I was sitting in my first grade class when the art bug first bit me. I had just learned about death.
It may have been a pet goldfish, but somehow the infuriating knowledge that we all simply end had been thrust upon me.
I took to it the way a cat takes to being thrown into a swimming pool.
After accosting my parents with every possible scenario that would beat this grim reality, I gave up. And that is where I found myself: slumped at my desk in the back row at age six, furious that I couldn't come up with a solution to death.
I was doodling on my desk, funny little cartoons of puffy-faced children, dogs with twirly tails and men with handlebar mustaches. Suddenly, like a message from above, it dawned on me. I may die, but this desk and my doodle would live on!
OK, listen; I was six. So the fact that I would likely outlive a cheap piece of industrial furniture in a 1970s schoolroom hadn't occurred to me. But the point was that maybe the art I created could live forever.
I'd found the loophole!
By the time I was eight, my parents decided to send me for art lessons, having exhausted their attempts to reel me back from drawing on the walls and furniture.
They would drop me off at a senior citizen art class (it was cheaper), where I would sit amongst elderly women and attempt to sketch still lives. I didn't want to sketch pears. I wanted to doodle super heroes! I did like the coffee break, during which I was treated to all the doughnuts I could eat. Best of all, I had a new best pal: Katherine Hopper, a sweet-smelling, kind-hearted, woman of about 80 who guarded me like her baby chick.
Katherine showed me how to shadow, turn two-dimensional images into three, and most of all, she saved me the best donuts.
When I would announce, "I can't do it!" Kathryn would softly coo, "You can do anything if you want to. You just have to want to."
Katherine was out sick one week, and then the next, and then my parents read her name in the obituaries. My mother hen was gone.
In high school, I spent art class creating what I felt were Andy Warhol-esque portraits of Jim Morrison.
After graduation, I moved to Crown Heights. My parents somehow missed the fact that Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1981 was one of the most dangerous places you could send a 16-year-old white girl with zebra pants and a coke spoon handing from a piece of leather around her neck.
But street gangs, long-bearded rabbis and feral dogs aside, I went back to my old friend, art. I got an apartment on the main drag and painted a sign on my door that said "Art Studio." Under the mail slot, I scrawled "Message."
The only inquiry I got was from a Chasidic women in her 20s who had 10 kids, and under the guise of art classes was looking for a cheap babysitter. Oh, and one night, a Russian Chasidic man screamed up, "I come for massage!"
"That's 'message,' you idiot!" I shot back.
Black, red, orange ... all the colors of Halloween adorned my work as I worked out my angst, sometimes literally slicing through the canvas. I had no phone, no money, no support system and no health insurance. I was an artist.
I rarely sold a painting, but no matter; immortality was mine. After all, if I was disturbing people, that was almost as good as being adored by them. Yeah, me and Johnny Rotten.
I joined forces with a group of renegade artists in the 'hood. We took over a vacant store. In the few months it sat unrented, the landlord gave us a deal so that we could show our work there. No one bought a thing. We smoked cigarettes and congratulated ourselves. Not only had we hung something on a wall, but we were tragically misunderstood.
Then I moved into Manhattan.
It was time to get serious about showing my work. I talked a gallery on the Upper East Side into giving me my first one-woman show. I filled the 400-square-foot gallery with paintings of female body-builders. I was doing it; I was beating death.
By the time I was 28, I had already lived by my calculations, 45 years, and had moved to Chelsea, lived in Provincetown, had my first writing column published, showed my work at an a few alternative spaces including an S&M bar and realized to my horror that I no longer enjoyed painting. So I put down the brush.
For eight years.
Oh, they were creative years. The small catering company I'd created when I was 24 blossomed, my writing took off, landing me in several publications, but the brush became a distant, haunting memory.
Then when I was 36, I very spontaneously bought paints, canvas board and brushes.
I placed the blank canvas board on the easel and stared at it. How does one simply start to paint again? I needed divine inspiration.
I glanced up at the photograph of my best pal T and my beautiful goddaughter Z riding on her shoulders. I placed the photo near my easel and started to flow. I was suddenly on fire. I had forgotten immortality, fame, finance ... and was painting just for the pleasure of it.
I'd love to tell you that from that point on it was easy street. But the creativity hasn't stopped flowing, and I've never again taken it for granted.
Here's what I have learned: Leaving a body of work behind is not what gives you immortality; living your life is.
Katherine Hopper had the answer to life, and she tried to share it with me. It wasn't the wonderful charcoal sketches she created but the joy with which she created them.
I think of this woman whom I barely knew fawning over this precocious eight-year-old with her wet kind eyes and a tender, scolding tone.
"You can do anything if you want to. You just have to want to."
Thank you, sweet Katherine, and thank you for also saving me the chocolate glazed donuts. I know they were your favorite.
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