“Justin Chase, you love yourself a Clayton’s Deli grilled cheese sandwich, but I know you find the variety I make with Kosher pickle chips, veggie bacon and a side bowl of creamy tomato soup to die for,” says Mother. She always refers to you by name when she is trying to rouse you out of one of your down moods.
And you most certainly are in a funk. Mother doesn’t want you stewing in depression after the manic swing you rode before sunrise this morning while putting the finishing touches on the motionless hallucination of vivid color that is your latest painting.
Mother blends whipping cream with a can of pureed tomatoes. As the soup simmers in a saucepan, she fries the vegetarian bacon, places three slices of sharp cheddar cheese and half a dozen rabbinically blessed pickled cucumber chips in between a serving of rye bread. She then puts the sandwich in a cast iron skillet slathered with butter. She takes two leaves from a basil plant she keeps on the kitchen counter, cuts them into fragrant strips and drops them into the soup. Within five minutes, Mother has served up your favorite comfort food.
“Let’s see if this will cheer you up,” she says, setting the meal on the table. Poor Mother. She is subject to your bipolarity, though she doesn’t always sympathize with it. When you are in a manic episode, she becomes alarmed by the way you verbalize impulsive notions such as wanting to throw your cell phone into moving traffic just because you’ve seen a movie about the universe-saving significance of erratic behavior.
When you’re having one of your ascending moments, Mother doesn’t share your grandiosity either. She herself doesn’t want to become the next Hilma af Klint or Helen Frankenthaler, but she desperately does want you to be a recognized painter, and when you are busy at work, she partakes of your hyperactivity. She finds your mania contagious. It infects her. At times, while you take to driven brushstrokes, she takes to concentrated sweeping, scouring and scrubbing.
And while she doesn’t agree with your habit of talking to complete strangers when you’re feeling unrestrained and expansive, she isn’t alarmed by your pressured speech when you two are each other’s only company. Then she matches your chattiness with her own.
Although your psychiatrist has warned that the decreased sleep you experience on an upswing leads to more pronounced lows, Mother doesn’t mind when you’re absorbed in your work, and she was not worried by the flurry of increased energy and activity she witnessed at 3 a.m. this morning, after she was awakened by the sound of the capsule coffee maker, and came upstairs to find you frantically painting.
The loud buzz of the coffee machine woke me up as well, right as I was dreaming of running in a pack of dingoes, all of which were female. The three she-dingoes and I were in pursuit of an antlered buck. In the dream, I brought up the rear of the pack, and possessed a blue coat rather than the red one I really have. And my eyes were the color of charcoal rather than azure blue. The she-dingoes brought down the buck and began to devour it while I stood back, hungry and observing. I emitted muffled barks in my sleep, utterances you find endearing whenever you hear me make them. If I had hands, mistress Justin, I’d paint the scene myself. And you could project meaning onto it, as does anyone who has an appreciation for the narrative elements in painting. The three dingoes that ran ahead of me could symbolize previous women painters who have had the fortune of catching their prey, of achieving renown. The fleeing buck signifies your elusive but reachable goal of making art that moves. The she-dingo-painters successfully obtained that goal. I, the less capable canine, who stood back and observed the feast, longing to partake of it, would, of course be you, the neophyte artist who looks on the accomplishments of prolific predecessors and strives for similar success, but is anxious of starving.
After I woke from the reverie, I climbed the stairs after Mother, who prizes your paintings as any doting female parent does the creations of her offspring, this latest canvas being an exception. Although the sky in the painting is blood red, my eyes only possess photoreceptor cells allowing me to see blues and yellows, so to me, the upper portion of the canvas looks the color of glazed corn. The off-kilter house below the skyline is primarily in shades of blue, including ultramarine, royal and sky varieties. Unless you were to win the lottery or inherited an unknown rich relative’s imaginary millions, the real house that inspired the painting is one you could never live in. It is of the sort that is usually featured in the prime real estate sections of the newspaper, and built by the wealthy who hire architects that have made names for themselves in the pages of contemporary architectural magazines.
