Dad

This is my Dad. Only four of my collaborators knew this: some suspected/intuited it, and to the rest of them he was just an image of a man with a hat and a backpack, a beard and a smile. The flowers in his Tilley hat form a ring around the Red Bull girls. I wanted them to respond to the image, and respond to ME, so I concealed that truth. This was the only way to keep the experience authentic, to show him my life and my world: the people closest to me, and the world that I know in which these sort of concepts are normalized: sexuality, madness, absurdity, humour, emotion, spirit, intellect, altered consciousness, beauty and personal mythology.

There were several years where Dad and I barely spoke to each other, and when we did it was always tense and awful. We fought, I was defensive, he couldn’t give me a hug, or look me in the eye; we never said I love you. He was disappointed in me, and I gave him every reason to be concerned. Things have improved dramatically, but how can I get past this shared history that affected our whole family negatively and continues to affect my relationships? When we are apart, I think nothing but loving and kind thoughts of him, and miss him terribly, but when we are together, we often regress into our former defensive roles. Last summer we walked a pilgrimage together with my boyfriend. Six weeks, 900 kilometers all on foot, living, breathing, eating together, sleeping in bunk beds, never a moment apart. I wanted to prove that I was mature enough to handle it, but I still lost my patience with him entirely multiple times, and I ruined moments, even days, with impatience, surliness and ridicule. Just like a teenager again, just like my early twenties, (why can’t I grow out of this?!?!) True, these were trying circumstances, but it is times of hardship that provide the true test of my resolve and maturity. I hurt him, again and again. Still, he has forgiven me, and even wants to travel together again! Backpack and a smile. Boots. Unconditional love. He is the bigger person; he still loves me.

This is about love, this is about forgiveness. It is a process of finding my way to forgiving myself, if Dad can forgive me, then so can I. Don’t we all have things that we have done in our past that we wish that we could undo? Don’t we all wish that there were entire periods of our lives that we could relive and do it better, without hurting anyone? Swallow one bitchy comment, and the whole camping trip is saved! Instead, I have to deal with the fact that there are giant swaths of time in my life that I think back upon only with shame, regret and embarrassment. I had nothing to be angry about, really. That pointlessness is what makes it so painful.

In one single day on this pilgrimage I saw my father in greater dimensionality than ever before. He was once a little boy, once a lonely teenager; he has the needs and thoughts of a man. He will be old someday. All this, in addition to just being my Dad and (the man formerly known as) the Russell von Koch, Division Chief of Recreation, Moab Field Office, Bureau of Land Management, imagine that! I have seen him age over the three decades of my life, but I have not see him in his full complexity. And he doesn’t see me in mine. In these drawings, I felt the need to take him out, to protect him, to cover his eyes so that he doesn’t see the sexuality, the absurdity, the vulgarity, the vulnerability and the honesty that is part and parcel of any artistic endeavor. I need him to see who I am, just as I need to know who he is: in totality.

I sent this image of Dad to artists who shaped me into the artist that I am today: the members of the Artificial Art Institute (my painting crew from the University of Utah, all artists STILL today!) my best friends from Grad School, my favorite Professor, artists that I met at residencies, an artist I met here in Bloomsburg, former students, and my brother and sister. I am who I am because of these people. These are artists whose talents I admire and envy, who have influenced me profoundly. We mailed our drawing back and forth, until it was done. Some I switched around, introducing beloved friends to each other. As I made my way back into serious drawing, I found myself wondering what kind of work I would make. I have identified myself as a performance artist, a sculptor, an eco-artist, and although I draw every day, I have never exhibited my drawings before. I don’t think that I have a strong style the way that my collaborators do. I am kind of a chameleon, fighting not to make their work as I narrowly view it to be, but wanting to play along within their aesthetic and conceptual modalities. As the drawings developed, what became remarkable was not how they differed from each other, but what uncanny similarities emerged, including strange recurrences of skulls, phalluses, rainbows, the birds and bees! I reached back into my memories of each person to find the right imagery, researching them through the images that I had of them, and creeping about on the Internet, and stream of consciousness writing to tap back into very particular times of my life, when I really regret my appalling behavior. These drawings have allowed me to re-examine the circumstances and see my past from a new perspective, and create new space for self-knowledge and improvement.

It has been an amazing process of self-discovery: a release of control and ego, the most serious/frivolous game/masterpiece. The ultimate irony is that by externalizing the process through collaboration, I ended up making the most personal and honest work that I have ever made. It’s as self-indulgent and self-critical and revelatory as any artwork I could ever hope to make. I feel liberated for having made it, and am very honored to share it.  

Photo Credit: Amber O' Donnell