Archive for July, 2010

Blue Violent, 2009

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 23, 2010 by Laura Paull

(Or: How Much Trouble One Little Mosaic Can Get  You Into)

There is speech. There is silence. And then there is music.

Glass and photos on my father’s boyhood violin.

When I decided to create a piece of mosaic art on my father’s old violin, we were in a period of silence. The history of my relationship with him has encompassed all the above modes.

My memory of childhood is that he rarely spoke to me. He would come home from work, eat what my mother had prepared and retire to his armchair to read and listen to classical music. When I was small I would perch on the top of the headrest, my bare feet on his shoulders, and comb his curly hair. It was his mother’s hair. My hair. I listened to what he was listening to. Today I hear the way children chatter to their fathers. I don’t think I chattered.

Our bond was nonverbal. My toddler foot in his hand when we napped. My hand in his while we hiked. My awareness of his brooding preoccupations: Engineering problems. Joe McCarthy. My mother’s psyche.

It was only when he left that we began to use words. Spoken, and then, soon enough, written. I was 13.

I could not stop him from moving cross-country to California; I could not bring him back. But we wrote and wrote: longhand, pages upon pages, thrice weekly. It was my lifeline. It made me a writer. It made me believe in words.

He encouraged my aspirations. He sent me books that he was discovering in his own rebirth in California: Henry Miller’s “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch” and “The Colossus of Maroussi”; then “The Diaries of Anais Nin.” In my heart I became Anais Nin. In emotional tonality I was Nin, although I never slept with him. She went that far to feel valued by her father; I never would.

In fact the silences between us resumed as soon as other men came into my life. He liked none of my boyfriends and not one of the relationships I had; even the marriages later on in life brought conflict. These conflicts were so painful that even the relief we sought in complete rupture proved illusory. The first real rift, almost two years long, ended when I brought his baby granddaughter to meet him. Another long silence, caused by the second man I married, ended when my father broke his hip. He was in his seventies, and I could not stay away from the nursing home. It was always me, breaching the gap. He could stand it. And that too, broke my heart.

When I was in college I visited my paternal grandmother. After our meal, she pulled out from between neatly folded pillowcases in the linen closet, his childhood violin. It had been her highest ambition, as it was for so many immigrant Jewish parents, that her son be a concert violinist. But he had abandoned it sometime after his Bar Mitzvah, when he realized he had a choice. He never looked back. And there it lay, amid her cool ironed linens, for decades.

“Do you want this?” my grandmother asked.

I took it home wrapped in a faded pillowcase and it went with me wherever I went, from apartment to apartment, city to city and continent to continent. Members of my family accused me of fetishizing the musical instrument. That may have been true. What is a fetish? In the anthropological sense: “Social conditioning to create attraction towards a person, place, or an object.” Fetishism: “The attribution of mystical qualities to inanimate objects.” This will become important later on.

Of course this chronology and character of father-daughter love had its impact on my life as a woman, and two years ago I found myself in therapy.  It was another relationship that had brought me to that process, but naturally, the unstable and difficult nature of my father’s love came to the fore of my explorations. I want to make it clear now that my father has many rare, admirable and lovable qualities, and it is not my intention to vilify him. But we were in another period of silence, and each rupture had brought more strongly to my mind the possibility that it might be final. During this time, I pulled out my father’s violin, by now cracked and string less, and began to work on it.

Growing up and throughout adulthood, I had explored some of the wordless, visual arts, including dance. I sometimes felt, due to the repetition of this agonizing conflict, that all the words had failed. That words would always fail. Without completely conceding it, I can at least say that the nonverbal arts offered solace and joy, from the process of creation to the performance or contemplation of the final product. I loved all aspects of them. So it was in the work on the old violin that I found a way to “think” about my father without necessarily “thinking” anything. That is to say, that having come to the end of words that could say anything about why things were the way they were with him, I could yet find a way to go beyond them. I could say, for example, that the dominant colors of my glass palette would be intense blues and violets, the opposite of the instrument’s warm colored wood, and that a clashing stab of red would bleed down the neck of the violin. I would rip out of the family album a black and white photograph of my father and me at about four years of age, tear it in half and glue it to the violin under pieces of transparent cobalt glass with a jagged black triangle holding us apart—an obvious visual metaphor, but satisfying. The chin rest was already gone, and that gave me occasion to reflect about how the director of the music program at my elementary school had wanted me to take up violin because I had the ear and the right chin, but despite my excitement and desire to do so, my father had refused: he didn’t want to have to listen to me learning to play.

