Sunday Morning / House of Hammond

sassafras on rickenbacker 2

Sunday morning dawns musical, always. Even in the coldest weather, the birds sing clearly in the early quiet hours of a Sunday morning. I can hear them in the trees: their quavering voices penetrate the ice-cold windowpanes, and birdsong fills the rooms of this tree-house of an apartment.

Sunday morning is my time for tuning up musical instruments.

I always begin with the acoustic guitar, the one with the domed maple top and cutaway that lets you get easily to those sweetest, highest notes. It is the most expensive thing I have ever purchased for myself, and that was back in the 1990s, when there were all manner of expensive things were more easy to acquire.

This guitar is never much out of tune, ever. Perhaps a string or two here or there. I think this is the result of my tuning and playing it often. The tolerances hold, if you tend to them. Also, it’s a very finely made instrument.

I remember something that some Esquimaux people said on a documentary show that I once saw: that wood stays alive long after it is cut and shaped into whatever thing that has been decided for it to be next. That’s why the wood will creak and groan and send out delicious smells one hundred years after it has been shaped into the baseboards and doors of your house, or your guitar, or whatever — because it is still alive and responding to changes in the environment, and still wants to talk to you.

Also, many musicians will tell you that you have to play your instruments often, because if you don’t, they will get resentful, lose their tone, and start to die, maybe even commit suicide. All those bits of wood and enamel and pearl inlay and keyboard keys — they are always wanting to move and feel alive.

Can you blame them?

I respect this idea and believe it out of experience. I know that my instruments sound good when I take the time to tend to them and play them.

The electric guitar is next. I haven’t changed the strings in over five years, and that is on purpose: they are stretched so tight that you could never pull them out of tune even if you tried. I like the sound of it: strong and brash and unwavering. I dust off all the parts and make sure everything is clean. Sometimes I plug this guitar into my Swollen Pickle pedal so I can get the Total Fuzz sound and pretend that I am Syd Barrett. I like to dream, you know.

The electric piano is next. There’s nothing you can do to tune it, but because it is an analog instrument with tubes and capacitators, dust and neglect are the worst enemies. You absolutely have to play and clean an electric piano or organ often to keep the keys in good operating shape. If dust gets in there and is allowed to build up, the contact of the keys is compromised. Once that happens, your sound gets spotty or cuts out altogether.

I can get lost for a long time playing this electric piano. It has two piano tones, and two harpsichord ones, and you can also blend them and add decay. Whenever I play the harpsichord tones, which sound like tight and bouncy springs or strings being plucked and chimed, my cats always jump up behind me on the bed and watch until I’m forced to look around to see two sets of animal eyes focused on me, listening and staring with big-eyed wonder. Apparently they really like this particular sound, which to me sounds like the soundtrack of a 1970s Addams Family show. But I love it too, so we’re all on the same page. (Or maybe the same blanket of the bed.)

Sometimes, on these mornings, I recall other Sunday mornings a long time ago, when I had a Hammond B3 organ with a Leslie speaker set up in my living room. I used to wake at dawn, drift downstairs, and put a pot of coffee on. You had to push two switches over at the same time and hold them so for several seconds to get the organ and Leslie speaker to fire up, but after that, you were good to go. Sometimes I would make a bowl of waffle batter, and invite friends over for brunch. I spent many of those mornings on the organ working out “Oh What A Fellowship,” “Moonlight In Vermont,” “Green Onions,” “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” and anything else I could remember off the KLBB radio playlist or from early days at Catholic school.

At some point late in the morning, my boyfriend would tumble downstairs in his bathrobe requesting his favorite hymn, “Oh What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” because, as he explained, “I really like the idea of Jesus being a friendly guy who wears sandals.” Which to me implied that you could probably also manage to play Frisbee and Hackysack and do bong-hits with Jesus, if you could only bring up the idea to Him in just the right way.

