My mother and I weren’t what you would consider traditional BFF’s. A more apt term would be “enmeshed”. But just as BFF’s suggests a relationship that was all light and love and support, enmeshed makes it sound as if it was nothing but a re-enactment of Mommy Dearest. Undeniably, she made one hell of a Joan Crawford at times. But it had nothing to do with ambition or jealousy. She was doing her damnedest to cope with anxiety and illness that completely overwhelmed her at times. There is a point to leading with this admission. At Monkey Hill Creative Arts we assert that “every one of us has more possibilities than limitations”, and my mother was no exception. She failed greatly as a mother, but she also succeeded greatly as a mother, just not in the Hallmark greeting card sentiment sense.
My mother showed me what it is like to struggle with invisible disabilities and the impact they have on those around them. She also taught me that to be disabled doesn’t mean a person is disabled in every way. She was a very smart woman who gave me the coping skills and strategies that have seen me through some of the hardest times of my life that would have sunk me otherwise, made my life even richer during the easier times, and are seeing me trough yet again now that my physical health has declined greatly and every day is a true challenge.
The most surprising impact she’s had on my life is how she has affected my art. I almost don’t know where to begin. Alright then…I’m going to begin with a disclaimer of sorts. 15 years ago this October I buried my mother. At the very end of her life we dared to speak of our lifetime of secrets, of cruel actions, finally…acknowledgment, forgiveness was asked for and granted, and we were graced with the closure so few ever know. All that was left was peace, understanding, and love. I miss her still. That said, I don’t believe it matters now how my mother ultimately influences my art today, simply that if I had had any other mother than the one I had I would not be who I am today or expressing what I do how I do it. She mattered. She made a difference.
Beginning with the small things, my mother was born in 1930, and surely she was influenced by the Depression Era way of life. She saved every bit of string, every elastic that off of bundles of the broccoli from the store, every twist tie, plastic and paper bag – folded to precision, cleaned, folded, and saved every viable piece of tin foil, reused paper towels, boxes of every sort, and jars. When children today want to have a Craft Day, their parents take them to the Craft Store; I went to the kitchen drawers. The supplies were endless. She handed me a paper plate or some paper or a piece of saved cardboard, most often she unfolded one of the big paper bags the groceries came in then, a bottle of school glue, and whatever bits of string, twist ties, etc. I chose from the drawer, and I was in heaven. Collage heaven. I loved the art of design and I still do. I am in thrall with texture. When I was old enough she would let me paint the textured collage with a little paint set. Guess what? It is basically the same thing I do today.
The materials I use today are still natural and found materials. I still get a thrill from discovering new ways to manipulate the common things we might see or handle every day without really noticing the texture and details. My mother would be proud: I have a six drawer dresser with a paper drawer, a paint drawer, a drawer for string and textiles, an adhesive and stains drawer, sandpaper and tissue drawer, and a drawer to hold my cd’s, sketchbooks and drawing paper. I have another three drawer dresser equally well sorted for the bits and pieces I collect to use in my art with one drawer assigned specifically for my tools. I am as meticulous as my mother was in keeping everything in its place so I know where everything is and never have to waste time hunting for anything.
Beyond the basic foundation of my art, the love of texture, order, and balance, there is the expression. Some of my art is considered dark, some of it sad, some expressing frustration. For so much of my life I was not permitted to express myself unless it was to express gratitude or pleasure. Unhappiness and anger was unacceptable. Punishable. That is a reality for countless others. My mother, too, felt she was not allowed to reveal her demons. I saw what it did to her. I have seen what it does to other people. In the beginning, I used art to speak for me. It was selfish. I have matured and come to understand that art speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves. Today, when I create a piece of art that purposely expression emotion, I think in terms of Universal Truths, of the human condition, not merely my own state at the time, but that does not mean it does not include me because I am one of many.
Art is a celebration of life. Uncountable artists world-wide revel day and night in every sound, colour, texture, and movement and combination therein, most never earning more than pittance, not just for their own enjoyment and curiosity, but for the purpose of making art that brings awareness to society the joys of life, life imitated in that art, that would otherwise go unnoticed. Art celebrates all of life, not just the pretty happy things, otherwise the only colours we see reflected in it would be yellow and gold, everyone would be singing Happy Birthday all the time and The Blues wouldn’t exist. In the true artist tradition, no facet of the living experience is treated like a shame or a dirty secret.
The last time I saw my mother alive was shortly before her death at my high school graduation. I was 28 years old. Obviously it was an adult high school. I dropped out of high school when I was 15 because I was sick and needed help. My disabilities were as yet undiagnosed and because I didn’t seek treatment would remain untreated for several hellish years. At 28, I graduated with honours across the board, an award for achieving excellence in the face of adversity, and a financial award to pay for my all my needs apart from tuition for my first year of university. My mother was weeping as she held me and said to me words that broke my heart: I am prouder of you for this than I was of your brother for graduating from university summa cum laude because I know what you had to go through to get here. I’ve worried about you all of your life, but now I know that you will always be okay. You’ve done the one thing that I know I will never be able to do as long as I live; you got over yourself.
Maybe you have to know a lot more of my mother’s back story – and mine – to appreciate the profundity of those words. As for the “you got over yourself”, I can at least clarify that a little better. What she meant, in particular, is that I became able to admit openly to anyone my failures, my fears, my mistakes, my flaws, to live and work at my own pace, to ask for and accept help, to say no, to say yes to opportunity, to risk, and to fail without falling apart. Essentially, she was saying that I no longer let fear rule my life. She was telling me that she was going to die never knowing that freedom. My god, my god, how that broke my heart. No one of us should ever have to die to know peace. Not every invisible disability is properly or successfully treated and stabilized, and that was my mother’s sad reality.
When I looked down at the peaceful face of my mother in her coffin, the only time I have ever seen her truly at peace, I vowed her fate would not be mine. My own invisible disability, the same as my mother’s, was still meting out a goodly measure of emotional and mental torment, but I had also gained a healthy measure of freedom and love in my life encouraging me to fight on, to hope for better days and better health. I would not give up trying and seeking more successful treatment. Peace would come and go, but I hung on to the fact that it always returned. The worst for me was yet to come after the death of my daughter, but surprisingly, the greatest peace I have ever known eventually came some years after through the diligent care of my truly excellent and devoted doctor.
My mother and I are inextricably connected forever, through genetics, as we all are, but in my case I mean in illnesses shared, an in habits, in my art, by love, through an abiding love of literature I got from her which brings me endless pleasure, as well as an understanding and compassion for suffering, which perhaps is the hardest earned but most profoundly useful gift of all.