m.a. thesis

tang, lego, and paint

a thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the master of arts degree in art in the graduate college of the university of iowa

may 1998

thesis supervisor: associate professor david dunlap

when i was a kid, i’d spend all day on the shag carpet in the living room, t.v. blaring, while mom vacuumed and sang along with dylan. i’d have my big, yellow tupperware tub full of lego pieces at hand and i would sit all day making things. the house made even more chaotic by the sound of my little hand rummaging through the lego pieces while my eyes searched for the right one. i’d tear apart old ships and cannibalize the parts to make better ships. all the while i would think about spider-man comics and how the green goblin’s flying jet skateboard’s goblin wings looked. how they echoed the shape of the wings that were on the fighters in battlestar galactica. i thought about the engines on the blue angels from the navy base flying overhead in the millington summer sky. i would think about the solid waste treatment plant, and how it looked more like an energy plant with its plume of methane-fueled flame burning in the shelby county night… then to how the armored transport in star wars carried the imperial soldiers on the sides of the craft. i used these bits from comic books, movies, and everything else i’d come in contact with as inspiration for the creation of these objects. once the ship was done, i’d zoom it around the room, achieving the closest thing to a verbal description of its existence by making a jet engine noise with my mouth. i’d go get a tang refill, come back and notice the ship had some problems and set to work on making a better one.

these finished objects were easy to tear apart because i understood even then that this stuff i was doing wasn’t about the thing i made. the important thing was the fun i had blending, remembering by taking from old ideas and lessons and bringing them together in the process that created this ship. i not only solidified my relationship with this imaginary world through making these things with my own hands but i also became more a part of it. at the same time, by borrowing pieces of reality to create my imaginary world, i developed a relationship with the real world around me. the making of these ships helped me realize my own place in the world.

this is what i did: i was a kid with lego. and this is what i do now: i’m a painter in his studio. tonight i am sitting, with my respirator mask clicking as i breathe. i am listening to a recording of my storyteller father sharing his favorite story. it is the story of the rose, recorded when he was still strong, before the battle, before his voice was paralyzed with cancer. a twelve inch masonite square rests on my lap, my latex gloves are thick with paint, the window is open and the fans are on. i am thinking while i listen to the story.

i am remembering the way rose petals feel soft and rich with promise just after the bud opens: the burnt, red color of the new growth on a rose, soft, tender, stark against the weathered, scarred, thorny canes of the old growth tissue. i remember the clearness of the air as the cloud-shadows whispered through the mongolian valley in the peak of wildflower season, the fuzzy, silver edelweiss like ten-thousand diamonds scattered randomly through the rolling greens.

i am remembering standing quietly, listening to vincent’s painting tell me about that last day painting the crows. telling me how they moved against the wind against the flow of the wheat field – his excited mixing of paint, wet into wet on the canvas, serving as the storyteller. i see how he saw that afternoon, i see how his brush moved on the palette from one color to the other.

i hear my sister’s infectious giggle fill the hospital room as my father, still medicated, pokes his thumb into his wadded flannel shirt, telling us that it’s a peach. i am remembering being surrounded by i.v. bags, tubes, clicking sounds of the medicine and food pumps as i would recite my mantra: “everything will be okay soon, it has to be” while i sat alone and watched my father breathe as he slept.

i remember losing track of time as i stood with my pants legs rolled up, knee deep in joan mitchell’s la vie in rose. the purples and pinks staining my leg hairs, soaking into my bare ankles – the titanium white mixing with the turpentine between my naked toes. joan is holding forth. i counted hundreds of colors in her painting that day but i only remember half of them now.

back in the studio, my father is done telling his story, and now jeff buckley is singing to me about beautiful, important things. the absolute stillness in barrister’s the night of his last show, my eyes closed, hallelujah ringing softly, almost tangible. i knew it was the most beautiful thing i’d ever heard. a few nights later i stood quietly, sweating whiskey, on the river bank where he’d drowned earlier that day. i held my hand out to the river, open palm forward. the hand i held out was the hand of infinite wishing, the hand of infinite peace. there were no helicopters looking for jeff in the muddy water that night because the air was too windy. just a silly painter standing there on the side of the river trying to understand.

this is where you find me now: a silly painter in his studio, paint brush in hand, trying to understand. i am scraping, pushing paint around with my hands. i am erasing with my rags. i am mixing paint with my brushes. scraping through old layers of dry paint. fighting to find the place in the painting where these images should come to rest. i struggle with the patterns of the edelweiss from the valley – with the i.v. bags and their tubes – with the dark river from the humid summer night. i have no idea how the painting will look when it’s done. not knowing is part of the challenge. figuring out how the painting will find itself through my painting of it is the important part. i am wrestling with the images to find out how they look once i put them down on the canvas; once they are made real. i am letting my mind serve as both a filter and an amplifier. sifting through it all and letting these images be found, glistening in the muck. my hands are reacting to what my mind sees.

the fans in the windows are making the plastic drop cloths on the studio walls ripple. jeff’s voice fills the studio air, pushing the turpentine fumes out into the iowa night. i am alone with my paintings. i am remembering things i have seen and felt. the paint is helping me understand. everything is okay now.