A Requiem For My Mother

In this sleep of death what dreams may come...
— Hamlet, W.S.

"What Dreams May Come" • 24" x 20" • Oil on canvas from the news series SHINIGAMI

 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 everybody starting buying VHS machines. 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 would have settled for an alien abduction, or anything that preempted school the next day. I spent so much time in that field, skipping and singing full blast, that 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.” 

First day of school

1977 Me, Mom and my Wonder Woman doll, trying to smile with the mumps.

“In moments of deep reflection, whenever I begin to trace the fountainhead of any sense of well-being I’ve managed to assemble, I find it tethered to her, coiled up like an artery. No place like home.” 

I feel relieved that I was born before reality TV and social media grew like weeds around everyone’s ankles. It just so happened that the cheap television programming of the 1970's was old movies, which sort of set the stage for the tonal quality of all my work. I was a 10 year old classic movie buff. Watching those film noir Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck movies was something special 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 was always drawing from. If a career in art hadn't worked out I think I could have been a film historian. It's a testament to my mom that in spite of all my weird eccentricities, 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. Someone believing in you, and relentlessly rooting for you like that, is a much 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 the hall closet. Let’s freeze frame here because that’s a big brick wall of foreshadowing. 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. I think that pretty much sums it up.

One of my earliest oil paintings - 36" x 72" - Oil on canvas

When I informed my mother in tears that she was going to die someday she would sigh patiently and nod like she did when I ruined the punchline of every joke I ever tried to tell. She’d say, “Not for a long long time, sweetie.” Up until my 40’s I managed to be a virtual stranger to death.

 Mom was the oldest of seven sisters. No brothers. Her father had died when she was very little. She was surrounded by incredible women and a strong matriarchal mother they all adored. I love and admire all of them and I'm always moved by how they rally around each other in good times and bad. Nothing comes 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 named Maia, meaning mother. The month of May was named after Maia, which coincidentally was when my Mom was born. Myths have always been a huge component in my work. Some of my earliest attempts at drawing were sketches of Medusa and Artemis. It just so happened that the last painting I was working on before Mom passed away had an Asian influence, so I started looking into Eastern myths surrounding death. 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. That’s exactly where my head was and I couldn’t focus on anything else. It really felt like the past couple of years has been a confrontation with death. It’s been everywhere. In the news, more so than usual it seemed, and in my own life. Before 2016 I'd been to just one funeral. This year I've been to six.

Mom and Dad, 1958.

My favourite photograph of us, 1983

 The youngest kid in a big family usually gets the unfair advantage of a more relaxed parenting style, and I definitely came down hard on the backs of my three siblings. I was a mixed salad of chronic illnesses and awkward social tendencies that sucked all the oxygen from the rest of our family, and pretty much monopolized Mom's attention. My acute 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 by my oldest sister. “We all hated you!” she likes to remind me. Fair enough. I think I probably would have hated me too. I was allergic to just about every kind of food, so feeding me was another nightmare. Then there were the variety of skin diseases. I was your basic mammoth pain in the ass. 

Of course, Mom had an 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 company came over. The sound of car wheels on the gravel driveway would send me scurrying for refuge like a mouse under a fluorescent bulb. She would find me hours after everyone had left, hiding under my bed, asleep with a fist full of cornflakes. 

"Nebula" • 12" x 16" • Oil on panel

"Shinigami" - Oil on canvas - 24" x 20"

 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 wet 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 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. It was like being stabbed forty times. Mom stood beside me, cutting the circulation off from of my wrist. 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.

In a photobooth at the Bloor subway on one of her visits to Toronto.

My portrait of Mom

1998

 Mom was always worried that I spent too much time alone drawing. When I was much older she told me about the day she decided to drive to my school during recess to see how I was fitting in. 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 stormed up to the reception desk and started pounding her fist on the counter, "I need someone to talk to about the fact that my son is alone out there." I'm not sure what she expected them to do about it, but she was just always in my corner, trying 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 somehow imagine if I'm ready for something bad to happen, it won't happen. No one really close to me had ever died. I've been able to keep death in the abstract for the most part. My creative work is where I turn to 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 she and I. 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 any sense of well-being I’ve managed to assemble, I find it tethered to her, coiled up like an artery. No place like home. 

"Requiem" • 24" x 36" • Oil on canvas

 "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 to rent a car.

 "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."

"Aureola" - Oil on panel - 20" x 16

"Lightning Seed" - Oil on panel - 24" x 18"

 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. I didn’t know what kind of shape she would be in and my palms went clammy when I walked up to the hospital entrance. When I got to her room, she looked a little worn out but fine, and smiling. The weird thing was that 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. My mom felt guilty about anything and everything so I was very careful with my words. I just sat with her. I showed her photos of my new B-girls paintings. 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 I guess the family bought a new pair for Mom. She put them on and I took her picture. Surreal.

A week before she passed, wearing the ruby slippers someone had left on her bed.

Mom’s ruby slippers.

 It was a good thing I came when I did because in spite of being told that we had a few months left, she was conscious for only a few days after I'd arrived. She asked Dad and I to not come everyday because she couldn't rest with us there. So the next day we stayed away and that was the day the cancer reached her brain stem and she lost the ability to say words. She could still speak but the words were gibberish. Then I noticed she was putting things in her mouth and trying to eat everything. 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 was no longer conscious.

"Vespertine" - Oil on panel - 11" x 14"

 I've thought a lot about what I would have said to her in that flicker of time if I'd have known that was all we would have left, but I felt inept. We made small talk. It felt like reciting my grocery list on a roller coaster ride. 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, 2016.

Nimbus • 16" x 12" • Oil on canvas

"Ectophiliac" - Oil on panel - 20" x 16"

"Vanta" - pencil on paper

"Wilt" - pencil on paper

 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. 

The last girl I was working on before getting that call from my sister was an asian woman. During a late night net surf, I came across the myth of the Shinigami. A 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 articulating a knot in my stomach with creative work 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 like escaping the realities of death by seeing a movie about death. I wanted so much for it to be right, probably because it had 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 moving forward. 

Grand Illusion • 24" x 20" • Oil on canvas

The look of the Shinigami girls was inspired by Anna May Wong.

Serpentine • 14" x 11" • Oil on canvas (in progress)

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 dreams, to have fantastic people around me that I care about and my 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