I’ve always looked up to dead people. As a lifelong fan of history I’ve felt small and insignificant compared to the pantheon of superstars from all walks of life, whose names and stories are remembered through the ages. I’ve counted as my heroes the ones who made the biggest impact on humanity and our planet. There was a bit of torment in my fanhood. I painted this piece when I kept coming up against the unpleasant reminder that, as enormous as these giants of yesteryear were, they are now gone, and I, little old infinitesimal me, am still here. I have the very human longing to make my mark, express myself, offer my voice, and venture forth into making things happen. But I let a meddlesome comparison—me vs. the greatest minds and hearts that ever lived—make me feel like a peon. Its effect left me expecting less of myself, and daunted by the daring task of getting out in the arena.
I chose to paint my historical friends as colorless plaster busts, a certified gesture commending their monumental contributions, but implying that they bought the farm long ago. To represent myself, I wanted a small animal, but a brightly colored one to contrast the blanched figures that dominate the piece. I attended a bird banding a few years ago, where we caught migrating birds for tagging. Holding a Painted Bunting is like tending a little rainbow. They are indescribably bright, and, like most songbirds, light and delicate. I love it when an animal with which I’ve had a close encounter becomes appropriate for my work. The wallpaper is old fashioned, another nod to history.
I didn’t realize when I started the piece how the act of painting it would fulfill a lifelong yearning to celebrate my favorite people in some way. I got to decide who made the cut! Although painting them was fun, I carried a tiny but of guilt about depicting them with my carefree, off-kilter brand of realism. They’re more like cartoons than the tidy illustrations that might grace a dignified tome. One might say my reverence is a little skewed, or maybe it’s just personalized.
It’s been entertaining watching people guess who they are and ask questions about why they are important. I’ll squeeze in a little explanation below.
Buddha, Jesus, and Gandhi show up because they are among the most famous people who ever lived, and mostly because I’ve followed their religions closely over the years.
Five of the women are freedom fighters or renegades, and personal heroines: Rosa Parks refused to back down, and lived not far from where I am now. Sacagawea was a total badass who, with a baby on her back, led a bunch of country-crossing rookies. Joan of Arc’s mind-blowing gumption based on nothing but faith has fascinated me since childhood. Mother Theresa’s charity and devotion to the most downtrodden of society is well known, but there’s more to making a worldwide organization than spooning out medicine. She was mighty. And then my favorite, Harriet Tubman, personified bravery and faith. Her daring story makes most macho male heroes look like sissy-pants.
Of course I wanted to include some artists, but had to rack my brain for ones who might be recognizable for their looks. I chose Van Gogh, Shakespeare, and Beethoven because their self-portraits are possibly more known to the general public. Oh yeah, and they created some pretty nice art.
Lincoln nabbed a spot because he’s, well, Lincoln.
The two queens, Victoria and Nefertiti, attract my attention because of their fame as female rulers and for their fancy headdresses. Again, I wanted my busts to have a chance of being recognized.
And so I return to the reason for the painting, that the far-off greatness of others inspires me so much it dashes my hopes. I’ve been to art museums around the world, and used to have one of two reactions to the great paintings of the masters. Either I was brought to tears by their magnificence, or felt unworthy and disgusted with myself for being so bad in comparison. I’ve heard this same reaction from many other artists, so I don’t feel singled out. It is a testimony to how powerful art can be, and how, if you have a little talent or skill at something, you begin to recognize how brilliant and inspired the experts are.
One might ask, so Dori, do you want to be famous? My answer is no, although as an artist I have had to push a little in that direction to be able to make a living doing what I love. In my case, fame is a means, not an end, and I’ll take however much the Universe decides is good for me. I’m more focused on the passion of famous people from history. I know about them because of their great fame, but each of them has an outrageously dynamic store of inner energy that propelled their path. That’s what I’ve been curious about.
It’s important to recognize that a time and situation—from tragedy, injustice and upheaval to great expansion—helps forge great minds and hearts. But the illustrious folks in my painting were also experts at following the inner call, their wants, their impulse to create. That is what they have in common that is magnificent. The results of their endeavors are massive billboards pointing to the spark of their hearts.
As I’ve progressed throughout my career I’ve been less dazzled by the outer trappings of my calling and more connected with the voice that called me from the beginning. I’ve become fascinated with the magical, subtle energy that propels me to create, that surrounds and engulfs me when I create, and that uplifts and transforms me—mysteriously, effortlessly, quietly. The beauty of it is this. Dori, with her cunning ego, all filled with labels to identify and schemes to execute, gets kicked out of town when this is going on. The Self left in her place succumbs to a sweeping flow of gestures that utilize the elemental mediums of chance, magnetism, instinct, mischief, and trust.
I used to think the idea of a Muse was for pretentious people. My time in art academia introduced me to a wide range of curious individuals, all demonstrating their unique personalities with fervor. I most related to the ones who worked hard and showed devotion to their craft. The ones who claimed they had Muses made me think that Muses don’t do much, because they seemed to inspire a lot of sitting around complaining and smoking dope. It took keeping my nose to my canvas for many years before I realized that a Muse really was at work, and that my perceptions from college could be left behind with a chuckle.
Without getting technical about what a Muse is, I’ll say that I’m better off letting her be the boss. I heard Dave Chapelle telling Jerry Seinfeld (on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffiee) how Ideas drive up to his door and ask him to go for a ride. He can sit in the passenger seat or ride in the trunk, but the Idea does the driving. That’s what my Muse is like, and if I use the same analogy, I better jump in when she comes to call or I’ll be left at the curb, and she won’t drop by as often. As I accept her guidance and directions, I hear her instructions clearer, and gain more gumption to rise to her call.
I don’t have expectations about where my Muse will take me, but the future isn’t nearly as interesting when the presence she offers is so spellbinding. I am curious about the path ahead, but have found that I am deaf to her guidance when I worry about where we’re going. She has a subtle voice. It’s best to sit still so I can hear.
The past can transfix me and stifle her voice, too. If I let it, I can end up sitting around complaining and smoking (figurative) dope, too. My painting project helps me use the past to lead me deeper into myself, toward the Muses voice. She speaks through anything authentic. Like the bunting in my painting, I am small but vibrant, and I can let the plaster busts of history…any history, including mine…fade into the monotonous background.
Now I take from those larger-than-life, indomitable personalities an excellent list of inspiring qualities that remind me that my greatest accomplishment is following the call. My call might not take me very high or wide, but it’s already taken me deep. It’s really nice when your heroes speak to you, especially when they say, You’re on the right track.