IRL (In Real Life)

IRL (In Real Life)

One of the first gifts I received from my grandson, CJ, was his framed eighth grade self-portrait. He filled the center of a twelve by sixteen inch paper canvas with his life-size face, neck and shoulders, probably as instructed by his teacher. The background is a collage of his own black & white photos, trees and fences, angled every which way. The drawing portrays what he looked like at thirteen years old. 

Except he painted himself cobalt blue. 

This painting hangs from a hook on the wall-to-wall bookcase in my living room. CJ is fair-skinned with reddish-blonde hair. I’ve never asked him why he painted himself cobalt blue. As far as I know, he wasn’t imitating Picasso’s blue period. No one knew about the blue people of Kentucky until the 2019 publication “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.” After hearing so many ads for Blue Man Group on TV, CJ expressed interest in seeing them live on stage. But it was an interest, not an obsession.

Cobalt blue, used for centuries by the Chinese for their blue and white pottery, is the epitome of coolness; dark, deep, and mysterious. It’s the color of the evening sky in winter, clear twilight boosted by the unseen sun from below the horizon. CJ’s not the only creative to fancy cobalt. J. M. W. Turner, Renoir, Claude Monet, and van Gogh all favored its compatibility with other colors. Remember Maxfield Parrish’s famous Daybreak? He used cobalt blue mixtures for the skyscape. 

Public opinion polls show blue as the favorite color of both men and women. And yet, a case of the blues refers to feelings of sadness. My parents used the term, the blues, to announce their alcoholic hangovers. 

Thanks to old African American traditions, the blues generally signify sadness without despair. Pastor Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago preaches about a blue note faith, one that’s rooted in letting dark times exist side-by-side with hope. Moss teaches his congregation to let these dark moody blues move around them while they practice dancing in the dark. This practice keeps the blues from turning to hopelessness and death by despair.

For the past ten years CJ’s self-portrait has hung where I see it everyday. He’s melded into my unconscious seeing. He looks the same to me. But as I write this and inspect him further, I see the cobalt blue has faded to dark teal. Teal is a modern color, one not seen in art before the twentieth century. It has no meaning really, except a lot of European TV shows use teal interiors and costumes. It makes the actors look better. 

In real life, CJ’s hair has turned brown, but I still think of him as reddish blonde, just as his self-portrait will always be cobalt blue. We don’t see each other often in these isolating covid days. He’s in those perilous twenties where the blues start taking root.

I hope he’s dancing in the dark.

Ozzy the Arhat by Regan Burke


Do the dead always visit us in the morning? I wake up listening for the click-clacking tap-dancing, rat-a-tat across my hardened floors. Ozzy had well-padded soles, wide feet and solid toenails meant to root out rats and badgers from their earthen dens. No Scottie-level potted plants ever made it past the first day, neither inside nor on my third-floor balcony. His diggers instinctively, fanatically worked their way into the soil to get to something, anything that proved his worth, duty done. Satisfied with nothing more than a dirty nose and paws, he gave me a message: don’t worry, I’ll protect you from any danger, man or beast.

At the Takashi Murakami exhibit in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I wondered aloud to my 20-year-old grandson, CJ Kelly, why the artist painted so many colorful frogs at the feet of the arhats. CJ mindfully revealed those are the arhats’ toenails, not frogs. Ah, toenails. Murakami’s arhats are Buddhist spirits who hesitate between two worlds, the physical and the not, to comfort suffering earthly beings. His bulbous toenails are a tribute to the noble path of those enlightened ones whose feet are moving them through their death and decay. The parade of toenails is Murakami’s day-glo gratitude for arhats who stop along the way to ease our sorrows.

Murakami called his Chicago exhibit, The Octopus Eats His Own Leg, based on an ancient Japanese adage that an octopus eats its own decrepit limb to save itself from death rot. A new leg grows back, the octopus is healed and lives a long and healthy life.

In the exhibit, the 33-foot-long painting, 100 Arhats, has 1,000 intricately painted toenails. I misinterpreted the toe protectors, thought they were frogs. After all, how could toenails mean so much to anyone but me? I harbor an unspoken repulsion of human toenails. Summer sandals expose these keratin plates sitting atop ugly toes that hardly ever match each other—some curled under, some straight, some turned outward, some inward—all on the same foot.  Toenails are often fungus-rotted discolored thick globs that women hide with colorful paint instead of covering with cool shoes. God clearly missed the boat in his design of the human toe apparatus.

But Ozzy’s coal-black, perfectly formed, hardy toenails witchy-curled out of his all-business paws, ever-ready for the hunt, the prowl. At rest, his legs stretched out before him showing off his toenails as if he’d just had a pedicure.

His body turned in on him overnight. Like the octopus, his system ate up his dying kidneys and liver but left a beleaguered heart that had to be put to rest. I now have my own arhat who will walk me through the sound of silent, unseen toenails until the hard margins at the edges of grief fade into the path.

Takashi Murakami in front of his epic work “The 500 Arhats.” (Courtesy MCA Chicago)


Take My Breath Away: Love of Art

Take My Breath Away: Love of Art

Neatly arranged parchment sleeves hid small prints that slipped out and overwhelmed me like guests at a surprise party. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art responded to my 7th grade request by sending a thick envelope with sacred works by Titian, Bosch, Jacometto, Raphael, Durer and Fra Angelico. As I gingerly sifted through this unexpected bounty, I gasped with awe and gratitude-grateful that God had given me such a gift and awe for beauty I had never before known.

IMG_1076 (1)Mother Ann Cleary at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in suburban Chicago set the class to writing a description of a classic painting including information about the artist and personal impressions of the artwork. In my 1959 mailing to the Met I simply re-stated the assignment and asked for help. I suppose the name of my school prompted the curator at the other end of my letter to choose representations of New Testament stories. That was the year I won the all-school prize for best writing.

After this intoxicating initiation into the eye-popping wonders of art I thirsted for more. I read the back section of Time Magazine every week for news on the art world and scoured the library for books on lives of the artists. I was prohibited from hanging anything on the rented walls of my bedroom so I made square cardboard boxes and pasted works of art on each side. I strung-up the art boxes from the overhead light, curtain rods, door hinges – any place where I could gaze at my magazine-clipped reproductions.

My first art purchase was a print of Picasso’s Boy with Pipe. It shared wall space with art posters from places I visited – a Roger Brown from the 1985 Navy Pier Art Expo, a Toulouse Lautrec from an Art Institute exhibition. In the 1990’s my job required frequent travel around the US and overseas. To protect myself from on-the-road temptations I stole free time and scurried through backstreet art galleries and street markets. I brought home img_0678suitcase-compatible originals such as a small clay maquette of an Easter Island head by Oslo artist Marian Heyerdahl, Thor’s daughter. In 1997 I signed on to EBay. Within hours I was hooked on outsider folk art, bidding on heart-stopping works like a multi-colored turtle made from a hubcap.

Love of art freed me from the inclination to decorate my home for the approval of
others. In my petite apartment the walls are crammed with oils, pastels, watercolors, shadow boxes, metal sculptures, retablos and ceramic tiles. There is so little unadorned wall space that I string up paintings from the curtain rods in my wall-to-wall windows. An oil of Johnny Depp as the Madhatter by Chicago artist Anne Brandt blocks the curiosity of neighboring eyes.

George Carlin once said “life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by those moments that take our breath away.” By that standard I surpassed my quota long ago.