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The Feeding-the-baby Hour
In the throes of middle age, I lie bewitched at night. If that word conjures up too much of an air of magic and fairy tales, it is because I shy away from its alternative – “cursed”. It is not quite a case of dark ladies on broomsticks, but it is just as vexing.
Night sweats and hormonal roller coasters no longer keep me awake. That inconvenience has been exorcised (and here I do confess to some ritualistic wand-waving) and buried with the dried-up dreams of my now defunct ovaries.
I call it the feeding-the-baby hour.
Perhaps it is a curse, the universe demanding payback for my baby-free youth, during which I slept like, well, like a baby. Or a log at least. What is certain, a fact proven by the dark-night dabblings constituting this piece, is that my nights are broken by hours of wakefulness. I can rely for my nightly assignations on an hour or two where sleep retreats like an ebbing tide, leaving me on the exposed mud flats of existence, alone with my thoughts and the baby I have to feed.
It is a foundling and an impostor. It is a cuckoo chick in the nest of my mind.
It slumbers on the edge of my consciousness and as I surface out of deep dreams to take a breath (or a leak), it rolls to face me and I’m awake.
Sleep tugs at me. I am here, it says. I roll onto my other side. I am also here, screeches the baby, and sleep retreats. By now I know I do not have a choice. The baby needs a feed.
Its unfocused eye is a globe, a dying planet grown cloudy with greenhouse gases. It blinks and another species dies, spilt like tears of acid rain. The sparse threads of its hair are remnants of a rain forest that will never recover.
The baby squints and cries. Its hungry throat is the colour of disease as it swallows my concerns, gulping down statistics on cancer and pollution and viruses. I feed it drops of worry, filling its gut with shredded bills and bank statements, the checks and balances of my life. It spits them out again, burping half-digested untruths.
In the tiny hands that grab hold of my clothes and hair I read both past and future. The actions and reactions of the past day replay endlessly in each tiny whorl of its fingerprints, and in its palms I see predicted the follies of the next
As the baby settles, I sing it a lullaby, a new song from the ramblings of my tongue. Like a modern-day Rumpelstiltskin I weave my word straws into silk and tuck the baby in. As the witching hour approaches, we both fall back asleep.
Until tomorrow night. Because the baby needs a feed.
Sometimes a perfectly good, though mediocre, painting is pushed past the limits of what it is capable of becoming. It then either has to perish and be forgotten, or it can rise like a phoenix and become something totally different and, perhaps, strange. The question to the artist is this: If you are sensitive enough to realise a work’s limited potential, do you leave it be or kill it off, like an unsentimental breeder with the runt of the litter?
It may not be great art and it may not be up to your standards, but it may yet have given someone pleasure. It may even be, however unlikely, a masterpiece—because who are you to judge?—whose demise will be mourned by art historians in centuries to come.
Is it then just pride that drives your decision to destroy it? You do not, after all, want to be associated with inferior work. Or is it a higher feeling of magnanimity towards mankind, whom you do not want to burden with another piece of wannabe art? More than likely it is just frustration—you know you’re flogging a dead horse, but you can’t stop hitting. Let it go to hell then, and good riddance.
It is also possible that your painting, like an underappreciated racehorse filly, does have the genes of glory, and it is you who lack the geniality to take it there. Your midwifery only reaches to mediocrity.
I have killed off many paintings-in-the-making by forcing on their fresh and mute mediocrity my desire for profundity and meaning. I have taken photos of some, and the images of stillbirth saddens me. Others only survive in the hidden layers of paint under better, more satisfying paintings, the base layer of a palimpsest. Perhaps in future I will be more careful and caring. I will send them off, free to a good home and incognito, denying all authorship, and get on with the business of creating new ones from scratch.
But for now, here I am again, breeding chimeras from packhorses. Even these may never win any race, but heck, it’s such fun trying!
Imagine, as an adjunct to your five or six senses, a symbiotic ability of your neurological and electromagnetic systems, an extra sense located perhaps in the pit of your stomach. Wherever that clichéd location may be. See it as a glowing, vibrating spot with feathery antennae like a moth on a moonlit night. We will call it your aesthetometer.
Let it measure beauty. And, to pander to all beauties in the eyes of all beholders, let it measure your interpretation of beauty.
How acute is your aesthetometrics? Does beauty hit you like a fist to the solar plexus? Does it leave you nauseous and panting for breath?
I have, at last, found a name for this malady. I am, for better or worse, an aesthete. My aesthetometer pings at the slightest breath of beauty, as fine-tuned as the needle of a seismograph picking up rumblings in the earth’s tectonic plates a hundred miles hence. It trembles and flutters at a drop of colour, a veil of light, a note on the air.
Beauty does something to me. As other creatives are affected by pain or love or unfairness, I am blown away by beauty. It grips me by the throat, so that I want to cry out “Look! Look! Listen! Isn’t it beautiful?”
The colours and composition of summer fruit in a bowl, the sliced surface of a red cabbage, the way the trees dance in a forest, the smell of a lily, the clear call of a butcher bird – I am overloaded with impulses, brimful with beauty, and I don’t know what to do with it. I lack the skills to reproduce it or even to reinterpret it in art or writing. It is beyond me.
This is perhaps where photographers have an advantage – the ability to precisely capture beauty in an instant and hold on to its mercurial attraction. In a next life, I would perhaps choose such a direct way to deal with beauty.
But here and now I groan inside because I cannot sing. I limp because I cannot dance. I shed words like tears, blurry and inadequate. Because, as Joyce Kilmer put it so beautifully
“Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.”
Look, art is difficult. I am not by any means the first or the only one to say it and I won’t be the last. Whenever I hear or see this mentioned, I want to nod my head like a woodpecker on high speed.
It takes a tremendous amount of introspection, dissociation, persistence, patience, and probably just plain don’t-give-a-damn weirdness to make art. On the other hand, it is also child’s play, which can be pretty hard to achieve once you’re past the age of about ten – just ask Picasso*.
The process and the results can be either extremely frustrating and disappointing, or deeply, soul-wrenchingly satisfying. Or both.
But art isn’t all heart and guts. It is also bone structure and skin and hair and a face, although not necessarily a pretty one. Art has a surface and it’s called technique. The good news for all struggling wannabes? Technique can be learnt. And practice makes near enough perfect for my liking.
Now I am not a full-time professional artist. I am not even part-time, since my creative down-time has to be divided between visual art and writing, and then subdivided into drawing and painting, poetry and prose, and again subdivided into realistic and more abstract, Afrikaans and English, and then... You get the idea. I can’t even presume to take an artist’s holiday (see Julia Cameron**), as this would be a holiday from a holiday. I’m more or less artistically schizophrenic.
The point is, I have spent the past three or more decades pottering in and out of art and I have always envied the apparent ease with which real artists could make pen or pencil or paint do exactly as they wanted to. Other writers could sit down for hours on end churning out words by the thousands, while I struggled to fill one page or stay put for more than an hour at a time. Other artists wielded their craft with the authority of the pros they are on a daily basis, while I had half a sketchbook of mediocre images after years.
But now, as if overnight, all the years of ambling along seem to have paid off. Those weekly walks around the drawing block have strengthened by muscles. The five-minute finger exercises have strengthened my hand.
I am no genius, no master, but I am better than I was. I have become writing fit. I have become drawing fit. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I can do that five-day hike and I won’t slip on the slopes. Eye and ear and heart and hand all aligned, fighting fit.
So keep going, because see, after all, it’s easy. (But oh, boy, is it difficult!)
* Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. Pablo Picasso
** The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron