When a Project Gets You Down

Some people use art as personal therapy, a strategy for purifying the psyche of troublesome memories or ideas. I usually try to stay away from this sort of thing but sometimes a project wants up and out so badly all you can do is step out of the way and hope for the best. “Romulus and Reema With Octopus” is an example.

It all started with this tiny bas relief sculpture spotted in the background of a news photo from Jerusalem.

Romulus & Remus Ornamental Detail: Building in Jerusalem

I’ve done pieces on this theme before but something about this particular design just wouldn’t let go. I interpret feelings such as these as commands from the subconscious mind, an assignment from one portion of the personality to another, but this one seemed like so much work, I almost didn’t do it at all. If it hadn’t been for a suggestion planted by A.J. Vanderelli over the Summer, I might not have persevered. As it is, even just the possibility of having a place to show such a work proved a substantial lure. The power we have to influence one another should never be underestimated.

Sketch for “Romulus & Reema With Octopus” by Lynda McClanahan

I continued in the recent multi-paneled style. This has the advantage of allowing for various “takes” on the subject matter, variously softening and sharpening the main point as it comes in and out of focus. Visually, I like the tension of a scary Creature From the Black Lagoon flanked by cartoonish, absurd sharks. Maybe it’s just me, but when the world breaks your heart, absurdity can be your only friend.

Creature From the Black Lagoon With Sea Lampreys

Panel by panel, a long, slow slog of labor ensued, broken up only by holiday duties and gigs.

Statue of Liberty detail: “Romulus and Reema” by Lynda McClanahan In Process

The Statue of Liberty panel was a source of anxiety but turned out to be one of the easiest of the project.

Red Octopus Detail from “Romulus & Reema” by Lynda McClanahan

The ocean scene, by contrast, took a lot of fussing, with many mistakes and missteps along the way.

“Romulus & Reema” by Lynda McClanahan In Process

I mask off completed portions of these multi-paneled layouts as I work my way through the board so it’s almost impossible to know whether the project will hold together as a whole until the very end. This creates both excitement and anxiety which doesn’t always lessen after the masking is removed. Sometimes it even makes it worse. Every artist knows that each road taken always infers another which was not.

“Romulus & Reema With Octopus” by Lynda McClanahan in Process

I could have handled the latticework dividing the panels any number of ways, each one no better or worse than the other, just different. In the end, I opted for more detail, which seemed safer. Whatever else it is, a painting is also just a visual record of decisions made.

Now that the project is done, I’m struck by the effect it had on mood as I chugged toward completion. Rather than relief at getting something out of my system, depression, anger, sorrow and a touch of nihilistic despair have dogged me the entire time I’ve labored over this thing. I was taught that the truth would set me free, but this particular truth seems to have only set me free to mourn. When asked what this piece means, I’ve hemmed and hawed a bit but, really, it’s a visual interpretation of current cultural trends vis a vis climate change. Whatever my personal feelings about our reaction as people to this situation, the earth-witness of the octopus looks us square in the face and declares it’s seen it all before. Each time, the ocean won. Perhaps I’ll take comfort in that.

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