I worked this piece with the violence of feeling that was due. For once I didn’t care if the result was pretty, and this thrilled me. I sensed in this aesthetic liberation the potential for real art. Even so, at the end of the process, I would hang a tiny golden Star of David from one tuning peg, thinking: this is true, even though he is an atheist. From another peg, dangling on a fragile chain, I hung a dark blue crystal heart.

It was the smallest ‘canvas’ I had ever attempted to work in the mosaic medium, and it was the hardest. I had meager cutting skills and I anguished about trashing the violin’s exquisite form. The f-holes were a nightmare. I glued pieces down and pried them off again three times before I was satisfied with the result, so that at close range it looked somewhat rough and imperfect. It took four months, and during that whole time of working in silence, he was never absent.

Then, two weeks before his 80th birthday, my father had a heart attack. There was no longer any question of keeping the silence. I drove to the hospital hoping only that I would hear his voice again.

On his birthday, my fractured family celebrated his survival: my father, his son (my half-brother), his second ex-wife, and my sister, who had been estranged from him for longer than I. He held court in high spirits as we arranged ourselves around him at a picnic table and made conversation. At gift-giving time I brought out the mosaic violin.

It was hard to read him. He looked astonished, and confused, and quickly put it away. The party continued and he never went back to look at it. Insofar as I was as deeply identified as any artist is with something she has just completed, I felt cast aside. But we were speaking words again, for what they were worth, and my sister was resuming a long abandoned dialogue with him, so I let it go and hoped that the artwork would also say something to him when he was home alone.

It did not. It was only a matter of weeks before, during my next visit, he handed it to me and told me to take it home.

“Why?” was the only word that came to me.

“I’m afraid it will break. It doesn’t belong on these walls,” he punted. To be honest his apartment is functional, intellectual — light on ornamentation. “Take it home and hang it with your other pretty things.”

I was stunned. “You don’t like it?”

He cocked his head. I could see he had a judgment. He demurred. I pressed him.

“I don’t think a musical instrument should be covered with pieces of glass,” he pronounced.

“But it’s no longer an instrument. It’s cracked. It’s not playable. It’s something else now,” I countered.

He shook his head. “Ask a musician,” he argued. “A violinist. I’m sure they’ll agree.”

As he handed the thing back to me, he saw my stricken face, and weakened.

“Maybe a picture of it,” he compromised. “Yes, a photograph. Give me a photo of it and I will hang that up. But the violin should go back home with you.”

And so a beautiful photograph was taken, and framed, and delivered, and that too sat on the back of a console behind the stereo, and was never given a place on any wall. I consulted with two classical musicians, one a violinist and one a cellist, and neither agreed with him. As I suspected.

The fact is I don’t really like revisiting all of this, but it is essential to the story of this piece. My therapist heard it first and then others close to me, and all were astonished.

“The point is that you made it. Even if he thinks it’s ugly – could he not have stashed it in the closet, and taken it out when you came to visit?” a good friend asked.

I shook my head. No, I preferred his honesty. In his mind he had his reasons; in his mind they were always right. He would feel good about any decision he made, regardless of the consequences. This was who he was: the implacable quantity I’d faced all my life. The only question was who I would be, in response.

Despite the heart attack, our relationship never resumed in the way that had once made it precious to me. I continued to make efforts but there were always things I did that angered him, and he would fail to inform me what he was angry about before acting out the anger. His words would blindside me in a way that left my heart reeling. And so I maintained a protective distance, noting, for the record, that this was something he himself did very well. But there are people in your life who you cannot put out of your mind entirely and that was how it was with us. Time would accumulate and I would know that I had to go see him, at any cost.

It was on one of those visits more than a year later that he confessed that having the photograph of the mosaic violin in his house was unbearable to him. I had not seen him for some three or four months, and not five minutes after I showed up at his apartment he grabbed it off the console and thrust it at me. “Here: take this,” he said. I noted, incredulously, that he was smiling. Clearly he had decided before I ever arrived that he was going to make me take it away. This time a fuse lit in me as my hands closed around the frame.

“WHAT is your fucking problem with this violin?” I said hotly.

“I don’t want it.”

“That’s obvious.”

“I just don’t like it,” he said.

“What don’t you like? Can you explain it?” I challenged.

“I don’t see the point of sticking pieces of colored glass on my violin,” he said.

“Your violin? You left it behind. You haven’t touched it in more than half a century.”

“It’s not art. Artists don’t desecrate musical instruments.”

“Plenty of artists have violins in their paintings.”

“That’s different.”

“Plenty of mosaic artists work on real instruments. I’ve seen them. Guitars. Cellos.”

He shrugged.

