On Material

lipsThe nearby paddy fields deepened into an evening glow and I became newly aware I was walking in Bali with an old friend by a beautiful beach. I probably couldn’t be happier. So this is it, I thought. My happiness peak. This is as good as it gets. And I have no end in sight, no plans to leave.

I kicked some gravel of my own and bit a hangnail off my thumb. The wick of pain made me feel focused and calm again, like if this really was my happiness peak it wasn’t too bad. And who ever heard about complaining in Bali? I had nothing to worry about. There was no way anyone could worry about anything out here. There was no way I could complain.

Yan looked up at the sky, which had started to grow over with clouds. “Now the whole problem is my inner life,” she said. “Which is supposed to be so crazy and hectic and full of paralyzing pain but also the meaningful insight that produces great art, right? But it’s basically zilch. I mean nada. Here I am, painting, but I got nothing. And I better have something to say if I’m going to devote my whole life to trying to say it, right?”

“I’m sure you have something to say,” I said.

“Not like people who have years of childhood abuse under war-torn regimes afflicted with drought and food shortages and hostage crises.”


“Those people are stuffed full of material,” Yan nearly shouted. “They probably paint paintings and write poems and sing songs about their real life pain and suffering in their sleep. I’m telling you, those kinds of people are so lucky because they’re chock full of all this profound insight and that’s a serious advantage. But what do I have? Basically zero. I’ve got nothing—no abuse, no dictators, no environmental disaster that sent me foraging for food in a way that would later mirror the plight of my torn-up psychological landscape.”

“Do psychologies even have landscapes?” I asked.

“See—that’s what I mean! I can’t even talk about this straight. It’s just—zilcho. I sit down and stare at a flower or a picture of a withered hand or I do this whole abstraction of all these concentric circles and lines overlapping and I guess on some level I’m thinking, well, maybe somehow somewhere someone will see something in this and then it’ll be worth it. And sometimes even I see something. But it’s never something great. And that’s down to the fact that things have been so damn normal for me. It’s annoying.”

“That’s great,” I said. “I bet you anything most people would kill to be able to look at their lives and say, well, so far so good. Things have been really normal. Here’s a painting of a flower.”

“All right, so let them rule the world and run for office and do all the things that need to get done. Let them do the doing. But those people—I guarantee it Sam—those people are not the great painters. To be a great painter you better be a crazy, hypoglycemic, obsessive compulsive member of a rebel army sketching bombed out hillsides from your childhood memories.”

“Holy crap.”

“It’s true. Think about it. And here I am, little miss normal all the time with no big bones to pick and nothing too wrong in the world, a family that loves me—even family living in a beautiful place like this so I’m not even a real expat. I’m just kind of home, in a weird way, yadda yadda, just sitting in front of my canvas. It’s no wonder nothing has happened, no gallery has picked me up, zilch. Bing. Nada. Flat lined. Because what do I know about malnutrition and the scourge of AIDS?’

“Yan, I mean,” I was kind of laughing by this point. Yan was such a strange little bird, all ninety pounds of her. The fringe of her bob had started to earnestly stick to her earnest forehead. “Do you want to do some kind of public health series?” I asked. “Is that your plan?”

“I couldn’t do a public health series if you put a gun to my head and said—woman, paint a public health series. Like whatever is on the news, fine. But it never hits me personally. So I can’t paint it.”

“I really doubt that’s true,” I said, trying for the straightest of all possible faces. “No one gives up a perfectly promising career in Chinese character memorization to paint and paint nothing when a very good scourge of AIDS series could soon be upon her.”

“What’s the difference between a devastating still-life and something you’d just find on your dentist’s wall?” Yan asked.


“Material, Sam. You have to have material. Some reason for painting, some total anguish, some question you’re working out. You have to have experienced something to say with this kind of urgency that even if your whole subject for the rest of your life is just a bowl of oranges under a snowy windowpane everyone could look at it and know—yeah, this person has something to say. This person is for real. This really came from somewhere. This is some serious material.”