The artist on what interests her about the creation myth and the one thing she needs to fulfill her creative ambitions.
So many of your works explore dichotomies. I read that when you were quite young, you felt you had both real and pretend versions of yourself that were very different. Do you still feel that way? How has that relationship evolved over time?
The real me was a good girl, and the pretend one was bad. If I set fire to some dry leaves by the curb or blamed the elderly sitter for eating the Valentine chocolates, that wasn’t the real me; it was just something the pretend me did. The pretend girl allowed me to explore being bad while still being loved or loveable—because you needed to not be bad to be loved.
I have mostly succeeded in merging different parts of myself into one, but it took years. Eventually, I spent time in a good therapist’s office, where we worked on the contrasting voices inside me. It was also important for me personally to quit drinking. It’s hard not to feel fragmented when you can’t recall what you did last night, or worse: when you can but don’t recognize yourself.
I was 40 when I first experienced a point of view that originated inside me—not calculated to please or offend but mine. That is when I got deep into my painting. My first artist statement began: “My work is a marriage of Ann Landers and William Blake.” I still like that.
Your paintings feel like beautifully condensed narratives. Did you have any early experiences that gave you a love for visual storytelling, even if they weren't necessarily with fine art?
It’s the most natural way to make a picture, isn’t it? Think of children on the floor with crayons. The earliest drawings on cave walls are stories: "Here is a mountain," "Here is a buffalo," or "Here is me." My girlfriend, Kathryn Davis, and I talked to ourselves and each other as we drew horses and girls with big bosoms at the dining room table of my house or hers. We drew girls lined up in bathing suits, waiting to be chosen as winners of beauty contests. We were good, church-going Episcopalians, so we knew beauty contests were for shallow, foolish girls. But we still wanted to imagine winning one.
Years later my toddler daughter, Jen, collected what she called "bits” in a cardboard paper towel tube taped over one end. In the corners of our rambling house, she found things like a knot of dog hair, pebbles, a Cheerio, a Coke bottle cap, and another Cheerio. When she slid the “bits” out of the tube onto a sheet of paper and arranged them, that was a story too: "This is what I found today."
Before Jen was born, in another house, with the bedroom walls painted black, I was in a white vinyl nightgown and clown white makeup waiting for direction from Jen’s father, David Lynch. It was freezing in the house and I was morning sick. My instructions were to hold a mouthful of red Kool-Aid mixed with red food coloring and, at the right moment, spit it across the white sheets of the white bed I was in—one take. This was while making The Alphabet, David’s second short film. I love that film, but having to deal with lights and a camera, apply makeup and find costumes is very different from the solitude of painting. Also, to me, being directed is the opposite of making your own painting. I enjoy seeing the movie much more than being in it.
People coming to Platform might know you as a painter, but you've also been a writer, earning your MFA from UC Irvine and producing TV scripts and even a novel. What other skills or passions do you explore that might surprise someone who only knows your painting?
I love baseball. I really love baseball. GO PHILLIES!
David Lynch's "The Alphabet," featuring Peggy Reavey | YouTube
I read in an interview that you felt you only truly delved into your painting seriously about 25 years after graduating from art school. With all the upheaval in the world, a lot of people—especially young people—don't know whether they'll be able to pursue their creative dreams. Any advice to help them keep going?
Your creative dreams are about being able to work, right? To get an idea for a painting that you’re not even sure can work as a painting, and to bravely begin, and fail, and paint it out, and start over, and sand it down, and re-imagine and give up and start again–for days and days, maybe weeks, and then somehow find what you are looking for.
This painting, when you look at it, makes a feeling in your chest like your whole nervous system is humming. That is the fulfillment of my creative dreams, except for one thing. I want to see some people I don’t know standing in front of it, looking and looking. That’s it.
What's something you wish you were asked more often?
What interests you about Genesis: the Creation Myth?
When my brother was 16, and I was 10, I told him I was so glad I was a girl because boys had to go into the military. They had no choice. You had to go. I had grown up hearing about my father in WWII, freezing winters and exploding mines. I was glad I didn’t have to go to work every weekday like my father, and understand all the law books and win cases—at the time, women lawyers were very rare. After my mother fixed my father’s breakfast and he went off to catch the train, she gave the four of us breakfast and handed us the lunches she had packed and waved us out the door. I saw that she was in the living room, reading the newspaper, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, with the dog at her feet. When I tell people I wanted to stay home like my mother, they say how unempowered she was. I wasn’t looking for power; I was looking for time to myself.
But now women want to be—and are—top combat soldiers. They want to be top attorneys. Many have a bunch of children, too. Children at age three inform their parents that they are not a boy but a girl (or vice-versa). Jan Morris, the author of Conundrum, believes gender is an element of the soul. I find this amazing and fascinating and want to paint about it.
The creation myth feels like a way for me to explore the multitude of things a girl could be. In my version, the God of Genesis made many attempts at creating the right companion for Adam. I find this very difficult work but also rewarding.