I painted this in a very deep depression, when I was on a medicine called Latuda that gave me three months of psychosis. Latuda is a very highly-esteemed drug, known for its minimal side effects. My experience was very abnormal, so don’t be afraid of trying this drug if your doctor recommends it. Every brain is different; different meds work for different people. In my case, Latuda gave me hallucinations and kept me from sleeping, so I had mania and psychosis almost every day. My mania is rarely the fun kind. It’s called dysphoric mania (opposite of euphoric), and it means I am very deeply upset with racing thoughts, and I’m full of energy and negatively inspired passion. I went so far down the spiral that I spent my days fantasizing about my death. Some nights I was in so much pain that I laid in bed clutching the covers as hard as I could to keep myself from going into the kitchen, getting the serrated bread knife, the largest and sharpest knife we own, and slitting my own throat. I absolutely had enough strength in those moments to follow through with that simple, quick act. Fortunately, I also had enough strength to stay in bed and continue to feel my soul burn. In such an ugly place, I wanted to create some beauty to aspire to. I was deep in the sea of emotional torture, but I had to keep my face turned toward the sun. I had to be able to hope. I took the tiny bit of hope I still had, and I put it into this painting. When it dried, I hung it over my bed. I needed just a little bit of hope to hold on to.
This is my first painting. I painted it when I was a senior in high school. I was inspired while driving home in the rain, listening to a song called “No Doubling Back”. I had just broken up with Abigail, my first-ever girlfriend. I had come out as a lesbian only six months before, and even as liberating it was to finally be with a girl, I knew we wouldn’t work. She was deeply in love with her best friend, and she wanted to move on, but wasn’t ready yet. I knew it was time for us to end. It’s always tough to leave a relationship, but I knew I’d made the right choice. Driving home, singing along with the song, I smiled. An image came to me of a goldfish swimming down the highway in the rain. It was a happy goldfish. It knew that it was moving in the right direction. I came home, grabbed an old box of crayons and an older box of watercolors, found a brush, filled a glass of water, and sat down to paint. It flowed out of me quickly. I was full of energy. I felt like I had done my first truly adult thing, and the idea of beginning my adult life was liberating in the extreme. I had college ahead of me, and then adult life. Freedom. The great feeling I had then, during the creation of my first painting, still comes to me whenever I paint. Twenty-two years later, and I can still tap into the beautiful, hopeful, optimistic head space that I first found at the age of eighteen. If that trend continues, I will paint until I die.
When I was twenty, I drove with my parents to the Davis mountains in far west Texas. We walked in the mountains, swam in a cold, freshwater spring in the desert of Balmorhea, and drove to Marfa, Texas, to see the Marfa Lights. In the vast, empty desert of Marfa, there is an unexplained phenomenon where lights appear in the sky over the mountains at night and dance around. They dart, change colors, multiply and combine again, and though I have seen them, I claim absolutely no knowledge of what they are.
Everyone likes having an explanation for the things they experience, and when we don’t have one, we make one up, usually out of educated guesses and our capacity to reason. When we got to the viewing platform a little after sundown, we were with about twenty other visitors, all of us surrounded by nothing but silent, empty desert. Before the lights even appeared, everyone had their own version of the truth about what these apparitions were. When the lights started, the group erupted with refined theories and arguments based on the lights we were seeing, which were changing minute by minute. After an hour of watching this fantastic show of erratically dancing orbs of colored light, the people on the viewing platform started to go quiet. After another hour, they were starting to admit doubt, and another half hour later, no one claimed any longer that they knew what the lights were, and no one even ventured a guess past that point. The less certain we became as a group, the more uncomfortable everyone became. We had no knowledge of what this phenomenon was, and that made everyone feel extremely vulnerable. The Marfa Lights were a powerful and very creepy thing to experience. I’ve relived those moments watching them in the desert many times, and it captures my imagination. I still have no idea what they are, and they continue to this day. This painting is my imagination of those lights as beings, ephemeral, glowing creatures swimming through the sky in front of the Davis mountains. For me, it’s as good an explanation as any.
