All of a sudden I start to paint a child, about 7 or 8 or 10. And of course my head’s already at war, pretending there’s no significance. Oh just a child. I think I’ll make it a little girl. Feeding one of the birds on the steps. But all that’s crap because it’s not just a child and not a little girl it’s my son, and there he is.
[From a letter addressed to South African painter, Jolande Hesse]
“I would like to suggest something, which has taken me a long time to discover about painting and I would like to pass on to you.
It is possible, in creative work, to change and alter realities. It’s useful as a fundamental source of experimentation, but can go beyond that into the realm of self-fulfilling prophecy. Not too many years ago I was doing a great deal of traveling, living rough, and all my things were stored on the other coast. I was heartbroken over the separation. I started a painting of a wonderful big studio with me in it, in a fabulous bed, with everything I owned and missed around me, including the spirits of friends and animals. Studio and Spirit Dreams was the result. Afterward I ended up moving into several very similar places. The painting was cathartic.
Sixteen years ago when my son died I was swamped in grief. I have literally been unable to paint him at all. Only this past week I started a painting (without knowing where it was heading) of a wonderful garden island paradise, filled with birds and insects, flowers, sailing ships, a jeep, beautiful skies…then suddenly at the end of my brush my son appeared in it, and it was his. It is, in truth, the way for me to picture him still growing up with all the delightful things around him that I would have wanted him to have, to play and explore. It has certainly produced a great deal of emotion in me to paint it, which has turned from tears to delight in short order. And a sense of making something right over which, gone so wrong, I had no control. I’m suggesting this in part because . . . of your own story. You are new to painting, and wonderful at it. Instead of years usually wasted in developing technique that is ultimately discarded in favor of originality, you went right in with your heart in your hand, and it’s wonderful to see. I suggest you consider this skill as a playground for your imagination, to use in a way that will liberate you, and the subjects you paint, even more.
Artists have it in them to absorb and feel the depth of despair of life, and also to walk, with the viewer’s hand in ours, to imagined wonders that resonate with hope.”
The memories of my son always lurk, hover. Sometimes surface, sometimes a surprise arrival. wHOOOOOSH! I still cannot fully resolve the experience in me. I don’t know why. Maybe it never leaves anyone. But I want to somehow conquer the despair, to end the despair.
I get fairly trembling if I go into it all. And that scares me because it led me to a very bad place when he died, those first couple of years, not any place I want to go again.
So I’m back in the gallery painting on the landscape. I know it’s lacking. I’m adding some interesting things but there are still big open spaces I don’t know what to put in, make it more, make it better.
All of a sudden I start to paint a child, about 7 or 8 or 10. And of course my head’s already at war, pretending there’s no significance. Oh just a child. I think I’ll make it a little girl. Feeding one of the birds on the steps.
But all that’s crap because it’s not just a child and not a little girl it’s my son, and there he is.
So I’m getting very shaky and starting to cry, thinking what the hell am I doing to myself. And then I thought if I make it right maybe that’s precisely what I’ve needed to do. I haven’t been able to paint him at all. So I make myself keep at it until the form is right. I add a big Labrador. A jeep. Now he’s got a dog and toy. And the animals. And the garden, and off in a wild place with a wide open sky. And the bird, the hawk I started painting two days ago is really a sparrowhawk, wings spread, soaring, and Trevor’s on the steps under the sparrowhawk.
Trevor’s Treasure Island
I started thinking today that I’m not entirely pleased with the way I’m painting, almost as if everything I’ve done up until now is not right, or wrong, or off, or problematic. I end up with colors on the brush I don’t want, and then work and work on it and suddenly there’s a combination that’s so right it makes me cry.
I’m also doing essentially the first portrait of Trevor. He’s not the center of the painting but an important part. He’s a young boy on this strange bit of land, he is leaning forward feeding crows. I know much is coming from my subconscious. Without specifically planning it he appeared under a large protective sparrowhawk. It was going to be only a large sky and landscape, and there are massive flowers front and center, then I kind of started creating a treasure island, for Trevor, and oh God the things that have come into it, birds and emotions and sailboats and a jeep and more birds and dragonflies and crashing waves and trees and it’s getting very Hieronymus Bosch-y actually now I write this out.
I have likely studiously avoided delving very deep into anything, imagining I’d return to shaky ground. It’s so interesting to have you to write to, I swear. It helps me understand myself.
But the problem with not delving is a run of superficiality, which I don’t care much for either. I kept painting, saying, it’s not beautiful, it’s not beautiful….and then there’d be a start of something that worked, that was.
I think I may be having some rush of feeling to put everything in it that didn’t get done, know what I mean? It’s some kind of completing thing. I worked hours on Trevor. I wanted the physical to be just right, he’s leaning forward, in curiosity not a boy’s mischief. I want it sweet. There’s not much detail on the face and may not be, it’s the posture that says it, the position of the hands and legs. It sure is a major challenge of portrait work, and I’m about to start yours. There is so much in an expression, so much subtlety to get right so that it is what I want to say, unmistakably. And I am finding much fault with myself. It’s not flowing.
