As I’ve been making work related to the upcoming show themed “Surroundings” I have not been able to ignore the increasing evidence of homelessness in the urban landscape of Portland and it’s started to show up in the paintings. If I divorce myself from the social and personal tragedy of it and look at it from a visual perspective, it is an undeniable ‘texture’ to our city’s landscape. I watch as camps come and go and come again. They spread out as other campers join and the detritus they generate grows as time passes with no sanitation services. It’s troubling and it’s an undeniable part of our current landscape.
In July, it was five years since my wife, Leslie, died from breast cancer. I wrote quite a lot about it here, at the time. I stopped writing about it after a year but, of course, the process of grief continues. It seems strange to think of all that’s happened without her presence since that time. I’ve learned a lot about myself through this process. I can’t always tell if I’m processing or indulging but I’m sometimes moved to paint something that arises out of the experience of loss and attachment.
My life is good. I’ve met a wonderful woman to share it with. I think of what I’ve lost and try to balance it with what I’ve gained.
I have been baking all my own bread for a few months now but have recently become obsessed with sourdough. It took me a while to get a viable starter going but since that happened I’ve been baking two or three times a week. After a personal loss, I’ve been using the bread making as a kind of mindfulness practice. My life is quite simple and monastic now. I’ve quit FaceBook and have been enjoying the solitude of my studio and kitchen. I’m spending most of my time reading, baking and painting.
Each batch of sourdough takes a couple of days as the dough sits overnight to ferment. It’s pretty amazing when you think that all that’s in this bread is flour, water and a little salt. The leaven is from naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria that are on the flour and in the air.
I mix the flour with water and it becomes a living, moving thing. I love shaping the dough into loaves and watching it slowly fill with air.
And the result is beautiful and tasty. Below is a video clip of the loaves just out of the oven. Turn up the volume and listen to them crackle!!
This piece and several other of my recent paintings are now available at Prographica / KDR Gallery in Seattle. If you don’t see any of my work displayed, feel free to ask about it.
I don’t think I did one of these last year but here’s the latest update on my progression into old age.
This painting was inspired by one of the people I leaned on most heavily over the last year and a half. I didn’t start out to make a painting of an angel but it just looks like that to me.
I’m playing with the idea of painting some figures in interiors
I’ve written a series of posts here about my wife, Leslie’s, death and how I’ve coped with her loss. I feel like I should conclude this somehow but am not sure how. July 3 marked the one year anniversary of her death. I marked it with family and friends over a few days then went off to Italy for a month. As I look back, it appears that I made a kind of project out of it in that, for the year following Les’ death, I did my best to experience that loss and everything that came along with it as deeply and in as many ways as I could. I did several types of therapy, personal growth seminars, healing ceremonies … whatever I could think of. I said yes to most things that came my way and tried to stay open to whatever came at me. I fell in and out of love and learned that relationships don’t have to have the boundaries I usually contain them with.
The second part of the project was to start having new experiences as a person who is in the world alone. Alone in that, although I have friends and family, my life is no longer shared. The month in Italy was the first step in that.
The year of grieving, as I wrote in earlier posts, was tumultuous and both painful and expansive. I grew and unconcealed parts of me that were buried inside for a long time. I think, in many ways, I realized that I’m the person Les always saw in me and have become better able to see that in myself.
Learning to be myself for myself is something I still grapple with and have been keeping in mind the question, can I be enough for myself? Can I find everything I need to be happy inside me? I get disappointed in my self when I feel a longing for something outside. I can usually let go of it and return to the present but longing for something, something I can’t quite describe, revisits me often. The solitude I hated earlier, I’ve learned to love at the same time that I crave connection with others.
I didn’t used to think I was much of a people person but I know that’s not true now. The reason I’m still alive is the people I love. My fondest memories of this past year and my time in Italy are of the beautiful and interesting people who’ve entered or passed through my life.
I’ve just returned from a month of painting as part of the Jerusalem Studio School Summer Program in Civita Castellana, Italy. It was very stimulating to spend so much time with people dedicated to painting, including modern masters, Israel Hershberg, Vincent Desiderio and Yael Scalia. They were very generous with their time and knowledge. Living and working among so many artists is a wonderful experience. I miss the daily immersion in painting and the camaraderie.
