All original images and text are copyright 2008-2018 Liz Sweibel

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Two trajectories are defining my days – one pulling me forward to my work, and the other pulling me down and away.

The first:  I let go of rules I’d made about how to have a studio in my home and asked my brother to put up drywall over my (plaster) foyer walls.  Such permissions sound simple in retrospect; this one took more than two years.  And it closely followed December 11, the anniversary of my mother’s death.  Now, with wall space in addition to my huge table (the envy of all), I have a workable studio.  A few days ago and perhaps synchronously, I was notified that my work will be shown at Gallery Korea in 2011.

At the same time, I feel a malaise that I attribute to a kind of middle-age exhaustion.  I’ve read that this time of life can bring a loss of optimism, idealism, possibility.  I’m struggling with that, because those qualities are fundamental to my character.  I feel betrayed, confused, and frightened by how unfamiliar I can seem to myself.  I’m disallowing my natural responses to the world.  They cost too much, cause too much disappointment.  The tide and the odds are pushing too hard against me.  The word jaded comes to mind, but I reject it.  Tired, yes; beat up, sometimes; down, often.  Those are passing; jadedness seems permanent.

Interestingly, my malaise lifted temporarily while watching In Treatment a couple of nights ago.  The premise of psychotherapy is that each person’s pain is valid, that the moment-by-moment events of a life have weight, and that it is worthwhile – arguably necessary – to look at them.  I’m grateful for the reminder that my sensitivities are intact, if clouded over, for now.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I took this photo of my mother at Hogback Mountain in Vermont in August 1982.  I don't recall anything about the trip, but my family rented a great farmhouse in nearby Marlboro for three or four summers around 1970.  Her expression seems to hold those memories and the painful two years since my father's death, as well as a sadness I always see in her eyes.

When I wrote on the anniversary of her death, I mentioned her father's depression.  (Christopher Payne's book of photographs, Asylum, just shot to mind.  I want it.)  It was severe, and he was hospitalized more than once.  She didn't much talk about her childhood, but she did tell me of a day when her father asked her if she was his daughter, after a hospitalization and electroshock therapy.  How excruciating for a child, to become unfamiliar to a parent.  All I remember is him sitting in silence in a chair in the sun by the window, in an immaculate short-sleeve white dress shirt with his newspaper and cigar.

Mom was much younger than her three siblings.  My sense is that her childhood was a hard-to-reconcile combination of love and neglect.  (Mine too, differently.)  Mom was the first to die; only the oldest, Harriet, survives.  She is 93.  Her and Mom's relationship was confused, as Harriet was 13 years older and had parental responsibilities she never quite shook.  My mother struggled to separate from Harriet, made more difficult by them both being artists.  It's interesting to compare their work; both were abstract painters, heavily influenced by Hofmann, Picasso, and Matisse.  Where Harriet's work is cerebral and linear (she's said to me so many times, It's all about space, Lizzie), my mother's was figurative.  For me, the difference matches the differences between their personalities.

Oh Lord.  I just previewed the post and saw the date.  It's my father's birthday.  He would be 82.

While I'm haunted lately, I'm also detached.  Two anniversaries haven't registered until triggered the day of.  Near misses.  Rather than anticipate the anniversaries, as I did for years, I'm flirting with the anticipatory guilt of missing them.  I have some of my mother's journals.  In one she wrote that guilt is the only man-made emotion.

This charcoal hangs in my living room.  Its clean lines are uncharacteristic of her work (brushier, looser, more exploratory than known), but it's a great drawing.  I see I'm reflected in it, which seems apt.

Untitled (The Fat Lady), Patty Sweibel

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Another Anniversary

On May 28, the day before the 30th anniverary of my father's death, I wrote a post about him, and noted my intention to write about my mother.  I'm a little embarassed to say that, until a little while ago, I was unaware that today is the 24th anniversary of her death.  How I became aware is one of those mysteries of synchronicity.

I went running this morning; the lake is starting to freeze.  Gazing out at it, a voice behind me said "Wow, is the lake frozen?"  I turned to see a boy of about 12 or 13 with his skateboard.  "Not all the way through, just in spots," I said.  His response?  "I go away for a week and everything changes."  Well, that was a little breathtaking.

Over the brunch ritual that follows a weekend run, I began reading about Lily Rabe, the daughter of David Rabe and Jill Clayburgh, in last Sunday's Times.  When I read that Clayburgh died November 5, my breath caught.  I've had Jill Clayburgh and my mother on a parallel plane since An Unmarried Woman.  I got very emotional and then just knew today is the anniversary.

I remember Mom being very moved by the movie.  She must have related to Clayburgh's role as a woman trying to solidify her identity apart from her marriage.  While the character was divorced and my parents were together, my father was a dominating presence and the times were such that women stayed home and raised the kids.  My mother was a painter, though, and needed more.  My father encouraged her, but also wanted dinner at 6 pm, his independence, and his way.  In other words, he wasn't about to babysit the four of us while my mother painted.  He wanted to ride his motorcycle.

(Ours Was Off-White)
The struggle between convention and desire was an undercurrent in our household.  Within the suburban model of that era, my family was a bit other.  We had a Jeep Wagoneer in the late 1960s when all the other moms were driving hideous station wagons.  My mother was "seeing someone" way before therapy was common practice.  There she found her voice, which she promptly used to tell my father (loudly) that she was not just his wife and a mother but a painter, dammit, and she needed a studio.  I know this because I heard her from my bedroom on the third floor with the door closed; they were in the living room.  My father cleaned out a room for her to use as a studio within days.  It could be hard to tell, but I know he really loved her.

My mother's strength and self-doubt were roughly of the same caliber. (That may be common among artists; the doubt propels the work.)  As a child of the Depression and her father's depression, I suspect she had a lot more in her adult life than she ever imagined in some ways, and less than she wanted in others.  Jill Clayburgh's character lit up the gaps and the struggle, and that must have shook Mom up.  Had she had more time, I think she would have filled many of them, and it's heartbreaking she didn't get the chance.

I have struggled with this post for a long time (and accept what that signifies), and it's still not there, but it's not going to get any closer.  This drawing of my mother hangs in my dining area; it's signed Amie '61.
Patty Sweibel
March 17, 1931- December 11, 1986