art as life...life as art
"One is seeking something that is impossible to find or about which nothing is known. There is only one thing that seems to work; and that is to turn directly toward the approaching darkness without prejudice and totally naively, and try to find out what its secret aim is and what it wants from you."
-C. G. JUNG
Japanese Cherry Tree
In my face - the windshield and front end of a white, turquoise and yellow telephone truck - and the smashed hood of my white sports car. No shattered glass.
Looking down, I could see that my right leg was twisted grotesquely. The tight jeans looked like sausage casing holding soft matter together.
A voice inside me said, "Don't worry you'll be better than ever!"
Awhile later a man's loud voice told me the "jaws of life" were going to be used to help get me out. Crashing metal and glass. The same voice asked me for some phone numbers. I gave him two. One for my sister Carolyn, the other for my boyfriend Bill. They were both minutes away.
Again, the man's voice told me we were going to a hospital with a highly rated trauma center. Unfortunately the closest, in Glen Cove, did not have the emergency facility my injuries required.
Somewhere in those hours and days, before my eyes opened, a priest said prayers family and the closest friends came in crying. Hearing becomes the only sense to hold on to reality.
People brought flowers and stuffed animals. Neither were allowed in ICU. Bill came in with an Italian buddy. He asks me to marry him. His unusual bouquet of flowers was a brilliant combination of purple and white with succulent round leaves unlike any I had ever seen from a florist. (Months later I realized he had grabbed the Gloxinias from my front porch.)
There were three operations in three days. Two critical. A surgeon wakes me, as I'm rolled around endless corridors, in and out of elevators. He explains that I'm going in for an operation on my neck. OK - without a sound; he really wasn't expecting me to say "Hell no I won't go!"
In and out of consciousness. Mario, a recent lover and art collaborator is reading from the Bible or "The Course in Miracles." We had the latter in common although he maintained an obsession with it that I did not share. The other visitors are heatedly asking him to leave; he's taking too much time and is keeping other family members from visiting. Having his dedicated, prayerful presence did comfort me.
Awake, two or three days later, I am on another hospital journey. I am anesthetized locally, I need to be alert for this operation. A halo is affixed with four screws, one on each side of the forehead and one screw behind each ear. The surgeon, assistant, and I chatted about gardens and art while horrid white lights shone in my face and the sounds of hammers and wrenches made it feel more like an auto body shop rather than an operating room.
Back in ICU, the only thing to do while lying immobile was watch TV, this one suspended from the ceiling and yards away. Most disturbing, a familiar ad for Schweppes - you know the one with a close-up of bubbles and clear running liquid - all the while thinking, "When will I be able to drink again?" My chart read '"NO LIQUIDS."
Food was a similar story. On the second or third or fourth day, (I wasn't counting) a tray with lasagna was placed beside me. Pushing aside the oxygen tube I proceeded to motion to have someone feed me. Someone else realizes if I ate anything at all I'd definitely choke to death. It took three weeks for me to eat yogurt and a month or so before I was allowed a drink of water. In the meantime it was suckers made from swabs of cotton and water.
A pair of lace panties, bikini style, with beads and seed pearls was placed on the wall in front of me. It was meant to be a gesture of hope and future apparel. Meanwhile I was hooked to a catheter, did not move my bowels nor anything else for that matter. My own most recent purchase...thongs.
One nurse, also named Bill, brought solace when most of the other caretakers just walked by. It amazed me that it was a man who nurtured me during the most difficult time of my life.
There was little relationship to the outer world; the TV and visitors would come and go never speaking or hinting of Michelangelo!
I had this need to make some sense out of this accident that left me paralyzed from the neck down! The head-on resulted in a sublexation of the C 5-6 vertebrae, broken ribs, a punctured lung, a ruptured brachial aorta, a fracture of the right femur and lower lumbar area. Fortunately I was under the influence of morphine so my continence and conversations were more blissful than logical.
Other patients would be wheeled into ICU, leave quickly...some to a room...others to the morgue. I felt envious. It was very lonely...I hardly slept...the TV was constant as was the innocuous hospital lighting. That halo on my head kept me from moving my neck shoulders and chest. It felt like I was a brain suspended.
1958 Jones Beach
of leaves from the Japanese Cherry Tree formed a cocoon
of shade from the summer's sun. Mom set up the standing easel for herself
and a table top one for me. When she
opened a wooden case that held 20 or so small tubes...exotic smells
of oil and pigments spilled out arousing some new spirit within me. No
longer a child of crayon and tempera; now I too had materials
like the masters. Joys of painting carried me away from the ennui of New
Hyde Park, the
suburbs, lost or is it found, in timelessness.
That first subject, at 14 was Big Sur (1954-55).
It came from a photo greeting card. Painted on canvas board and using a grid, a process I considered slightly more difficult than painting by numbers. Easy to start right in! Forever imprinted on the cortexes of my memory, that final stroke of orange cadmium symbolizing the setting sun became the eternal horizon. Chilled, ecstatic, painting modified, mesmerized and invisible chained me.