We jokingly called these mornings “Church,” and they were an amalgam of spirituals, jazz, and 1960s top 40 hits, all sounding very good when played on a Hammond organ with Leslie speaker (usually on the slow speed, but faster for certain moments). We made up insane stoner lyrics to every song, although we never actually smoked any weed.

(Which reminds me, remember when you could simply get high on life?)

My accordion requires no tuning either, but you have to play it to keep the bellows from drying up and cracking, and also to blast out any accumulating dust. Next I check the autoharp and zither, which hardly ever change their pitch, but like to be touched and played all the same.

The violin is last. Tuning a violin is like a solving quantum physics problem — everything is relative. You might even have to factor in that your fingers are a little bit more swollen or shrunken than they were last Sunday. A violin is so small, if your fingernails are even a bit longer, it will manage to sound different.

I can get lost on the violin for a long time, too. With Christmas carols, Bach partitas, the Vivaldi “Winter” thing that I am always trying to master but can never quite get…

Lately a friend and I have been playing old school English and Irish music that drones or reels or dances merrily along, and then sometimes we play a Velvet Underground tune and add a space jam at the end. I like being able to do that. Violin is the only instrument besides my voice that I’ve ever felt I’ve been able to make sing.

Yes, Sunday morning dawns musical. I hear the birds singing in this crazy tree-house of an apartment, and there is no place I would rather be, except maybe back in my old house with the Hammond B3 organ… just keep that sucker clean and play it, no tuning required.


give us this day our daily bread

Here it is. The picture I ate dinner with, and did homework with, for the first eighteen years of my life.

At the supper table, I had only to glance over my left shoulder and past my little sister on my left to see it hanging on the wall, just near the kitchen door.

The picture’s name is “Grace.” It is a hand-colored photograph taken in 1918 by a man named Eric Engstrom, who was born in Sweden in 1875. His daughter, Rhoda Nyberg, hand-colored it. The man in the photograph is named as one Charles Wilden, but the internet offers no other information than that about him. Engstrom died in 1968 in the town of Coleraine, Minnesota. In 2002 this picture was designated the state photograph of Minnesota.

Now, go figure. I never knew we had a state photograph.

My main point of fascination with this picture was the loaf of bread. How I longed for a taste from a loaf of bread that looked like that. In our house, the bread came in loaves that were square and white and uniformly sliced up. Oh, how I dreamed of that chunky brown country-style bread!

I also wondered about the soup. What kind of soup could it be? In the best of all possible worlds, it would have been Bean With Bacon. But maybe it was Tomato; that would have been good too. But, what if — and I knew that this was chancing it, because the picture really gave no hint of it whatsoever — it was baked beans, my favorite food of all time? Baked beans and a hearty loaf of brown bread! Now wouldn’t that be a feast?

Ah, baked beans… my passion for them from an early age earned me the nickname “Beanie,” which eventually morphed into “Beaner,” and then just plain “Beans.” I also constantly hankered for dill pickles and home-made strawberry jam on buttered toast. The thought of these things kept me going. Salami sandwiches on white bread with butter were another favorite. When I was little, lunch-meat sandwiches always had a nice layer of butter in there. (Later on the butter started getting left out.)

A boyfriend told me, once when the subject of the “Grace” picture came up, that his grandfather, called Boompa, kept a copy of it in his study. Originally it had been hung in the dining room, but Nan, an ardent bridge player, descendant of the Mayflower Brewsters, and strict housekeeper (clear plastic upholstery covers on the davenport in the front room), wasn’t having it. Boompa was ordered to remove “Grace” from the dining room, which he did. He hung it in his study, which was just as well, since that was where he spent most of his time anyway.

I used to stay with my grandparents a lot, and my grandmother always rose at 5:00 am. If I woke up then I would often be scared because it was so dark; I wasn’t used to waking up in the total black of night. But if I followed her to the kitchen, I could get the thrill of watching the coffee percolator do its thing on the stove-top. The sight of the boiling coffee bubbling up and dripping down inside that glass knob of the percolator! The rhythmic sighs as the coffee surged up and down! And oh, the smell of it! I could be brave for something like that.

