In 1976 I saw The Wizard Of Oz for the first time. I was 4 years old. It came on once a year, back when there were only a few channels, and before anyone had ever heard of home video. That movie made a huge impression on me. So much that I actually reenacted it at school during recess every day, all the way to second grade. I remember taking my huge pink and blue Easter basket for long walks through the field across the street from our house, looking for tornados. I spent so much time in that field, skipping and singing full blast, I almost starting believing that I could land myself in some adventure that would make it impossible for me to go to school the next day. It didn't have to be Oz. I remember thinking I would have settled for an alien abduction. Finally, Mr. Provost, who lived two houses over, phoned to ask my dad if “that kid with the pink basket could please stop dancing on my crops.”
What a relief to have been born before reality TV grew like weeds over the culture. It just so happened that the cheap television programming of the 1970's was old movies, which sort of set the stage for the women in my paintings. Watching those old movies was also something I shared with my mother while we made art together in the afternoon. I used to collect huge books of classic hollywood stills that I drew from and of course read them all 5 times over. If the painting thing hadn't worked out I really could have been a film historian. It's a testament to my mom that in spite of all my loopy idiosyncrasies, and all the trouble I had fitting in at school, I managed to somehow scramble together a decent amount of self-esteem early on. Mom focused on the special traits of her children with real conviction. And of course someone believing in, and relentlessly rooting for you like that, is a bigger deal than you ever realize at the time.
One day in 1976, after watching Bette Davis die into a vaseline smothered lens in Dark Victory, the reality that my mother was going to also die someday fell on top of me all at once like a windswept house. She found me crying alone in the back of a dark closet. I realize that's some painfully cliché foreshadowing, but I'm not kidding. Let me say that again, I was hiding in the back of a dark closet, where I would occasionally sit with a shirt on my head, flipping it like long hair. In a closet. Like Norman Bates.
I was practically inconsolable at the thought of her dying. She'd sigh like someone who'd had this conversation three other times about her own encroaching death. "I'm not going to die for a long, long time," she'd say.
Mom was the oldest of seven sisters. All of them are truly amazing women with a rare bond. I'm always moved by how they rally around each other in good times and bad. They've never let anything come between them. I used to love reading about the seven sisters of the Pleiades when I was little. The oldest of the seven sisters was called Maia, meaning mother. The month of May was named after Maia, which coincidentally was the month my Mom was born. Myths have always played a big part in my work. Some of my earliest drawings were of Medusa and Artemis. It just so happened that the last painting I was working on before Mom passed away was an Asian woman, so I started looking into Eastern myths surrounding death and that was when I discovered the Shinigami. It's sort of a Japanese version of the Grim Reaper. I started imagining these Anna May Wong sort of characters existing in the space between life and death, which is exactly the vantage point I wanted to paint from. The past couple of years has, for me, been a confrontation with death. It was everywhere. In the news, more so than usual it seemed, and in my own life. Before 2016 I'd been to just one funeral. Since then I've been to six.
I've been asked a little too often for my liking if I was an only child. No. I was the youngest, which is the next worst thing. I think everyone knows the youngest usually gets the unfair advantage of a more relaxed parenting style, and I definitely came down hard on the backs of my three siblings. Thanks to a hearty combo salad of chromic illnesses, I sucked all the oxygen from the rest of our family, and pretty much monopolized Mom's attention. My acute baby asthma meant that if I coughed while you were anywhere near my crib, Mom would lash out at you like sheet lightning. This is what I've been told. I was allergic to just about every kind of food, so feeding me was a total nightmare. Then there were the variety of skin diseases. I was your basic giant pain in the ass.
Aside from my health issues, Mom had a very sensitive early awareness of my special challenges that the other kids didn't seem to have. Like when I used to run for shelter like a wild animal whenever we had company. The sound of car wheels on the gravel driveway would send me scurrying for refuge like a mouse under the flash of a fluorescent bulb. She would find me hours after everyone had left, hiding under my bed, asleep beside a small stash of food.
It was her nature to worry and I gave her a lot of material to work with. Some of my issues she could relate to, some she couldn’t, but there was always a profound empathy. When I was 8, the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet began to tear away like melting cellophane. I had to be greased up like a channel swimmer with thick buttery salve, wrapped up in a blanket and propped in front of the TV like a giant fajita. When I turned 11, a bunch of small bumps started appearing on my stomach, growing up my chest and neck. Suddenly there were about thirty or forty of them scattered across my torso. As soon as Mom noticed them she brought me to the family doctor. I can't remember what it was called, but I do remember him telling me that if those bumps had reached my head they would have choked and blinded me. Thanks Doctor Assclown! I'm officially a paranoid hypochondriac. He used a special round scalpel like a tiny ice cream scoop and dug out each bump. I'm guessing this was before cryotherapy, or maybe he was a sadist. I don't know, but it was like being stabbed forty times. Mom stood beside me, gripping the lifeblood out of my hand. It’s hard to explain, but the look on her face practically willed me away from being afraid. To this day, the memory of her in that moment still affects me.
Mom was always worried that I spent too much time alone drawing. When I was older she told me about the day she decided to drive to my school during recess to take a peek at how things were going. I was in the 3rd or 4th grade and I guess she saw that I was sitting alone on the playground, off to the side, and it really bothered her. She went to the reception desk and started pounding her fist on the counter, yelling, "my son is all alone out there." I'm not sure what she expected them to do about it, but she was just always in my corner, trying like hell to make things better for me. In my head it plays like the "give my daughter the shot" scene in Terms Of Endearment. I do remember the art teacher suddenly and mysteriously asking me if I'd rather sit in her class room and draw during recess.
