2009: Momento Mori & Year of the StarLings

by Alden Cole on March 13, 2018 · 0 comments

Memento Mori #1 • markers on illustration board 12″ x 16″ in repurposed vintage-clock oak frame 16″ x 20″

On 5 January 2009, at 1:22 in the afternoon, my mother Lois Marion Crouse Cole (b. 8 Feb 1913) died, a month short of her 96th birthday. As she breathed her last, I sat in a chair beside the hospital bed set up in the living room of the house where she had lived since 1937, holding her hand, counting the seconds between the slow in-breaths, the unhurried exhalations, finally experiencing those timeless seconds waiting for her to take that next inhalation, which never happened. Her animating spirit undramatically took flight. I experienced a sense of relief I had never known before. My mother was beyond pain. She was also beyond shaming; there was nothing I could do now that would bring shame to her name, making her regret being my mother. Yes, that startling thought actually did cross my mind; not at that particular moment, but later that afternoon as I reflected on the fact that my mother was actually deceased. I had just been witness to one of the most profound experiences of my life – watching someone die; that someone being my mother.

Memento Mori #2 • Photoshop-created jpg-graphic incorporating a detail from the marker drawing above, plus skulls copied from my painting “IBU” and a traditional poem about mortality.

I did not witness my father’s death on February 6th, a month and a day after my mother’s. I had returned to Philadelphia in late January, believing there was a good chance he would recover successfully from his bout with pneumonia, and would actually enjoy celebrating his 99th birthday on 22 July. I was wrong; he was basically ready to go the moment she was gone. They were a couple who had lived together for over 74 years, almost three-quarters of a century; a number they would have celebrated June 30th of that year.

“Well, it’s too late to shame her now.” That silent statement from deep within brought me up short, as it flew through my mind later that afternoon, after the men from the memorial chapel in Biddeford had come and taken away her donated-to-science body. There was to be no funeral; she would not be seen again by family members except as ashes; at some point in the future there would be a memorial. Pacing the barn floor, smoking a cigarette, lost in thought about what I had just experienced, the startling notion about shame and its psychological ramifications darted across my mind like a lightning bolt. I realized immediately and intuitively that the comment had been produced by the internal jester that most of us fortunately bear within us for comic relief during particularly trying times that are worthy of either bitter tears or sad laughter. Nevertheless I was shocked by the idea; despite being a gay man, I did not feel I had lived a particularly shameful life; nothing to feel overly guilty about. As I had learned years before when a caring friend helped to clarify some issues that were haunting me with the following comment: “Alden, you may be bad at times, but you’re not evil; and don’t forget there’s a difference!” The seemingly humorous quip about shame prompted me to take a deeper look at this sense of impropriety that I apparently still carried, instilled into me from day one by my family. “Do not bring shame on your family name.” It was an attitude of unspoken fear that had informed my existence from a very early age, causing me to lead a cautiously covert dual life while I was still a teenager gradually recognizing my passions. Ultimately it caused me to move away from family and the country where my comings and goings were easily noted, to living in the city where I could more easily be anonymous. My family were deeply religious country people who indoctrinated me with attitudes that gave me a sense of shame about a lot of things not worth cataloging here. Nevertheless that Christianized sense of the stain of being human gave me a definite sobriety about self and living habits from which I did not rebel as extremely as others I’ve known who’ve not survived their rebelliousness. I’m still alive thanks to those inhibitions that kept me from experimenting too broadly or wildly with a “life in the fast lane” which looked glamorous at the time to this self-destructive would-be beauty-queen who was really just a scared country boy from Maine with a BFA in Apparel Design (not to be confused with ‘fashion’ design) from RISD, on the loose in NYC looking for fame and a lover, hopeful of becoming a star at something!

