Life on Art; An Artist at 75

Seven Reasons to Live (detail, dream image) V Pendragon 1990

My mother “saw something” in me. She saw it when I was very, very young and installed me in Saturday morning art classes at the Philadelphia Art Museum at some age that I now have no conscious memory of. The classes were designed for very young children of the 1950s, so what I received was a fairly traditional, conservative and realistic approach to creating art.

I hated it.

I did, however, love the art museum itself and, more often than not, managed to slip out of class to wander the halls and galleries of the museum. I had favorite paintings that I would visit regularly; they felt like friends… strange friends, perhaps, but friends nevertheless. I could count on them always being where I’d last seen them. I could count on them to energetically embrace me in their ambience. I could get lost in them; I could view my own life through them; I could imagine what the lives of those portrayed had been… even though, as with the works of Miro and Duchamp, there may have seemed to the more casual viewer to be nothing immediately or obviously human about them… I was not a casual viewer.

I was not a casual kid. My childhood had taught me a number of skills that your average child, thankfully, does not learn. The result of my exposure to experiences that were well beyond what my mind could handle, allowed my mind — or perhaps compelled it — to find a way out of situations over which I had no control. What happened for me, seemingly all on its own, was that I would do what I called “leaving my body.” After many decades of therapies of various sorts it is now clear that I was doing something that is more commonly called disassociating.

Disassociating served me well. First of all, it allowed me not to lose my mind, despite what some people might think. But most importantly, it allowed me access to ways of thinking about the world that were not the ways that most people thought about it; it was as if I were more an observer than a participant. It allowed my mind the opportunity to assess what was outside of me rather than be present to something I couldn’t bear. So, when I stood, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, utterly captivated by Rubens painting of Prometheus Bound, I think that I saw far more than most people did… or, perhaps, I simply felt more. For most people, that was a painting of a mythical moment. For me, it was a depiction of the kinds of situations in which one might find oneself in life, inescapably bound to conditions beyond their control.

There was as well, a painting of a young Spanish boy, seated, naked; his skin was as white as milk… my own skin was what my mother liked to refer to as “olive,” a genetic gift from my Cuban father’s side of the family. So, at once, while I had a resonance with this young boy’s genetic heritage, at the same time, I was also confronted by his whiteness, and almost terrified by his seeming utter vulnerability, totally naked, sitting there, for anyone to see. I resonated with that kind of unprotected accessibility strongly.

It was not the painterly skill of the artists that held me, though certainly that skill was tremendously responsible for my reactions to the paintings… it was the way the paintings made me feel and the depth of that feeling that so captured me, compelling me to visit them week after week.

I could stand in front of either of those paintings for minutes on end. Other viewers would come and go as I remained transfixed. I believe that I learned more about art by absorbing it in that way than I ever learned in any class that I ever took… even at the art college I would later attend, again, at my mother’s insistence.

Me? I wanted to go to a regular college and major in journalism. I wanted to write. I had been published in a national magazine for young women when I was a senior in high school, though I dared not show that to my mother for fear of incurring her wrath. I wanted, specifically, to write for newspapers so that I could tell stories of women, women whose stories I saw weekly dismissed by the newspapers that published their accounts. They were narratives of dreadful things that had happened to them at the hands, usually, of some ‘successful’ business man. The papers regularly dismissed their reports as nonsense, branding the stories as entirely fabricated. I had very strong feelings that those women were telling the truth.

But that would not happen… until I was in my 60s and then, not in the newspapers, but as online essays and brief mentions in the books I would write.

In art college, my painting teacher in my freshman year, Ben Eisenstat, who also apparently saw something in me, told me that he felt that I belonged in the fine arts college that was down the street from where I was, but that fine arts college had not been on the list of colleges that I could attend free of charge owing to the arrangements between certain institutions and ones where my parents taught.

Despite all that artistic training, I ended up writing for certain “specialty” magazines and newspapers, specifically for what are generally termed men’s magazines. But I kept up with my drawing and painting, though I never really had a focus. It was as if I was just going through the motions of “making art.” For a while, I worked in tandem with my 2nd husband, to create very large, fantastical paintings which were actually very well received… and, ironically, got me more writing work, this time for a local arts newspaper. Even though it was a local publication, it felt like a step up, and it was. I soon had the opportunity to write for The Artist’s Magazine, a three-part series on marketing, and was invited to lecture at their conventions in Chicago and Washington DC.

