A preliminary word first: art is not made within a vacuum but is a part of the paths of our lives. This piece about the painting “Only Love Can (Reign Over Me)” is a sensitive and vulnerable bit of writing, and you should know in case you have sensitive vulnerabilities of your own that some challenging topics that involve my wife, Violet, are discussed. But, lest you think I betray her confidence and expose her innards without concern, this was written with consent and in conjunction with her. The best remedy for shadow is to bring it into light. – MD
I began this painting in September 2017 and called it finished in March 2018. At the time I began it, the blues and clear focus felt like a good next step following “A Transitive Nightfall of Diamonds”. But then the fires hit all around us (we live a couple hours north of San Francisco) and our air was awash in smoke, the light was ever orange-gold, and everything was on edge and chaotic and burning. Suddenly cool blue didn’t seem appropriate even if it felt trite to say so.
At the time, too, we’d taken in a bunch of cats that our neighbors abandoned when they moved a few weeks before. One of those cats, Mu, who Violet had rather fallen in love with, was seized by our neighbor’s dog and killed. They both – the cat and the neighbor’s dog – somehow got into a fenced off portion of our yards that we powerless to access, but it all happened right in front of us. It was brutal. This would be in and of itself rather tragic, but she had already been in the trenches of grief and depression. There had been a lot of loss in her life recently and it’d been building, draining, challenging: Four very close family members and a friend all within a year or so, all in tragic ways. This sweet new kitty had been a bright spot of hope, and his violent death rocked an already distressed boat and she tumbled even deeper.
Meanwhile, the painting was on the proverbial back burner, but prominent on the wall of my studio. I kept looking at it: this messy and incomplete vision of beauty that seemed so distant and burdened. This sense of wonder was surrounded by despair.
Everything hurt all the time.
Yet, I kept seeing – or trying to see – this painting as her in one of her highest forms. She sat for my reference photos, after all, as she frequently does, even though it’s never really the intention to paint her specifically. Violet is a powerful woman, this amazing force in my world. She has a wonderful way of seeing everything all at once like no one else can. And she can take it all in and find relationships, memorize moments, and she manages it pretty well, for the most part. So we’d have our arguments as all couples do and it’d be this pool of sad and I’d come back to this painting that didn’t even seem to be about anything anymore. It was supposed to be a vision of clarity yet everything felt so unclear. So raw and vulnerable. Nothing made sense.
For me, it felt overwhelming – all these responsibilities (mundane things like mortgage and bills but also the person who is keeping things moving forwards. The one whose “turn” it is to be UP) and desires (personal goals and dreams and needing inspiration but also in business or love or spirit) and emotions (and all the rest) (not to mention the general state of the world) (gah!). All the while, Violet struggled through this ever deepening pit of despair while I was left simply trying to stay afloat.
Through all that, I wanted to build this beautiful vision for her so that when she looked at it she saw some aspect of herself. She’d modeled for my original photos after all. I wanted it to inspire her the way she inspires me.
You see, the paintings I make create a backdrop to our lives – these ordinary and yet extraordinary lives that we lead. They reflect it all back and become points of departure, growth, and intimacy. It was challenging sometimes to go back to this painting when there’d be strife or despair and I’d be left feeling like I’m wringing light from painted diamonds.
And so that became this painting: it is simply me lifting her, you – all of us – up as best I can to the highest vision where we’re left without form in a space of light reflecting light.
Looking for a title, I’d been calling it “Rain” for a long time, referring to it as “That Rain Painting,” Violet had used the word “Reign” at one point in our seemingly never-ending discussions of titles, and I recalled ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ – a song by The Who – and though I’ve not been much of a fan or follower of The Who, I found this bit of writing from Pete Townshend regarding the song in the context of the album to be relevant:
“Love Reign O’er Me refers to Meher Baba’s one time comment that rain was a blessing from God; that thunder was God’s Voice. It’s another plea to drown, only this time in the rain. Jimmy goes through a suicide crisis. He surrenders to the inevitable, and you know, you know, when it’s over and he goes back to town he’ll be going through the same shit, being in the same terrible family situation and so on, but he’s moved up a level. He’s weak still, but there’s a strength in that weakness. He’s in danger of maturing.” – Pete Townshend (From the liner notes of Quadrophenia)
Going back to October, November, I was having conversations with Violet about her ruminations on suicide. She’s no stranger to it, having lost her best friend and first love that way when she was young, and then just recently her closest cousin in July. Depression is so very real and they were heartbreaking conversations. Conversations that left, in the back of my mind, a lingering worry of leaving her alone for too long. It is frightening. It was all the work I could do to stay focused. Committed. Moving forwards. Staying on top of the bits and pieces of our business, our home, our lives and also maintaining some creative flow and focus.
I suppose there was a moment – perhaps for each of us – between one maelstrom and the next – it’s like the eye of the storm – the pause of the pendulum – when everything is still and perfect – everything is floating, falling, cascading – frozen – you stop going in one direction and decide to go in another – it’s a sleet of diamond daggers and you’re on fire and your head is exploding but in that moment everything is perfectly balanced, in sync, and in a moment’s time the light passes through it and you hear that note, that melody, that reminder and in that moment we catch our breath, we lift our heads, we open our eyes again and say I AM. Here, I am.
In those crystalline moments of realization, when we see everything so clearly – when it’s all just light and shadow, contrasts weaving in and out of each other, ebbing and flowing together – there it is; there is life. We can keep our heads hung low but, really, I think, it’s love that anchors us, makes us look up, that causes us to open our eyes. To see. I think that only love can do that and it is some spark within us – this unquenchable fire – that is ignited again. And again. And again.
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