My Daughter, The Tortured Artist

If you’re this brilliant, you can smirk all you want.

Mabel turns 4 this week.  When she was first born, it did indeed seem like yesterday.  All parents say this, and it’s absolutely true.  I remember her; all slick-faced, her squirming little body swaddled up tight in a hospital blanket, screamingscreamingscreaming like a banshee burrito.  She was clearly pissed, and who could blame her?  To start out as a sparkly dream of life, flitting about the infinite cosmos, only to end up cold, wet, and naked in the burbs is pretty much the let down to end all let downs.

Like all newborns, Mabel was quick to pick up on the raw deal that is Life On The Outside.  When she wasn’t crying in horror at the loud noises, or the bright lights, or the expansive vacuum of the gaping unknown that surrounded her, or the ungodly gas, she was trying to just sleep it all away.  As her “other mother” I helped bring her to this cold and terrifying place, and to be quite honest, I felt like an asshole.  Not many parents say this, but not all parents are negative creeps  complex and deep like me.  It was my hope that with enough time, Christmases, and candy, Mabel’s existential horror would subside and she’d be okay.  At least until puberty, when it would doubtlessly occur to her that she is surrounded by assholes, at which point she’d be bound to turn on the assholes who brought her here, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

To look at Mabel today, as she’s rounding her third lap around the sun and heading into her fourth, you might think that she is indeed okay.  She bounds out of bed every morning, puts on her princess tiara, and hits the ground dancing.  She fills our home with laughter and made-up songs.  But the artwork hanging from the refrigerator tells a different story: a sparkly dream of life turned waking nightmare of darkness and anguish, of agony and madness.  The gallery that follows is not for the Pollyanna or the faint at heart.  They represent the painful struggles of a living creature coming to terms with the harsh terrain of this life and its absurdities, uncertainties, and crushing futilities.  Indeed, my preschooler is a tortured artist.

“Everybody Loves The Sunshine”

Many children Mabel’s age generally depict the sun as a grinning ball of benevolence, extending its warm rays in an inviting embrace to all living things.   Mabel prefers to leave such quainteries to the Kindercare set.  The sun that hangs on her artistic horizon is tortured by the beneficence with which it has been saddled, pierced to the core with its own rays like a faceless Saint Sebastian.  The life teeming on this planet is born of a sun that burns itself, a self-immolating martyr in the sky, and as such, doomed to ultimately flicker out to oblivion.  There is no SPF strong enough to protect you from Everybody Loves The Sunshine.

“The Snowy Day”

This postmodern pastiche takes to task the charming lies purveyed by the preschool literary canon.   In Mabel’s hands, Ezra John Keats’ adorable winter wonderland is revealed to be a ravenous, inescapable arctic creature, intent on eating us all from the inside, out: Keats’ protagonist stands in stunned paralysis as he is ferociously consumed by a blizzard of freezing despair, never to return.  (Full disclosure: I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.  I believe “The Snowy Day” may very well be Mabel’s way of telling Mama that she understands.  And that the snow monster is probably going to eat Mama’s face.)

“Rockytop”: 02-12 and 02-13

“Rockytop” is Mabel’s sly take on the Charles Kettering aphorism “Where there is an open mind there will always be a frontier.”  It represents her maiden voyage into both sculpture and social commentary.  Rockytop sits smugly within a kingdom built of mental blocks identical to the one crowning his head.  The medium Mabel has chosen here—”magic” synthetic rocks—grow with the passage of time.  The two photos above (taken within 24 hours of one another) illustrate the ongoing self-imprisonment of the clearly ultra-conservative, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, Jew-hating, elitist fat-cat Rockytop.  We are considering this piece as a possible anonymous donation to the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University.

“Clowny Clown Clown”

Having come to recognize my daughter as the tortured artist she is, I began to see her working through her existential issues in almost everything she did.  Gradually, it became clear that Mabel was making inroads into performance art.  Performance art is a “you just had to be there” medium, but I’ll do my level best to convey the brilliance that is “Clowny Clown Clown.”

The Setting: The Colonial Café, a Chicagoland ice cream shop franchise.

The Players: Mabel, her moms, and a Hateful Clown of the Emmett Kelly tradition.

 Mabel is seated in the booth across from me and next to Kate, a sundae menu on the table.  Mabel looks past my shoulder, her eyes widening in apprehension.  I turn to follow her gaze and see a Hateful Clown in the banquet room, making balloon animals for terrified children.  “The party’s over there,” Mabel says, gesturing as if to push the banquet room into the Atlantic Ocean, “I don’t want that guy over here.”  Despite several reassurances, Mabel remains wide-eyed and sullen.  She somehow makes herself smaller, nestling into Kate’s shadow.  After the Hateful Clown is gone and the danger passes, Mabel orders the Colonial Clown Sundae.  And eats it.

This astonishing piece instinctively echoes Crispin Glover’s obscure 1989 masterwork “Clowny Clown Clown” in which a chance encounter with a clown ends in violence.  With their grotesque features, clowns embody disfigurement and by extension, loss of identity.   Violence, then, seems like the only natural (and just)conclusion to any confrontation with a clown.  Mabel sublimates this violence into the eating of a delicious desert: a clown in effigy.  “I ate the clown,” she said later, laughing.

A lot of media attention has been focused on (alleged) child prodigies and their (alleged) artistic endeavors.    The appeal of their “work” lies in the mirage of maturity displayed in the technique behind their “creations.”  Children who paint like adults are the darlings of the golly-gee Good Morning America crowd whose awe can be just as easily won by dogs trained to say “I love you.”    And when it comes to the issuance of meaningful statements, there is little difference between the two.  Mabel’s work is clearly that of a child… a child for whom the lights will always be too bright, the sounds–too loud, the gaping unknown–ever present, the gas–ungodly in the theological sense of the word.  As the asshole who helped bring her here, the least I can do is to keep fighting that face-eating snow monster long enough to be around to celebrate her 21st birthday.

I owe that kid a drink.

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One Response to “My Daughter, The Tortured Artist”

  1. Palidium Says:

    If your daughter wants to become a great artist, let people give her a hard time about it, just make sure she doesn’t give up. It makes you more devoted. It makes you look at things in a fucked up way. And it makes you want to express yourself the best you can. You need to lose your mind, but keep your heart and soul.

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