Well, I’m obviously consumed with all this. I will eventually have a breakthrough, because that’s the way it happens. If I can let it all sort of play out by itself it will paint itself.
The central flowers were initially on stalks, a very crowded base of leaves and stalks, and late today I set them all free as if they’d taken off in the wind. Some metaphor.
I’m sorry to be so preoccupied. Bless your heart for listening. And how I love thinking of you with the straightforward, wholesome work with feral creatures and big open skies.
I suddenly began to re-work a portrait of Trevor I started in 1996 and it was not good then. I have had the past two days of fluent emotional peaking and am finally getting into it in unexpected ways. It’s very different from the way I normally paint.
Trevor was born February 27th, 1972 and died January 27th, 1996.
I will say this for being a parent which I can only guess at with my own or other parents but I have the feeling it’s universal, which is that there is never a day that goes by that you don’t think about your child. This may be very good for me, the portrait is evolving into something remarkable. And I am trying not to burden it with, and in the process free myself from, all the weighty memories.
And two hours later, okay. I’m okay. I didn’t go nuts or die. I started something likely very important, or it drew me in.
The painting of Trevor is getting fascinating. A great challenge, and very good to see. The act of painting is taking over. I’m inventing a face I don’t think I ever saw, with a slight beard, JH inspired likely. Trevor and the royal Princes could all be kin, he looked like a skinnier version of Harry. I’m working on your portrait too and the one of me and the cats. Good painting going on.
I am having some fine metamorphosis with painting. I’ve tried a great many things in my life, and there is always a point where I understand and accomplish to a certain level and then it gets boring and I turn from it, on to the next. I note that painting is a singular experience. I am staying with it, a lifetime, and it continues to open new doors. Amazing to me. And my increased facility is actually making the experience more inviting, not less.
I spent several hours again on Trevor’s portrait today. Very pleased with the results. I still can’t stay beyond a certain point
I’m painting Trevor looking very alive and happy. It’s a good painting. Wait til you see.
Trevor Paul Sparhawk
I used to be scared of experimenting. I’d think, What if I throw some blue in there? I’d been meticulously building in one direction and was afraid I’d irreparably spoil what I’d been working on. Now I’m all gung-ho doing, and it’s incredible freedom. Turns out nothing is sacred in that insight and challenge are more important than the illusion of success by repetition.
Painting, any art, has always been like a laboratory to me when I’m doing it best. Which is why I never could bear commercial art for long, beyond earning a living and learning something new, briefly. It’s all style in preference to substance.
[Yours] . . . is such a solid, valid observation. I’m going through exactly this with Trevor’s portrait, asking him about the things I don’t know, that I want his time on earth to be incredibly full. He’s maybe older in my portrait of him than an age he ever reached, maybe not. He had a beautiful little body as a child, and grown up. I’m working on his neck and collar bone, face, eyes, background. I was about five hours painting today, and it’s getting very good. I want no tension in his face, a laugh that’s pure joy in the presence of good company, abandoned to a near guffaw. It presents challenges to paint, several of which I have not dealt with before. And this memorializing, it extends a life I feel. That and all the lefts unsaid. A friend told me once of his best friend who’d committed suicide, Oh God! He would have loved it now! He would have loved this decade!! which seems so true of so many.
I think of that all the time.
Painted on Trevor’s portrait about four hours or so. I’m trying to get the expression just right, the mouth. I’ve gotten both eyes in very good shape, very pleased. More work on nose and beard. Teary of course, oh Lord. It’s impossible and wrong that he died, John. It’s so wrong.
I spent hours, all day, in the gallery working on Trevor’s portrait, and took some pictures, not sure if I got it right. Or if it’s actually finished. I’ve become involved in the side and backgrounds, lots of flowers and vines, I am always so desperately trying to give the child bouquets.
Well, it has not been an easy go but I’m at the finish, in the vicinity. I want him immortal, John. Then back fulsome to your portrait. I never fail to learn so much with any painting but more especially portraits, and I will be adding that to yours.
Well, despite poverty at every turn I am buoyed by the fine work on the painting of my only child and that I will make him immortal which he was destined for and this close of reaching on his own. My little boy.
I suppose by divine purpose the portrait of Trevor will be completed tomorrow, his birthday. I spent many hours today, and had gotten the left eye as good as the right, and the rest has fallen into place and there’s not much left to go.
It has been spurts of conversation and despair and hope.
Part 3 of 4 to be posted consecutively
[NOTE: A Google search yields no mention of Trevor Paul Sparhawk, nor can I find any record of his traffic fatality in NYC archives – although I may need to dig a bit deeper. If anyone reading this knew or knows of or has any information about Trevor, his life and/or death, PLEASE email me at firstname.lastname@example.org]