This is a Preamble: The Then and The Now
Prior to the 20th century, letters to friends and family frequently included words as well as sketches. On the road without a camera, travelers used the best technology at the time—pen and paper. A hand written letter was personal, intimate, singular and often quite beautiful.
Our era, inundated with ubiquitous smart phones and 24/7 social media platforms, has a different approach. Millions of photos of the Taj Mahal have been posted by millions of people, but I don’t remember seeing a single sketch. Pen and paper are no longer the most efficient tool. In fact bringing pen and paper on the road is almost a luxury for the streamlined, minimalistic 21st century explorer.
I arrived in New York as a young artist in 1973 when the prevailing wisdom was that if you were really serious about art, that’s where you had to be. Even for the fiercely independent, the art community was easily accessed. I bonded with a group of artists colonizing the unzoned industrial buildings of the Lower East Side, opening up inexpensive live and work spaces. With so much of the art scene concentrated in New York, we could keep track of the latest news by reading a few monthly magazines and sharing tips with each other. Little notice was paid to what was going on anywhere else since we were pretty sure we were sitting smack in the middle of a great spinning disk. (Arriving fresh from California, I was stunned to discover that no one in New York seemed to knew who Richard Diebenkorn was, an artist whose Ocean Park series completely transformed my artistic aspirations.) Regardless of the larger reality, seen or unseen, we were joined together by geography and ideology.
Many of those people are still in my life even though those days and those ways have been swept away, like pen and paper as the primary communication tool. Meanwhile many new demi-mondes have constellated around art, making an environment that is infinitely more multi-dimensional, geographically distributed, intricately networked, increasingly diverse. It brings to mind Timothy Morton‘s powerful concept of the hyperobject—“entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” (For a brutally honest and insightful unpacking of the current art world, read Seth Price’s “novel,” Fuck Seth Price, downloadable here.)
Now an artist can live anywhere, align herself with any cause, disintermediate the distribution of her work, choose whatever channels she wants to watch. That array of options has not stopped the search for like-minded artists however. And that, it turns out, is easier to do now than ever.
Ah, the perennial love/hate of social media! On the one hand those platforms are the disembodied, detached domain of the digital: personally invasive, monetizing without consent, attention sucking, and disingenuous. But it is also true that Facebook and Instagram have been a boon for artists. We can connect with artists all over the world, and we do.
Is it my generation’s comfort with high touch relationships that makes it so surprising that I now have deep connections with people I rarely see and in some cases, not at all? These are relationships that began because our art spoke up first. The rest just followed. That is how it happened with Miriam Louisa Simons. Suzanne Moss. Tim Rice. Beverly Byrnes. Diane McGregor.
And that is how it happened with Gay Patterson.
This is What This is Really About : Gay Patterson
I first saw Gay’s paintings on Facebook about 8 years ago. I was immediately enchanted. So of course I reached out to her.
Gay was more understated than me. She was a careful, thoughtful, private person. She did share the circumstances of her life: She had chosen to live simply and alone, in a house and studio she built herself, just outside of Santa Fe New Mexico. She described her need for solitude as well as the companionship of a small group of close friends. While we lived in different worlds, our work shared a commonality that was material as well as energetic. I felt like we were cut from the same piece of cosmic cloth, that we were drinking from the same stream. We were both in search of an art that embodied stillness, centeredness, transcendent knowing. Gay’s work spoke that language beautifully.
In early 2018 our relationship changed dramatically. Out of the blue I began suffering from excruciating headaches and my vision went double. So began a hellish journey into the neurological landscape of unknowns, maybes and let’s sees. My condition had a name—carotid cavernous fistula—but it didn’t come with a cause or a cure.
When Gay heard about my condition she wrote to me immediately to confide that she too was struggling with vision issues. Her symptoms were different than mine, but she was also in the zone of the unknown.
What solace she brought to me, having a friend who could truly understood what I was going through. Gay became my most comforting confidant, my trusted cotraveler. We wrote. We talked. We shared each step forward, sympathizing when things were terrible and celebrating when hopeful news arrived. Both of us were parked in that back lot of the medical field where it is more about educated guesses than science.
My malady had a name, hers did not. For all the testing and procedures she endured, no one could ascertain what was causing her sight problems. She traveled to see the experts at the Anderson Center in Houston. There were periods when things seemed to get better for her, but then her symptoms would revert. Gay was frustrated, but she was never one to wallow or whine. Her equanimity inspired and amazed me.
I wrote my last email to Gay on May 7. I was so excited to share the news that after 18 months, I was able to drive a car again. While my eyesight was still problematic, a new doctor designed lenses for me that expanded the range of my clear vision. “Gay, this means I can finally come to Santa Fe and visit you!” I wrote. ”You have always said September is the best time, so let’s make it happen!”
I didn’t hear back from her. I was mildly concerned since she is usually timely in her responses. I didn’t call her and thought it best to just wait. A few weeks later a mutual friend, Diane McGregor, posted the news of her death on Facebook.
I was overcome by this unexpected outcome, and wrote as much. Sensing my shock, Gay’s friend Tracey Adams called me. She spent an hour walking me through the last few weeks of Gay’s life. She went quickly, Tracey said. Her friends took turns sitting with her to the end. It was eventually determined that squamous cell carcinoma, undetected after Mohs surgery, was the cause of Gay’s vision issues and her death.
When I think of my connection with Gay, it feels like we crafted a tidy boat for two and then took off on a sea voyage with no clear destination. That vessel was our chrysalis of hope as we, two artists wounded at the place where we were most vulnerable, scanned the horizon in every direction for signs of the Land of Healed Vision. She was an intrepid companion on a journey that was difficult for both of us.
I am going to Santa Fe this week to remember Gay. How it will be best to honor her life and her work is still undetermined, but making that pilgrimage feels right.
I offer these words in honor of Gay Patterson, from the artist and poet Dorothea Tanning.
That was in a room for rent.
It had a window and a bed,
it was enough for dreaming,
for stunning facts like being
at last, and undeniably
in NYC, enough to hold
enfolded as in a pregnancy,
those not-yet-painted works
to be. They, hanging fire,
slow to come—to come
out—being deep inside her,
in her warm dark, took
their time and promised.
Fast forward. Trapped in now,
she’s not all that sure.
Compared to what entwined
her mind before the test,
before the raw achievement
pat, secure—oh, such bounty
to be lived, yet untasted,
undefined—all the rest…
September 22, 1948 – June 12, 2019
What can I say – shift happens. Even if I start a painting with an idea in mind, I try to put it on idle and let it evolve by discovery rather than any pre-conceived narrative. Over decades, I seem to have embedded notions of ephemerality, motion and the constant of change in my work. I’m not sure if I’m trying to understand mutability, nail it down or accept it, but it is a primal state of life, and so very beautiful.
What you see, feel and think depends on just how you approach everything, including art. In looking at a painting, no part exists in isolation but alters in relationship to what it is next to, where it is viewed from, what the quality of light is and every experience you bring along. Recently I’ve been using reflective mica powder and interference pigments on a black ground to create a dynamic space where what you see shifts as you change your viewing angle so that there isn’t one fixed reality. Rather than taking a quick glance and thinking you’ve got it, giving it another look from a different perspective can expand depth, richness of meaning and impact. One of the best things art can do is open you up to curiosity and suspension of judgment, and make you take another, deeper look at the world around you.