Saturday, December 07, 2013

Survivors Series

Don't know if I've discussed this before, but I'm working on a series of paintings about survivors.  This is an outgrowth of my earlier series, "Meditation on War", which explored the results of combat.  I found that series to be worthwhile, but a bit of a downer.  The general theme of the paintings was "bad shit happened here".  After a while, focusing only on the bad shit got to be a drag.  I wanted to work on a theme that was more optimistic, but still dealt with some heavy and important stuff.  The answer came during a life drawing session in which our model was a woman who had survived cancer.  Her body was ravaged with the removal of her breasts, surgical cuts everywhere, and no hair, but her spirit was strong and cheerful.  I've seen the same sort of strength from wounded soldiers and others who've survived serious incidents.  This looked like a theme that I could work with.  And I thought these stories needed to be told.  Right now, I'm working on three stories.

One is of a woman who was brutally raped.  She has gone on to rebuild her life, serve in a rape crisis center, and focus on making the world a better place.  She's given TED talks, written prose and poetry, gotten married, and raised some wonderful kids.  Her attacker was eventually caught.  He had viciously attacked another woman and is now serving a life sentence.

The second is of a man who was a Marine in Viet Nam.  He was in some vicious battles - the kind where two squads start up a hill and only six guys make it to the top.  The kind of campaigns where you spend over two months fighting in the jungle and never even change your skivvies.  He went on to a successful civilian career and raised four smart daughters, two of whom are now in the military.  But he's still going up that hill many nights.  

The third is a man who was on the Bataan Death March.  He's 93 now and as sharp as they come.  Not just sharp for his age, I mean sharp, period.  He refuses to be called a "hero".  He came out of the Japanese prison camps, returned home, got married, built a small business, and raised three kids.  Now he's in a VA assisted-living facility, speaking at schools and churches, active in many social events, and probably has a busier calendar than I do.

So now I have three strong stories to tell.  I'm trying to figure out how to tell them.  I don't want to just paint portraits of these people.  Portraits are fine, but they don't tell the "survivor" story.  Other things need to be included in the picture that speak to what they've gone through.  This calls for some creative compositions, of adding, subtracting, and rearranging things until they come together.  Even the way the paint is applied is important.  And that's what I'm struggling with right now.  

I've got basic compositions worked out for the first two paintings, know what will be in them and how the'll be arranged.  My normal style of painting, though, is going to be lacking, I think.  My style is pretty quiet and descriptive and doesn't, in itself, convey much emotional turmoil.  This is fine in paintings such as "Warrior", in which a quiet and understated approach makes the impact of the loss of the soldier's legs more powerful.  

Oil on canvas, 60"x60"

But these three survivors have stories that are not visible.  To see them on the street, you'd have no idea that they'd been through such experiences.  I need a way of painting that is energetic and turbulent in its own right.  I think I've found an example of an artist whose style provides that energy.  So I'm going to do a number of small, experimental paintings, where I'm taking the basics of his approach and trying it for myself.  It's kinda like trying on a new suit to see if it fits.  And it's got to be the right suit: just as you wouldn't wear a Brooks Brothers outfit to a track meet, the painting "suit" has to both fit me and be appropriate to the task.  I don't know yet whether it will do either.

So there's only one thing to do.  I'm off to the studio to sling some paint.

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