Artwork: the breakdown

I have often said that I’m grateful that Gavin was an artist and that he left a concrete legacy — that he made a difference to literally thousands of people who look at a painting or drawing by him every single day. I say, it made it easier to throw out clothes like his old socks (although… he really did like his damn chinos). Because of the tons of artwork he created during his life time, I didn’t have trouble with which objects mattered to him or which ones would matter to me.

But that’s kind of a pile of garbage (as are many other things) now that I’m moving the last things out of his studio. Because when you get past the many layers of treasures that he created, there is still a lot of junk that was secondary. And even as great a genius as he was (Not really) (Gimme a break, I was married to him), it’s not worth saving every little thing he ever scribbled on. Except for some of it.

Let me give you a list of just a few of the categories of “stuff” and what has been their fate so far:
  • Actual artwork, large sizes: went to professional, climate-controlled, secure art storage facility.
  • Actual artwork, small sizes: moved to flat files which have been moved to my new home.
  • His notebooks, letters, and sketchbooks: to Smithsonian museum libraries for their collection of “papers of American artists,” in hopes someday someone will write about his work.
  • Sketches that were unbound, some rough, some finished, some with markings to help him enlarge them.
  • Artwork by his friends: some hangs in our home, some will be sold. This work falls into subcategories: pieces I really like that hung in our home, pieces I didn’t like much that hung in our home, pieces that didn’t hang in our home, pieces I have never seen; pieces by people I never met, pieces by friends that were in loving trade, pieces by friends that were “gifts” that might not have made it in a situation of natural selection, pieces by people I actively disliked. Pieces he bought during “good years.”
  • Art materials. Paint, not only the type he used. Turpentine. Half-dirty turpentine (fine for housepainting). Color pencils (a child of the 60s, he wouldn’t ever say “colored” pencils), boxes of broken conte crayons, soft pencils, hard pencils, china markers, 24 boxes of oil pastels that must have some story behind them. Most of all this went to the local college art department, whose 2 senior professors were his classmates there. Sheaves of luscious 100% cotton paper, pristine, wrapped up like nuns. FOR SALE!
  • Furniture. Tables made specifically for his work, the right size, unfinished plywood and 2x4s. Two “puzzle” desks he built from a pattern in Popular Mechanics 30 years ago. Shelves for tools. The dust from 500 punk rock and opera LPs that I sold long ago for $1 each.
  • Tools. Extra sets of screwdrivers (sets!? Who am I fooling.). Five hand saws. Thousands of nails and screws of the type no one ever needs. Extra brackets, nuts, clamps, and containers that I didn’t already claim for the new house. A compound miter box he felt obliged to buy when he was very, very ill.
  • Art-related tools. Matte cutter. Copy stand. Two lightboxes. A projector.
  • Empty frames. Frames with cracked glass. Replacement glass for frames that I don’t know where they are now. Frames that must be checked, lest a drawing is behind an old matt.
  • Slides of most of the work he created during his 30 years, which were scanned and stuck on Flickr. Slides that are snapshotty… will be tossed.
  • Snapshots. Includes snapshots that were source material for artwork, made and unmade. Snapshots that were “active,” on his desk, in the top drawer, for work that was finished in the past few years and for work he was contemplating. (Many are being scanned.) Family snapshots. Albums of family photographs, most of them without name or date information.
  • Books. Do not get me started on the damn books.
The last items to be removed from his empty studio — just yesterday — was a clutch of large drawings stashed in his drafting table (which I didn’t even know had a compartment). Some I’d seen before, some I hadn’t. Strange that items from the “valuable” category showed up long after empty frames and packing material had already been given away. Spookily enough, this group includes his piece for September 11, which I knew was SOMEWHERE around here. Right. On. Time, dear.

Clearing this out has taken forever, and called up a complicated tangle of emotions: I get only fog. There’s some justice seeing things go where they “ought.” The frustration of friends who don’t seem to care for relics of their own relationship with him. My anguish over deciding which papers to send to the museum, and which to recycle. (They’ll do no one any good in our attic).