When Mother finally laid eyes on the painting, you, always dismissive of your talents, said, “Please mother, don’t say anything. It’s a mess, I know,” to which she responded, “No, Justin, it sticks to your recurrent theme of making paintings of houses, but it’s different. I see you’ve painted words on this one, as if the house has been covered in graffiti: ‘Ecclesiastes 1:17,’ and ‘Give Up the Ghost.’ In the center, on some doors that look like they’re made of glass are the words ‘Depression’ and ‘Mania.’ These seem as if they’ve been sprayed on the glass. I know those refer to your condition. The meaning of the other words, I can only guess at.” You take a step back, still dissatisfied with your efforts, but respond to your mother’s puzzlement.
“The other references are to dad,” you say. “He’s always blaming me as being the culprit responsible for my mental illness, saying that I’m the one who chose to go to college and pursue wisdom and knowledge, and that by doing so I also pursued madness and folly, as does the wistful narrator of Ecclesiastes. I’m so tired of punishing myself because of dad’s accusations.” You don’t mention that your failed suicide last year, your attempt to give up your own ghost, was partially a result of the insensitivity he feels toward you.
“Visually, it’s a painting that conveys a lack of compassion, it isn’t forgiving to the observer. Does it have a name yet?” asks Mother.
“’The House He Built,’ and it’s not unforgiving. It’s ugly,” you say.
“It’s not ugly. It’s meaningful,” she says without hesitation and with emphasis.
I stand with my two front paws on a table near the easel, and sniff at the bottom right corner of the canvas. “See? Nina likes it,” says Mother.
“I can see that. The thing is, will the jury at the gallery like it enough to accept it for this month’s exhibit?”
“They’d be fools not to, but if I were you, I’d remove the faux graffiti. I think the picture makes enough of a statement with your choice of color and distorted forms,” replies Mother.
She is most likely right, but it’s 3:30 in the morning and you must be at the gallery at 11 to have your pictures juried. What she should suggest is that we all go back to bed and that you take previously painted canvases to the gallery, but she is riding your manic wave. While she doesn’t agree that the painting is ugly, she thinks it could be better. Mother can be a harsher critic of your work than Father is, but she doesn’t encourage abandoning your artistic ambitions in favor of a regular job with regular hours and regular pay like he does.
If the moon’s relative proximity to the Earth were representative of the satellite’s melancholic and exultant moods, with the planet’s increased distance representing lunar sadness and closer proximity signifying the moon’s ebullience, Father’s attempts to discourage your artistic ambitions fuel your depressive apogees. Mother’s incitements to excel drive your manic perigees. To my consternation, by suggesting improvements she is fueling your pre-dawn lunacy.
In the hours before sunrise, however, you steel yourself against her suggestions, if only to prove to yourself, and perhaps, to me, that mommy can’t always be right. The words she wants you to exclude from the canvas, make the work edgy. They don’t tell a story. They don’t symbolize an abstraction. They tell your story and represent you, and what does your therapist, after all, say about recovery? That you shouldn’t feel stigma as a result of your condition. That you should embrace it and educate others about it without experiencing shame or guilt. Despite not being entirely satisfied with the painting, you decide the painted words will stay on “The House He Built,” and say, “I’ll try taking it to the gallery as is, mother. You may not like the graffiti on the house, but they make the painting more personal. They make it about me, specifically. Not just about anybody who is uncomfortable about the metaphorical house they live in.”
“The director of the gallery might want paintings that speak to an audience, not exclusively to the painter herself,” says Mother.
It is one of the hottest nights of the summer and I am panting in the background.
“We should go back to sleep,” you say, “You know what my therapist says about proper sleep hygiene’s relation to mental well-being.”
At the sound of these last words, I bark once, then yawn and nestle my body against your legs.
“Nina agrees we should get some rest,” you say to Mother.
“In that case I’ll pour this coffee out. Such a waste,” she replies, and you go to bed not clear as to whether she was referring to the beverage or your artistic efforts.
You are up at 9 a.m. You shower, have breakfast, and study French, brushing up on the language you studied for three semesters in college, hoping that you can review it sufficiently to speak and understand it when you go to Paris with your mother’s sister, who is also your godmother and has invited you to spend a week with her in the 19th century’s city of lights this fall.
At 10:15, you load “The House He Built” and a painting you’ve called “Perseverance” into your mother’s car and drive them to the gallery. You sit in the parking lot for twenty minutes, your stomach in knots. If you’re juried in, this will only be your second showing and your painter’s ego is fragile. A negative assessment by the jury members could break you. At 10:57, you remove the paintings from the car and carry them into the All Eyes On gallery.
You ask for Marlene, the gallery director you’ve been emailing about showing your work, and the woman you ask says, “I’m Marlene. And you are?”
