Why do I make art? Why do the emotional tones of my artwork range from terrifying (“Walking On the Dark Side”) to the mystic and ineffable (“Transcendent”)? Why do I want you to purchase my art and keep me producing more?
This is my first blog post in my new website, and perhaps first newsletter article. (If you signed up for my newsletter, bear with me, please. This social media and content marketing thing is still awkward and unwieldy to this 1970’s hippie. I promise you I’ll get the kinks worked out. I’ve got a ton of goodies to give you.)
I was born in the Philippines some eight years after the end of World War II. My father, a veteran of that war, preceded us in journeying back to the U.S. and paved the way for my mother and me to emigrate. When I was twenty-two months of age, she and I boarded an airplane bound for the U.S.
Between 1955 and 1958 through my fourth year of age, our first residence was in New York City in a tenement building on 4th Street in the Bowery. This section on the southeast side of Manhattan Island was known as New York’s skid row even until the 1970s. We would come home to find derelict men passed out on our doorstep, reeking of urine and cheap alcohol.
We lived in a multi-floor railroad flat, so-called as the one-room apartments on each floor were stacked end-to-end, suggesting railway cars. Each apartment door opened onto the common hallway, with one shared bathroom at the far end. My only memory of that bathroom is unfortunately best left unspoken for the time being. (Maybe one day it will wind up as a piece in the “…Dark Side” gallery.)
On the positive side of the ledger, my mother would recount over the years an occurrence taking on the air of a family legend, though I have no recall of the incident itself. What I do remember is that my mother repeated with pride to whomever would listen that I — as a three-year-old toddler — had drawn a large and recognizable airplane on the dresser mirror, using my mother’s lipstick as a crayon.
“I — as a three-year-old toddler — had drawn a large and recognizable airplane
on the dresser mirror, using my mother’s lipstick as a crayon.”
What experience would a three-year-old know of airplanes?
A photograph dated July 1955 gives us a clue.
My mother stands with me in her arms on an airport tarmac. Behind her is the silvery Northwest Orient “Connie” on which we flew. Big planes can make even bigger impressions to little boys.
One person to whom she undoubtedly related this story was Mr. Gordon, our landlord. I don’t know if that lipstick airplane is something Mr. Gordon ever saw, but he did see others of my youthful drawings, and knew thereby that I loved to draw.
In the hallway outside our door was a table with a thin drawer just beneath the tabletop. I recall my mother opening our door to allow me into the hallway to open that drawer each morning. I remember anticipating with excitement if Mr. Gordon had left blank paper inside for me to draw on — typing paper, sheets of white butcher paper, hotel stationery and the like.
Besides stoking my passion for drawing, Mr. Gordon’s kindness had a farther-reaching consequence, perhaps unconscious to him or my family. Though I have no recollection of any artistic expression prior to 4th Street, or of whatever impression it would have made on anyone, I would speculate that Mr. Gordon was the first validation of my ability outside of my immediate family.
We were the proverbial “strangers in a strange land” in 1950s America. Mr. Gordon was a Caucasian man and our apartment landlord, an authority figure in the eyes of my parents, adding to the strength of that validation.
My mother recounted the lipstick airplane incident with pride, my father not so much. He was no advocate for the mirroring that ideally should be part of the parent-child relationship at that stage of development. Most likely he was ignorant of it. Encouraging my artistic side would not have been considered important, let alone necessity — had not an outside authority figure given it social validation. For a toddler, drawing airplanes and street sweepers was as natural a function as breathing. Envisioning me as a future district attorney, doctor or politician did not enter my four-year-old mind as a valid future. For my father it was. Spilling things, saying the “wrong” things at the wrong time, making marks where marks did not belong — he dealt harshly with these infractions.
I know nothing else of Mister Gordon, his personal character, his past history or what his future would be. For all I knew he could have been a WWII concentration camp guard on the lam. He was after all a slumlord — at night in our apartment we could hear rats gnawing behind the walls. He might have later become a wealthy philanthropist, a Big Daddy Warbucks. Who knows? But for a crucial moment in time, he was an angel sent into my life to make that crucial intervention. For this I am grateful.
Mr. Gordon, you were one of those persons that the psychologist Alice Miller referred to as efficient witnesses.
Children are born creative, all of them, all over the world without exception. That assertion is a cornerstone of my belief.
Children have also been subjected to physical and emotional abuse all over the world, over many ages and times, some by war, poverty, neglect and other forms, too often of the most horrific kinds. The heartbreaking images of drowned and maimed coming out of the Mediterranean refugee crisis are now all too common, children with voices that cannot be heard.
Many break as individuals. Others grow into adulthood absorbing the legacy of abuse into their personal culture, such that they themselves become abusers — or in tolerating it, the carriers of violence and self-violence as a kind of self-perpetuating social disease.
Others survive in despite, and even recover to become advocates for social justice — for children, or others. Why is this? Why do some survive psychologically, and others not? And how do they survive?
The psychologist Alice Miller was such an advocate. She coined the term enlightened witness as a person who is willing to support harmed individuals — children most notably — empathize and help them to gain understanding of and healing from their own biographical past. (Incidentally, late in life she fulfilled her desire to also be a painter. Her watercolor works are in print.)
Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd.
As Dr. Miller noted in her studies, the damage caused in the child neurologically and emotionally sets in before the age of four years. For me, despite my initial encounters with the psychiatric world as a teen and years of introspection afterwards, my recovery did not effectively begin in this regard until relatively late in life.
Two factors that kept me going were the same two that got me started on my journey — the creation of art, and the experience of the mystical or divine. All my life to date I’ve been on a hero’s journey, these two common threads weaving through that journey.
I would extend the definition of enlightened witness to include crucial interventions of love coming from outside the immediate family environment that recognize and reinforce a child’s sense of what is precious and unique about his or her own humanity. That person — the efficient witness — through a kind word or gesture may be key in the emotional survival of the child, planting a seed for a future harvest.
Many people have shown me support and kindnesses over the years. In relation to my development as an artist as relates to my childhood I now pay tribute to one of the first efficient witnesses in my life.
Thank you, Mister Gordon, wherever you are in the universe now. In my own way, through my art, my writing and the process of bettering myself each day, I’m finding ways to leave paper where it’s needed.
Okay, that’s it for now. How did I do with my first blog post? I invite you to please comment below, or email me privately. Many more to come.