Emma’s twilight: How to save a painting

The studio space at the back of the house had grown a little cold with abandonment over the Thanksgiving holiday. When I finally wandered back there to pick up a painting I had started before the first of a few family crises hit, I realized that the space in my head that wonders about color, graffiti, composition, paint, and architecture had grayed out and felt distant. I usually have a plan that I carry with me between sessions. This time, I could not remember. I looked again at my favorite past creations and bowed my head back over the paint-spattered table. I prayed for recovery with spatulas, paint knives, and brushes. I made promises with a can of cold wax and a tube of Galkyd gel and a half-dozen tubes of Gamblin. The floor became littered with wax shavings, drops of color, and shards of torn papers.

I produced things I did not like until last week, when out of frustration, I purposely killed a piece of art. Initially, the painting had been constructed to show Richmond’s bucolic outskirts against its urban, modern center of downtown. It represented past and present, and it was all too much – cluttered, clunky, pasty, forced-feeling. Better on Instagram, but terrible in person. Stronger in concept, but a disaster on substrate.

So I dipped a drywall scraper in solvent and aggressively stripped off layers of paper, paint marker drawings, and paint, leaving behind stain and a few smooth fields of pigment. Suddenly, this was workable. I had somehow uncovered an abstracted image: river and bog and reflection. City was a mere glimpse in the back corner now. I built up patches of deep green among still waters, and I recaptured an RVA from the original design in gold and red, a scrawled stamp on pink sky before it collapses into night, my “you are here” moment. It works.

There is a metaphor in moments like this: the work that seemed broken could be revived. Our big dog is walking again after a bout of paralysis (although he may never be 100 percent). Since her bad fall on campus, my daughter has moved from crutches to a walking boot and will be dancing boot-free by Christmas. We have answers for her other struggles too, an issue that has cast light on how hard she works to do some of the things I take for granted, and a workable plan to make her skies pink and gold again. “I’m here,” I tell her ­– in this painting and in this house – to catch her before nightfall.

Artwork: Wish you were here

Downtown Richmond comprises a small crop of old brick and newer concrete structures, a circle of interstate and train track, and a hook of James riverbank. There’s a narrow canal within and a fair arrangement of low hills surrounding, which one community or another lays claim to as gentrification wars forge on. Walking bridges cross the James to various islands or the not-so-distant shore where deteriorating, abandoned structures remain. And over plush treetops, one glimpses layers of factories with their stacks puffing steam, or office buildings gleaming like jewels in midday sun.

I cannot help but wander among these things daily, seeing something new and notable each time, returning to the studio to recreate the essence of this city. Over and over, photograph the mosaic of buildings where road and trestle rise and intersect. Then, in my little paintings—the play of geometry in colorblock, swipes of line for water or street. The repeated arches of bridge supports. Layers of other materials accrue, like what the passage of time does to old structures.

Oddly, when I make these paintings, I am thinking about my past – but I did not grow up here. Somehow, my memories have become mingled with layers of Richmond experience. The feel of cobblestone underfoot and underwheel remind me of the stone, slate, and brick walks and roads in my hometown of New Orleans. Elaborate, stacked framework around doors and windows. Wrought iron gates and carved balustrades.

So these days, in the art studio, I am working to create postcards to myself—not-quite-mailable memories and impressions of who I am and where I was and where I walk today. My childhood stamp collection has worked its way in—valuable to no one, apparently, but me—and therefore the perfect postage for personal reflections and promises. I cannot say for sure where the paintings will take themselves though.

I have been playing with varied media. The oil paintings were first. Some encaustic experiments next. Cold wax recently. And too, I’ve conducted acrylic explorations with heavy applications of gloss to appear like resin. I found a matte molding paste that when scraped over acrylic and paper speaks of encaustic-like opportunities to add and subtract, to mute and to enhance, to scrape or etch, without the danger of heat or fumes.

We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, here is a creation of bridge, river, and city with acrylic and collage, laid on a slate roof tile (Richmond roofs in the city sport that loveliness as a matter of charming norm). As I made this, I was thinking about the postcard lines “Wish you were here” and the times I have really wanted to say instead “Wish I was there.” If you look closely enough, you can maybe see two photos—a bike on a trail at Tangier Island, and one of our train bridges that crosses the James. The two are nestled so closely and embedded enough in matte paste to appear that the bike is in the water—two ideas that should not converge. Yes, a little self-conflict, but then this is who I am, a  work in progress, as ever.