“Justin. Justin Chase.”
“Ah yes,” she says, then addresses a middle-aged man with a graying mustache and beard and wearing a beret, saying, “Wilfredo, this is Justin, she’s here…”
“They,” you say, “My preferred pronoun is they.”
“Of course,” Marlene says, with barely concealed scorn. “Wilfredo,” Marlene continues, “Justin is here to have their paintings juried. Can you take them to the back room and have them set their paintings up on our easel.” Marlene makes sure to especially emphasize her penultimate word.
As you walk into the gallery’s back room, you see other paintings on the floor leaning up against the wall that you assume have already been juried in and are waiting to be hung in the gallery. Wilfredo leads to a room in the rear of the gallery and says, “The jury will be in shortly, when instructed, please place your paintings on the easel.”
Despite the instructions you’ve been given by Wilfredo to wait, as far as your recollection is concerned, Marlene told Wilfredo you could set your paintings up as soon as you got to the back room. You go ahead and place “Perseverance” on the easel and judge it’s better than most of the works you saw on your way to the jury chambers.
Wilfredo comes back in with a woman who, introduces herself as Rachel and explains that they will be assessing your work. You provide them with the narrative behind the paintings, explaining that you aren’t so much process-oriented as you are compelled to interpret the personal meanings of the paintings after they’re completed. “I’m not guided by a particular technique, nor do I have a pre-conceived vision of what a painting will look like,” you say. Wilfredo and Rachel look unconvinced. “The interpretation of the work comes to me after I’ve finished it, similar to the way a dream can be interpreted only after it’s done,” you add.
“Okay,” says Rachel. She holds a pen she was jotting notes with, to her pursed lips. After she gets in position to take notes again, she asks, “Can you put the next painting on the easel?”
You explain the significance of “The House He Built” to the pair of jurors, whose facial expressions tell you they are as doubtful about the painting you finished last night as they were about “Perseverance,” which you finished two days ago.
“We rarely accept work that has religious connotations,” says Wilfredo, after he hears why you’ve chosen to make Scriptural references in the painting. “We want All Eyes On to be as unpolemical a gallery space as possible,” says Rachel.
“The painting isn’t making a religious statement, it’s more about the metaphorically unsound house I inhabit as a result of a family member’s insensitivity,” you insist.
“Marlene will contact you with our decision, and recommendation,” says Rachel.
The fact that Rachels said her and Wilfredo have a “recommendation,” immediately makes you suspect your paintings have not been accepted to the showing. You pick up your paintings, stride angrily toward the front door of the gallery, not acknowledging Marlene when you see her again, but who says, “Thank you, Justin,” as you pass her. Then you exit All Eyes On for what you hope will be the first and last time.
As you drive home, you feel an inky cloud of depression begin to seep into your synapses. You want to talk yourself out of the oncoming darkness, but, as happens most of the time, you can’t.
A few blocks before you reach home, you see an enclosure for a neighborhood garbage receptacle. You stop the car, remove the paintings from the back seat and without misgivings drop them inside the dumpster. Each piece strikes the bottom with a resounding clang.
When you enter the house, you do not greet me with affection as when you’re even-keeled, or enthusiastically, as when you’re on an upswing. You don’t greet me at all.
“Nina, look who’s home,” says Mother. She beams with pride, under the impression that because you haven’t returned with work in hand, it has been accepted by the jury and that your paintings now hang at All Eyes On.
The look on your face, is incongruent with her belief that you’ve merited space on a gallery wall. “Honey?” Mother says, “What’s wrong?”
“They weren’t accepted,” you say, adding, “Not good enough. Too religious.”
Mother proceeds to make you the grilled cheese she knows you usually can’t resist. She doesn’t have to convince you it’s the best on the planet, but given the anhedonia you experience when in a depressive state, you know you aren’t going to enjoy it.
Before you take a bite, you manage to sputter out, “I trashed them.”
“What?” Mother gasps, “The paintings? Where?”
“In a big garbage bin I saw before I got home.”
“Justin! Hurry. Give me the keys to the car. Bring your grilled cheese.”
Mother has both of us get into the car with her in the hopes that we can retrieve the paintings before they’re damaged or destroyed by unwitting people in the neighborhood getting rid of their own trash or disposing of their own devalued dreams, dashed on the rocks of dismissive judgment.