There is no shortage of ideas when it comes to art. Sometimes I work from dreams and fantasies, sometimes from something seen and appreciated (that girl deserves a painting!) and sometimes from an emotional need to manifest, cleanse and move things along. The latest project, “Little Sister,” is in the latter category.
Kathy McClanahan died a few years ago after a prolonged struggle with lupus. No one knows why people contract these things, but a good guess in this case is an immune system weakened by not enough love. To describe Kathy is like describing a character in a book: an opera singer, an adventuress, a religious ecstatic, an unapologetically transgressive sexual being and a brilliant intellectual. She was a real Tantric Goddess, a lusty pursuer of forbidden pleasures as a tool for self knowledge.
Like many theatrical personalities Kathy was often easier to accept in the abstract than in reality, but I admired and loved her dearly. This painting is a tribute and an expression of love for exactly who she was, as she was. It’s a visual obituary for a person who was a saint, a sinner, a drug addict, a church girl, a masochistic lover, a gifted meditator, a knowledgeable practitioner of all the major world’s religions and a vigorous intellectual. She was a riddle and a complicated conglomeration of opposites: an in-your-face provocateur with a sweet, devotional nature who flaunted all societal norms with as much ease as she flicked ashes off her cigarette.
I laid out the painting using the same panel system I developed for “Motet.” Perhaps someone might enjoy accompanying me on a tour through the imagery.
Kathy raised birds and was especially fond of parrots which she rescued from many a clueless pet owner. Parrots are intelligent and suffer greatly in captivity. Kathy knew they shouldn’t be kept at all but seemed to have a knack for attracting psychologically damaged birds into her orbit. I wanted images of freedom and release at the top corners of the painting, so adding a red parrot was a natural.
So was this little portrait of a red dakini from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Kathy was a serious Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and even learned a bit of Tibetan as a way of deepening her studies. I’m not exactly sure what a Dakini is: maybe like an angel, but with bigger breasts. Putting the Sun behind the parrot and the Moon behind the flying red lady reinforces the sense of opposites I wanted to cultivate throughout the piece.
Kathy lived many places, once even coming back to Cincinnati as she got sicker and sicker. She couldn’t bear being hemmed in by anything, especially family, and eventually moved West to Grants Pass Oregon, where she died. Grants Pass is an old cowboy town which used to be full of hippies and now seems mostly full of budget minded back-to-the-country retirees from Los Angeles. Kathy was mostly too ill to take advantage of its natural beauty, but she fully appreciated the fact that it was there (and that it wasn’t Cincinnati).
Along both sides of the board I added little scenes which exemplified something of Kathy’s life and my relationship with her. We used to play a game of “alligators” when we were young. People didn’t use babysitters much back then, so we had the run of the house when the parents were gone. The “Alligator game” consisted of leaping from stools placed around the perimeter of the living room, the object being not to fall and get eaten. Sometimes we’d use the couch like a trampoline and yell “Dick Van Dyke” as we landed on the cushions. Who knows why? When the cat’s away, the mice will play I guess. I’ve used this image before and enjoy a bit of self-referential joking.
Kathy was a great singer. Like many girls in our community, we learned to sing in the Junior Choir at the Greenhills Presbyterian Church. It was the first time we were exposed to harmony and was a great training ground for both of us. There wasn’t much gospel music in those days. It was all anthems, hymns and Lutheran chorales, which I adored. I think this sort of music is under-appreciated these days. There’s nothing more solid or reassuring than a beautifully arranged old hymn.
To say Kathy was a student of world religions is an understatement. Not content to simply study, she formally converted to Catholicism, Islam and Tibetan Buddhism in turn over the course of many years. A major draw in each tradition were the outfits which she wore with great grace, aplomb and utter unselfconsciousness.
For the lower center panel, just beneath the main image, I included this slightly creepy portrait of the house we grew up in. It was a $12,000 Masonite board-and-batten beauty painted pink and bought with a GI loan. Most of the families in the neighborhood worked in factories, chain restaurants and construction. It was a working class subdivision of first-time homeowners with scads of children who still played jump rope and “war. ” I think I was mostly a nurse, but Kathy needed something more vigorous.
I placed some of the deities of Kathy’s various religious conversions along the bottom of the piece. This is “Green Tara,” a Tibetan goddess who acts as a sort of entry into the tradition for newly-minted practitioners. Tibetan Buddhism is highly ritualized and liturgical, something Kathy and I both value and love.
We both shared a strange devotion to the Virgin Mary as children. I built an altar to her in the garage early on and continued with some do-it-yourself devotions as an adult. As always, Kathy dove deeper than I, formally converting to Catholicism and buying up as many rosaries and chapel veils as she could. What good is a religion if you can’t have the outfits?
Kathy was deeply interested in the Tantric sexual imagery of the union of Shiva and Shakti, God and Nature, lover and beloved. She didn’t believe in the usual concepts of transgression or perversion, seeing all expressions of sexuality as good and right in their own way.
Kathy never formally converted to Hinduism, but was an enthusiastic practitioner of kirtan, Hindu devotional singing. As always, she had the requisite accouterments and outfits. When she died, I found heaps of expensive punjabis, sarees and gopi dresses, all in different sizes. She’d even bought a harmonium, which I promptly shipped back to Ohio. I like the way these four forms work at the bottom of the painting. Like the arched heating system at the bottom of an ancient Roman bath, these little figures seem like the supportive heating elements of Kathy’s life. She may have appeared as a pill-popping, wine-swilling, cigarette-smoking bar fly on the outside, but inside she was worlds and worlds more.
Kathy lived for many years in San Francisco and vigorously pursued Catholicism there. A Carmelite nunnery at the top of the hill was a favorite stopping off place. She was a bit too much into the maladaptive sides of convent life for my taste (they put them all inside and never let them out!) but the devotional impulse was real. Kathy went to mass faithfully whenever she was able and was pretty much the best Catholic I ever met.
Little sister smoked like a chimney and had an addictive personality in general. Stale smoke, dirty bird cages, jars of pills, rosaries, Tibetan deities and sentimental Catholic art prints came into a surprising balance wherever she lived.
One of the strangest episodes of Kathy’s spiritual adventuring came during the Muslim phase. She often said this was the easiest religion to get into (declare Mohammed three times and you’re in) and one of the easiest to leave. She gave it a good go for a while, even traipsing around San Francisco in full niqab and burka regalia. As usual, her reports of the experience were unconventional. She hated the sexism she found in her Islamic community but loved the anonymity of the outfits. “You can see people but they can’t see you!” she’d crow. There wasn’t any alcohol but plenty of dancing at the private ladies’ parties she attended. In the end, there was too much emphasis on rote learning and not enough intellectual stimulation for her. Of all the religions she practiced, this is the only one she ever left completely. For those with a sharp eye, I referenced her addiction to opioids in the patterning of the hijab.
The center panel was the hardest to design. It was tempting to white-wash Kathy’s life, but that would have belittled what I’ve come to regard as her greatest achievement. Her whole life was a work of art. She lived it exactly as she wanted to and was utterly unapologetic about it. This included a stint in the San Francisco sex club scene, a venue in which I later learned she was something of a minor star. Completely giving herself to another was part of a larger pattern in which masochistic theatrics and spiritual surrender were seen as one and the same. “Some people are just wired differently” she’d tell me, and I guess she was right.
I set out to work through contradictory feelings about Kathy’s life and my part in it but, as it turns out, there was no peace to be had. I’ve decided that the light and dark of her passage through this world, the pleasure and pain of it, the ignorance and the bliss…..the whole mixed up shebang is absolutely perfect exactly as it is. That girl deserves a painting.