“How does this store stay in business? Who goes in there?” Kenny asked as we drove by one of the many giant faux-rusted, big-windowed shop filled with giant Buddhas made of stone that seem to thrive in L.A.
“Oh, everyone has a big Buddha in their house. That’s the first thing people do when they make a buck in this town is get a big Buddha. It’s a rite of passage,”’ I said.
Of course I pulled this out of my ass, kind of. I mean, it comes from somewhere. I’ve seen photos of homes here in L.A. where there are big stone and metal Buddhas silently guarding living rooms and gardens. One time I went to a viewing for an apartment I didn’t realize I could no-way afford and there was a HUGE Buddha in the main room next to the window. I think it was the Buddha itself that sent out some kind of subliminal signal that somehow, not only accessed my bank account and memories of being raised in a trailer park, but also turned me around and sent me firmly on my way out the door.
A few days later after our conversation about Buddhas and shops, Kenny and I attended a house party. The house was very nice.
We entered the house on our own after a good knock and no response. We heard festive chatter within. Upon entering we were greeted by others who were also guests and they were standing by (you guessed it) a giant Buddha made of stone. Once we walked inside we found painted portraits of that same Buddha. There was a beautiful green garden canopied by rows of twinkle lights and big-leaved plants and in the center was a big square stone with tiny, white, fire-holding pebbles resting upon it. We sat with the other guests, on cushioned cement slabs, around it. Kenny and I faced the Buddha that seemed to be watching us from inside with his iris-and-pupil-free eyes through the fire.
“See,” I said.
Kenny nodded his head and said, “Why don’t you paint Buddhas?”
“Why don’t I paint Buddhas? ...I wouldn’t mind painting Buddhas, actually. I like Buddhas.” That’s what went through my head and it made me feel excited and that excitement made me feel uncomfortable.
When I was young I was told by many people who didn't know me well, but knew I had creative inclinations, to paint lighthouses, sea otters and that tree in Pebble Beach, because we lived by such things and we also lived by the shops that sold paintings and tiny versions of such things. This used to make me mad. I didn’t feel compelled to paint something as simple as what people liked in their houses. My art explores what I don’t understand. My art is a mystery to me that I feel compelled to share. My art should lead humanity to new perceptions in regard to existential matters!
So then, why was I suddenly feeling enthusiastic about the idea of painting Buddhas? -The current equivalent of what lighthouses, sea otters and that tree in Pebble Beach once were to me.
In addition to that, a few weeks before, when my friend asked me to make a portrait of his dog, I said that I would and actually enjoyed the thought of imagining how I would depict him. I derived pleasure from considering the challenge of what I could do to make his portrait my own.
Back when I was younger, when lighthouses made me angry, a woman at a craft show offered me money to paint a portrait her Dachshund and I very nearly socked her in the nose for asking. I felt that she should understand from my work on display that I was not there to paint her dog or anyone’s dog. I was there to explore and to make philosophical discoveries that happened to make its way out of my psyche via paintings of demons and aliens that happened to look a lot like adorable Muppets. My ego was way hurt.
A friend at work (whom I consider to be cerebral) and I were talking and she asked me to teach her how to draw animals so that she could turn out some bucks by painting people’s pets and that’s when I found myself telling her about my new plan to paint Buddhas and that’s when I got it. It clicked. I understood the change. At least I think I understood the change. I either understand it, or I’ve lived without much money for so long that I’m finally setting my ego aside for the sake of possibly (probably not) earning a better living.
But, setting my ego aside (har har) let’s pretend I have undergone an actual catharsis.
Buddhas and dogs aside, I had been thinking, a lot, recently about my subject choices. I’ve been painting lizards and pro wrestlers.
Actually, it was one of the high school students I’ve taught that helped me realize something that perhaps had been brewing in my head for years since I left the tourist town I came from.
As my students work on their projects, I sit across from them at a big table but I will often paint, just to keep myself busy while I give them some space. It keeps the conversation flowing and allows them to work while I observe without being too overbearing. It’s more like a working art studio that way. (I teach one-to-one.)
The student I’m crediting with bringing me to the start of this new frame-of-mind noticed that my “doodles,” as I called them, looked a lot like lizard scales. He suggested that I make use of those scales and draw a snake or a reptile. It was a revelation!
Perhaps it’s because he was a teenager, as opposed to something I saw as an authority figure telling me what to paint- Perhaps it’s because he saw what I was doing naturally and suggested something the world could relate to, to place that work within.
There is more though. Time and (dare I say) education.
I went to college between the time I was at that craft show and wanted to sock that Dachshund-loving-lady in the nose and the time I found myself excited by the idea of depicting subjects that people buy because it captures something they feel they own or symbolizes some kind of spiritual space they want to inhabit.
Specifically though, things changed a lot during my undergraduate studies after I took a creative writing class about animals.
Our professor, someone I consider to be a brilliant woman, wanted us to understand that it didn’t matter what a writer wrote if they wrote about it from a place of authenticity. She taught me, through examples and through making us practice our own writing, that there is always more to it. The true artist is translated through the work, no matter the subject.
I think my ego received a great deal of comfort after reading novels that focused on horses, or fish or cows and simultaneously clocked me right in the gut with very human feelings and made me think about my very personal human experiences. She even showed us a quirky documentary film about the life of a type of mole and one about worms that told tales most conscious humans could relate to. I was in tears.
All that being said, here I am writing in my personal blog, as a human, and sharing it with the Internet in order to sort out something I am claiming to have mastered. -Letting everyone and myself know that I’m not letting go of what’s really important to me as an artist if I paint a Buddha, or a lizard or a dog, or even a lighthouse. I'm ridiculous.
There is something else, that until now, I failed to consider.
Developing a body of work over the years has given me so much. Constantly making and writing and drawing and most importantly, sharing, has allowed me to collect reactions to my work. It’s allowed me to decide what sort of responses I’m comfortable with and what I’d like to change. It’s caused me to accept and make friends with (sort of) with my own personal creative language. When I was younger I didn’t have the experience and so perhaps I had to protect and defend something I felt but had no proof of. Letting others purchase and make a painting or sculpture their own is sometimes a very important factor in creative growth. (Sometimes -being a key word. As I wrote that last sentence I thought about Henry Darger and others like him.)
My work is often creepy. That’s what people say. I don’t set out to make something creepy, and I have a lot more to learn, but I’m glad that I authentically translate what I see into something that can make some people feel uncomfortable. For better or worse, I have that and I’ve nurtured my process. I still set out to create something I think is beautiful, but I’m aware that it will most likely be seen as being creepy, or unique in some way. Experience has led me to this place of comfort where I know that if I paint a Buddha, it will most likely be a creepy Buddha. It will be my Buddha.
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My name is Linda Lay and I'm an artist, a writer and a teacher.