Around six Grandma would lay out the pre-breakfast: a big bowl of Rice Krispies with milk and plenty of sugar. At the end, you’d drink the leftover milk from the bowl and suck a wet mountain of sugar through your teeth. After that came the serious breakfast: buttered toast with home-made strawberry jam, fried bacon or sausage, and something by the name of “egg o’ hawk.” This was a very milky and soft version of scrambled eggs.

Post-breakfast always featured Grandma doing the dishes and singing along to the radio, while I worked diligently on my drawings or coloring books. Later we would go to church, or the butcher shop, or the supermarket, depending on which day it was. Grandma gave me a teeny-tiny little plastic purse (Barbie-doll scale), which had an even teeny-tinier bouquet of flowers stuck on top of it, and stuffed inside there was a scrunched-up plastic rain bonnet that you could put on over your head in case it rained when you were going to church.

(Because it wouldn’t do to have your hair mussed up before going to church. No matter if you were four, or fifty-four.)

But back to the man in the photograph, Charles Wilden. In high school, after my obsession with baked beans and strawberry jam and dill pickles had cooled somewhat (but not entirely), I used to glance up at him from my homework as I sat in my dad’s chair at the head of the table, slogging through “The Iliad” and later “The Odyssey,” taking notes on every mind-crushingly epic happening chapter by chapter. The picture was so encouraging. I would look at it and think, “I’ve just got to press on here.” I admired Charles Wilden’s humble gratitude for his simple meal and holy book, and thought I would do well to make his ways my own.

I wonder how he did it.

Maybe he had some baked beans to eat.

I think that maybe he did.

Zen Brush

happy zen by jeaneen gauthierThis is a style of painting that I really like to do, using Chinese calligraphy brushes and inks on paper.

I call it “Zen Brush.”

This style makes use of traditional brush stroke shapes used in Chinese calligraphy and painting, although you wouldn’t necessary need to know what those are to paint like this. You could just observe and reproduce what you see. They key point to keep in mind is that everything is done by strokes and gestures. Every blob of paint is laid down in one swift move. You don’t go slowly. You don’t “draw,” or “plot,” or do anything that is small and hesitant. The brush strokes are simply allowed to happen all in one fell swoop, for better or worse.

I got into doing Chinese calligraphy and painting in high school. The story goes like this:

I had a crush on a boy who was two grades ahead of me and who was taking Chinese class. So automatically I wanted to sign up for Chinese too. I was fascinated by the way Chinese characters looked, and I was a huge fan of the TV show Kung Fu.

Also, it was a way to be in the same class as my crush (who was also a musician and building his own bass guitar).

On Fridays we practiced calligraphy with Chinese bamboo-handle brushes, ink that you ground on a stone, and rice paper. The main points of Chinese calligraphy are: 1) you hold the brush perpendicular to the paper, not at angle; 2) there is a set direction in which you paint each stroke that never varies; 3) every character is composed of a group of strokes that are always done in the same order every time; and 4) the more relaxed and Zen you are about it, the better your calligraphy comes out. Obviously, since it’s ink on paper, there are no do-overs. So it’s important to be loose and calm and not try too hard.

There was a girl my age in Chinese class named Mali Cha. She had come from Laos to the US several years earlier. We also had Art class together, and I sat with her and watched while she used the same brushes and inks and paper we had in Chinese class to make Chinese-style (or Laos-style) paintings. She told me that in a painting, if you use red, it Really Means Something, but she could never quite explain to me Exactly What It Meant. She could paint the most magical-looking flowers and trees and grasses. I tried to copy her, but I couldn’t even get close. Mali Cha told me that she didn’t really need to take Chinese because she had been fluent in it since she was little (her grandmother spoke Chinese), but she took the class anyway because she was homesick.

