A couple days ago I posted a larger copy of this picture, and promised I’d explain it in the near future. I used to do something similar with another painting I did. It was a lovely painting of Holsteins in a Gothic cathedral, and when I asked my students what they thought it meant just about anything might come back. Some were very troubled by what they saw as sacrilege–cows? in church? What could I have been thinking? To them, the picture was blasphemous, a fist in the eye of all they held holiest.
Others saw it as a commentary on religion. To them, the cows meant placidly accepting the message offered, chewing it over…and over…and over…like a cud. To them, the picture was social commentary on the failed spirituality in our religious institutions.
Which group was right? Neither. And both. Here’s how that picture happened: I was driving a forage harvest truck for my dad one summer. We were harvesting for a dairy. It was a slow, slow process that day, and I had a lot of time between picking up loads. I found myself looking into the barn where the cows lived between milkings.
This barn had skylights–something I haven’t seen in many barns–and the early afternoon sun slanted down in rays, illuminating the black and white Holsteins in a gentle golden glow. I found myself thinking of Rembrandt and Vermeer, and the Nativity paintings of the Renaissance, with their classical settings, rich, warm colors, and soft, deep shadows.
Suddenly the barn wasn’t just a barn: I saw the high roofs, the open beams, and the struts and bracing overlaid with the arches and buttresses of classical and Gothic architecture. I saw the cows as organic shapes, contrasting with the visual logic of the simple, sunlit barn interior. I grabbed my notebook and a pencil, swung down out of my truck, and ventured into the alley between the twin mangers.
I gathered up some of the sweet-smelling hay, mounded it up into a seat in one of the mangers, and started to sketch the beams and rafters. Because I was concentrating, it took me a while to realize that something was breathing on the back of my neck. Actually, it took a large, slimy drop of saliva. I jumped and turned around–and there behind me was a crowd of cows, peering over my shoulder, watching me draw.
I had never seen cows at such an angle before–from below, and just in front. As I looked, one of the cows took another step forward, stretched her nose out, and sniffed. I reached through the fence. The cows stepped back. I pulled my hand back, turned back around, and went back to drawing. But this time I drew the cows across the way.
A warm, moist puff of air alerted me to my audience again. I turned, slowly, this time, and found myself eye to eye with several cows. And I began to look–really, really look, there in that quiet barn. The cows looked back. I started to sketch, quick little thumbnails of cows from a point of view new to me–nearly under the animals, but at peace, all of us mildly interested in each other. I sketched legs, feet, noses, eyes, eyelashes, the high arching curves of eyelids, ears, udders, bellies. Eventually I heard a horn blow out in the field, gathered up my pencil and paper, and stood slowly. The cows stepped back. The spell was broken. Life went on.
Two years later, in the midst of a Chicago winter, I found myself remembering that warm, placid afternoon, the gentleness of the moment, the golden, glowing tranquility, and I wanted to capture that. Conveying a feeling like that is not easy; I found myself resorting to the symbolic body the cows had first reminded me of–Renaissance Nativity paintings.
I began borrowing from religious imagery, creating an environment for my cows. And then I created the cows themselves, drawing in their peaceful, gentle eyes, their long sweeping lashes, their delicate ankles, their jaunty registration tags and bands.
I was seeking to capture a peaceful summer afternoon, but somehow a lot of other things got into that painting. My ambivalence about organized religion and the almost mystical connection I felt with some kinds of animals made their way into that painting through the symbols I chose. I hadn’t intended to paint about those things; but I ended up painting about them, anyway. The language of symbolism is like that–and in the end, the most important message is not what the writer or artist intended, but what the reader or viewer perceives. And that’s out of my control.
I can’t tell you what this picture should mean to you; that depends on how you read the symbols. What I can tell you is what I was thinking.
I was thinking about my family, how its public image survived by isolating its members both from each other and from the larger world, and how our religious practice factored into that. I pulled images from traditional art and illustrations, and put them together into something new. If you’re familiar with those things, you’ll recognize most of these elements. Many of them come from conventional religous paintings. But in this context, they take on a whole new meaning–and that meaning is determined both by the painting, and by what you see in it.
There’s just one last thing I’d like to tell you about this painting. I started it when I was in the midst of discovering the truth about my family history, and how child molestation, secrecy, and religion combined to create an incredibly destructive force. In my need to come to grips with my life I created a whole series of sketches. This was one of them.
But they hurt too much; I packed them away and got on with the business of survival. And then, years later, I found them again. I looked at the sketches. “I can do something amazing with these, now,” I thought. Before, all I could see was the pain in them, and it had swamped me. Now, I set to work not on re-drawing them–the whole series has survived intact in terms of symbolism, figures, and colors–but on teasing out the beauty in them. I was painting my pain, but doing it with the intention of finding beauty in it.
The result is a series of pictures that are at once lovely and troubling. I love the colors, shapes, and patterns in “Blest Be The Ties”–and I find the children, isolated on their sheer wall, trapped in their best clothes, heartbreaking. I find the dancing figures at the top infuriating–and lovely. I find the angel puzzling. And that’s the power of symbols. It’s impossible to reduce them to a one to one correspondence; what the painter paints may not be what she intends to paint, and what the viewer sees may be something else altogether. The meaning can only be a shifting, evolving thing that painter, society, and viewer create among them.
So what do you see? And what does that say about me–and about you?