Memento Mori #3 – markers on paper 9″ x 12″ – this colored-marker drawing, done in the late winter of 2009, on the heels of the drawing at the top of this posting, became the earliest artwork in an evolving series devoted to what I called “StarLings”, which I explored quite extensively during 2009-10; drawings in either b&w or color on paper plus oil paintings on glass. For this rather bizarre series I anthropomorphized the five-pointed-star shape, an artistic device originally explored when I was commissioned to design a black & white print ad for Weiser’s Bookstore in the 1980s, when the storefront was at 132 E. 24th St. in Manhattan; an ad, seen immediately below, which ran a few times in the Village Voice. Looking at these Star People now, I’m reminded of the work of Fernando Botero (1932) a Colombian figurative artist and sculptor, whose stylized corpulent figures possibly influenced my own unconsciously.

Of all places on the planet New York brings out the desire of just about anyone moving there from outside to be a Star, even if the cost of getting there requires doing some things we were trained in childhood to think of as shameful. I was no exception. As an advertising poster for the School of Visual Arts that I first noticed in the subways cogently put it: “To be good is not enough when you dream of being great!” I never made it big; but I did survive. For better or worse, fame and fortune eluded me in the eleven years I spent in New York. Crucial to my lack of success with a career on 7th Avenue was the fact that I was much more concerned with finding a friend and lover than having a great career. It really did boil down to being a choice between seeking Love or Money. Neither one really won. Between August of 1968 when I arrived in NYC and came out as a ‘gay’ male, and July of 1976, the year our country celebrated its national liberty while I was celebrating my freedom from a bad relationship, I had three relationships with live-in lovers; the first two that lasted two years each (a Mars cycle) were introductions to the disappointingly tawdry nature of much gay life, and a third that lasted only the first six months of 1976. This last experience gave me a taste of relationship hell, which in turn gave me a longing to take a break from searching for love. Instead I turned to a sexually promiscuous lifestyle, living relatively fast and definitely dangerously, as if I were looking for an early death, which I almost got in 1978, but survived to talk about. Leaving NYC in 1979 just as AIDS was coming on the scene, probably saved my life. Am I glad I survived? That’s a good question which I’ve asked myself many times throughout my life. At this point I’d say definitely ‘yes’ despite the disappointment and difficulties of my life choices: feeling like a ‘fish out of water’ much of the time; neither truly gay nor truly straight; living alone in the midst of a crowd. It’s been the story of my life; living in the city where I’m constantly reminded of the amazing diversity of human aliveness. I actually thrive on that knowledge now, particularly as I look out my second floor office window, watching cars pass by, seeing the occasional pedestrian(s) on the sidewalk across the street passing through the neighborhood; my neighbors leaving for work, or returning home; the parade of young and old; the passage of time. I recognize that this is the life I’ve wanted for myself since I was a child. I had grown up in a virtual garden of Eden living in the country, but I was raised to look forward to living in the city of God. And if I’ve learned anything through my life here and there, it’s that every city is ultimately that – a City of God, flawed as it may be in comparison to the ideal we carry in our hearts and minds eye.

Taking a cue from Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of what has become known as the Vitruvian Man, I came up with a variation that saw a number of incarnations during the spring and summer of 2009 after my parents deaths. Below is the first, the result of awakening from a dream with a vivid image of an androgynous star-shaped being shining in my mind. I got out of bed immediately and drew what I could remember of the vision in pencil on a 9″x12″ sketch pad,
which I later colored with markers, seen at left. The vision of that shimmering being with four hands and four feet inspired by Leonardo’s drawing made its next significant appearance in a reverse oil painting on glass, which I worked on in stages that summer, finally completing it during the fall of 2009. I framed the 8″ x 10″ piece of painted glass in a lovely carved-wood desk-frame, then lived with it in various locations in my home for the next three years. In 2012 I decided to put it into the DaVinci Art Alliance’s annual December Holiday Art Show to see if it would sell. All submitted art had to be priced at $200 or under to encourage holiday buying. I priced mine at the maximum amount allowable, and hoped that someone would recognize what a bargain it was for the price.

