I used to paint ideas and moments in time. When I wanted to find inner strength I painted a strong woman with an impenetrably gaze. Once I painted a woman who’d caught her inner demons to eat for lunch. A lyric from Tori Amos’ “Yes, Anastasia” inspired a self-portrait of myself knee deep in water littered with objects I’d lost over the years.
I’ve done series of bare tree branches against winter skies and painted antique meat grinders, heat registers, and sunlight falling on a pine floor.
Until I became pregnant, there hadn’t been a time in my adult life when I didn’t paint regularly. While pregnant, I pined for the chance to paint a self portrait of my pregnant self: the spidery veins spread across my big belly, the brown spots around my eyes, the gnarled, blue blood vessels that grew on my hands when they hung at my sides for more than a minute. I started “Self-portrait, Pregnant” shortly after I gave birth to my daughter.
But then I started painting my daughter, and once I started, I couldn’t paint anything else. My first portrait was of her with a slight smile on her face. My second painting of her asleep was less successful. I had trouble capturing the translucent blue of her thin newborn skin.
The more I painted, the better I got. I did my very best portrait right before I found out I was pregnant again. I had just reached my stride when I couldn’t paint again for nine months. My first painting after my son was born was of my 17-month old daughter, who had left babyhood while I was pregnant and become a toddler. My next painting was of my son, the spitting image of his sister except for his chubby cheeks and coloring. He had ruddy skin, and cherry-colored cheeks. No translucent blue undertone like his sister. I kept my painting small, about 8x10, and did one right after another.
I worked from photos and we tried for months before we got a good shot of them together. Whenever one was looking at the camera, the other was looking away. It was like they were in cahoots with each other to undermine my portrait plans. I’d come home from work and my husband would have as many as 50 shots of them, propped up in our big chair, with not one where they were both looking at the camera.
My old paintings hang all over our house. Many are from the years I lived in Albuquerque. They are big, bright, colorful, and impressionistic. My portraits fill the wall behind our television. When my daughter was younger, she used to point at them and say, “There’s Aggie!” The other day, she looked at my self-portrait standing in water and said, “Look, mommy, she’s all wet.” Sometimes, I look around at my older, looser paintings and wonder when I’ll stop painting my kids. I have always wanted to paint portraits, and I’m enjoying the discipline of painting just portraits. But I also feel guilty about having a creative outlet for me that takes me away from my kids, and painting them eases that guilt.
The other day, on the last day of being home full-time for four straight days with my kids, my daughter came to me in the morning and said, “Mommy, you work today?” No, I told her. “You go to painting class?” No. “You go to piano class?” No, I said, I’m just hanging out with you. Guilt ripped through me, even though I think she just asked so she could figure out how her world works. At some point, I’ll have to deal with the guilt. I hate being gone 40+ hours a week at work and then leaving again for painting, and then missing them on Friday mornings because I’m at piano class. On the other hand, I need to paint. And once I’m good at the piano, I’m implementing Family Sing Night, where we’ll all sing songs and eat popcorn and homemade cookies. And well-rounded parents are certainly better for their children than clingy, uber-focused parents. And besides, I’ll need a way to be occupied and fulfilled later, when my kids hit their teenager years and don’t want anything to do with me. I’ll get around to working through the guilt. Just like OCD, the degree dictates the diagnosis. A little compulsive cleaning just gives you a clean home. You know your OCD is a problem when you can’t get to work because you have to straighten the fringe on your rug.
Painting portraits is not easy and I still have a lot to learn. Sometimes I want to give up on them. I have one of my husband and son that is so close, and yet, I can’t seem to capture the warmth in my husband’s eyes. In none of them have I captured the real exuberance of my children. The one I’m working on right now, of both kids together (taken from two different photos) is taking so long that I’m sick of it. But I just keep going, because, if not that picture, then what? Another meat grinder? My mommy guilt is making me hone my portrait painting skill. Guilt can be bad, but it also has its merits so I’m going to ride my guilt train as far as it will take me.