I like doing quick line sketches in this style. Sometimes in just one continuous line, pushing down hard sometimes, other times painting lightly and quickly. Quick little strokes and flourishes. Whenever I see a piece of Chinese porcelain painting in a beautiful floral style, I think of Mali Cha. She was that good.

zen izzy and vase 700 lr

I came to understand that my love for my my boy-crush could never be, due to the fact that he was a friend of my older brother’s, and also because the difference between a high-school senior boy and a sophomore girl is, to use a term of Shakespeare’s, “a Vasty Plain.”

Still, the fact that he was my brother’s friend and that we had Chinese class together meant that we were afforded certain privileges. I could track him down after school where he was hanging out by his car and demand that he let me talk into his CB radio. He could lend me a copy of his favorite book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a compilation of Zen and pre-Zen writings:, and later we could have deep and totally unselfconscious discussions about it. This was the first book that inspired me to learn how to meditate — not forgetting of course, that Kung Fu had primed the pump in a big way.

zen guitar and psyche

In college, studying Chinese, Classical Chinese, Chinese Philosophy, and Chinese Literature, I learned that calligraphy, painting, poetry and philosophy all went together, and that the ideal Chinese Scholar was someone who had been trained in these things and more — martial arts, music, military strategy, and the game of Go (which is also pretty much the same thing as Chinese Checkers). Around that same time I discovered that the Minneapolis Institute of Arts had on display, in its East Asian Wing, an authentic Ming dynasty Scholar’s room, shipped from in pieces from China and then painstakingly reassembled and furnished according to the period with furniture, scrolls, writing instruments, and the like. You couldn’t go in, but you could peep. Which is what I made a habit of doing, and still do (I live only a few blocks away).

Whenever I look at it, I always think the same thing: “One Day… This Will… All… Be Mine!”

Grasshopper, the next move is yours.

zen chrysanthemum 2

Notes On How To Do It:

The comic artist Lynda Barry published a very great introduction to using Chinese brushes and inks in her book, 100 Demons: I am including a picture here from the copy of my book, with hopes that I won’t get nailed for copyright infringement.

zen holding the brush lr

I do encourage everyone to buy this book, not just for the painting techniques explained at the end, but for the funny, beautiful, heartbreaking stories. This woman is a personal hero of mine. You should also read her novel, Cruddy while you’re at it:

You can find Chinese calligraphy brushes and inks at any good art supply store. You can also buy brush markers in a wide range of colors, some of which can be filled with paint or ink.

Rice paper (washi), hot-press watercolor paper or bristol are great for working with water-based inks and brushes.

Good luck!

The Dead Comics and Poets Society

Last week, my writer friend Jim Walsh wrote a tribute to Robin Williams for The Southwest Journal (you can find the link below). In it, he writes that it is thanks to the movie Dead Poets Society that most of us learned the meaning of the phrase carpe diem — “seize the day.”

Dead Poets Society came out during my early years of college — perfect timing. I had just discovered hallucinogenic drugs and Arthur Rimbaud — a French Symbolist poet who gave up poetry in 1876 at the age of 21 to become a gun-runner in Algeria.

He wrote the line: “Magic flowers droned.”


I loved poems, rhymes, and songs as a kid, and I still do. One of the very earliest poems I remember being read to me was The Owl and The Pussycat by Edward Lear:

The owl and the pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What are beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”

There are two more verses to the poem — you can look it up if you want to find out how it ends.

I was also curious to know, hearing that poem, “What is a guitar? And can I have one?”

(Also, you can reflect on the fact that there is a certain age everyone reaches where it becomes uncomfortable to say words like “pussycat” or “what a beautiful pussy you are” in mixed company. And that is the age that marks the end of innocence.

But then again, have you ever heard a person from Holland or Belgium or Denmark, or certain parts of Germany and France, call to a kitty? They say a word that to English speakers sounds like “pouss” or “pwuss.” And the cats always seem to love the sound of that.)

remington lr

I learned to read early, and I knew automatically that writing — poems, songs, stories, and plays — was the thing for me. The compact was sealed forever on my sixth birthday when I received the gift of an old black manual typewriter and a ream of yellow canary paper.

