In a recent post on a social media site an, old friend described me as being a “weirdly articulate artist and misanthrope”. The timing of this comment was eerily prescient; I’ve been thinking much the same thing about myself lately. I’ve been shuffling about in my studio for the last few weeks wondering what to paint, but I keep running into self-constructed mental roadblocks, dismissing ideas as quickly as they arise.
You’d think having the sobriquet “misanthrope” applied to oneself might be cause for concern since it denotes an unpleasant and cynical persona, but in this case it was intended as a gentle poke in the ribs from a former bar-tending colleague and hockey team-mate who has seen and heard me at my most cynical and combative self in those capacities. My friend is a writer and actor who has known me for over twenty years, and we have enjoyed many conversations about everything from art to fatherhood. He has also helped me remain a sober alcoholic, and he has been an important member of my family’s support team during my battles with cancer.
He knows me well, even if we haven’t see too much of each other lately.
So when he tossed the label of misanthrope my way the other day, it rang a bell in my consciousness.
It got me thinking about how I’ve been thinking, and why it is that I’ve been predominantly critical of myself, my work, and my view of the world as of late. I spend a lot of time alone now that my daughters are mostly grown up. I used to spend a great deal of time surrounded by people when I was a bartender, and I have learned that my recent periods of prolonged lack of contact with anybody outside of my immediate family can result in a sense of creative entropy. This situation is occasionally complicated and magnified by the physical pain that is my constant companion courtesy of spinal cord damage caused by tumours surrounding my spinal cord during my experience of end stage Hodgkin’s disease that required extensive treatment during my second encounter with cancer. Two heart attacks didn’t help much, either.
Anyway, my studio practice is affected by this combination of factors.
I also take a fair whack of drugs to deal with pain issues. Fortunately, the drugs don’t really slow me down too much. Unlike most people, opiates and opioids don’t make me sleepy, nor do the muscle relaxants and pain blockers I also take on a daily basis. I put it down to a checkered past. I tend to take all of my medications for three or four days in a row and then go without the codeine and dylaudid (hydromorphone) I use for breakthrough pain (pain that is in addition to and beyond my constant sensory pain) for a day or two. The trick is to take time-outs in order to prolong the efficacy of the lowest possible dosages of opioids for my condition, a condition that will probably never improve. It’s a pretty good trade-off considering there was talk of losing my left leg as a worst case scenario in 2004. My doctors figured I’d have a cane for walking as a best case scenario. I managed to get back to running and hockey until I injured my upper spine when I was attending college, bartending and building a new studio a couple of years back. Since then I’ve been on a journey to find the right doctor and the right treatment and approach to getting my body healthy and my pain under management.
Needless to say, all this impacted my painting.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been fortunate enough to leave bartending and all other jobs behind me as I have made the studio my full-time gig. I’ve been fairly productive, first in spurts, gradually becoming more consistent as I have become accustomed to having a mind free of the workaday world while fine-tuning my medication program.
Which is what makes this recent spell of inactivity odd and maddening.
I think it is the combination of the above-mentioned factors and the federal and provincial state of Canadian politics/ corporate & public institutional corruption and malfeasance following over a decade of wars and lies, deepening environmental degradation, fiscal and ethical bankruptcy and the collapsing of the facade of “virtuous democracy” on a global scale brought to us by our neighbours to the south that has simply put me in a funk.
Well, it’s time for me to say: Funk that shit.
It’s time to get back to painting. It’s the only way to stay sane some days, because it requires total concentration. And as I learned during and after my medical adventures, whatever needs to make its way into the painting from all of the background noise will find a way to do so.
As Picasso said after seeing the cave paintings at Lascaux, “In 24,000 years, we have learned nothing.” This from the man who painted Guernica, that most modern yet timeless reminder of this fact.
Coming soon: columns about modern and contemporary artists whose work continue to influence my thinking about the act and practice of painting. Look for it in the “Modern Painters–Reviews” heading in July. First up will be Rocky Green and Euan Uglow.