The month was packed with opportunities for artistic experiences. Every Thursday was a bus trip to another city with maps and lists of art treasures to visit. Sunday nights the guest artists showed slides and talked about their work. Two critiques a week led by Vince, Israel or Yael and on regular painting days, the instructors would wander the town and visit painters at work. Communal meals were served in the hotel or various other restaurants in the town and you could usually find some of our community at the Club Cafe either having a cappuccino or drinks late into the night.
Although I went there with the intention of painting in oil, I started out wandering the town with my sketchbook and watercolors and really loved soaking in the experience that way so continued to work largely in watercolor. I did rent a studio for the last two weeks and did some oil painting there and plein air but the watercolors were the bulk of the work I produced.
Although I spent a lot of time painting, the largest impact on me, I think, will be from the time spent in conversation with the other painters and instructors. I came home with a lot to think about.
Life is very slow here. It’s hot and humid and all the shops close down from 1PM tip 5PM and most things are closed on Sunday and some are closed again on Thursday. The internet is slow and not always available but I was able to upload these two sketches. Ciao.
I’m now nine months into grieving the loss of my wife and in some ways, it’s gotten lighter. I’m generally hard on myself but I will give myself credit for working hard to try and grow from this experience. As I’ve said before, Leslie died without a second of self pity and that made it impossible for me to slip into that mud, even though it seemed likely, given my inclinations.
I’ve also written before about the courage Leslie showed in facing her death. She accepted it and walked toward it willingly and proudly, knowing she’d lived a wonderful life. She even joked on the way to death’s door. Although the experience was profound, it wasn’t heavy. We shared a lot of laughter during her last days. She showed no fear and, although we cried at our becoming separated, she approached it with dignity and grace. There was nothing sad about her death. It was magnificent and miraculous. It is her absence that causes me pain.
I’m often confused about my feelings and suffer very strong emotional waves. Sometimes it feels like I really can’t endure another wave but they keep coming. I never know when or where they’ll hit. I’ve learned to strap on my seat belt and observe my thoughts as they surge through me. Sometimes the longing to feel loved and connected to someone overwhelms me and I reach out to some unsuspecting friend with a heartfelt outpouring of gratitude and love. I worry that I sometimes overwhelm people with my urgent need for connection. Then, of course, I suffer over that.
In recent weeks, Ive felt myself start to turn away from my reverie over death and try to find something in life that I can engage myself in. I’ve felt some moments of acceptance and even feel satisfied for brief moments. As I turn back toward life, I realize that I have an opportunity to remake my life in any way I want to. Currently I feel consumed with the idea of having my life be used for something worthwhile. I’m aware that I’ve been through these periods before and they’re fragile and shatter easily. I’m doing my best to stay as grounded as I can while still believing in the possibility that I can be useful, maybe even inspiring.
I want to share this poem by the great John O’Donahue, who my friend Eithna Joyce introduced me to.
For Grief ~ John O’Donahue
There are days when you wake up happy;
Again inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss.
Days when you have your heart back,
You are able to function well
Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.
It becomes hard to trust yourself.
All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.
Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.
Although I completed my official birthday self portrait project last year, I will probably continue to do them every year. This year it’s just a sketch.
I’m not being as productive as I’d like to be and I’m working to change that.
A little sketchbook painting, while I try to figure out where to go next.
I’ve noticed that my interactions with people and the way I communicate, both in person and in writing, seem more deeply felt. I believe that, having lived through a time of urgent communication with Les, when I was frantic to leave nothing unsaid, has spoiled me for light banter.
Even though Les’ last days were so painful, I often find myself wanting to be there again. The air in the room was so full of urgency and intimacy. We often speak of the miracle of birth but death is a miracle as well. We tried our best to treat it like that. It seems so absurd, now, that we connected even more deeply just before parting forever.
Wow, rough week! Just when you think you’ve entered calm waters, out of nowhere some kind of psychic wave crashes over you.
There have been three or four watershed events, in my life, that have radically changed how the world occurs for me. The first was my first experience with LSD. The fact that everything appeared different to me, while under the effects of the drug, opened me to that there may be things beyond my perception. Leslie’s death has jarred me that way, although not as pleasantly.