In October 2016, I got the phone call I had always dreaded. “There’s no easy way to say this,” my sister told me. I knew immediately it was either about Mom or Dad. I'd imagined this call so many times because, like most things I'm afraid of, I think if I'm ready for something bad to happen, it won't happen. No one close to me had ever died. I am 44 years old, and a virtual stranger to death. I've been able to keep it in the abstract for the most part. My creative work is where I turn to with questions or comfort where other people would religion. At the end of the day, I think the closest thing I’ve ever felt to what people think of as god has been through my mother's maternal instinct. It's an energy that was bigger than us. Muscular and elemental. Inexhaustible. That force ran robustly through my mother, and it left a deep, permanent fingerprint on my life. Whatever that was, it was a higher force. It gave me my footing, my foundation for everything, and I was shaken at the thought of losing my connection to it. In moments of deep reflection, whenever I begin to trace the fountainhead of whatever sense of well-being I’ve managed to assemble, I find it tethered to her, coiled up like an artery. No place like home.
"Mom is sick and she's not going to get better," she said. My sister sounded hollow. Even though I clumsily groped for the right words, I found I couldn't say much. I'd suspected for years that Mom had been hiding an illness from everyone, and she was. My family lives three hours southwest of me and I immediately started planning the drive.
"Which hospital is she at?" I asked, "I'm on my way right now."
"She's not seeing anyone," my sister said, "Stay there until I call you."
I had literally just wrapped up my B-girls series the day before and shipped it to Los Angeles. I had nothing to do but sit, stare at my phone and ruminate.
"But I want to be there," I said.
"She doesn't want everyone descending on her at the hospital all at once," she said, "Don't worry, she's not going to die tomorrow."
I spent a week in limbo, not seeing anyone. Finally I just decided to make my way to London whether she liked it or not. When I walked into the hospital room, my mother looked a bit tired but relatively normal. I didn't ask her any questions and she didn't offer any answers. I avoided speaking about anything I thought would make her uncomfortable. I just sat with her. I showed her my new B-girls paintings on my phone. She told me she was proud of me for the last time. Dad and I took her for a wheelchair ride to the cafeteria and when we came back, there was something sparkling red on her bed. It was a pair of ruby slippers. The woman in the bed next to my mother had been wearing a pair and Mom had commented how adorable they were. That woman's bed was empty now and apparently the family bought a pair for Mom. She put them on and I took her picture.
It was a good thing I came when I did because in spite of the doctors prognosis that we had a few months left, she was conscious for only a few days after I'd arrived. After the second day with her, she asked Dad and I to not come everyday because she couldn't rest with us there. The next day we stayed away and that was the day the cancer reached her brain stem and she lost the ability to find the right words. Soon after that she had to be heavily medicated. I wish I'd have come sooner but I had two precious days with her before she lost consciousness.
I've thought a lot about what I would have said to her in that brief two days if I'd have known that was all we would have left, but I felt inept. We made small talk. We were both terrified and trying to hide it. Everyone thought she'd be coming home, and there was more time. She died on the morning of November 5th.
After her passing, I spent a month living with my Dad and helping to plan Mom's Celebration Of Life, which turned out to be a lovely ceremony. At one point I looked back and saw the entire hall filled with people who had loved her.
After the ceremony I flew out to LA for my B-Girls opening, and then came back to be with my family for Christmas. It was two months before I finally returned home to Toronto. I didn't quite know what to do with myself. Part of me was desperate to get back to painting but my girls just stopped showing up. For some reason I'm not totally clear about, the only thing I felt like painting were fish bleeding underwater.
Then, during a late night net surf, I came across the myth of the Shinigami. It's bascially the Japanese version of the Grim Reaper. After reading about them the work started flowing and the girls came back with a vengeance. To be honest, I really haven't dealt with my mom's death at all, but I couldn't help but paint where I found myself. This process of coming up with a series of paintings is a ride I've taken many times and, in writing this, I can't help but think of all those trips I took with my Easter basket in the field across the street from our house, searching for OZ. With age, the hunt just naturally turns inward. Everything I've experienced and everyone who's ever made an impression becomes immediately available to me when I create a series. This one was more difficult than any other. I wanted so much for it to be right, probably because it had direct connective tissue to my mother.
As I sat silent with her, I felt death in the corners of the hospital room. That thing I have always been so mortally afraid of was slowly coiling around Mom like a mystical serpent. That was how it felt to me and, finally, that's how it came through in the paintings. I don't know if this series was therapeutic but it was definitely a way to keep working without avoiding the elephant in the room.
Last Friday I saw the Wizard Of Oz again for the first time in many years. It occurred to me that the whole thing is basically about being homesick. It was always this comforting thing to me, now it's hard to look at. Things are different. Home has shifted permanently. I know how fortunate I am to be happy and healthy, to be living out my dream of being a full-time artist, to have fantastic people around me that I care about and my wonderful father is still with me. But there's this thing here now to contend with. A new blank spot with it's own gravity. She was always the first person I called with good news. And in the bleakest times, her voice was like a tuning signal, sending out reassurance from anywhere in the world. Now it's a radio station that just plays itself softly in the background. I'm sure it will play me out. If there was a ever a person in my life that felt like home it was her. No place like home. No. Place.
The Shinigami reception will be Saturday August 12th, 12-4pm. The show will run from August 8th to 19th.
The Red Head Gallery
401 Richmond St. West Toronto • (416)-504-5654