Housepaint is what my teacher Robert Reed used to call any act of just filling shit in, mindlessly, without attending to surface, body, or intention. In his world, this was a recurrent risk, because Reed often insisted on his students making enormous paintings. One of the last assignments of our Beginning Painting year was a 4 x 8’ self-portrait on crappy, thin Masonite. It is damn-ass hard to attend to every inch of something that big, to put love into it, to wrestle its edges and volumes into solutions that only it and you can find together. I never quite solved mine, though I can still see it in my mind’s eye: I’m standing three-quarters to the viewer, wearing the Irish fisherman’s sweater I’d pilfered from my friend Nico, who in turn had pilfered it from her brother, the one who became a priest, and then left the priesthood. I’m wearing my fancy cranberry-colored jeans, and looking worried, in front of a partially open doorway. Of course I’m worried: this year of discovery is ending, and I have to finish this painting without resorting to just housepainting the fucker, and walking away. I have to stay present with all 4 x 8’ of, and it’s not easy.
That painting disappeared into my friends’ basement and was never found again. Each year’s end was a stuff-cataclysm. As an artist, I was constantly making shit, and a lot of it was big. Where was it all supposed to go, during the summer? No one knew. There was a squash court. There was a basement. Other people’s parents came from Connecticut, Jersey, or whatever, but there was no way my parents were doing that, from Georgia. So when my friends offered their basement, I walked across town with my painting flopping wildly over my head, sine-waving its way into a major nuisance that blinded me as I made my way to that dank space. Which flooded. Goodbye, painting.
There’s a Buddhist Image of the teachings as a raft. You come to a river, you need a way to cross, the teachings are there as a raft. You get over to the other shore. And then, if you’re smart, you bow to the raft and leave it right there. You don’t just sling it up onto your head and walk around in 80-degree New Haven traffic, making a big fuss about going to stash it where it’ll get swamped, anyway.
But it’s hard to walk away from the things that have shown us we’re capable of being something other than mindless. And it’s hard not to get caught up in things. Lately I’ve been increasingly wary of thing-making, of the aspects of my training that incline towards making rarified objects. I have crates, boxes, and flat-files full of things I’ve made, some of them quite beautiful. But then what? They are flotilla of rafts that I am hoarding. They’re sitting there getting dusty, while I try to move on. Maybe the tension I feel in my jaw and shoulders every morning, waking up, is the weight of so many un-dropped rafts?
Housepaint is exactly what’s needed, when it’s needed. I go to Home Depot, pick out a slew of wild swatches, and have them mixed up into half-pint samples. It’s cheap, and wonderfully easy to use. But it freezes in the winter if I leave it in my studio, becoming lumpy and unsolvable. Housepaint becomes just another thing that’s hard for me to get rid of.
Right now I am in the middle of understanding how midlife crisis works for me. Everything that is dear to me becomes also everything that is holding me in place, making the feral nomad in me very, very nervous, indeed. Last night I dreamt I woke up in a house in a pasture, and when I walked outside, I saw that all the traders of the Silk Road, all the refugees and pilgrims, were walking in a tremendous line that extended to the horizon in both directions, doglegging slightly to avoid the house. I crossed the line, walked out into the pasture, stopped, and thought, Wait, where am I going? I saw the faces from faraway, the tide of movement extending from forever to forever, and momentarily forgot these were my people. I walked out of the house and into the empty pasture, turning my back on the Road, and felt immediately dispossessed, by the very act of pretending I was not among the dispossessed.
Housepaint depends on there being a house. Is there a house? Right now, yes, very much, there is. There is a house my husband and I bought seven or eight years ago, and some of its paint is starting to look very scruffy, where we’ve knocked into it going upstairs, for example.
Wanderer. Warrior. Healer. Nurse. Lover. All of these are coming up strongly right now, asking to be seen, asking not to be housepainted-over. Have I said before that Waylon Jennings’ What Makes a Man Wander is an anthem for me? I have, and yet here it is again. I want to wander, when restlessness comes burning and antsy inside me. I want to walk this long body away from housepaint, across continents, into the places that scare me. I want to be the one who walks into town dusty, finds a meal and a fire, and leaves again in the morning, traceless.
Have you noticed that this culture skews very much to housepaint? Both in terms of filling in mindlessly, and in terms of establishing a secure fort, painting its insides tastefully, and hunkering down till death do you part. Yesterday afternoon, some horrible yuppie freebie magazine arrived – Tasteful Trends, or some bullshit like that. Make Your Comfort Zone, it enticed from the cover. Fuck that shit, I thought. Fuck it straight into the recycling bin, along with all the appeals for money I can’t meet right now, because I’m broke.
It seems to be that whatever level of not-accumulating I’ve set up for myself in life, some feral beast wants the next level, always. When I was a nun, I yearned to be an arms-wandering mendicant. When I was a student, I hankered to be a backpacker. Now I am a whatever-it-is-that-I-am, and I want to ditch everything to be a nomad-therapist-healer, working out of camps no housepaint has ever seen.
Do I make any sense?
Does this world make any sense?
I can feel one way through is just to paint the damn walls, already, and quit feeding the dissatisfied one who will always, always yearn elsewhere. Maybe both can happen? Maybe almond-green walls, PLUS a license to go somewhere else, breathe different air, be reminded that crossing rivers is part of being human, and joining the lines of wanderers extending to both horizons is just as human as staying put.
I bow to the wild heart that spasms and throbs, meeting this world with the intensity and discomfort it deserves. Yesterday, outdoors on foot, making a big circle through pre-Spring woods, I thought: With this nature, it is a miracle I am still alive. I can feel the artist-angst here, and feel also how it’s been grounded, though not painted over, not now, not ever. I fall to one knee, taken by mud, and sit listening to squirrels’ scolding and old leaves’ rattling, till wandering Elliot comes to breathe love, right into my upturned face.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.