I became obsessed with typing on my typewriter which sat on a little desk under the windows in my room. At some point I started writing plays, with the idea that my little sister and brother and I could perform them (which, surprise surprise, never happened).

I loved the way the scripts for plays were written — I mean, typed:

FAIRY PRINCESS: Now I wave my magic wand, and lo! You are under my spell!

EVIL LITTLE STEP-SISTER: No! I have stuck pins in your doll’s eyes, so now your spell cannot work!

SPIDERBOY: And I have found all of your Halloween candy hidden in the closet, and I did eat of it! I ate it all, ha-ha! Take that, bossy old Fairy Princess!


In high school I was introduced to the poetry of William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s Mystic Lion and my main man. From his writing I learned how a poem could be a song, a story, a feeling, and an ardent wish, all at once. You know how people sometimes ask “If you could sit down to dinner with any historical figure, who would you choose?” I would choose Yeats. Here’s a poem of his that is a favorite of mine:

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon a mountain overhead
And hid his face among a cloud of stars.


Robin Williams was a poet, as most stand-up comedians are, I’m convinced. If you go to and explore Talk –> Comedy radio stations, you can find dozens of stations that are playing recordings of Robin Williams’ performances. Listen: he was a poet on the wing, hitting highs that most of us can’t even begin to imagine.

And what a laugh. I think we tend to forget to remember our comedians as the great artists and poets that they were: Chris Farley, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams. My own personal Dead Comics Society.

And on a parting note, one more poem from my man Yeats:

He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven

Had I heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

typewriter poetry

Read Jim’s article here: Carpe Diem Mr. Keating

If Aliens Did Not Exist, Artists Would Have to Invent Them

alien on blue lr

A few days ago, an old college friend of mine reported on her Facebook page that she saw a flying saucer. The details: on July 28, 2014, she spotted a shiny, saucer-like object flying over downtown Los Angeles in the early evening. She also mentioned that she heard no sound at all as it flew overhead.

After a few comments like “Wow!” and “Awesome!” a debunker entered the thread. “Archie D. Bunker,” let’s call him.

His comments were snarky and kind of condescending. I’ve never really understood why some people put effort into trying to get other people to believe the way they do. I mean, like, dude! Don’t you get that you’re totally crashing the party and alienating people here?

The thing that really gets me thinking is that this now makes two close friends of mine who have seen UFOs. They both went to the same college as I did, at the same time, and both majored in Art. We all knew each other and were good friends. I’ve never known either one of them to be flighty, or gullible, or New Age-y in any way. So now I’m thinking about coincidences, and what they might mean.

I’ve lived in two houses that were absolutely, definitely haunted. Maybe I will share the details about that in the future — only a few of my really closest friends and family ever believed me when I told them about the strange happenings that went on. Only the ones who knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t a liar or a total basket case. Most people took the role of debunker, asking, “Were you smoking pot?” or things like that.

I guess some people are just cut out to be debunkers, and others to be believers.

I am in the believer category. I think believing in things, or wanting to believe in things — being curious about what they look like, or sound like, or feel like — is one of the qualities that defines an artist. It sets you up be fascinated by what you’ve seen or experienced, and excited to tell the story.

In my mind, it doesn’t matter at all if anything can be proven or not. I don’t think stories need to have proof. They just need to be amazing.

I want to believe

(Just for fun, I made this list of “Things That Some People Believe In, And That Other People Will Swear On Their Grave Aren’t Real.”)