"You can become an Art Teacher...that's it!" Mr. 'D' my high school art teacher, let me know that women do not go far in the art world. I wondered what he thought about his situation. All HE did was teach art! I decided it was a challenge. (His recent obituary some 30 years later has given me a more sympathetic view. He was totally dedicated to his family, teaching and creating.)
As a high school graduation present, Aunt Rose and Uncle Tony invited me to join them with cousins Juanita and Tony on a ocean-faring vacation to Europe for two months! This was met with great anticipation and planning! Regents, finals, the Senior Prom, graduation and now a wardrobe to assemble for a First Class trans-Atlantic crossing and European tour.
High school fashion class gave me the how-to of gluing fabric swatches beside corresponding illustrations of the clothes my Mom made for me. We had combed magazines and papers such as "Seventeen" and "The New York Times" for the outfits high fashion models wore. Mom had made each one according to my wishes. One in particular, a green and white checkered gingham, was done in a black and white wash just like the Lord and Taylor newspaper advertisements. It consisted of a simple two piece sleeveless blouse and bouffant skirt. No exposed shoulders or pants were allowed in Italy. I packed sweaters to cover up any errant skin and scarves for my head to wear in the churches and other sacred buildings.
Matching Samsonite luggage, including a rectangular cosmetic piece, was a gift from my parents. Hard, grey and very, very heavy. An elephant could stand on it or so the manufacturer said! I packed and repacked.
Finally, on July 4th, Dad drove us up to our pier in New York City; a cavernous wooden structure with two open sides, one to enter and walk up the gangplank and the other our port towards the ocean. The Queen Fredricka looked enormous, two stacks and three levels above water. A festive bon voyage party took place in our main cabin, a two room suite for my aunt, uncle and younger male cousin. Glad I was going, not like most of the others having to say, "Goodbye, Bon Voyage!" Juanita and I shared a small cabin with a bathroom, double bed and dresser.
All the women in first class dressed in gowns, gloves, evening bags and jewels for a nightly 6 course dinner. My prom dress, a blue silk organza, strapless with many crinolines underneath, came in handy. The men dressed in formal attire and even the younger males wore suits and ties. As per protocol, our captain invited us to dine with him and other officers for one special dinner. By day we swam, played obligatory shuffle board and skit shooting. In between Juanita and I paraded up and down the gleaming decks pretending that the stares and comments of the smooth and handsome "foreign" sailors went unheeded by us. I snatched illicit moments with one of them to visit the belching and grumbling bowels of the engine rooms.
To break up an afternoon's idyll, my cousin and I took photos of each other in Dracula inspired poses dressed in towels, nooses and blood-like makeup. Some sort of teenage titillating excitement for an otherwise uneventful day.
Ten days at sea and then our port of call, Naples. The city had a definitive blueness to it; sea and sky joined in turquoise and azure. Unfortunately we were detained from touring on our arrival by a certain "tourista" bug. Uncle Tony was laid up with that and Juanita had broken out in a skin rash.
Three of us took off to shop instead and set out by chauffeured car early the next morning I to Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius. There were more donkeys and carts than cars, and many people were "crippled" and in rags. I began to see and feel very different pieces of the world all in one day. The total opulence of the liner and hotel had now dissolved before me into dusty roads, begging children and beautiful, but decaying Italian villas. We drove to the top of the volcano and then walked to the crest of the crater with trepidation; I did not want it to start erupting while anywhere near it.
Pompeii pre-empted visual spells from "The Robe" or "Quo Vadis." I wasn't prepared for the engulfing sensations in the pit of my stomach and a whirling euphoria curling around in my mind. The moment I stepped onto the stones I was transported to that historical moment in time, those minutes, hours when Vesuvius erupted. In my past, a Hollywood scenario, now a reality with visible remnants of crumbled columns, mosaics and horrors... a solidified and contorted dog's body caught (79 AD) as if frozen in rock. The Kodak photos I took did not do justice to the richness of the ochre and sienna colors. Few, if any, encounters with other tourists allowed me the peace of mind to continue with my fantasy of presence there the day Mt. Vesuvius tore apart this civilized, cultured and wealthy part of the world.
Another day trip to Corleto Monforte, Provincia di Salerno to visit our "family" was an awakening of sorts and also somewhat frightening. Large pigs held us at bay on the narrow stone streets that coiled through the ancient towered village. While dining at a large table, family pets, guinea pigs, scurried under our feet. They were probable another dinner, but no one had the heart to tell us. Toddlers ran around without diapers, not a baby bottle in sight. Everyone was solicitous of the "rich" American relatives. One house off in the distance was pointed out to us, in the process of construction, it looked like a more commodious vintage. Apparently they were the most wealthy and/or politically powerful family around.
From Naples we took a train to Rome. At noon we went to St. Peter's Square and waited for Pope Pius XII. Vendors hawked religious items for blessing; I bought some rosary beads. We looked up from our place in a sea of people until the Pope finally appeared at a little window and blessed the throng. And that was that!
