Chinese miners first settled Buncom in 1851 when gold was discovered in Sterling Creek. The outpost (now a ghost town) is located twenty miles southwest of Medford along a very scenic, very twisty road. We often hike the nearby Sterling Mine Ditch Trail. Built (with hand tools!) in 1877 to carry water from the Little Applegate River through some rugged mountains to a mine over twenty-six miles away, it’s a marvel of nineteenth-century engineering. The whole area is rich in history.
The Buncom Post Office seemed like a fine subject to draw. It’s hard to work on a larger scale so I bought a small sketchbook (5.5″x8.5″ — the same size as my novels). Also, using a ballpoint pen helps. There’s less resistance so, once I get a stroke going, it’s easier to follow through. Unfortunately, it means that I can’t erase anything. The archival quality isn’t great, either. Unlike Buncom, my sketches won’t last 171 years.
When I draw Lisa, my dexterity improves. I’ll continue as long as she lets me. It takes a while but, since I’m happy to study the subject, it’s easy to persevere. I spent four hours on the latest, too long for her to hold a pose. I had to rely on a photograph. When she saw the result, she was upset that she looked so upset. Next time, she decided, I would use her choice of a picture, instead.
Lisa also modeled for the cover of my second novel,The Sketchbook (in the story, it’s a different character than appears in the sketches themselves which predate our acquaintance). She patiently endured my amateur staging and awkward adjustments to her pose. The original mockup included her body on both the front and back of the book.
The publisher took the material and designed something slightly different. I liked how they made her right elbow wrap over the spine. Nevertheless, it crowded her rearward aspect out. I miss, in the final version, her amazing hips where they had rounded the sides of the synopsis.
During our decade together (we’re now halfway through our eleventh year), Lisa has endured a lot. She edited my first two literary projects, helped to write a third, never lost hope when none were successful and has weathered my Parkinson’s well. Now, as a model — which her modesty may not always allow — she has taught me that drawing is still a possibility.
As the words encroached on the images, I found a passage that described the latter: “My work is good, it has potential”. Given how badly I had doubted myself, it may be the closest that I ever came to praising what I had done. In the rest of the paragraph, I displayed my usual ambivalence:
“So why I am writing all this down is that if I should do something stupid, like turn down such a huge promotion, I can review these words and see just what the hell I was thinking. My work is good, it has potential, and I hate to sacrifice it for anything (except for Kristiine’s happiness, and I think she’ll be happier with an emotionally stable husband than with the extra $). And even if I were able to save up enough for Grad School I may be dead as an artist by the time I get there and so, would never get accepted anywhere anyway.” 10-11-95
I came across the note in the course of compiling a final collection of old figure studies (none were good enough for the website gallery — all were too good to ignore). I was twenty-five when I wrote it, a couple of years out of college and new to the printing industry. A few months into my second job, I was offered a promotion from the factory floor to customer service. I didn’t take it, nor did I go to grad school. Whether I have wasted my potential or not is another question.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about a painting of mine from the mid-1990s. In A Pivotal Piece, I described its abstract imagery as a way of abandoning the figure and freeing myself from the heavy baggage of the body. I’ve always had a complex relationship with the nude. There’s a line somewhere between the beautiful and the lewd that I had gotten tired of trying to find. If you’re depicting a sight that’s usually censored, it’s easy to feel like a pervert. Even so, deeper issues had informed my treatment of the subject.
Most of us are ashamed of what our clothing covers. I convinced regular people to model for me after college and discovered how often our flaws — whether real or not — horrify us. I was so moved by the realization that I wrote a short story about the discrepancy between who we are and how we appear. Will and Testament was finished in 1994. A year or two later, when my art no longer dealt with the human form, I put the piece of fiction away. Around that time, I weathered my first divorce, plant closure and eviction when the landlord sold my house. Afterwards, I found a new job and a little apartment where I got to work on a series of abstracts in earnest. Once I was situated at my new place, however, a shocking experience altered my point of view.