It’s Good To Be In Love
This was painted for Sophie, my first real girlfriend, whom I met during my freshman year at Oberlin. The song at the top is by Frou Frou and the title is “It’s Good To Be in Love”. The part of the song written out goes with the words “It’s good to be in love/it really does suit you/just like everything”. For a week before we finally said “I love you”, we played that song over and over, and sung along without ever making eye contact, because we were both so afraid to say those three magic words. What if the other person didn’t say it back? It was a big risk for two eighteen-year-olds. In this painting, the goldfishes are me and my girlfriend facing the rain together. We’re looking through the window and seeing the future. The road with a red shoe is me on my path, leading into a musical rainbow of this new relationship, with the script for the part of the song that says “I’m happy you’re in love”. It ends in an elegant high heeled shoe, her favorite pair. Finally, the question mark. How will this end? Just like with Holly, looking to the future gave me so much comfort and happiness. We never talked about marriage, but at eighteen, we both knew we were too young to make that commitment. I secretly thought we would stay together for a long time, break up, go a decade without seeing each other, and then cross paths somewhere. Europe, maybe. She’d be beautiful as ever and we’d both be fantastically rich from our singing careers, and we would never leave each other again.
Above the Spiral
I frequently say “I’m spiraling” to indicate that I’m about to go into an episode. My episodes are not typical for bipolar for most people. They are very similar to panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and sometimes psychotic breaks. I get a feeling that I’m suddenly sinking down, and I know I’m headed for an episode. This painting is the feeling that the spiral is waiting below me to suck me down into darkness. There is rain in the house, and it’s raining on me even though I have an umbrella. I can see out the window that the earth is still beautiful, just not where I am. This speaks deeply to me, because I rely on remembering that just because my view is dark, the world outside me doesn’t change when I go into an episode. It’s the same world whether I’m happy or sad. Everything feels awful sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that everything actually is awful. The awful is just inside me wherever I am. When I come back and the awful goes away, I get my beautiful world view back. I see that I’m lucky and loved. I see that I can do this.
In this painting, the volcanoes represent the eruptions of intense feeling that I experience. On the road, I’m traveling, and illuminated only briefly on my way. I give thanks for the light of this one moment. Under the road, I see myself as a child in my childhood kitchen. The painting on the wall is a picture I used to draw over and over, a red canoe on a lake with a little grass nearby. It was the only picture I was good at. I drew and painted it over and over. I could put myself there in my head, and it was so beautiful. The clock on the wall above my head is set to 12:34, because I used to make a wish if I looked at a clock at 12:34; 1,2,3,4… get it? It made sense as a child. Making wishes has always been important to me. I don’t expect them to come true, but I enjoy the momentary practice of the belief in magic.
I painted this when I was in a long distance relationship with a woman named Holly. Long distance relationships really, really suck. We were so in love, and separated by over a thousand miles. We were both in college and starting to plan our future together. We held on tightly to those conversations because it hurt so much to not be able to see each other in person. That much love combined with that much distance is excruciating for anyone. I told her I wanted us to live in California, in a turquoise house with an avocado tree and a garden. She would get a job as a marching band director, I’d sing opera for a living, and we’d live happily ever after. I wanted to do domestic things with her; cook, wash dishes, buy potholders together, lay in her lap while watching TV. We were in love with the fantasy of our future as well as with each other. I painted this so that I could see our future, hang it on the wall, and daydream about Someday.
Parts of a Whole
Everything fits together. We are each a tiny part of the whole of the cosmos. It makes me so happy to think about that: I’m small, so small, and I’m part of something bigger than I can comprehend. There’s a quote about that from astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson that I love: “We are all connected. To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe, atomically.” That fundamental interconnectedness of all things is the most beautiful thing I know. This painting is the parts of a whole, and it could be on any scale. We are all a piece in a three dimensional, moving puzzle. We are all part of something grand.