The worst curses aren’t from witches

Many people are blocked from art by that one person who told them they couldn’t do it.
Confused, by Carol L. Douglas. People tell little lies all the time. Don’t let them define you.
This little car is headed to Plein Air Brandywine Valley, where it—unfortunately—is going to head into the remnants of Hurricane Wilma. Well, it’s not the first time I’ve painted in a torrential downpour and it won’t be the last, although I’m kicking myself for leaving my waterproof boots at home.
I drove as far as Rensselaer County, NY with my youngest daughter, M. That gave me seven hours to talk one-on-one with her. We haven’t really done that since we drove across Canada two years ago, and now she’s married. We talked about word curses—the ways you hear something about yourself and integrate it as part of your self-identity.
My granddaughter is often called a princess by her father’s large, wonderful family. My daughter J. is an engineer. She wants more for her own child than beauty. To compensate, she tries to use words like “smart” or “brave” instead of “beautiful.” I don’t think it’s going too well. Last night, G. told me, “I’m a princess!”
I’m considering telling her, “No, you’re a bad-ass.” She’d like it but my daughter would object.
Waiting, by Carol L. Douglas
On our drive, M. told me how her schooling fell apart the year I had my first cancer. She was in second grade. I’m not surprised she thought I was dying, even though she didn’t express that at the time. I looked terrible and moved like an old lady. I was constantly in and out of the hospital.
M. had a teacher who told her that she wasn’t more forgetful than other kids, she was just a better liar. That stuck with her enough that she still feels it today.
I took my kids to a family counselor. When M. tried to talk about her profound sadness, she was hooted down by her siblings. The counselor turned to them and M. walked across the room and disappeared into the couch cushions, which was her usual way of coping with stress. We never went back.
Talking to Michelle, by Carol L. Douglas
All of which reminded me of something from my own childhood. My sister died of a cerebral hemorrhage at Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. During that terrible week when she hovered between life and death, my parents were—obviously—with her. I had brothers, but I felt terribly lost.
But I had a lovely Principal at my school, Mr. Gibbs. He pulled me out of my class. We didn’t talk. He just let me follow him around as he did his daily work. There weren’t school counselors then; there was just compassion. It transcends time, place and job titles. And it’s no more likely to appear today, with all our systems for helping kids, than it was in 1969.
Words are powerful tools for good or ill. If we’re lucky, as adults we can see our way to repudiating and replacing lies with truth. But where we’re fearful, it’s not so easy. Many people have had a lifetime interest in art, but were blocked by the voice of that one adult who told them they weren’t talented, or that they needed to focus on ‘real’ work. It takes a lot to get past that.

The Brian Williams Factbook

Brian Williams probably didn’t see dead bodies lying in the street during Hurricane Katrina, and it’s clear that he didn’t come under small arms enemy fire in a Chinook helicopter in 2003. Nor did Hillary Clinton land under sniper fire in the Balkins or Tom Harkin fly combat missions in Vietnam.

There’s the institutional blindness of Rotherham Borough in ignoringthe grooming, drugging and rape of at least 1400 mostly underage, predominantly white girls by local Pakistani Kashmiri Muslims. 

Last week on Facebook I ‘learned’ that one in five children will develop cancer from eating GMO foods, and that “every day Christians kill a transgendered person.” And then there’s our President (a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law) drawing crude and illogical parallels between the Crusades and ISIS.

These people aren’t really lying. They’re twisting and spinning information. They sacrifice inconvenient facts to their bigger truth. In this systematic destruction of small truths lies a Great Truth about our times: facts are subservient to narrative, and it’s no longer a big deal to lie.

The drawings on this post were done by J—, who grew up in a cult which perfected the use of media in manipulating the public. No less a personage than Oprah was taken in by them. Yes, the truth ultimately came out, but at great expense to many. While the public was still sorting out what was true (mainly through the efforts of the Texas court system), more people suffered.
One of the bitter fruits of gaslighting (as that truth-twisting is called) is that it’s hard for its victims to understand what is true and what is false. Imagine that every time you pick up a pencil your past kicks in to question you. When J— asks, “What should I draw? I don’t know what to draw,” it is not that he’s not creative; it’s his history trying to shut him up.
All this public and private lying makes me feel so old. Even though my parents were bohemian by the standards of their day (no church, no scouting) we did have the advantage of a stiff whipping if we were caught bending the truth. (Oddly enough, that didn’t impair our creativity.)

Today truthiness is preferable to truth in our culture. That’s why our mass media is a cesspool of simulated sex. It’s why the coy, sexualized nude done by a middle age man gets enthusiastic exhibit space, but paintings about misogyny are closed down. That’s how we can call 50 Shades of Grey a romantic movie, instead of a glorification of abuse. We can deal with shallow illusions, but we hate hard truths. They might require us to do something.
What are we—as artists—to do about it? In a culture suffused with lies, we must continue to tell the truth, and we should demand the truth from our students. To me, this points to realism as the most radical style of art for our age. Can you really tell the story of abuse, beauty, misogyny, love, war, or peace if the details are fuzzy?

Truth is frequently controversial. Controversy, paradoxically, is often not truthful. Truth is sometimes happy, but it’s never twee. Truth is often unpopular until long after the truth-teller has left. For this reason, it makes sense to leaven the bitter with the palatable, unless you like serving coffee for a living.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.