Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bringing my past life as a painter into the present

"Hangman"from the Cadavers series
 Savannah Schroll, circa 2002
For as long as I can remember, I intended to be an artist. I drew pictures of princesses in ballpoint pen on promotional tablets sent by my father's plywood and Formica suppliers. I hammered together little wooden sculptures of flakeboard and screws (poor things, wham! wham! wham!) on Saturday mornings, while my father worked on cabinet orders.

Art was, you see, the only thing I ever stuck with. I was not graceful enough for ballet (I preferred to play in the rosin box, which completely ticked off my aging Hungarian ballet mistress). And because I could play by ear, I never learned how to read music, and so I was very gently "fired" from both piano and violin lessons. My devotion to horses similarly waned in fifth grade, after I was thrown from one that spooked. And, while lying on the ground trying to breathe, I realized their size in relation to my own. I subsequently didn't get back on one for many years. Finally, although I may have looked athletic, I had absolutely no interest in sports. Instead, I drew and eventually, I painted...not very well at first. My efforts were confined to still lives of flowers and subjects that ran somewhere along the lines of the commerical "Starving Artist" shows that set up shop on the outskirts of Pittsburgh and sell palette knife paintings and bland landscapes intended to hang above sofas. No offense starving artists, but ugh. Can we get more visceral perhaps? No? Well, okay. I tried.

I'll skip over all the intermediary steps. There were many. I made art throughout college and was even granted an office in Shoemaker Galleries by my studio art professor (something for which I was very grateful). But what eventually happened to me was that instead of going to art school (believe me, I tried, and was roundly rejected by every program I applied to), I went to Germany. Specifically (and happily), in the same month I was turned down by RISD and Cranbrook, I got the Fulbright. This, along with graduate school, into which I was routed right after I got back from Germany, changed the way I approached my career and my future. I started to fall in love with ideas and slowly (very slowly) pulled away from interest in process and product.

"Munich, Christmas Day"
Savannah Schroll, 1997
 Still, I continued to paint while I was in Germany. I had devoted a corner of my small apartment to painting. Here, I propped 8" x 10"-sized canvases against the baseboard, and I hunkered down to paint on them (because there was absolutely no nailing anything to the wall in a Studentenwerk building. Das war unglaublich und verboten). I had little pots of acrylic paint, plastic containers filled with colored water, half-stiffened paint brushes lay on newspapers spread across the floor. I distinctly remember on Christmas Day of 1997, I sat in that corner with a desk lamp and worked on an abstract portrait of my conception of Munich, which hangs in my kitchen to this day (it's there at right)--a small jumble of onion domes, little goats, and Georgia O'Keeffe-style ethereal approaches to nature. Okay, there's a little Franz Marc in there, too. But I'd been to Murnau to see Kandinsky and Muenther's house, so that's to be expected, I guess.

I was actually pretty productive throughout graduate school, although I don't have those paintings in image form to post here. They still hang in the Pittsburgh apartment. Right before I moved to Washington in the summer of 2000, I was even involved in a group show on the Northside, called "Pilot One", which we held in the old Pittsburgh Public Theater prop shop (whose inside rooms we demolished for the owner as payment for use of the space...that, friends, was a dirty job that left us entirely soot covered, so that nothing but the pinks of our inner lips and the whites of our eyes showed. Really. It was that dirty.)

Shortly after I got to D.C., I took the slides from my college painting portfolio, sent them off by mail, and scored my very first appearance in a literary journal: I became the featured artist in the fall 2000 issue of Folio, American University's literary magazine. I was completely over the moon, convinced this was just the beginning of a painting career. I actually wrote an artist's statement that was, more or less, my first foray into real writing, a real hitching of my emotions to language.

"Strung" from the Cadavers series
Savannah Schroll, circa 2002

Not long after that, I was part of a group show in New York City, in a gallery on the Avenue of the Americas, just a short walk to Times Square. It was August, which I've been told is the worst time to show and was just an opportunity for the gallery to fill open wall space until the real exhibition season began in September.  But I didn't care about this nay-saying. I had two paintings in a New York City gallery, and what more could a young artist ask for? I was thrilled, too, because when I got into the space, I saw that the larger painting (which I later donated to the Harrisburg public television station for an art auction, where it sold--I hope it has a good home!) was behind the bar, where everyone got to see it while they were waiting for drinks. Somewhere, I have pictures. I have to find the pictures of me, standing with my drink, looking slightly overwhelmed because there were a lot of people--a crush of humanity in that August heat. But I was also completely excited, thinking this was the beginning of something.