“Have you even looked at it?” I asked, my voice rising. “Have you taken five minutes to study it before you pass judgment? Would you ever in your life consider asking me to tell you about it, or trying to learn my language?”

He looked at me as if amused. “Look, I just don’t want it. Thanks anyway. Now let’s go get something to eat.”

We went to a French restaurant up the hill and sat at the bar. He enjoyed a good hamburger and a beer and talked at me while I sat on the bar stool, legs crossed, jiggling my foot. When he had finished, he walked me to my car. I got in and left without looking at him, without saying anther word. This is it, I thought. I’m done.

In the months that followed, two threads wound continually through my mind. Primarily I wanted to proclaim the relationship “over,” and I struggled with the phrasing of that negative desire. What words would I use to tell him my final decision? Ending it “with integrity,” he would call it – if he were the one doing it. Yet the responsibility of calling it quits with a parent who had maybe a decade more life in him, held me back. Who does this, I scolded myself. But my love had detached.  I sat on it, savoring the coldness of my feeling.

The other thread was a relentless detective who would not sleep until she had this bizarre example of human behavior figured out. What would cause a man to reject so heartlessly a lovely thing his daughter had crafted for him, regardless of its value as art? I’d like to believe that it was this desire to know the answer that kept me from cutting our ties, more than cowardice, more than need. More than love.

In the end it was he who called. His attempts to reconcile with my sister had foundered and he was deeply perturbed.

“She’s saying these things about me, and I need a reality check,” he said. “If anyone can provide that it would be you. Would you come for a talk?”

I met him for lunch in Berkeley and mostly it was he who talked until we walked to a little park off the street, and I found my moment. I had listened to him from the relative peace of my emotional distance, and offered some honest feedback regarding my sister’s criticisms, mainly supportive of them, which he had seemed to take in.

“You see, I can take it from you,” he suddenly blurted. “I can hear anything from you, because – because I know you love me.”

I was silent.

“I know I’ve hurt you,” he said. “I wasn’t very nice about the violin.”

“I think we should talk about the violin, Dad.”

His turn to be silent.

“I have thought about your reaction endlessly,” I said. “And I just keep thinking: there has to be some reason why you rejected it so violently.”

All my life I had sought a space in his barrage of language. Just a little space that I could fill; a beat or two of silence in which I could imagine that what I said might matter. So here it was: enfin. Our eyes locked and his mouth was not moving.

“I’m going to offer some ideas – they’re just theories, Dad – you can reject them if they’re wrong,” I said softly. “I mean: is it because you want to be identified with the other things you chose to be, with who you really are?  Do you feel that I am fetishizing the violin? Because I could understand that, Dad, if that’s what it is.” I surprised myself with the tolerance that was superceding my fury. But it was the voice I found.

“Or maybe you have some feeling attached to the fact that you stopped playing? Forgive me for psychologizing, Dad; I just want to know. Maybe it’s just embarrassing to you that I still link the violin to you when you don’t play? Or–”

I saw his lower lip trembling, his intelligent eyes watering. The park bench sucked his stature.

He struggled for composure and it frightened me. I put one hand out and squeezed his shoulder, as if it could staunch the flood.

“Dad,” I said.

It broke free.

I never wanted to play the damn violin!” he said. Tears overflowed. He covered his face. “It was my mother who wanted it. And do you know how she paid for the lessons? She used to cook a French meal. For my teacher. And I would carry it, along with my violin, and give it to her before we started.”

A sob escaped him. His shoulders shook and caved inwards and he ground the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. His voice was at a higher pitch than I remembered it.

She was my first love,” he said. “And I was never good enough.”

A huge breath tore itself from his constricted lungs and he heaved it over the hump. “I didn’t practice enough. She was always berating me. I loved her. It was so humiliating.”

A bus blew past us and when it was down the block he was calmer. He looked at me, sheepishly.

“I never told anyone this before.”

I held his hand and we were quiet again for a long time.

“This is the thing,” I said. “If you had really asked yourself why seeing the mosaic violin was so distressing to you, you wouldn’t have been so cruel to me.

“Do you see, Dad?” I asked. “How your failure to know yourself makes you so emotionally obtuse?”

For once I was not afraid to use such words. He nodded, understanding that they were not meant to hurt, or cover, or divert.

I’ll leave it at that, for the story is long enough. The mosaic violin is still at my house, not his, and I don’t think he’ll ask to look at it again. But I am no longer smarting. I look at it now and think, well, it’s no great shakes. But if the goal of art is to create an emotional, or intellectual, or even aesthetic event — to break us out of the stupor of our pain, to move us along  – I think this little exercise qualified. “Blue Violent” served its purpose.  It was almost music.

AM John McCain at Dewz