ADD / ADHD is a made-up diagnosis, as admitted by its “discoverer” on his deathbed
Afterlife, The
Akashic Records, The
Amityville Horror, The
Animals Can Sense Earthquakes and Tsunamis Before They Happen
Animals Who Can Smell Cancer
Apocrypha, The
Artificial Intelligence
Astral Projection
Autism is linked to vaccines and chemical sensitivities
Automatic Writing

Baghavad-Gita, The
Barguest / Bargest, The
Bermuda Triangle, The
Bible, The
Big Bang Theory, The
Black Dog Who Follows You
Black Magic
Bog People
Buddha, The

Cats Who Steal Babies’ Breath
Cell Phones Cause Cancer
Chubacabro, El
CIA Heart Attack Gun
Collective Unconscious, The
Cumaean Sybil, The

Dark Matter
Daylight Savings Time
Dead Sea Scrolls, The
Death Cats (Cats Who Jump On The Beds Of Those About To Die)
Devil, The
Djinn (Jinn, Genies)

Easter Bunny, The
Elliott Smith Didn’t Commit Suicide, He Was Murdered by Either Drug Dealers or His Girlfriend
Evil Eye, The
Extrasensory Perception

Faith Healing
Fibonacci Sequence, The
Fluoride Is Poison

GMOs Are Bad For You
Gnostic Gospels, The
Gods and Goddesses (all pantheons)
Golden Mean, The
Great Spirit / Great Mystery, The
Gregorian Calendar , The
Guardian Angels
Gut Has More Synapses Than The Brain, The

Haunted Houses
Heart Emits the Largest Electromagnetic Field of All Human Organs, The
Herbal Medicine
Hollow Earth Theory
Holy Grail, The
Hungry Ghosts
Hydrogen Powered Cars Already Exist

Intelligent Design
Intercession of Saints, The

JFK predicted His Death
Jubilee, The

King Arthur
Kirlian Photography
Knights Templar
Koran, The
Kurt Cobain Didn’t Die, He’s Just Living on a Polynesian Island Because He Just Wanted to Get Away from Courtney Love

Lao Tzu
Lee Harvey Oswald Was Not The Person Who Assassinated JFK
Leif Eriksson Visited the “New World” Before Columbus
Lemuria, The Lost Continent of
Little House on the Prairie books were ghostwritten by Rose Wilder Lane, who was forced into doing so by her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, The
Loch Ness Monster (“Tessie”), The

Mary Magdalene Was Jesus’ Wife, or At Least His Closest Companion
Matrix, The
Mayan Calendar, The
Meat Is Murder
Middle Ages Didn’t Happen, The
Mole People, The
Moon Landing, The
Multiverse, The
Mystery of The Ship Marie Celeste, The

Nazca Lines Were Landing Strips for Ancient Alien Craft, The
Near Death Experiences
North Koreans are The Cleanest Race And Need To Be Protected From The Rest of The World (viz. North Korean Government Propaganda)

Observer Effect, The
Oracle at Delphi, The
Origin of Life on Earth, The

Parallel Universes
Perpetual Motion
Phoenicians Traveled to South America on Papyrus Rafts Thousands of Years Before Columbus or Leif Eriksson, The
Philadelphia Project, The
Psychic Attack
Psychic Powers

Qi Gong

Remote Viewing
Resurrection, The
Rosetta Stone, The
Rosicrucians, The
Roswell Alien Spaceship Crash

Santa Claus
Schliemann Discovered Where to Dig For Ancient Troy From Instructions He Received In A Dream
Shadow People
Solomon’s Temple
Soul, The
Spontaneous Human Combustion
String Theory

Tai Chi
Tao Te Ching, The
Tarot Cards
Tooth Fairy, The
Torah, The
Transmigration of Souls

Underworld, The
Universal Mind, The
Univited Guest, The

Vegetarianism / Veganism
Voodoo / Voudoun

Water As A Recording Medium
White House Is Haunted by Abraham Lincoln’s Ghost, The
White Magic
Wow Signal, The
Wu Wei



Note: please leave your replies with Other Things That People Do and Do Not Believe, and I will add them to my spreadsheet list. One day I might submit it to the Guinness Book of World Records.

ufo chat final

In Praise of the Basement Painter

space alien lr

I found this painting in the basement laundry room of my apartment building.

