Over the past few months I've discovered, again, that I am an artist. I knew this truth as a child, and I kept sketchbooks voraciously. I drew the everyday things of my life, and I'd sit for hours using crayons to imagine places I'd never been. I could lose myself inside the landscapes by artists I loved. At the museum, I'd be the one still staring after everyone else had gone on with the tour.
After high school, I went to Germany for a year where I learned silk screening, and produced vibrant, delicate scarves with sea horses or cherry blossoms or swallows in flight moving across them. I loved using salt: watching the paint marbleize where each grain landed. I used acrylics there too, in my long afternoons between work hours. I painted orchids, and a map of the world.
Before I came to college I spent two weeks in Harlem with people who had HIV. We did rapid contour drawings in charcoal: impermanent and bold. My sketchbook was full of figures dancing across the pages. People's faces, hands, eyes, done in graphite or pen.
But once I settled into my life as a student something shifted. My internal landscape became crowded with words.
I poured my inner imagry into my notebooks: word drunk, over stimulated, and exhausted. I wrote crappy poetry and some good poetry. I took some writing classes and gradually I learned to hone a decent sentence. I grappled with the stories of my life. I learned to interview. I worked sometimes for the college paper. I began thinking of myself as a writer. But after my required art class freshman year I stopped painting.
When I graduated, I plunged headlong into the world of teaching big things to small children. Their faces, each an entire landscape of wonder, watched me as I spoke--living into my words, my breath, my laughter. I wrote things every day in the context of the classroom.
I modeled writing that mattered to me, that was real, and packed with details that they could care about: the scratching sounds of pencils in motion; the sobbing wails of the angry girl with the nappy hair in dozens of small pigtails sprouting out of her head outside the kindergarten classroom; the smell of popcorn from the teacher's lounge or lunch in the cafeteria where they served green hot dogs, nearly a foot long, and salad drowned with dressing.
I told my students stories. I used these narratives to teach plot, suspense, figurative language, and metaphor. And I drew pictures of bivalve mollusks, of tidal marshes, of maple trees in autumn, of shag bark hickories in spring to accompany the hands-on social studies and science curriculum I designed.
But teaching pulled from me every ounce of my creative energy, and when I'd ride the train home, often as the sun was setting, I'd have the energy only to shut my eyes, or to scribble a few half hearted observations: the lady with the bouffant hairdo and the to-red cheeks who talked loudly, as though no one else were in the crowded car, to her travel partner who was standing in the vestibule, checking his watch and fidgeting with his leather gloves.
When I had my son, for the first few months I staggered about writing in my notebook, start time 11:15 right breast, nursed for 3 minutes, then stopped, but I quickly gave this up just started trusting my instincts.
Things evened out. My baby grew. I got some sleep. We moved. I started running, finding a rhythm, remembering to breathe. And I had hours, interrupted, fragmented hours, punctuated by squeals or roars or wailing, but hours none the less, to start letting my mind unwind.
I was tightly wound. And as the filaments of my mind unfurled, images started flooding in. I longed for paint. I bought a few on-sale brushes. I filled pages with collages and quick heavy strokes. And then I started to remember why I was an artist first.