flag-book form–their cousins attached themselves to an accordion fold. That love of working returned, and as I laid the finished books under weights for pressing–I felt that lovely internal smile. Good work, well-done–soon to be sent to someone who would love it. Of course there was that little internal voice niggling that I shouldn’t ever stop working if it felt so good, and that these gifts were long overdue–good friends deserve better.
I left the pieces drying that weekend as I made the family trip with my husband to NYC to bring my youngest home from her first semester at Pratt. My oldest joined us and all was to be a celebration weekend with Mother’s Day being that Sunday. Watching my youngest saying good-bye to a friend, it occurred me how much the friend resembled the friend of mine I had just made a book for. The synchronicity stuck me–art school friends. At the end of our first semester together my friend brought me her oil paints. She was going off cross-country and wouldn’t need them for a time, and “besides,” she said after watching me struggle with acrylics, “you’re trying to work with skim milk when what your paintings need is cream.”
My thoughts wandered through memories of how much this friend meant to me, and my artist life, regret for not being closer as the decades have passed, and happiness that the gift I would send her would be ready to mail when I got home. And then I felt the twinge. I knew she had not been well for a long time, and had recently been hospitalized again. Something told me not to call, and instead reached for that great impersonal communicator–Facebook. The twinge was precision accurate. My friend had died a calendar week before.
Through my tears I ached for my own loss–of my friend, of the opportunity to talk to her again, of our youth, of our possibilities. I wept for all the moments I’ve put something essential aside for the habitual action, the norm, the expectation of daily life. Finally, at the core of that pain I felt a cracking of light. More than forty years ago my friend and I talked about our art, being our art, remembering to love and live our art. That no matter where we went, what we did–we would be artists first. “And,” she would say, “that’s why I know we will be friends forever.”
I will send that book today to my friend’s daughter, and keep working. I’ve been given countless beautiful gifts through the years, but perhaps this last gift from my friend is the most powerful. The reminder to not wait, not hesitate. Her voice in my head, as strong as it was decades ago when I’d be waffling about something, “Hey, you know we’re going to die, we may as well be happy first.”