I’ve often wondered what it would be like. I wasn’t raised by wolves—wolves aren’t innately cruel—but suffice to say, my parents were ill educated and culturally challenged. Normal, far as I knew. Far from a priority, art was not even a concept in our home. A queen of blarney, my mother weaved elaborate tales and collected “ornaments.” Skilled with his hands, my jack-of-all-trades father hawked carvings while stationed in the Yukon with the RAF, identifying himself as a woodworker or carpenter. I think we all harbour an inner artist. Still, I was decidedly the family freak. Determined to honour my writing, to finally take it seriously, find discipline and seek inspiration, I’ve been reading biographies and watching documentaries, most recently C. Scott Willis’ The Woodmans, about a shining young photographer named Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 by jumping off a building. Interestingly, that’s right around the time I was living in New York, starting out as a musician. An artist. It was brutal. I got out, made my way back to the west coast. And in an aside, interesting, isn’t it, the similarity in our poses above, the choice of iconography, me with my acorns, Francesca with her birch bark.

Anyway, it seems Francesca was born to it. Art. Being an artist. And if I’d met her, would have been envious. Her parents George and Betty were visual artists who took their children to Europe every year, summering in Italy. They described museum excursions, giving Francesca and her brother Charles notebooks, instructing them to make their own observations, which also got the kids out of their hair. Things said about Francesca, slightly paraphrased: ‘Provocative by nature. Talented. Driven, ambitious. She came knowing, (to art school) she was a photographer. Precocious. Sophisticated concepts. Wore her skin inside out. Open sexuality. Liked fashion, being feminine, unlike her hippie-ish mother. Open with her needs. Had a boyfriend who didn’t treat her well. She was demanding. Fragile interior, which caused her to make beautiful pictures. (She experimented with video too.) Vulnerable. Fascinating, obviously. It’s risky, being an artist, said her father, still haunted. Francesca was always aloof, melancholy.’ She became despondent after career frustrations and a failed relationship. No one knew what to do about it I suppose. And people do keep such things secret. Depression. Its depths.

Did growing up in such a rareified atmosphere provide Francesca what she needed? I think she must have worried about being a failure, holding herself up in relief against the powerful personalities of family members, and desperate to compete, win, triumph, made the ultimate sacrifice. Took her life. Made her mark. Indelibly. Today she is revered among students, young aspiring artists, depicted and documented. Legendary. Is that how much being an artist means? Exacts? Was it worth it? Is it worth it, I wonder? And, or perhaps Francesca was simply, clinically depressed, mentally ill. Disturbed. No logic or reason, motive involved in other words.

I’m sure they did the best they could, my parents. Ditto the Woodmans, and though the film is largely about finding redemption though art, my question is, how do we become tough enough to be an artist, or whatever it is we’re meant to be? If we fail to learn critical skills as children, how can we possibly navigate society, survive in the wild? I worry about my boy. Aside from autism interventions, I’ve taught life skills and encouraged him to hone his talents. I think it’s important to be able to cook, clean, balance a checkbook, drive a car, swim, and protect oneself. Fight, if cornered. He ignores me. My concerns. He is a teenager. His game heroes may incite him to work out, bulk up at last, but his family has provided the weights, the boxing gear and all the room he needs to think, dream, imagine and aspire. Am I making things too easy? Did deprivation give me strength? Desire? Having to endure; did it provide me with the power to abide? A friend from a privileged background once told me he’d never known sorrow until thrown into a foreign prison for drug smuggling. He’d felt invincible, was a fool. After hanging out with a bevy of Beverly Hills brats, I learned how unhappy and confused most of them were, that money didn’t ensure smarts or resiliency. Abuse. Did it make me savvy? It turns some people into killers. I see no upside. Trauma causes severe emotional damage, hinders development. I long resented my folks for the time I had to spend recovering. Was it all a waste or did it provide, however perversely, an advantage?

And is that all that matters? Mere survival? Perhaps quality of life is primary, different than providing our children an idyll. We shield while working to equip them with sound judgment, reasoning ability and strength of character. Regardless, we all must play the proverbial hand we’re dealt. Poor Francesca. Poor me. No matter who, or what spawned us, ultimately, we must raise ourselves.

And I’m going to post this poem once more, as it is pertinent.

Island Boy

Is it cold enough for hot chocolate?
Yes. We’re baking cookies. Come and help.

The kid that insists on blueberry candy canes
would rather drive through virtual streets of San Francisco

or James Bond-jet pack
over snow drifts than join us in the kitchen.

He takes no heed of twilight until the sun
sets on his screen. He has heat. Love. Pockets

of pizza. All the bare necessities. He is beyond
baking, toy aprons or pretending

to wash the dishes, toddler hands lost
inside flock-lined rubber gloves.

Helmeted in his racing seat
before the steering wheel, our boy laughs

at vintage Looney Tunes, unaware
their blackface is racist, Porky Pig’s stuttering

politically incorrect. Where will he find ferocity
knowing nothing but canned aggression, Disney warfare?

Molokai, lost-in-time island, where he refused
snorkeling, to wet his head. He will jump

on a trampoline. Will not punch a bag.
Kick the can. Form a fist.

He will sink a 32-foot putt
but can he take a hit? No worries.

He’s happy biding island time. Happy
its moat foils the bears, bores, kindergarten foes.

6 thoughts on “RAISED BY ARTISTS

  1. Me likey. Have you read about Suzanne McCorkle? She was a great jazz vocalist, who threw herself out of a window one day. So many great albums, such a great voice, but somewhere inside her demons were stronger than she was. Your son is also happy his mom foils the bears, bores, and kindergarten foes.

  2. There is no perfect upbringing. We all have fears, deeps, vulnerabilities that surface sooner or later. How we deal with them is what matters, how far we push into them, how well we can keep one foot on solid ground. Some of this we learn and some is just dumb luck. Good parenting is part of the dumb luck 🙂

  3. I was raised in an art-less home as well, with tons of secrets (I’m still learning about some of them thirty years after leaving home). You can analyze the home environment of an artist until doomsday, but what you can never know (even about ourselves, I suspect) is the alchemy between that environment and whatever lurks inside the artist. It annoys me that these artists are celebrated as much for their deaths as their work, and that these deaths somehow legitimize the art. Being alive shouldn’t be counted against us, you know?

    Lovely poem, too. “He takes no heed of twilight until the sun sets on his screen” conjures a vivid image. I’ve seen my son do that as well.

    1. Indeed! So tedious, the tragic, starving artist whose work is only valued posthumously. I hope the notion goes by the wayside, the way that a lot of other outdated nonsense is.

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