My mom set a mean table. Linens crisp and perfect. Glassware glistening. Silverware polished to a high gloss. She could whip up something delicious effortlessly, and if anyone dropped in unexpectedly, she was happy to have them, and thrilled when they loved what she'd pulled together.
Me not so much. I've always felt a little bad about that. A little less than. But domesticity was her domain and I seem to have decided not to compete. It's been interesting to find myself a few years into my art practice being pulled to pictures of her at her glamorous, Mad Man era best. I want to paint her, to resurrect her beauty and power from what Alzheimer's stole. Over the years I've dabbled in all sorts of homages to her: collages, photo-transfers, even a cigar box mock-up of her immaculate closet - with it's rows of color coordinated suede pumps, paisley hat boxes with jewel-toned ties piled to the ceiling, her chartreuse wool suit, sleeveless fuchsia shell.
I recently completed an intensive three month art immersion course with Nicholas Wilton and his superb team at ART2LIFE. Early on in the program Nick had us do a guided visualization. We were to picture a solo show opening in a New York City gallery - five years in the future. The first time I attempted the exercise I came up dry.
Then I took another stab at it a couple of weeks ago and "Voila!" - my show was filled with paintings of my mom. They were huge - bold and colorful, abstracted but clearly her, and also so much more than her.
This was thrilling for about five minutes. And then the doubts came rushing in:
"Who are you kidding? Just commission Chad Little . He’s looking for great vintage pics anyway and his work is so amazing. Yours will only be a pathetic wannabe. If you commission Chad the charity he donates to will benefit.”
It was a very short hop from this line of thinking to wandering around aimlessly, rearranging piles of paper and feeling sorry for myself. Whatever I did accomplish that day had nothing to do with painting.
Self doubt is like your persistent, oblivious, annoying Uncle Leo, materializing uninvited at your door with a fruitcake and a suitcase. "NO TRESPASSING" signs do nothing to keep him at bay. Neither do barricades or screaming "Not you again!" at the top of your lungs.
Here’s where being a lousy hostess finally comes in handy. Since I didn't invite him, and he's such a pain in the patoot - the only solution is showing him to the rickety chair in the studio, the one facing the corner with all the paint smeared rags on it, and having him amuse himself because "I'M BUSY PAINTING." No stopping to listen to his meandering, repetitive stories. No running around trying to whip up the perfect meal. He's insatiable anyway, and will doubtless complain about whatever I make being too hot, too cold, too healthy - you get the drift.
In her wonderful book about the creative process, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert has come up with ingenious ways to speak to fear and self doubt. UK artist and art blogger Louise Fletcher recommends saying "Oh well - onward!" when they appear in her studio. Since there's no conquering these demons, only getting exhausted trying, the more strategies you have to call on when they appear yet again, the better. I'd love to hear what works for you.
Meanwhile, I've started those paintings.
I figure in five years, if I keep up this lousy hostessing every time doubt and fear darken my door, I've got a chance of making that New York gallery show visualization a reality.
Rachel Davis is a San Francisco Bay Area contemporary artist. As Dr. Ruth Davis Kalb, she’s also a licensed psychologist specializing in helping artists, writers and others overcome creative blocks.