I’ve made a lot of mental maneuvers to try and make sense out of what’s happened or, rather, to construct some kind of meaning. Holding that all together is more work than I realized and a seemingly insignificant event shattered it all in a second. The illusion of meaning I had so cleverly duct taped together crashed down on my head. leaving me feeling foolish and deluded.
Fortunately I have friends who impossibly manage to tolerate these manic episodes. They listen calmly and stand at a safe distance until they can get close enough to put their arms around me and say, “Deep breath.” “You’re OK.” “You’re held closely and dearly.” “I consider it a gift each time you choose to share your staggering”.
I’m OK, I’m OK. I think I’m OK.
Thank you J.E and E.R
I’ve trying to get at something and not really succeeding. I keep trying but what I’m trying to convey may be beyond my capabilities.
It’s coming up on six months now since I lost my wife. For some reason I thought I’d be through the worst of the grief by this time but I realize now that I’m just getting started. I wouldn’t say that there is any progression in what I’m going through. Some days I feel pretty much OK but most days I feel lost. Everyone says that the holidays are particularly hard to grieve through. I wouldn’t say that I feel noticeably worse now because of the time of year. It’s different all the time. Sometimes I’m feeling the loss of being in a relationship and living in the context of someone else. Other times I miss Leslie personally, her physical presence and personality. Sometimes it’s just hard to be alone.
I think the bottom line for me at the moment is feeling without bearings. My Buddhist readings indicate that this may be the natural state of life. Bearings are invented. In truth there is no up or down. Those are decisions we make. I try to embrace not having bearings and let that experience flow over me while it lasts. I expect that eventually I’ll choose an ‘up’ but I hope I can still keep a part of this experience in mind.
This is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I can not control it. It pushes me around and takes me to places without my consent and without warning. There are other people in my life who are suffering and I feel that I’m letting them down for not providing more comfort to them. I titled this post ‘staggering’ because I’m afraid that sometimes I may have crashed into loved ones who were trying to help or who needed help and I regret that. I worry about it and roll it over in my mind but always come back to that I’m doing the best I can.
I have had some experiences of Leslie, sometimes in dreams and occasionally in daydreams. I read recently, from an internet psychic, that sometimes the departed communicate with loved ones by ringing in their ears. I’ve had tinnitus since Les died and, although I don’t put much stock in internet psychics, it feels good to let that be true for me. When I notice the ringing, it takes me away with her a bit and I like that.
I don’t want to paint an overly bleak picture of my life. I am very fortunate to have close friends and family and two beautiful daughters I adore. I’m grateful for all the extremely happy holidays I shared with Les and for the many comforts I enjoy. Although I’m sad a lot of the time, I’m also happy in many ways. I have the luxury of being able to cherish my memories of Les and to share them with my daughters and others who love her.
I wish everyone Happy Holidays and hope the memories you create now will sustain you when hard times come.
Leslie had this reproduction of a Fra Lippo Liippi painting of the Blessed Mother as long as I knew her. She kept it close to her bed, especially in trying times. Les had an eclectic set of religious beliefs. She also loved Paramahansa Yogananda and recently reread his autobiography.
This still life includes Leslie’s glasses and her copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, her keys and icon and it’s all resting on one of her scarves.
This Saturday would have been Les’ 62nd birthday. Happy Birthday, Sweetheart, if you’re still following the blog.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to express my current conundrum visually. Thinking is usually not the best way to get at this kind of thing but I’m afraid of making work that is trite or exploits or cheapens this and I’m especially wary of this since it’s not only my experience. Many people loved Leslie and may have feelings about how or what I express. That being said, I’ve been making some drawings and trying to find a way to start.
I’m sharing a couple of the drawings here.
As I start this, I realize I could explore this for a long time.
It’s been three months since my wife, Leslie, died. I find that these milestones have more of an impact on me than I expect them to. It also is really hard to believe that it’s only been 3 months. My poor brain has been through so many changes it feels more like 3 years. I get a kind of panicky feeling when these things occur. Aside from these temporal milestones, it’s sometimes triggered by doing some mundane task around the house that Les either used to do or relied on me to do. An empty feeling follows the realization that it’s just me now. I don’t mean to be dramatic. The saddest parts are always about me, not Les. I’m just trying to share what this is like.