StarLing Under Glass #3 • oils on glass, 10″ x 8″ in carved wood frame • collection of James Warhola (1955- ) an American artist who has illustrated more than two dozen children’s books since 1987.

I walked into the opening night reception to discover from a friend who greeted me at the door that indeed my new StarLing Under Glass piece had sold; in fact it had been bought just minutes earlier by Jamie Warhola, nephew of Andy Warhol, who was in town to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his famous uncle’s death. I had known Jamie was going to be there that night; Debra Miller, the DaVinci Art Alliance’s president of the board of directors, was a personal friend of his. She had known Andy in NYC when she was a teenager, and as an art historian had become a great admirer of his work, which eventually led her to interview members of the Warhola family including Jamie. Early in 2012 she decided the DaVinci should have a 25th anniversary show in honor of Andy’s influence in the arts to coincide with publication of a book she was planning – “Wahholized: The Silver Show.” The bulk of the book would be devoted to showing full page reproductions of individual works by the alliance’s membership revealing Andy’s diverse influences on the visual arts, plus the members’ verbal reflections on Andy’s personal impact on their work. This would be prefaced with brief introductory essays by Debra, Jamie Warhola, his brother and sister Martin and Madalen, Gerard Malanga who worked with Andy at the Factory, and myself. Titled “I’ve been Warholized!” my essay recounted Andy’s profound influence on my artistic consciousness as a youth; I was 18 years old in the summer of 1962, having just graduated high school and looking forward to my freshman year at RISD. That same summer Andy attained celebrity status as a pop artist with his trend-breaking show “32 Campbell Soup Cans” first shown in LA that July to mixed reviews: establishment shock and youthful adulation. I was a member of the disgusted shock contingent when I finally became aware of Andy’s Soup Cans, which caused me to ask in dismay “This is Art?” Life had just gotten more complex as my illusions suffered the slings and arrows of art market reality. However, as I realized while writing my essay, in a lot of ways life got easier for me as a result of Andy’s ground-breaking explorations expanding our culture’s understanding of “What constitutes Art” as well as Life. Ultimately we’re still reeling from his influence.

So in 2012, fifty years after the initial shock wave and my repulsion to Andy’s art, I was ironically volunteering to design and publish this proposed book about him using Amazon’s self-publishing and distributing arm, CreateSpace. Although the book had been published earlier in the year, Debra used the December holiday show as an apt occasion to promote and sell copies of the book. To that end she enjoined Jamie Warhola with whom she had developed a personal friendship over the years, to travel to Philadelphia to share some reminiscences about his uncle for the opening reception. It also gave Jamie the opportunity to promote his own work as an illustrator, which is impressive. I bought two of his children’s books as gifts for my grand-niece and -nephew in Alaska, as a token thank you to him for buying my StarLings Under Glass, a sale which made my night. As most older artists recognize, one of the last big thrills is selling our work to an appreciative audience.

StarLings Under Glass #4 aka Momento Mori #4 • oils on glass, framed in weathered window sash 22″ x 24″ • another early experiment in learning to paint in reverse on glass, commemorating my parents who died in the winter of 2009, only a month apart. Painted in November 2009

I had returned to my home in Philadelphia the last week
of January to discover that my friends, the Dumpster Divers, had been given use of an empty double-wide storefront at 734-6 South Street which we were welcome to turn into a temporary art gallery until the space was rented again to a paying customer. South Street was in a business
slump, with lots of empty storefronts, so a group of owners started an initiative to make those empty spaces available on a temporary basis to groups connected to the arts in order to keep South Street looking busy and vibrant. This opportunity created a new focus to commit energy to, rather than dwelling on, first, my mother’s death, followed by my father’s in early February. Once both parents were deceased and their bodies were in the hands of science, I had time to reflect on being an orphan without living parents at last, a state a number of my friends had already experienced. At age 65, I was finally on my own in the world. The Last Refuge of Original Home and Hearth in case all else failed was no more. My parents were beyond shaming; but on the other hand, they were also beyond learning about any of my future accomplishments and taking pride.

