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Saturday, June 13, 2015

Nell's Eye View

Greenwich Village, 1958.

Ruby’s friend Sophie asked me a funny question today. “How do you know what to paint?”

I answered her with a question. “How does your mom know what to write?” Because Sophie’s mom is acomedy writer.

“That’s easy,” Sophie said. “She’s in a room with a bunch of other writers and they start making up stories they think will be funny.”

“Is it really easy?” I say. She pauses and looks at me.


Around here I don’t try to think of what will be funny. I don’t try to think of anything, really. “Do you paint what you see?” she asks.

Yeah. But there are different ways of seeing. Sometimes you wake up and look out your window, before you get out of bed, and you might see a child’s balloon floating along outside. Or if you’re at a party on the 15th floor somewhere and you look outside, the tops of the trees are below you.

What you see is determined by where you are—on any given day, in any moment. Some days the leaves are green and budding. Some days there are no leaves and everything is brown or white. Some days there are no trees anywhere near you at all.

And some days (and that’s most for me) you’re not painting what you see in front of you. You’re painting what you see in your mind. Your dreams, or memories, or what you wish you’d seen. Maybe there’s something that scares you or something you’ve wanted to do for a long time.

My favorite artist (right now) is Chagall, because all his paintings are like dreams, and they bring us into another world. Floating brides and flying couples and circuses; forms bent backwards and red cows and women blooming out of trees. My favorite is of a man holding onto a woman in a purple dress, because it looks like he is the only thing keeping her from floating away into the stratosphere.

I feel like I need someone to hold me here too, because… because I want to fly away sometimes. Many times.

Ruby keeps me grounded, Ruby and Ray. Gary needs someone to hold him, too, but I can’t always be that person. The two of us want to dance too much, and you can always dance better in the sky.

Anyway, Sophie, you paint what you see, but you don’t have to be standing in front of something to see it. You can close your eyes and see it better, in fact. Maybe late at night if you’re tired of painting, you might crawl out your studio window and sit on the ledge, closing your eyes. Float away a little, if nobody’s looking. 

Who knows? If you’re lucky, you can fly away before they even know you’re gone.