(Yes, it would be a hell of a lot easier if I believed the house sale would actually CLOSE. But I'm in permanent skeptic mode after what I've been through this summer). 

There’s slight zeal in throwing out pieces that I know he wanted to destroy. One evening a few months before he died, he came upstairs saying, “some day I really need to burn some of those early paintings.” It was practically his only intimation that he knew he wouldn’t last forever. I found this batch behind the hot water heater (I’m pretty sure those are the ones he meant). But I felt a passive aggressive compulsion to photograph them before bending them up, as if I wouldn’t even let his ghost escape their primitive colors and compositions.

I had no such compunction tossing out oversized newsprint pads of figure drawings from college. Several large unsatisfying, unfinished paintings were figural too…. Figures were always his least successful pieces. Even when he cloaked them in allegory and myth and removed them into abstract or performance realms, no one really responded to them. (With one notable exception.)

There are literally crickets chirping among the oddments that remain, furniture that’s claimed but not picked up yet, my checklists and tools to bring home, some packing materials, and six identical empty frames.

And I’m oh, so tired.


Why you might consider bringing a party dress with you to Camp Widow (At least, if you are a girl, lady, or woman, or someone who identifies as one of those)

It’s hard to explain why I am in the market for a pair of silver high heels. Am I really going to feel like dancing at Camp Widow -- a “grief retreat”?

Well, I may or may not — but Kim put in an advance request to the gala DJ for some Chaka Khan, so there’s a good chance I’ll shake some tail feathers (note to self: pack tail feathers).

Yes, there will be a lot of crying at this conference. Everyone attending will, like me have lost their spouse or partner. Workshops will tackle every subject in grief, loss, and adjustment. But I am excited to attend an art workshop and one in writing as a way of healing.

More than 200 widows and widowers… men and women, of all ages (right now, folks aged 21 to 83 are registered!). Couples who were married or unmarried, gay and straight, divorced or “complicated.” People actively raising children, empty nesters, and couples who didn’t have children are represented in almost equal numbers. Folks who’ve lost someone just this summer… and those who are ten years out and more. You’ll hear about their losses, about their loves, and their selves, and you’ll see that they all have coped differently.

Camp Widow is a little bit, for the grieving soul in me, like “coming home.” And what an opportunity to be out, to be real. It can be beyond overwhelming to see and meet so many others who’ve been there, others who are “there” now, and people who are through it — who’ve gone beyond mere survival to flourish. Many attendees will find out they’re not crazy, or that they are doing pretty well. Some will have the experience of reaching out a hand to someone else and with that step… understanding their own path a little better.

Grieving people don’t have many chances to show how they feel (though we may do so unwittingly by staying home most of the time) — to live our souls in all their richness, the dark and light showing equally. Unlike when we’re out in the “real” world, at Camp Widow, we can’t hide. When no one expects you to hide your feelings, you might not even want to hide. You might even wish to shine. Something about belonging in that way — about that rare experience of deep freedom — might just make you want to boogie.

Sparkles are on my agenda because I had one regret last year. At Camp Widow 2010, my first time there, I wore a new outfit —  a very “daytime” outfit because I was keyed up about speaking, hate shopping, and don’t have many clothes that fit me after the “ups and downs” of being a mom, grieving, and now being happily remarried.

That evening, after a long day of workshops and friendships, I was surrounded by comrades and allies, and there were drinks.

I looked nice enough (although I discovered I have back fat). I could have danced in my sensible shoes, but what about black wedge mary janes makes you want to dance? NOTHING.

I didn’t think I’d need a party dress. I didn’t dream I deserved a whole second brand new outfit. Didn’t Thoreau tell us to “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes”? I shouldn’t have been so cautious. I minded being a little dull that evening (plus my toe hurt). That’s my regret.

Something about that rare place and time where you can “come as you are” — a chance to relax without denying all your stresses, to work on rebuilding your “wild and precious” life — is in itself a celebration. And that is the element of Camp Widow that I find the hardest to explain to people.

Maybe this should be the motto: “Camp Widow: the grief retreat where you should bring a party dress.”

So pack something spangly and see how you feel, okay?


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