Happy birthday to me. I am now 55 years old. It feels like a big jump. I'm now in AARP territory. In so many ways I feel completely like me, but in other ways I feel the years slipping by--speeding by, really--and the tale is told in my muscles and joints and in other places. Our lives are so short.
In this post are three new paintings that speak to me of the preciousness of life in its rapid slipping past. All three are of the same model, my most recent. As I have noted in recent posts, she's a dear, dear friend.
So things are not all well at home or on the painting front. My wife and I have been relating across distance lately. That passing of time brings so much, and one of the things it brings is a history to our intimate relationships, a history that, for us and for many couples, I don't doubt, brings an accumulation of, well, hard stuff: resentments, irritations, frustrations, growing awareness of differences. Even apart from that ours is a difficult situation: too much damn work on both sides, plus a young son at home, all this demanding of care and attention, inevitably means that the spark between us gets neglected and dims to more of an ember. About a month ago, my wife acted out of her frustration around the growing distance and decided that my painting was a prime problem, thinking that both the painting and the work with models was tantamount to an affair. She asked me to take down all of my nudes, and she asked that I not work with any more models. I think she would be happy if I took all the attention and creativity I've been channeling into painting figures and diverted it in the direction of, I don't know, model railroading. So I took down the paintings and I put away my easel.
But I had completed these three paintings, all of which I like for various reasons. This one, the seated figure above, is my favorite. What a beautiful pose. And there's the rub for me. Can I say, honestly, that painting has taken my attention away from home? Yes, I suppose so, but in a very complicated way (and way less than, for instance, work has). I am someone who responds powerfully and viscerally to beauty in all its forms, and the beauty of women's bodies (including my wife's) is a rapturous delight for me. I'm hardly alone in this. And it is not as though abandoning painting will make me immune to noticing the beauty in others, including women, any less. Still. I do understand where my dear wife is coming from. It must feel very lonely to be with a guy like me who channels erotic energy outside the marriage.
"Erotic energy" sounds so, I don't know, serious. I'll say again what I've often said, that painting figures for me is startlingly platonic. I'm an introverted, shy sort of person who very much reserves sexual intimacy for truly intimate relationships. I've always been this way. Sex is sacred to me--which is not to say that it's not fun and playful (indeed, for me, play is sacred)--and I treasure my memories of all of the small number of women I have been physically intimate with. Beauty, including the amazing beauty of women's bodies, is equally sacred to me. Is worshipping the sacred beauty of women's bodies outside of marriage a form of infidelity? Perhaps. I certainly understand how it can feel that way.
I've been listening to a book on Audible called The State of Affairs, by Esther Perel, a wonderful Belgian psychoanalyst who specializes in treating couples who either are beset by extramarital troubles or who just have trouble nourishing the erotic connection within the marriage. Perel offers a complete and complex set of understandings for marital disharmony and marital ennui, both of which my wife and I have been experiencing of late. Without going into details, I can say that our experience is very common. There are so many challenges that couples endure in their passage through time. The dance of marriage requires balancing so many needs and longings: security and adventure, stability and excitement, love and sex. Many couples, I learn from Perel, have difficulty achieving this balance, i.e., difficulty holding all these competing vectors within the crucible of one union. Many individuals or couples can't do so--hence the state of affairs. On balance, my wife and I have been pretty good at holding, nurturing, nourishing, and valuing all the energies. Ours is a good marriage. (And I have had a bad one, so I do know of which I speak.)
But even good marriages "leak." Even good marriages meet only some needs, embrace and allow for only some aspects of each partner, and contain only some of the erotic energy and longing partners have. I have my share of "unauthorized" longings that I've explored and allowed to live through my painting of figures. Add to the whole mix this challenging fact: I have depression. My depression is not of the debilitating sort, but it does make life very difficult for me at times. And my cure--or rather treatment--has tended to be to seek and nourish erotic vitality, the opposite of depression, anywhere I can. I nourish it through music (I've been studying piano), through model building (infrequently), through housekeeping and gardening (even less frequently), and most especially through painting. I can't not do that nourishing. Giving in to my depression--making it harder for me to get out of bed than it already is for me--would serve no one, least of all my wife and son. Thus my wife's banning me from painting figures feels a bit like asking me to return to the desert after I had found an oasis.
Well, we're entering into some couples counseling. The aim there will be, for me at least, to address the pileup of resentments and frustrations that have created alienation in our partnership. It certainly will be to find ways to revive play and erotic frisson between us. And it will be to bring the subject of my painting into the open where we can really look at it and assess its deleterious effects--and, I hope, its benefits.
For I do believe that there have been benefits. I do believe that painting figures has allowed me to cherish my marriage and my wife and to bring some energy back into our partnership. How can it not? And there's the real paradox or irony. Below is a final painting, one I adore. To the model I said that this painting could be called Breast Study with Maniacal Grin. The painting captures a spontaneous moment of the life of my dear friend. Sure, it's intimate: she's naked and unguarded and so beautiful here. But in painting her I carry a piece of her life with me everywhere I go, including into my marriage. Understanding how and thereby cherishing gratitude for everyone involved here--my model, my wife, myself--will be my ultimate aim.