I’m trying to find a balance between keeping myself busy but not so busy that I avoid feeling what comes up. I regret not spending more time drawing the figure so I’m trying to get myself out to Life Drawing sessions more frequently. I went to one the night before the 3 month mark, when I was starting to feel the panic coming on. It was a good thing to do, because, to draw well, I have to relax and focus at the same time, which can be a tricky thing for me to do.
My drawings are not very good and it’s clear that I need to spend time on drawing hands and feet, especially. I share them here as part of my process. I hope to attend these sessions regularly for a while.
I’ve had this and another on the easel for a while. I’m not sure I’m finished. I want to let it sit for a while. Sometimes when I get to this point with a painting, I decide it’s better to just start another than to continue to worry this one. I’ve painted a few versions of this scene now, each a little different.
I’ve explained this a couple of times before on the blog. When I was in college I was given an assignment to do a self portrait and was then given information on the aging process and told to do another self portrait projecting what I thought I would look like at the age of 60. I was 23 when I did the first two drawings. I forgot about them for several years but some time in my 30’s I decided it would be interesting to do a similar self portrait every year near my birthday to see how close my vision was. I had planned on doing it every year and to use the same pose and media, etc so that the drawings could be easily compared. Discipline is not my strongest characteristic and I missed some years and got bored and did other compositions some years but I did produce an interesting collection of images over the 37 years since the original drawings.
This being the year I turned 60 is the logical completion of the project and, although I may still do self portraits on my birthday, the original project ends now. My wife’s health began to collapse this year, not long after my birthday and it’s taken me this much time to get back to thinking about it. Frankly, it’s been difficult to produce any artwork, since her death and this seemed like a fun and simple thing to do to keep my hand in and, of course, to feed the blog.
So it appears that, at the age of 23, I had an exaggerated view of how old 60 is. Perhaps in 1976, 60 year old people did look older than they do today. They say 60 is the new 40, right?
You can find other entries in this progression in the archives of the blog. I posted them as I did them.
I apologize for the quality of the photos. The original two drawings were reproduced from old slides.
It seems that some subscribers have stopped receiving email notifications when I publish a new post. This is a test to see if it gets through.
So as not to totally waste your time, if you do receive this, I’ll add a couple of sketches.
This is a sketchbook drawing for the oil painting “Building a New LIfe From the Wreckage of my Old Life” That’s a long title but I had to do it.
This is a new sketch. I’m experimenting with painting some of my wife’s possessions.
I know this sounds like I’m fishing for comments but I would love to hear back if you receive an email notification from this post. Thanks.
I delivered the paintings for my first solo show in many years to Brian Marki Fine Art yesterday. I have one more piece I’d like to finish for the show, if Brian doesn’t mind hanging a wet painting.
The image above is the piece I’d like to finish for the show, in it’s current state. It still seems a little chaotic but that is true to my current experience. I don’t usually put a lot of thought into titles. They’re mainly just for me to keep them straight in my mind but, given recent events, this piece has begun to occur for me as a view into my life. I need to reconstruct a new life out of what appears to me now as the wreckage of my old life and this painting expresses that for me. It may not be pretty but it holds promise.
I have to say that, in spite of the fact that I’m not often referred to as a real “up” kind of person, I have been surprised at my ability to find positive meaning in my wife’s death.
For one thing, it was such a privilege and relief to be able to see Leslie on to a peaceful and meaningful death. It was the perfect completion of our relationship. Four years ago, when Leslie’s cancer became metastatic, the primary purpose of my life became to see to it that Les was taken care of and had a good death and I lived to fulfill that promise. So many women have to go through this alone. I am grateful that Les was loved and cherished and nurtured and adored to her last minutes. Well beyond her last minutes, in truth.
I have also been overwhelmed with love and support from friends and family. My relationships have been enriched by Les’ passing. I have made new friends who have made profound contributions to my life.
