Helena Writes #22: On earning one's face in the world

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
Date Posted:
5/6/2020

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

Helena’s 22nd post is all about her journey to finally join Facebook. Enjoy!

My father’s daughter

I am a tactile person. I can fix things. I daresay I have some grasp of physics, intuitively. I grew up in the penumbra of my father, who was a physicist and an engineer, both a student and teacher of radio. He could fix anything. If he had lived into the time of personal computers, he would have been at home, finding his way into the new dimensions it has opened. I remember his excitement when NASA had a computer that took up a whole room. 

My father was a scientist. But he was also tactile. I attribute my love of problem solving, three dimensionally and two dimensionally, to him. Yes, like him, I can fix things, as long as I can understand its moving parts.

My father also had art in his body, in his hands. He was an industrial designer, and a draftsman. I am sure that, along with his grasp of the physical universe, even electricity, in the understandable harnessing of energy using physical parts, he understood art. I know he understood that I made art. I remember his face when he watched me draw. And I feel sure I inherited my instinct for it from my father.

I can solve the moving parts of the Picture Plane. I am a Picture Plane painter, one who was schooled to know that the parameters, the form of a painting, is wholly dependent on its first four lines—its edges. The picture plane. 

From Giotto’s paintings of the divine to the great flowering of picture plane painting in Europe and the colonies, portraits and domestic scenes to hang on walls of the places people lived, picture plane painting declared a new universe of art. This was a universe to view not through the great ceilings and walls of palaces and cathedrals, but through those first four lines, the edges of the canvas, to become a window into a world of balance, color, tone, line, and movement. If those elements were resolved, painted to a place that one more mark would undo, a world would be created. Such a world is a perpetual-motion machine; its design, its color, shapes, lines, all of its elements make a universe that moves like a solar system. A wholeness. A thing that exists apart from the artist who painted it, and will remain alive long after the painter’s brushes are still. A world that lasts, like a great novel, or poem, or a memoir.

My father was an abstract thinker. Without the benefit of growing up with video games and computers, he would have negotiated the brilliance of unseen connections, the invisible moving parts, conductors and synapses of higher engineering.

Not me. The world of the seen, those moving parts, are the things I’m sure of.

Facebook

I had promised myself I would “get on” Facebook. Why? To show my paintings, now that the world of galleries has gone the way of small stores, butchers, grocers, drug stores, all the institutions I grew up with. Art is now Sotheby’s. Zillion-dollar ventures. Or it is street fairs and studio sales, country galleries, co-op galleries. And, even before the present time of affliction, a hard sell. How low could one’s prices be for a painting I’d worked four years on? Or even a painting I’d done in an afternoon? So a gallery and deserved compensation stopped being my consideration. I accepted that I have a life’s work, and until further notice, it lives in my studio.

But, I thought, Facebook would be a way to offer it up to the world. 

So challenged am I by that abstract world with its unseen patterns of pathways and parts—technology—that I put it off for years. Yet I held to it as a goal, a hopeful thought. One day I would deliver my work out of my studio into, my longing told me, the awareness of others beyond my small circle of friends and family.

With the coronavirus, the internal push to be connected with the world superseded even my need to show my paintings. I couldn’t duck it for another day, after the first week of sheltering. So I took my son’s advice, Googled Facebook, and began the process.

It’s true I now have three profiles on Facebook. A kind friend and collaborator on the publication of my book, Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn, set  oneup for me as I sat next to her in the fetal position. I never used it. People wished me happy birthday and I never thanked them. I didn’t know. On that page, my face does not appear. A second profile exists, but I know not how. There it is, with photos of my mural panels where my face should be.

It is six or so weeks ago that I entered clicking and sliding into the maze of Facebook. I have managed to set up that third profile. When it asked for my face, I was blank. My page sat that way, blank of face, until about a week ago when I clicked willy-nilly on something punctuated with many of my faces, my column of the Good God knows what—is it my story? Is it my private news feed? Is it my timeline? I’ve yet to understand.

During one fact-finding mission of bumpings-around on Facebook, I pressed something that posted my painting of a conch shell, part of a series of 10 conch shells, into the black outline meant for my face. So one site of the three identifying as those of Helena Clare Pittman and Helena Pittman (and there is another Helena Pittman, someone else entirely, whose face is shown) now has me personified as a shell.

There are many of my faces on Facebook now, but not in the designated icons for them. Those are empty. Yes, three Facebook profiles with their particular places for faces—lie without faces.