The one-bedroom unit faced a busy thoroughfare. At the front was a patio, to the left was a shopping center and to the right was the rest of the apartment complex. Somebody stayed over. She had already gotten undressed to spend the night when I reminded her that her car was still outside of a store around the corner (a paving project had made her leave it there instead of its regular spot). Her vehicle, I insisted, was at risk. In her frustration, she marched outside to move it. Did she know that she hadn’t donned anything more than her sandals? She didn’t seem to care. I watched her reach one parking lot, drive to the other and walk inside again. Those five minutes were amazing. The culprit was in her forties. What she considered her imperfections didn’t break her stride. Her courage carried her into a public arena where several people saw but nobody questioned her. The sight of it drove me to revisit Will and Testament. Those 6,452 words became the opening chapter of the first of three novels dedicated to the idea that simply beholding a body can’t really harm you.
“That desolate place, not even a town but a corner — the intersection of two roads on their way somewhere better — that was home. The street names are Jackson and Bradshaw but that doesn’t really matter. On my last trip into the area, I discovered every landmark gone. The city that used to cast a shadow across the lonely outpost had finally swallowed it whole. A ramshackle row of buildings had been replaced with a uniform handful of franchises. Its striking resemblance to anywhere else in America made its old character unrecognizable.” — In So Many Words
It wasn’t my home. I grew up in the hills to the east. Rather, a character from my first novel, In So Many Words, hailed from the area. I also chose the location as the subject of a series of paintings in 1994. That’s when I shot the photographs on which I based my visual and literary fictions.
It’s near the Sacramento raceway. I have memories of stopping by the market as a child with my dad. Later, I went to the store with my older sister and her boyfriend whom, as a car guy, I admired. Once I had a ’69 Charger of my own (even at amateur events, it wasn’t allowed on the dragstrip because of leaking fluids), I wound up back there again.
When I returned to the corner decades later, the market, a little saloon called the “Office” and a garage had been replaced by two modern gas stations with their attendant mini-marts and a “Subway” sandwich shop. It felt as if a little progress had sanitized the past. If only we could tear down our personal issues and rebuild ourselves in a prettier way …
Last week, I had the best luck with drawing that I’ve had in a long time. I considered the awkward sketches a breakthrough. Lisa was supportive (luckily for me since she was the unwitting model). I used a photo of her that I keep on my desk as the source material. Her one complaint was her ponytail. Why hadn’t I chosen a shot of her with her long, dark hair down? So, here’s my attempt to make amends. My control is still impaired. I find that if I get the pencil moving in one direction, though, I can repeat the motion pretty fluidly. Hence the crosshatching. It’s a good way to shade with short bursts of parallel lines. Having a subject that I don’t get tired of portraying helps, too.
The new year brings with it some better news. Yesterday, in what has become a depressing ritual, I tried drawing. It’s a good way to check how far my Parkinson’s has progressed. Lately, it has ended in frustration a few minutes into the exercise. I just haven’t had the kind of control that used to get me through a project. While I sat in our office wondering what subject to scribble, wad up and throw away, the photo next to the desk lamp beckoned me. It’s a shot of Lisa that always cheers me up. In my darkest hours, her smiling face can improve my mood. I took the framed print to the drawing table and spent the next five hours trying to capture her likeness. While I don’t feel that the results are recognizable as her specifically (she thought the topmost attempt was a man), they’re probably my best sketches in more than a year:
Update: A few days later, I spent two more hours and achieved a better result. While it’s still not as good as I would like, I’m happy to have a reason to keep working.
Update: A few weeks later, the practice is paying off:
Creatively speaking, I haven’t decided where to go next. Understanding where I’ve already been, it seemed to me, would help. Pouring over my old work, I stumbled across a couple of photographs. Both were out of focus. Why had my camera refused to cooperate? In 1996, if you took a picture, you had to wait to get the film developed to view the results. By the time that I saw how blurry the prints were, the painting had disappeared. I can, however, remember more.