Leslie continues to nurture me even in death. I was rooting through the freezer and found a treasure. Two containers of Les’ wonderful beef stew.
My stomach and heart are both full of love. I miss Leslie’s physical presence but I feel her with me all the time. I’m a very fortunate man.
It’s been two weeks since my dear Leslie died. The days seem almost normal until someone mentions her name or asks how I’m doing. I don’t wake up weeping anymore, it takes me a few minutes for a thought to bring on the tears. Sobbing feels good, when I’m alone but, for some reason, I don’t like to cry in front of others.
I’m looking for silver linings… The car mirrors are always adjusted to my liking now. When I put something down, I know I’ll find it in the same place when I want it. That crazy filing system that Les used can finally be put in something I call order. I’m happy for Les that she won’t have to become really old and doddery and a worry to our children.
I miss her, though.
I have some things to share:
I came across a cassette tape of love songs Les recorded for me for Valentine’s Day in 1983. Nine months later our first daughter, Emily, was born. Les was 31 years old, at the time.
Our dear friend, Andrea Carlisle, has written two beautiful pieces about Leslie’s death. Below are the links:
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds…and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of… High Flight by John Gillespie Magee Jr
On Wednesday evening, July 3, 2013, a beautiful summer evening, at 6:23, my beloved wife slipped the surly bonds of earth. She died very peacefully at home, where she was cared for by her two daughters, Emily and Clair, her brother, Pete and me, with the help of hospice workers and an army of friends and family.
Les had an amazing last few weeks. She knew she only had days to live and, although she was dramatically weaker every day, she continued to meet with friends and share her most heartfelt love and gratitude for the wonderful life she’d led. She told the hospital chaplain:
“I’ve had a good life. I’m ready. I trust in the process, the flow. Little fishes die, big trees die, who am I not to die, too? Abraham Lincoln did it, my mother did it, my neighbor did it, I can do it too.”
I learned so much about living and dying from Les and I’m grateful for the incredible opportunity of helping her through these challenges. As with any relationship, we had our troubles but the last four years have been the happiest of my life and made more so because Les felt the same.
These last weeks were both terrible and wonderful. Les had a beautiful death, conscious and focused, accepting and grateful, loving and compassionate. Dying is hard work but I can’t imagine a better death than Leslie’s.
Leslie was my muse. I did everything with her in mind. It’s difficult not to slide into the mire of self pity but Les was too good an example of accepting one’s fate to allow that to happen. She will live on in my heart until it stops.
Many years ago, Leslie wrote a song for a friend who was dying of brain cancer. I share it here -> The River <- click to play
Please visit Leslie’s long neglected WordPress page, for a little more information about her and to listen to her music
Yesterday, June 29, was the 34th anniversary of the day I met the best friend I’ve ever had, my wife, Leslie Robinson. We married 2 years later and drove across the country from Eastern Long Island, NY to Portland OR. Leslie was a singer/songwriter and I was a painter. She gave up her singing career when our first daughter, Emily was born, in the hospital we can see from the deck of our little house. I quit painting when Les bore our second daughter, Clair in the front bedroom of that house.
Leslie now lays dying, surrounded by that family in the living room of that house. Although my heart is breaking, I feel privileged to be able to help her complete her life and make a safe crossing to whatever is next.
Les hated posing so I don’t have a lot of paintings of her but, on our adventures, she usually wore a red coat that I loved painting.
Les was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. She chose to do an alternative therapy instead of chemotherapy and radiation. After treatment, Les remained symptom free for 9 years. When the cancer recurred, she did radiation and hormone therapy, which gave her 4 more years with relatively few symptoms. She tried chemotherapy a few months ago and just couldn’t stand the side effects, so she chose to stop treatment.
We have been very fortunate to have had so much time together. Les and I knew this was coming and are as prepared as anyone can be for such a thing.
I have found solace in the book “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rimpoche, over the years and have begun reading it again. …
“Men come and they go and they trot and they dance, and never a word about death. All well and good. Yet when death does come to them, their wives, their children, their friends – catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion overwhelm them, what cries what fury what despair!…
To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of it’s strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death … We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” ~ Michel de Montaigne, The Essayus of Michel de Montaigne