Later, I was involved in Artists' Space's Night of 1,000 Drawings, a benefit for the organization. One of my drawings sold for fifty bucks, and again, I was so excited that my work might hang on someone's wall--a complete stranger would like something I made enough to buy it. Even if the good cause helped the transaction along, they had chosen my work over the 999 others that were available. And certainly that was something amazing. I know a woman bought it because Artists' Space provided me with her name and address (I suppose to encourage contact for future sales), although I lost the sheet with the name long ago.

Ha! Ha! Look what I found!
My Smithsonian Libraries staff picture,
winter/spring 2002.

So I painted in D.C., and was involved in the inaugural year of Art-o-matic, where I did an installation in the basement of the old Lowe's building near the Tenleytown Metro Station (it had the hardest concrete walls I have ever encountered, and I, at once point, had a hammered finger to prove it). At the time, I also started some critical essays, and I tried a little fiction, which was totally horrible. Yet, in the evenings, after work, I remember using the dim hallway leading to my bathroom as a place to hang my larger works, but I couldn't back up to get perspective, and so I gave those up and worked instead on what I could lay on the floor or put on my easel. One night, on a tip, I ran out to Tacoma Park, Maryland just off the red line. There, I looked at studio space, but it was small, divided by walls on wheels. It lacked a direct water source, was well over an hour from my place by subway and then bus, and it required a $200 per month rental fee. I kept working in my apartment. 

Throughout this period, I searched for gallery representation, intermittently but not very seriously, and I did not find it. September 11 happened, and my works got considerably darker (see the one above). I didn't even register this darkness was happening, but the evidence is pretty plain to me now.

When I moved back to Pennsylvania, I painted less often because I was no longer living in my own space. I could not be as messy. Moreover, I had much less privacy to try out ideas that might have been unpleasant for a parent to look at. My mother saw works from my "cadaver series," and she began to ask if I wanted to talk with a counselor.

My Dad liked having my paintings around, regardless of the subject (one of what I consider to be one of my more terrible works from high school still hangs, unframed, in the hallway outside their breakfast area...he also has some of my artistic disasters hanging on the walls in his basement workshop, and I'm very glad for this). Anyway, I distinctly remember that a nude of a former boyfriend was temporarily stored upside down in my parents' living room (I had intended to auction this work off at another public television fundraiser, but following the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction nonsense, my painting of a naked male didn't even make it on camera. Instead, it came back, unsold). While this painting was in the living room, temporarily forgotten, I had some friends over, one of whom was very religious. I told the two who arrived first to make themselves comfortable, and I would bring in snacks. Standing at the top of the stairs leading into the living room, I saw, in one glance, that I had made a mistake in not turning the painting around. There the two girls sat, having turned their chairs 180-degrees so they did not have to confront genitals. I honestly had not done that on purpose. The painting had become white noise to me, and I didn't think about it still being there until I saw Heidi and Audrey sitting squarely in front of it, Heidi's mouth, one tightly closed, horizontal line. At first, I didn't know whether to apologize or say nothing. I chose to apologize and turned the painting around to face the wall. It's still somewhere at my parents' house, although I don't know where Dad has stashed it.

Sadly, almost nothing of my public identity as a painter exists anymore, except (to my delight), I found that I am still listed in the Washington Artists' Directory. Of course, this is outdated news, since I left D.C. in 2002, but there is my old phone number, my old email address, and a painting that hung over my dining room table. (Scary, that, yes? Really, girl? Over the dining room table? Did you not have many people to dinner? I can't imagine why.) Wait, which painting? The one that opens this post. Absolutely cadaverous.

Tonight, there is canvas stretched over a frame in the basement, waiting for me. I pulled out my vat of gesso, which I sniffed to determine freshness. There's no mold, so that's hopeful...even though I know it's nearly a decade old. I sensed that, with all this fiction-related rejection nonsense, my creative fire was going dim. And creative fire is, in part, what gives Savannah her go. I want to feel that creative glow again, since it radiates in all directions and sheds warm light on everything. It's something I will never be finished with, something I don't ever want to be finished with. So now, I expand my horizon in another direction and point both feet that way for a little while. I don't even really know how I ever got off that path in the first place.

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