There was a different drawing underneath the troweled-on colors. It included a pair of figures, a dreary interior and a joyless setting outside of a window. The incomplete scene lived on the canvas where I didn’t touch it for months. Before I did, in fact, my first wife and I had moved. We rented a tiny place in Penryn, California. By the following year, the landlord had sold the house, the printing plant where I had been working twelve-hour-shifts had gone out of business and our marriage had ended. At some point amid the turmoil, I finished the piece without any hint of the penciled-in outline.
Had reality become so bleak that I needed a break? The abstraction that resulted was a kind of release. At the time, I was proud of my accomplishment. A televised auction to benefit the local PBS station seemed like the perfect platform to showcase what I had done. After waiting to watch the broadcaster get to my contribution, I was shocked; the studio lights struck the oil sheen of its surface to leave it aglow. None of the strokes were remotely visible. The phones having rung incessantly for other works of art were silent. My creation did better with the in-person bidding at a gallery (which is where I got two pictures before the new owner took it home).
More importantly, I had, as a painter, parted ways with the nude. The figure never starred in a full-scale composition of mine again (although it did, later, fill a sketchbook and emerge in a lot of fiction). Regardless of its rocky debut, the first example led to many more as if, freed of the heavy baggage of the body, I could have some fun:
The plastic sheets had sat in a wooden wine box in the closet for years. It wasn’t until I began to compile a record of my work that I dug them out. They were from the early nineties. To exhibit your art anywhere back then, you submitted your slides. What I needed were jpegs for the website. After some research online, I found a company, ScanCafe, that would convert them into something usable. A few weeks after I mailed the originals off, I received their digital incarnations. Sadly, they feature paintings that have long since disappeared. One series in particular, I thought, deserved another look:
I called them “Windows” (hadn’t I heard that Microsoft was already using the title?) and numbered them one through eleven. Some are better than others, of course. I found a photograph where I had posed with a few. My pride was apparent. A gallery career seemed within easy reach (almost everything does when you’re in your twenties). So what do they say to me now? They were meant to portray the intellectual constructs through which we perceive the world. Maybe I should try looking at mine through different windows.
In April of 2021, I clicked the “publish” button. IMAGE: An Illustrated Novel went live on Amazon. What drove me to that decision was largely a positive editorial review that I had paid for the year before (thank you government stimulus check). Kirkus Reviews, a famously harsh and widely respected judge of literary merit, had liked my book. It was, in their opinion (see kirkusreviews.com), “An old-school horror tale that delightfully embraces its inspirations and genre conventions.” So how could I go wrong?
I bought two more evaluations to bolster the first. Online Book Club issued their approval (see onlinebookclub.org): “There was nothing I disliked about this book. The story was intriguing, and the spookiness was used to good effect. It was also exceptionally well edited, so I rate it 4 out of 4 stars.” That write-up was actually the last to reach me. By the time that I read their praise, I needed some cheering up.
In between the first and third verdicts, my ego took a hit. Reedsy, a company that sells writing aid to authors (none of which I had utilized), has a program called Discovery meant to showcase new books on their website. Their reviewer tore IMAGE apart (see reedsy.com): “Poor writing leads to the reader wanting to rush through half the book, and the rest seems to be rather aimless at any rate“. The critic, who listed her genres of interest as young adult and fantasy, posted her one-star rating on Goodreads so it follows IMAGE around there, too.
What’s strange is how bothered I am. Two out of three ain’t bad, after all. The worst result was also the cheapest: at $50, a fraction of the others. Kirkus and Online Book Club both verified that their readers had actually finished the job. Reedsy had me submit my own synopsis (I lifted it straight from the Amazon product description) so I can’t be sure that anybody had done more than skim my work. The Reedsy woman even wrote that she was “tempted to rush through what amounts to at least half of the novel.” Maybe she did.
It isn’t okay to pay for customer reviews, only the editorial variety (the most you’re supposed to do is offer a free copy in exchange for an honest opinion; I’ve come across companies that will circumvent the system for a price). I learned that Amazon doesn’t even want your friends and family commenting on your book. Given the stringent guidelines, I have to wonder: is it fair to hide the fact that not everybody loved my novel? In the interest of ethics, I have included the Reedsy critique on the product page. Authentic or not, it’s still some of the only feedback that I have to show.