Till We Have Faces

C. S. Lewis, the author of the books of Narnia and other brilliant treatises on the world, wrote a book, more obscure than the Narnia series, entitled, Till We Have Faces. I remember it being hard to read. But what remains with me after all these years is this: It is not a given that we will have faces. We have noses, mouths, eyes, yes. But few of us have earned faces. That takes years of forging the character to configure a face.

That, it finally dawned on me, was what Lewis, a serious participant in this life, was saying. A face, A Face, isn’t guaranteed. Significantly, Lewis was part of a writers group called The Inklings which worked out of Oxford, and included Tolkien and Charles Williams, also myth weavers—the nature of Life their subject matter.

Beautiful people 

There are beautiful people, like my sister, like Eleanor Roosevelt, who were born with faces. John Prine, one of our great losses to this pandemic, had a face. Justin Trudeau has a face—compassion, intelligence, humanity shining through its beauty. My kitties have faces. Oliver—very expressive, focused. Sebastian—diffused, pure love.

There was a cat I knew who had six toes. He fathered strays in the neighborhood I lived in on Long Island. He had a face. His face was so intense, he resembled a man. A cat with a man’s face. My friend Linda was alive then and lived on the street two backyards across from mine. A potter who was stricken with MS, Linda had a face too, with a Cheshire Cat grin. She fed the six toed man-cat. I shooed him. Linda’s pottery was the best I have ever known, beside some of the ancient Japanese pottery I once saw in the glass cases at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I could hold Linda’s pieces in my two hands and feel the holiness that lived in Linda. 

Linda was not soft. She was tough, from Louisiana, a steel magnolia. Southern plantation roots in her order-giving to the many people who worked for her or helped her—and, at times, to me. That took patience to bear with, and sometimes time away from her. I stayed with her for thirteen years, still teaching on Long Island after I’d moved up here to my woods.

Linda was a gardener, with a ten-foot by four-foot piece of suburban earth that was like her pottery. But when MS required more heft than she had, she hired Tony, a man from Antigua, who had a face, too, one that was so forbidding I never saw him smile. Tony was strong, and, at least around Linda, angry. Linda believed in paying people well; maybe that was what allowed a man with so much dignity, even royalty, to work for her. Her garden had lilies that were so beautiful and rare it made her place an oasis, another world. And she was a fierce pruner. One day she had asked Tony, in the way she did ask, to dig up a good, heavy armload of her lilies, and put them aside for me to take to my garden upstate. I put them near my car, so that I would not forget them in the morning. I am only the merest willy-nilly gardener. The garbage truck picked them up before it was time for me to go. Awkward, to say the least, it was two months before I stayed with her again. 

Tony did not suffer Linda’s edicts gladly. His face was a mask of ill-concealed rage. But Linda loved Tony. Giving orders was just her way, her genetic memory. I doubt she knew she gave them. Linda stashed money everywhere. She never lacked, though it was years of her illness since she had taught pottery at University. The two of us found her glass piggy bank smashed on her patio slates, the years of change put by undisturbed where they had landed. Tony. They never spoke about it. He worked for her until she died. I wonder if he suspected how much she loved him. He may have. They were two of a kind. He came back year after year. I think now that Tony loved her too, maybe as much as I did. Yes, Tony had a face, but I never glimpsed who he was. But I think Linda and Tony knew each other intuitively.

My sister was fierce, too. She looked into the face of animal suffering—in the streets, in the laboratories, behind closed doors, in the cargo holds of airplanes, in leg hold traps, and she fought and in some cases changed the law. Her face was there at 10, when she walked out of a movie theater at the whipping of a horse, walked home, leaving my parents and me to watch the rest of Fury, none of us ever to forget her leaving.

My sister never understood the startling beauty of her face in this world of superficialities, until she met the man who loved her for the rest of her life, my brother-in-law, Michael, who gave me this house.

Six Toes, the man-faced cat, lost that face and became pure cat, soft and puzzled when he saw me at Linda’s place. We’d split the cost of neutering and Linda had taken him in. I loved him by then, and stroked him and cooed to him. He’d close his eyes with pleasure, but open them, glance sideways, remembering, I feel sure, the face of the woman who used to shoo him from her backyard with a broom.

*

I hope I have begun to have a face now. I’m not sure, judging from the many duplicates of one image of it, now stacked in rows on Facebook. Others would have to judge whether I’ve earned a face yet or not.

But this I am clear about: I have not earned the skills yet, not made the synapse connections, not developed the intuitive physics, to know what the heck I am doing on Facebook, or if I will ever know how to display my paintings. I will keep logging the time and trusting that someday I’ll learn. But it is lovely to have connected with former neighbors and old acquaintances, who have become friends. And I one day, I pray, that empty icon will be filled.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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