A Graphic Memoir in Progress
This section includes samples from a graphic memoir in progress. Throughout the story, the process of making art is a lens for peering into the past.
Chapter 1: Vantage Point
I’m working on a painting about my family. It’s based on a photo from Cathy’s thirteenth birthday, two or three months before Mom was first bedridden. Cathy sits in front of her cake as Joe and I cheerfully look on and Jenny hams it up. Mom and Dad don’t appear, but they were there. Dad took the snapshot. At the bottom of the photo, you see his orange ashtray and the top of his glass of scotch and water. He must have been looking for a new job because there’s a newspaper “want ad,” as he’d say, sitting by the ashtray. You also see part of Mom’s glass (surely scotch too) and a speck of her placemat. In the painting, I made an intentionally empty space of her place at the table, gave form to her and Dad’s drinks, and added the fingers reaching for the drink on the right. When I did, I was surprised to see the drinks stand in for my parents and that in many ways the picture is about their presence at the time of the photo but also their long absence. Mom died ten years after the photo was taken, at age forty-nine. Dad died eight years after her, at sixty.
I’m painting over a crummy figure study from my Studio School days. Although the new image obliterates the old, pinpoints of color from the study sparkle through. All over, old paint provides texture and strata. I feel more as if I’m conducting an archeological dig than laying down a new surface.
When I’m deep into the paint, I see things I didn’t expect. I see my siblings and myself from the implied parental viewpoint of the photo, but I also see Mom’s and Dad’s characters. Under Mom’s direction, Dad snaps the camera. She laughs outright. He laughs with wry understatement, as if indulging us, but he enjoys the party as much as anyone. As I work, I find that I remember Jenny’s, Joe’s, and Cathy’s bone structures down to my own bones. And though my siblings come out quite different in the painting from the way they look in the photo, in paint they’re more like the complex selves I’ve known for decades. When I paint spatial relationships between the four figures and the objects on the table, I’m traversing family history. At the time of the photo, I was ten. I paint from that moment and all that’s happened since.
Maybe that’s why I have a here-our-troubles-began sense about the image, which otherwise suggests an ordinary happy moment. It was our final phase of normalcy.
Not that our family life was strange to me when I was ten. It was simply happening.
In the book project, the images below are each part of a chapter including text.