The Artist

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September 23, 2021 by The Citron Review

by Anne Gudger

 

The artist layers mountain with meadow, craggy basalt grey rock, steel wool clouds, oyster clouds, whispers of duck egg blue sky. She dabs her one-inch wide brush, flat bristles (the one with the carved mahogany handle she bought after she sold her first painting) into mountain palette: blues, greys, browns, a pinch of burnt sienna, of butter yellow, of white. She layers the mountain’s silhouette in dove grey, fog grey, wet concrete grey. Dabbing, swirling, scraping. Clouds blanket the middle of the mountain. 

She loads her spatula with oils and slashes sky over the mountain, this mountain with its saddle silhouette. She textures sky blue, periwinkle, cornflower blue. White swirls with grey into chunky clouds. Heavy in oils. Rain clouds if they were more lava colored, less pearl river.

The artist squints at her canvas. 

She burrows through her tools. Plucks out an old credit card to blend and smear, to carve edges, textures, in peaks, in lines.

She squeezes her right eye shut. Her left.

This mountain shape. She feels its poetry. She grabs a clean rag and wipes the canvas, smearing mountain and sky, mingling basalt and fog clouds, vanishing meadow and leggy emerald grass that bends in sky breath. Does it bend at the waist or knees or ankles? 

In her scraped, smeared canvas the mountain whispers her name and calls her back. She feels its bones. She freshens her paints and starts a new mountain, a new meadow while the underpainting bleeds. 

“My mom had a terrible temper,” my 86-year-old mom says like she says most every time we talk now.

“Not me,” she goes on and my stomach does a little fizzle pop. “I learned to be even,” she says. “Not angry.” And she gestures: hand open, palm up, fingers slightly curved like she’s holding an imaginary orange. She sinks her hand, drawing fingers in. It’s a bloom unblooming, a seedpod unseeding. 

When I was a girl my sisters and I begged Dad to run home movies in reverse so we could see ourselves backwards. I loved the black and white home movie of my fifth birthday party run end to start: torn wrapping paper becoming whole, me running backwards up the stairs, blown-out candles sparking to flames. 

“I was like my dad—even,” Mom says.

The heat of a long-ago ulcer bleeds. This hole seared in my gut when I was eight, when my words couldn’t unburn Mom’s fire words, when I learned to hold words in my mouth.

“Even,” she repeats to my silence, my tongue searching a back molar.

She’s re-storied her rage: “You’re a rotten kid!” she used to say, her forehead vein pulsing. “You know that?” she’d yell when I’d go numb and study my feet. “Rotten.” Full volume—slamming doors, grabbing car keys, stomping to the car in a blur of flames, peeling out of the steep driveway, as I feared she’d spin off the road. Everything wrong in her life was because of us girls, she told us.

Here’s the part where I tell you I’m struggling. Do I correct her remembering?  Take the long view of compassion? Where is my girl story in my mom’s remaking? Does my trauma get erased too? I’ve run the hard parts backwards and forwards through the forgiveness mill, through therapy layers, and still, it sleeps in the slurry of my gut, where the scar can pulse.

My impulse is to correct her. Tell her when I was a girl, I imagined her rage as a dragon (dirt colored when it slept and crimson with ice blue eyes when it raged) and me as dragon keeper, snapping my magic whip to keep the dragon in a cage of magic steel bars, hoisting a chair and gripping a whip like I’d seen lion trainers do on television. “Get back!” I’d shout zinging my whip, popping air, inches from the dragon’s snout. 

I held that dragon taming image until a therapist asked: “What if it’s not true? What if your whip were a wand, a feather? What if you used magic instead of fear to empty the dragon’s cage?”

“Even,” Mom says again like maybe I didn’t hear. “Not like my raging mom,” she says, scanning the air above my head.

My truth scrapes my pink mouth like a dried-out peach pit. I see me: whip in one hand, wand in the other. 

“I hope I was a good mom,” she says swallowing hard like those words were almost too big to push out.

“You were,” I say and wait a beat. Room for her to say she’s sorry for the ways she wasn’t.

She doesn’t.

“You are,” I say because I can. Because I don’t want to regret my words. Because while I struggle with the origami of her story and my story, my heart hungers for forgiveness. Because I can hold whip and wand at the same time.

Before the artist lays down shapes, she underpaints her canvas. A transparent color-wash. Pure minerals. Before she lays down the underpaints, she does a little meditation, calling in her muse, her guides, her ancestors. Then she lays down the bass notes, mixing warms and cools. Bass notes. The under notes. The glue. These bass notes like music, like painting, like writing, like art. She asks, Where’s the shadow?

She mixes mid-tones. Places them where light catches. Rests them on the bass notes. Shapes rise. Bones of a mountain. Maybe. Sky. Sky bones. Wing bones. Layers of sky and cloud. Stitching shapes. Letting shapes tell their story. 

When she scrapes her canvas. When she unpaints. When the story tells a different story and she follows it. This scraping away. To bone. To marrow. To canvas. What stays? Where’s the light? The shadows? What dye marks remain? Tonality bleeds. The first painting is a starting point for the next. Or sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the artist starts over with an unpainted canvas.

 

Anne Gudger is an essay/memoir writer who writes hard and loves harder. Previous work can be found at Real Simple Magazine, The Rumpus, PANK, Barren Magazine, Winning Writers, Bending Genres, Atticus Review, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. Plus she’s won three essay contests. She co-founded “Coffee and Grief” —with her beloved daughter—that includes a monthly reading series. Because everybody grieves. More at Annegudger.com, Anne Gudger on IG and Facebook. “Coffee and Grief Community” on Facebook.

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