Painting Nature: West Oakland to New Mexico

In the modern human’s search for some kind of truth transcendent untainted by culture, power or falsity, we often look toward nature: Thoreau, the American West, the Romantic traditions, even in our restaurants that claim to bring to the table the rhythms of the farm. Having spent my childhood and 20s in the woods, my nervous system is tuned to these rhythms, and when I moved to the city at 30, my sense of dislocation was immediate and profound. However, I had come to know that freedom is elusive even in the wildest places, for we are culture as much as we are nature, and I needed to go to culture to fully know my own nature.

Before the move to the city, I had been graced with an awakening of my senses that felt like redemption after years of struggle in addiction and anguish. The visible world revealed itself to me, and, in what I guess you would call an ecstasy, I started painting. For the first time in my life, I had a purpose I could believe in—to bring my vision to the world. After the move to the city though, it was as if my spirit left my body. Painting became a tortuous struggle, made even more painful because I knew it was a gift I could never return, but doing it only revealed how far and fast I had fallen. I often thought of the phrase, “banished from the garden,” made even more relevant by the fact that I was now living away from my redwoods and meadows and at the intersection of Fell and Webster in San Francisco where the traffic never shuts up. I stuck it out because I sensed that my wholeness was not separate from society, but depended upon a reconciliation with, or a reshaping of, culture rather than a removal from it.

So there I was feeling wretched in loud restaurants among well-groomed people with resumes.  And after six years of miserably trying to inhabit urban spaces that felt disconnected from essences, constructed for commerce and a false comfort built on oppression and exploitation, I found myself in the hood, and life got real again.

Nothing is there that has been designed for any other purpose than what it’s really for: fences are meant not to charm with their novelty, but to keep danger out and the dogs in, liquor stores for quick fixes to insurmountable problems, cars being fixed in the street without concern for the aesthetics of oil spills on the sidewalks.  Beautification and ornamentation are reserved for what’s really important: the autonomous body, while the rest of it–the sidewalks, the walls under the control of the city—are littered with trash, the useless visibly useless in the gutter.

The chaos and despair that are the product of our wealth and so-called comfort and so-called meaning is undeniably visible. There are no businesses with walls of re-purposed wood meant to communicate sustainability and moral justification for spending $16 on a cocktail while people a few blocks away scrape together $1.25 for a can of OE. Billboards and their messages are diminished by the unstoppable waves of graffiti, marketing campaigns of the human hand and arm. There is no interest in well-designed beautification projects that involve inserting parklet nature into the concrete jungle. Nature isn’t cultivated, referenced or honored. In the words of Jack Pollock, the hood IS nature.

It’s the red in tooth and claw variety of nature that our designed world lets us forget until car accidents, illness, and nature’s strongest player—death—comes for the body. My body knows instinctively to hit the floor when gunshots crack right outside the window. My skin is sensitized and vulnerable, waiting to be punctured. In the morning, a long line of blood all the way down the block and around the corner, leaking from someone running.  I make myself cry with compulsive fantasies of imagining Rory lying bleeding in the street or me screaming at the police to stop, watching helplessly as his body is injured. I don’t know why I do this—preparing myself? I watch a gun come out of a man’s pants and I run in a zig zag path to be a harder target to hit. I rush in, jacked up on adrenaline, between a man with a knife and the woman he’s trying to stab before he knocks her unconscious, and watch them hug it out the next day, a bullet hole in my front door. Life is most immediate at this basic level: the preservation or the destruction of the body.

Let’s not forget, however, that the hood is the product of culture, its existence brought into being by ruthless colonial greed. The hood is a creation of a culture that has no use for it other than to pick off members of its population to feed its prisons and scapegoat fantasies. It’s what happens when a culture doesn’t want to face reality and so they pawn it off on someone else. We say we want nature but we want to contain nature, just as we say we want life, but only if we can contain it safely out of reach of death. Our legacy of manifest destiny keeps us believing there is more, that we can keep running, as we run over everyone else and over our own limited lives. Once in visceral contact with the truth of this limitation, my own chronic pain was healed. I had seen it for what it was: the pain of bourgeois attempts to distance ourselves from the nature of our suffering. My life-long alienation from culture was my self-preserving refusal to believe the lie that false comfort is better than real pain.

Living in this environment that reflected the real in me gave me a ground to stand on, and my painting came back to life: my paint roller backgrounds inspired by endless graffiti cover-ups, textures of cement, patterns of brick, cheap siding and chain link, piles of garbage like paint scribbles blotting out the sidewalks, the chaos of tree branches pruned with no aesthetic consideration and growing back with consideration only for the sun. Cultural neglect and disregard created a vacuum that was enlivened by the softness of human skin everywhere, hands touching, hands making transactions, bodies tensed against constant threat, then relieved in moments of oblivion or laughter. Gestures, facial expressions, movements the purest form of human expression not only visible but necessary to preserve the soul, human nature reigning, constructed culture a threat in the form of police, self-doubt, and hopelessness. I felt and saw all of this and I wanted all those bored, dead-eyed people eating in restaurants with their haircuts to see it too and push the plate back and give a shit.

So now here in New Mexico with none of this: no people outside on the street, no street, no neighborhood, no buildings but for postcard barns on the horizon, painting in the way I have been would be artificial, a grasping at the past and doing the disservice of turning a felt reality into an idea commodity. Nature here is expressed in sky and grass and light. It’s vague and without narrative. I don’t know how to translate it into paint or art or even if I want to. I don’t know what I want to do other than move around in it or simply absorb space into my skull through my eyes. I don’t feel compelled to translate it, honor it or represent my vision of it, the way I did my surroundings in Oakland. I think then I was motivated by wanting to attend to what has been denied—in myself and the dominant culture: the awareness that, when death is literally around the corner (as it always is), life is valuable in and of itself. With nothing added. Every single person’s life.

But this place feels empty. Do I seek out people to paint? Meh.  Nothing feels necessary. My perspective is so broad here. Everything is diminished under the sky. Nothing calls for attention. What does an artist make who has disappeared? Who has found her nature reflected in empty space?