There is a table there where people put out things for people to take — clothes, old computer monitors, grubby toys, plastic dishes, and stuff like that.

I found it under the table, propped against the wall behind a table leg. I only noticed it because I was bending down to pick up some clothes I dropped.

Upon seeing it, my first thought was, “No WAY!”

I mean, how often does a person come across a nicely painted sexless humanoid figure floating in space? Under the free table in the laundry room, no less?

I brought it back to my apartment, and showed it to my best friend, who happened to be in town visiting from L.A.

“Whoa!” was her response. “This is amazing! Who do you think painted it?”

I had been wondering that myself. If it was painted by someone who lived in my building, who might it be? The downstairs neighbor who spends every morning between 8:00 and 10:00 am programming weird d.j. beats that never quite come together? The forlorn-looking older lady I have seen a few times doing her laundry, which always consists of nothing but old towels torn up into squares? The homeless transvestite guy I once discovered camping out in the basement electrical room?

“I don’t know,” I answered. “It feels to me like it was painted by a guy. Maybe a gay guy? And he isn’t happy with this painting, which explains why he would leave it under a table in the laundry room. And he’s sad about something. He feels alone, like an alien drifting in space.”

That saying, “A picture paints a thousand words.” It’s totally true, in my experience. (Also, I’m kind of psychic.)

unfinished nude and basilica

Over the next few weeks, I found two more paintings in the laundry room. I knew right away by the style that they were the work of the same mystery artist. “He” was really good at figurative painting. Way better than I am, that’s for sure. If I could do paintings like that, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t leave them up for grabs in the laundry room, with the risk that they would be hauled out to the trash by the building caretaker if nobody took them.

I never did find out who painted those paintings, or even identified any neighbors who qualified as likely suspects. I did find a perfect space to hang them though, all together, in my living room. As the years have passed, I have embroidered a story in my mind that explains them perfectly. It goes like this:

Justin lived alone in an apartment not far from the art school where he had studied painting for three years before dropping out. In spite of everything his professors said — they encouraged him to paint larger canvases and not to be so quick to give up — he just couldn’t see the beauty or value in anything he did, and so he finally said, “Fuck it,” and quit.

He met Jason shortly afterwards, one balmy summer night at a club. Jason was popular, outgoing, confident, handsome, and super buff — everything Justin wasn’t. He was drawn to Jason like a moth to a flame, even though he knew deep down it would never work out. Still, he had this feeling that if someone so desirable as Jason could like him, it might just prove that he was wasn’t that bad, after all.

One morning, after their third or fourth night together, Jason was standing naked, about to put on his clothes, when Justin said:

“You look so handsome right now, I’d like to paint you. Would you mind posing for me? It won’t take long.”

Jason grunted his assent and Justin grabbed his paints, brushes, and canvas, and got to work as fast as he could.

After only twenty minutes Jason was bored and fed up, checking his phone. Justin was only half-done with his painting.

“Fuck it,” said Jason, after thirty minutes. “I’m outta here.” And he left.

Justin never saw him again.

His phone calls and texts went unanswered.

His painting of Jason remained unfinished.

After those first few weeks of not hearing back from Jason, Justin painted a self-portrait of a sexless alien floating in space. Afterwards, he found he couldn’t bear to look at it. He put it under the table in the laundry room, where it was later carried off by a neighbor woman he never met.

Several more weeks passed, and Justin realized it was time to stop gazing mournfully at his half-painted painting of Jason. He had to get rid of it and move on. And so it too was left under the basement laundry table, where someone might — or might not — notice it. This painting was found by the same neighbor who had found the first one. She also happened to be an artist, although Justin would never know that.

Many weeks later, he found himself questioning his sexuality, wondering if he might be better off living a celibate life and attending church. He had been raised Catholic, so his first instinct was to head towards the nearest Catholic church, which in his neighborhood happened to be the Basilica of St. Mary.