Upon entering the Church of St. Peter's; I was impressed by the huge spaces both void and gold-filled, dark and noisy. Then as we paraded single file past Michelangelo's Pieta, I fell desperately in love. Marble melted into a whitish gray flesh, male and female faces emoting sadness and agony as befit the situation. I touched the cold stone to cross the chasm of time as if the sculptor's hand and mine were one, and wept silently.
What a switch! Within minutes my fledgling emotions turned to confusion and dismay. There were many altars within the punctured sanctuaries of the church at which masses were being said at different stages. In one area people sat in folding chairs, in other corners they stood reciting from their Missals, or singing or processing. It seemed like a circus to me; I couldn't concentrate or pray and left feeling betrayed. Rules of behavior that meant confessing a venial sin if we didn't follow them at home were apparently meaningless here. So how could I believe any of it! Wasn't a rule inviolate? And so the end of any lingering belief in one absolute religion.
The Vatican overwhelmed me with its beyond-human dimensions. I strained to see the paintings on the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. The pace of sightseeing became exhausting, I really couldn't appreciate many of the artifacts that appeared almost endlessly. The trip to the Coliseum was another matter. Outdoor edifices could encompass me; surrounding me with their ancientness, their other worldliness, their blatant differencstoreness. The movies became real...again Quo Vadis...chariots rushing by, lions and tigers tearing at the gladiators. And then I see them, cats everywhere. "Why?" I asked. "Rats!" someone said. "Oh!" So much for my romance with the Coliseum.
Next stop - Florence, city of bridges, The Duomo, Baptistry and Michelangelo's David. I poked my head out the unfettered window of our hotel and savored the view of narrow streets, stucco walls, turquoise shutters and red tiled roofs. Everything matched as if designed by one hand and creative sensibility. We walked all day, everywhere. Never imagined shopping on a bridge albeit an enclosed one! I bought myself a marquisette pin of a charioteer complete with reins, horse and chariot, and some filigree butterfly pins at little shops that filled the Ponte Vecchio.
Beyond belief, within a day, we're in Venice. The Grand Hotel hotel faces the famous church, San Giorgio Maggiore directly across the canal. It looks make-believe barely visible in the morning mist. Domenico Modugno's world-wide hit Volare is played everywhere. My teenage heart fell in love with the singer as well as the song. I bought his album to take home with me.
Gondola (1958) is a black and white wash from one of my Venetian photos.
One evening a dark eyed man followed us through the dimly lit cobbled streets as we strolled after dinner. He started a conversation in Italian and then proceeded to hand me his photo on a postcard! Leather and motorcycle a la Brando. I didn't know everyday people did such things. Maybe he was special. He also gave me another card with the famous balcony in Verona of Romeo and Juliet fame!
On to Genoa and Milan. A cemetery of magnificent angels and eerie effigies that recreated the actual likenesses of the dead enveloped us as if in a gothic horror movie. Beautiful and otherworldly at the same time. Although by unknown artists the works were extraordinary.
Barcelona next, and here was Gaudi...a bench of rocks, pottery shards, glass, etc. We stared up from our seat at his one completed spire on the Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia. Again the juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty. We all felt sorry that he died without completing this masterpiece. I wasn't sure that I liked his style, it was so childlike.
Now Paris! Only three days for this city certainly put a crimp in our itinerary. The Louvre alone should have been a day on to itself. I did see the Mona Lisa and the Winged Aphrodite. My head was in a whirl; images melded into one another; I just had to leave the museum. I sat outside and refused to reenter.
I felt lost without the ability to verbally communicate while in France...at least Italian and Spanish were languages I had studied. Even a few words would have allowed me to feel related. When Uncle Tony took us to a very expensive restaurant it was the Parisian models rather than the food that impressed me. They were so tall, thin and shapely, perfectly dressed and beautiful!
On to London. No trouble with the language here. A whirlwind of doormen, maids, room service and wait staff. Ever present the black umbrellas, suits and top hats. The food and rain did not endear me to this particular city. Pomp and circumstance was a major part of the glamour.
Finally our last country, Belgium...and the train to Brussels for the 1958 World's Fair. We had 30 pieces of luggage to transfer at a five minute stop. Four of us made it while the other two and some of our luggage did not! Eventually everyone arrived at the hotel baggage and all.
Juanita and I decided to try out the roller coaster rides. Two Brazilian sailors dressed in pure white and blue held onto us from their seats behind as we screamed in real fear and hysteria. It was my first (and last) roller coaster ride.
Sheltered, I had been on only two real dates during high school. Unfortunately male attention was once again kept at bay by family presence! So quick goodbyes and pursuant days of romantic illusions.
The 10 day trip home across the Atlantic was just as opulent, but the excitement and anticipation of going to an unknown destination was missing. Ahead...college, NYC, and art...not a small substitution.