Several things this year have caused me to look backwards in time.
Reconnecting with someone I knew decades ago. Seeing what local artists are up to at the beginning of their careers and thinking back 20 years to what I was doing.
Sometimes, it’s encountering an image of the kind of work I used to do.
Way… back… when.
How many times does anyone, apart from visiting an elderly friend, actually look through old photos or slides….? You know, the things that we hold up one at a time, and say, “wow, I remember this” or even, “I had forgotten this.”
One of the pleasure of this summer, has been having a young intern in the studio with me, a couple days a week. The main task involved scanning the hundreds of slides I’ve taken of paintings, drawings and prints…. dating back to 1968.
As painful as it may be to look at clumsy, early efforts; every now and then, I see something that makes me feel satisfied with my skills, and empathetic towards my younger self trying to figure out “what to paint.”
Nothing I was doing seemed substantial or weighty to me at the time, but yet now I look at them, and see the joy, the connection with the landscape or whatever the subject. I was looking at the world. My world.
Painting lots of still-lifes, small landscapes, people in my life, my daughter after she was born and in my painting studio much of the time. In a very direct way, I was painting or drawing my life. Much like capturing images in pixels today.
And each time I moved, as an itinerant academic wannabe, I needed to go out and paint the new place in order to try and find some connection to it, to find the qualities that close observation and rooting around could reveal.
It’s interesting that after I’ve settled somewhere for 20 years, I began the process of internalizing what I was seeing and re-imagine and inventing what came as a result. My work became more of a fiction that gained a life of its own. And in turn, I became much more intrigued to explore those worlds. The images could become metaphors for a life.
And now, as we capture even more images so easily, so casually, and store them away or fling them out onto the beach of the internet, will we have that same tug of nostalgia in coming upon them again? Indeed how will we come upon them again?
Probably not by holding them in our hands.
In a recent New York Times piece, nostalgia (which has become a field of study in its own right) has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.
Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future. And some research has shown that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.”
You can even find out where you are on the nostalgia scale….by doing the questionnaire here.
Nostalgia used to be considered a mental illness, an unhealthy preoccupation with the past. But maybe not so much anymore.
To me, it’s a pause in the constant rush towards the next task, a way to appreciate where I’ve come from, what brought me here and what I’ve experienced along the way. That’s a true body of work.