Exquisite Palimpsests

Palimpsest: Something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface. – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

“Of course, I can imitate a line, but that is not what I want, and the real line emerges when it wants to.” –The Journals of Jean Cocteau

Exquisite Palimpsest 1

The palimpsests I encounter most, at the moment, are the ones my 21-month-old son and I create together.

His first experience making art begins with lines lightly scrawled from a waxy midnight blue Crayola crayon, a few little squiggles per page. He informs me that they are, “Snakes, snakes.” He often likes to say a word twice and the repetition gives the word an immediacy and urgency that elevates it to a level of vast importance.

On a walk, just the week before his first forays in art-making, we came across a small injured Garter snake in the middle of the path that winds through our neighborhood. For many days, after, he would reflect back on the snake, “Snake ow, Mama.” And I would say, “Yes, the snake had an ow.”

When I write the letters of the alphabet on a page he informs me that the letters C, O and D are clearly, “Moon, Mama.”

He now requests I draw a bus, roughly, ten times a day. On the same page he continues to draw and draw repetitively in thick strokes until the representational image has vanished under something resembling a Jackson Pollock, if Jackson Pollock would have taken to the medium of crayons and magic markers.

Exquisite Palimpsest 2

We take turns sometimes with a single broken blunt scrap of crayon, like old friends sharing a flask of whiskey. He draws for ten seconds, hands the crayon stub to me, I draw for ten seconds, hand the crayon stub back to him. And we go on this way for half an hour on a single artwork. This is our Surrealist experiment, our Exquisite Corpse, our exquisite palimpsest.

Exquisite Palimpsest 5

At nine months old, my son started saying, “This.” It was a way for him to direct me toward what he wanted, but it was also a way for him to ask me the name of a thing. He would point up a painting in our home by Cuban-American artist Humberto Benitez, of a crowd of women and men dancing and drumming, in the spirit of a Diego Rivera, primary colors flashing and say, “This?” and I would say, “Art,” and he would repeat the word, “Art, art,” two times. Soon he would just point up to the painting and say, “Art” and I would say, “Yes! That is art.”

I hope the word art will hold an evolving meaning for him; a word that over time will just continue to absorb complexity, a word and a thing allowed to dance between definitions, dangling in its own balance, in a contented state of flux, but with its roots still intact; a word that will expand to the point in which it will defy definition over the years.

I hope I am able to teach him that art is a sort of ingenious game of the imagination, sometimes playful and invigorating, and that there is a delicious elation that can arrive during the process of its creation.

As a child, my dad would often take us to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He would say, “Mara, look at this painting! The textures and layers!” and so on. The only color on the crusty expanse of canvas: white.

My mind expanded on these family excursions – electricity surged though me – I experienced joy, ecstasy, inspiration – all this at once. I was awake, really seeing and taking it all in because art truly lit up my father. He became a firework beacon of light that could not be contained on these outings, because this was Art, Art I tell you! (with a capital A) and it was brilliant and vital and invaluable and had to be mulled over and examined. These mind-altering masterpieces could not be touched with our hands, but we let our eyes be windows to the soul when we looked at them through eyes that were seeing as if for the first time.

Exquisite Palimpsest 3

My toddler son and I are making our first works of art together in quick succession. We scrawl lines, circles, spirals, As and Os, wheels and eyes and noses, floating faces and body parts, snakes and sand, dots and dashes, the sea and the sky and trees until it all becomes an abstract expanse, like desert sand in a slow but strong moving storm, the new grains cover the old ones, until the ones underneath are barely discernible; until not a square inch of blankness is left or it all become monochromatic -one- one thick expanse of desert with all the geometric shapes and bodies and balls and boxes you could identify underneath barely visible, an almost clean slate of solid color with little flashes of white – an exquisite palimpsest we made together.

Exquisite Palimpsest 5

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Karl Ove’s Spring

I just finished reading My Struggle: Book I by Karl Ove Knausgaard. The novel sat beside my bed and traveled everywhere with me for the past month, from Asheville to Key Biscayne, Miami to Los Angeles, and West Hollywood back to Asheville. My son, not yet two, would sometimes look at the book and ask, “This man?” Karl Ove’s intense searing eyes looking back at us, from the book cover, complex and mysterious, like every moment he had lived and every word he had scribed, every struggle, both significant and mundane as well as every cigarette he had chain-smoked, was written into a map on his face. “This man is Karl Ove,” I would say almost proudly, with an air of he is someone important, just one of the greatest writers of the twenty-first century! Eventually I would just hold up the book for him and say, “Who is this?” and he would say, “Karl,” as if Karl was a good friend of ours. It never ceased to amuse me.

Karl or his novel, the first in a six-part series (four volumes published in the U.S. so far), felt like a good friend to me as I read it. It has been quite a while since I have fallen-in-love with a “novel” and it feels good to be in-love with one again. Spring is the perfect mise-en-scene for such sentiments, as it is here in one of my favorite passages from the novel. The “character” Karl Ove, as a teenager, has fallen in-love for the first time, simultaneously spring is unfolding in his hometown in Norway:

“Few things are harder to visualize than that a cold, snow-bound landscape, so marrow chillingly quiet and lifeless, will, within mere months, be green and lush and warm, quivering with all manner of life, from birds warbling and flying through the trees to swarms of insects hanging in scattered clusters in the air. Nothing in the winter landscape presages the scent of sun-warmed heather and moss, trees bursting with sap and thawed lakes ready for spring and summer, nothing presages the feeling of freedom that can come over you when the only white that can be seen is the clouds gliding across the blue sky above the blue water of the rivers gently flowing down to the sea, the perfect, smooth, cool surface, broken now by rocks, rapids, and bathing bodies . . . One evening in March the snow turns to rain, and the piles of snow collapse. One morning in April there are buds on the trees, and there is a trace of green in the yellow grass. Daffodils appear, white and blue anemones too. Then the warm air stands like a pillar among the trees on the slopes. On sunny inclines buds have burst, here and there cherry trees are in blossom.”