Then everything in my life came to a halt as my body developed a rapidly advancing case of diffuse progressive systemic sclerosis, commonly known as scleroderma. Over a remarkably short period of time my entire body turned into collagen, my arms and legs maintained permanently bent positions and my fingers… ahh, my fingers… they just curled inwards into almost-fists. That changed a lot of things. Lecturing and writing took a back seat but I figured out ways to hold a brush and the painting continued. The most important thing, though, that scleroderma changed was me.

My dreams, which had always been vivid, became a fantastic escape from reality. I lived an amazing life while I was asleep; the life I had while I was awake was one of unrelenting pain. Asleep I had visions of ethereal and mythological beings and celestial realms.

In addition to the pain, I looked like something out of a horror movie and was literally scaring children. My skin had turned to leather and it looked it. It was plain to me to see that it wasn’t just children for whom my appearance was startling, it was pretty much everyone. I had choice: I could stay inside or I could figure out some way to not appear as scary as I was, or at least, to make me seem human.

The answer came to me as if out of nowhere: I would go to some thrift shops to find the kind of old-fashioned white gloves that girls used to wear when I was young and I would cut off the fingers and paint the rest of the glove in bright colors — florescent colors. That would make it OK for children — especially children, whose parents I would always hear admonishing them that it was not polite to stare. But who could blame them? Their eyes were right there at the level of my deformed hands. Wearing the fingerless painted gloves, I figured, would also give the kid’s parents an opportunity to ask me questions about my hands and my gloves and I could answer and the children would see that I was not some kind of monster. It worked. And the grown-ups learned a little about an unusual medical condition in the process.

Painting the gloves had not been easy. In order to paint, I had to wedge whatever brush I was using between two of my firmly-set-in-place fingers and then do the best I could with whatever skill I could manage with the other hand to hold the glove in place. Needless to say, the painting was thoroughly abstract, but the gloves did exactly the job that they were intended to do and the end result was far better than I’d expected.

As a rule, scleroderma is considered to be incurable… and fatal as well, since in addition to turning your outsides into collagen, it turns your insides into collagen as well. I was fortunate enough to become a guinea pig in experimental program that, while it didn’t heal anyone else, it somehow healed me. The program lasted only a few years and was terminated because of the dearth of good results. All of us guinea pigs were expected to die because that was the track we had been on when we signed up to be guinea pigs and we were going back on it. Even though I had healed where others had not, the doctors didn’t know why I had, so they expected me to die as well. I didn’t. I knew — just knew — that I would be fine.

A few years ago, in order to prove to Social Security that I was in fact disabled, in order to get a hearing to prove that I was disabled, (really), I returned to the hospital where the study had been done to retrieve my medical records from that time. The physician who had been in charge of the study was still there. He began to cry the moment he saw me, unable to believe his eyes… I thought my heart might explode from sheer gratitude.

I have spent the last 11 years happily immersed in both of my youthful obsessions: painting and writing. I type with the sides of my thumbs and I create my paintings on a horizontal surface so I can turn the canvas since I can’t turn my hands.

My publishers have published five books that I’ve written, each one about different aspects of the self and healing. This past year, 2020, marked my most financially successful year as a painter/artist. That seems to have happened because midway through 2019 I had begun, guided by a kind of internal vision, a series of paintings that had been inspired by my working with a quilt maker to help her create some art for a quilt she was sewing. Unconsciously, quilt-like-patterns found a way into the paintings I was making and, for reasons I cannot explain, I was guided to place, in the middle of each painting, a fish. I called the series Fish on Quilts… and I could not escape the question: why am I doing this? Why am I painting fish on quilts?

Covid hit and along with it came the answer to that question: the paintings were metaphors. A fish on a quilt is a fish out of water. We — humans — we are fish out of water; we are, as an old Sting song said, “spirits in the material world.” We are essentially fish out of water… and fish out of water can’t breathe… neither could a lot of America.

I painted my last Fish Out of Water in February of 2020. I called it Nudibranch Ascending a Staircase. It is a kind of comic homage to one of my favorites from the museum when I was a kid, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

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Astrology-Informed Artist; Author of self-help books on healing with Ozark Mt. Publishers; survivor

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V Pendragon

V Pendragon

Astrology-Informed Artist; Author of self-help books on healing with Ozark Mt. Publishers; survivor

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