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We’ve made dummy pictures together, passing copy paper around the tables, and somebody says, “A head!” and we all draw a head and we pass the papers around to the next guy, and somebody says, “Ears!” and we all draw ears. A weird person is emerging. The ears are crayon and colored pencil and magic marker, and there are tall ears, sci-fi ears, normal ears, and potato ears. We pass the papers. Then somebody says, “Eyes!” and about fifteen new people are there looking at you, and soon, they can soon smell you because they have a “Nose!”
And we pass the papers.
And now, Pinocchio becomes a little boy. Because somebody said, “Mouth!” and all these papers, well, they have a voice now, just try and shut them up; people are laughing and people are trying too hard and people are almost shaking to be in a group again, but its fine, because it is a group for artists, it is the Painted Brain. Some of us are crazy; some of us are fried; some of us are just happy to be together with somebody else who loves design. And somebody in that Painted Brain Academy gave us permission to be artists, which we are, and any time an artist discovers something curious or funny, that is permission to holler.
What do we have together? There’s a guy that does cartoons, someone else does a website, some are therapists, one guy is a musician, and some are student interns. A poet, a journalist, a guy who studies the news coming from all over the world. We’re not even close to portraits in oil. What do we have together?
Mental illness. Yeah. And… spirit of crimson, jazz of jiggy wild get ‘er done, upside and abandon. The little hole out of the cave. Finding ourselves together, after all this time, alive.
Some have recreated the light of an aperture to photograph… you. Them. Fingernails. Guppies. Commercial boxes. Our Aunt Lu. Like we’ve been informed on a Tuesday we won’t make it through the night, and on a Wednesday we wake up conscious of sun in the room. We are used to being useless. But microscopic details have always intrigued us, whether they wiggle or form a supporting triangle. If we applied at Art Center or Otis Parson’s they might not even write back. Some of us don’t have phones or emails. But, now, the macroscopic of the aurora borealis, how do we get that? In a poem? In a painting? In a blog? It even takes a special kind of film.
And maybe the beautiful light on polar ice caps becomes a metaphor, a symbol for something else. There is as much mind to mental illness as there is mess. And that is why we fight for every breath. Because you cannot force success or sanity or creativity.
You can’t push it.
None of us move on our own. Babies wait for the agony of the mother. And we don’t grow on our own. We don’t crawl under the arch of our foot and benchpress it. And when we are in our natural fallow time, the time writers shudder to whisper, “Writer’s Block,” we cannot stride into the frozen fields and yank out a harvest.
Even for those who are knuckles on the bars, coals glowing for eyes, you have to accept the mess. You mightn’t even be able to stand, because sometimes hell and not-working last a very long time. But look at the mess. And get so you see the mess, and get so you have to mess with it.
It is not a matter of “I am getting up and changing today.” It is the way the paper folds, or the peach pit casts a shadow, shimmering a ray from the window. It is the way of a can, caught deep in the ground as tin and burned and melted into a container which somebody created to get across a name. Pepper enthralls. If you are an artist, you know exactly what I mean. If you are not, study bill accumulation.
Whatever the spark, it is always smaller than you need. It is the sticky fragility of a Spending Plan deteriorating in the break-down puddle beside the washing machine. Shoes, same style worn by runners, become the span between the Spam can and the leg of a wooden horse. You see that sugar is shine where it doesn’t have to be glitter.
You sit with the mess until you have to mess with the mess, you have to tear it or fold it or organize it or paint it. And the puny, non-museumworthy result? The question, the wonder, is the thing you use to move your life. You have a plan for next time, and a mess until you make something of that. Something you like.
No, that’s true. It is true I am not talking about art at all, but I am talking about how we offer peace by providing mental health services to every person in L.A. County, to see mental health care accepted as basic hygiene, and improving it along with physical health care. If we can be artists, if we can cherish the process and move only when required by nurturing and nourishment, into the mess, through the mess — we can, I hope joyfully, be creating from the Painted Brain something we all might like.
Jane M. Engleman is a member of the Painted Brain Academy. This is her first contribution to Painted Brain News.