“And Delicious…” • hobo-style box measuring 16″ x 8″ x 4″ crafted from wooden crates used for shipping fruit – maybe apples or oranges or peaches – to which I applied the two whimsical marker drawings (seen above) done that spring. Add to them a star shape made from sculptor’s wax; Voila! you have one of my more eccentric artworks.

StarLings #3: Shakin’ the Booty in the Blue TV Screen Light • marker drawing on paper 9″ x 12″ • I drew lots of quick StarLing sketches that winter, but only a few made it into vibrant color. Looks like this one might have been done around Valentine’s day as there’s a ‘broken’ heart as part of the drawing.

StarLings #4: “On Parade”, aka “The Hits Keep On A’coming” aka “Dance to the Music” • marker drawing on paper 9″ x 12″ • the sketches kept getting looser and looser that spring, symptoms of a mind adrift, a mind at sea, which I definitely was feeling that year as I contemplated my new unanchored situation.

StarLing #5: “Venus Fly-Trap” • pencil on paper 9″ x 6″ • This drawing was inspired by a DaVinci Art Alliance exhibit on carnivorous plants in collaboration with Bartram’s Garden in West Philadelphia where the show was held that summer. The theme – Little Shop of Horrors – evoked several drawings in preparation for the exhibit, from which I selected two for framing; the one at left, as well as the one below – StarLing #9 – shown here in both its initial black & white version, as well as its later coloring which was the final piece framed. I used the shapes of the purple pitcher plant – Sarracenia Purpurea – to
reiterate the star shape, and to introduce an erotic element as an additional comment on the subject of the predatory nature of the featured plants as well as those human beings driven to Stardom. Having had numerous encounters of varying duration and intensity with predatory individuals over the years, as well as being at least partially aware of my own predatory nature and habits, I know whereof I speak in this regard. Much of my discomfort with my own personal history as a gay male has to do with that predatory nature, dealing with its unconscious drives and emotional pressures, not to mention the complexity of alternating between states of shame over the thoughtlessness of what I’ve done and pride for what I’ve NOT done.

StarLings #7: Dancing with the Stars • pencil on vellum tracing paper 12″ x 9″ in antique frame 21″ x 17″

Along with the sense of shame evoked by taking advantage of others, was the sense of pride at having helped others. Learning to balance these states alternating between times of programmed self-loathing and other times of enlightened self-love has created a complex, rather conflicted life for me. But again, I’ve survived my lower nature by channeling the energy into what I consider higher activity – making ART. Yes. I’ve lived a life fraught with illusions about a lot of things including shame and pride. Waking up to the reality of living in a balanced state of grace that is neither shameful or prideful is my goal. However STAYING awake in that benign state of being is one of the great challenges of having a human nature. I’m working on it…

StarLings #10: Dancing with the Stars #2 • pencil on illustration board 5″ x 7″ in Aldenized frame 6″ x 8″

A miniaturized attempt utilizing the composition of the larger drawing above to answer the challenge of creating a visual showing the blending of two StarLings into a single Star, illlustrative of Aleister Crowley’s statement that “Every Man and Every Woman is a Star” with shades of the daVinci’s Vitruvian Man thrown in as an influence in the composition.

Dancing in the dark ’til the tune ends
We’re dancing in the dark and it soon ends
We’re waltzin’ in the wonder of why we’re here
Time hurries by, we’re here and we’re gone

Lookin’ for the light of a new love
To brighten up the night, I have you love
An’ we can face the music together
Dancing in the dark

StarLings Under Glass #1 & 2 • oils on glass, 10″ x 8″ • my earliest simplistic explorations with painting in reverse on glass.

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