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I have been a writer for many years, but when my parents died I began painting. The speed with which we lost them – my mother in October, 2015, and my father six weeks later, in early December – left me reeling. Although I never stopped writing, my efforts were stenographic; getting words down was the extent of my ambition, and I found little joy in rhythm or metaphor or theme. I tapped letters onto a screen or jotted them down with a pencil on paper, but my sentences were perfunctory and graceless.


This version of writing was less than ideal, primarily because there was energy in my body that required expression.  My partner, an artist, invited me to her studio and set me up with a big, elevated table and art supplies. “Make something,” she said. 


I started wrapping lengths of beautiful thread around fallen branches, building small, broken, half-mended creatures. Weeks later, when I ran out of branches, on a day when I felt a little bit brave, I started brushing water and ink onto clayboard. To me these were maps of the ocean, where my parents’ ashes were scattered. I thought of the Atlantic as “the place they live now, “ and painted blues and greens exclusively for many months. Most of the paintings were abstractions, but occasionally I scratched the outline of a squid or a fish into the substrate. I was creating a world for my parents, a home. I was trying to find ways to communicate the magnitude of the loss.


In the studio, time collapsed, anxiety disappeared, grief abated. All that mattered was the physicality of standing at a table, watching one color bleed into another. Using ink felt appropriate – my mother had wanted to be a writer, my father painted as a hobby. Both were master letter writers. Diluting ink in water felt significant, too, as the beaches of the Jersey shore had been our childhood home away from home. 


I had virtually no understanding of the principles of art, no talent, no objective. All I knew was that my work in the studio engaged me when nothing else did. Painting became my second art.


There is tremendous freedom and comfort in not being expected to do something “right.” I feel none of the pressures of artistic convention, am largely ignorant of formal principles, can relax into the work and proceed with abandon. That is not to say my studio time is frivolous, for although there are elements of play, I think of it as work in that it is intentional and wholly engaging. 


There is satisfaction in abstraction, in allowing the materials to tell stories that I cannot tell with words. There is pleasure in creating marks that are not words but are language, and in observing the chemistry of paint and water, temperature and gravity. There is control and absence of control, and confronting that dichotomy is cathartic. When I scratch the surface – when I use tools to actually cut the clayboard – it is partially metaphoric; I am scratching the surface of emotion, of the body, trying to release something that has no other sufficient release. And finally, there is the discipline of patience – I literally watch paint dry. 


In my second art, if I choose to alter a painting, I have to say goodbye to what is in front of me. In this respect, it is dramatically different from writing. Writing is retrievable; I can save every draft of every sentence if I choose. Nothing gets lost.


Once I re-touch a painting, however, there is no way to get it back. That is a complicated lesson that I need to relearn every day for what it teaches me about risk, what it teaches me about longing, and what it teaches me about the irrevocable. There is no way to get it back.

Below the Surface: The Art of Donna Steiner (video)

("Below the Surface" video courtesy of The Wild Word literary journal, Artist-in-Residence feature, 2017. "Second Art" statement was also published there, although in substantially different form.)

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