He had his paints and brushes and a canvas with him. As he walked into Loring Park he observed the tower of the Basilica looming large in the gentle springtime sky, and he decided that the best thing to do right there and then was to paint it.

And that is what he did. Later, after judging the painting to be a total loss and abandoning it in the laundry room, Justin decided that church was not the thing for him. A week or two later, he moved out of his apartment, found a job at an advertising agency as a storyboard artist, and met the love of his life — a theater costumer named Lyle who was sweet, gentle, and a prince among men.

His former neighbor, the artist whom he had never met, found his painting of the Basilica tower in the laundry room, and  she added it to the little gallery of his work that she had set up in her apartment. She had attended the church shown in the painting from time to time — Christmas Eve, All Saints Day, and the Feast of Saint Francis, every third year or so, if she was in the mood. (She was one of those “Catholic church — but only the hits” kind of person.) 

Years later, she would write about the mystery artist’s paintings in her blog, and wonder if by some one-in-a-million chance she might one day learn the real story of the basement painter.

In the meantime, she would sign off on her blog saying:

Never say “Fuck it.”

basement painter gallery

Why I Paint Mandalas

untitled-growth mandala painting by jeaneen gauthier

This painting dates from two years ago, and is one of my favorites. It is the first in a series of paintings that has taken me in a refreshing new direction with my artwork.

When I look at it, I am instantly reminded of a summer day in 2012. At the start of that year, I had just embarked on a relationship that seemed promising. By the time spring rolled around, I found myself dumped and disappointed. Summer started with me feeling very lonely and sorry for myself, with moping being my only plan (if you can call moping a plan).

I decided that if I was going to mope, it was going to be in the most creative and artistic way possible. I drew comics every day that depicted my life and feelings. I wrote stories; I re-read Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series from beginning to end. My digital television reception mysteriously went from excellent to non-existent, and so I spent most of my free time reading, writing, and drawing.

One day in August, I bought a square canvas and covered it with orange paint. Beginning in the center, with no plan whatsoever, I simply started painting. Almost immediately I noticed a calm, hypnotic energy leading me forward. As I finished each ring of the circle, I suddenly knew exactly what needed to come next, and that is what I painted.

What a pleasant surprise this was. Up until that point, I usually painted with a very clear plan in mind. Now here I was building a complex geometric design with no plan at all for what to do next, and it felt great.

To be specific, it felt great to for once be free of my critical artist’s mind that is always asking: “Is this working?” “Is this any good?” “Should I even bother to keep working on this?”

For once in my life, I didn’t have to ask. This painting was working.

I seriously got to feeling that this painting was actually painting itself. And also unlike most of my other work, this painting went and got itself painted in just a few sessions.

I’ll be sharing more thoughts on this — and examples — in the future. In the mean time, I encourage you to give mandala painting a try and see if it does anything for you.


Notes On How To Do It:

1. Start small and simple. I started with a 10 x 10 inch pre-stretched canvas, and covered it with a loose mix of cadmium orange and cadmium yellow light acrylic paint. It was dry in less than an hour.

2. Create some minimal guidelines, if you want to. Using a ruler to measure diagonally from each corner, I marked center point of the canvas. Then I used a compass to lightly trace a 6 inch circle to use as a basic guide.

3. Keep the design large and the colors simple. I used a #2 round brush the whole time and avoided getting into any tiny details. I also kept my color palette to a minimum, using just 3 different shades of metallic gold paint. (I found it really interesting how green some of the golds looked on the orange background — a topic for another post!).

4. Try working symmetrically at first. The thing I liked so much about working on this painting was repeating the motifs around each ring of the circle. I found the repetition very soothing.

5. Abandon symmetry when it feels right. For me this happened when I got near the outer edges of the painting. Then it felt okay to let my marks go off in all directions.

Good luck!