Taking It Lightly

This Artist Has Learned to Create Spaces in the Midst of Absurdity

by Andree Thompson

Having come from Cleveland of Hungarian, Jewish and Catholic (converted-to-Jewish in order to marry) descent, as an artist I have had an inevitable battle with "schmaltz," known more acceptably as romantic art. While light can be seen in many ways, for me it is primarily a romantic commodity, imbued with spiritual, poetic and mysterious layers of meaning. Now as I enter the twilight of my life, this kind of poetic meaning seems far more important than some of that stuff from the neck up.

When I am free-associating with the word "light," two directions come to my mind. The first and more obvious is the profound magic and importance of light to a visual artist. For me the essence of the spiritual and mysterious excitement that keeps us addicted to artmaking and seeing, that keeps us searching for that elusive truth, has its core in light. It enable us to "see", and by definition visual artists have a love relationship with lightful seeing. I am also aware that as child I used visual "delights" as an escape.

The second direction that free associating takes me is toward psychological lightness and a sense of the absurd which I learned from my former husband, now close friend and father of my children, E.R. Thompson. I learned that humor, another form of lightness, is also a valuable survival mechanism.

When the term "dysfunctional" first became popular, we all felt our own families were the most dysfunctional of all. And so did I. Hungarians revel in drama. My family provided me with important educational experiences: alcoholism, divorce, all sorts of abuse, schizophrenia, several suicides (a popular Hungarian custom) and Holocaust survival. All this was accompanied by wonderful Hungarian music and dancing (my mother was a pianist), and lots of homemade palinka, a 90-proof brandy. Instead of therapy and confrontation, addiction and denial were used and often still are used as survival mechanisms. Unaware of how common this all was, I considered us freaks of the neighborhood. When I later taught children in the Other America, inner city urban children who live in war zones, some of whom are refugees from war-torn countries, with stories far more traumatic than mine, I didn't feel quite so "special."

Nevertheless, out of my own background came memorable stories with which I have entertained many a therapist over the years. One of my favorites is the time my mother shot her boyfriend in the balls. She was allowed one phone call from jail, which she made to her mother, my grandmother, who promptly dropped dead. My sister and I arrived shortly after to find my dead grandmother with her living bird flying above her head. It goes on from there, but the point is that I can now tell these stories almost glibly, with a sense of the absurd. Of course, I have the distance of time and lots of therapy. But there was a time, before ERT, when news from home, or telling and remembering, left me deeply depressed, humiliated and feeling helpless. My face and walk reflected the pain and angst (also popular with Hungarians) of all the tragic dysfunctionalities I inherited and of which I felt I was victim.

In many ways I was naive in spite of my past life experiences. When Roger and I married, it took me several months, even years, to detect the twinkle in his eye when he read the morning paper aloud, and there was my mother's name in some ridiculous story about Cleveland that he had just invented. When I got a letter from my mother telling how her fat alcoholic tree-surgeon boyfriend tried to run her down with their car as she ran away from him and other such tragic episodes, I was saddened once again by the tragedy of her lost talents and self-destructive addiction. Then Roger read the same letter, began smiling,and finally laughing out loud. I was furious, then curious. He apologized for being insensitive, yet he couldn't help visualizing the absurdity of two fat drunks, one being chased by the other, neither sober enough to drive or run in a straight line, etc. He would create a Far Side/Bizarro/Fellini-esque scene that made me appreciate the absurdity without degrading the really sad truth.

In discussing this article with me, a friend related his own story of sitting around the bedside of his dying mother with all his siblings. At one point a brother leaned forward to hear what his mother was whispering. When he sat up, he reported, "She said she always loved me the best!"

It is an irony of life that as I work on this essay we are recovering from yet another young family suicide. I am watching how much we all need light spaces in the midst of confusing tragedy; how embarrassed we are for laughing at some small quip or absurdity, and yet how desperately we all need something to help balance the weight of pain and loss. The meanings we have given our lives are never so challenged as in the face of death.

Probably because of early experiences, including death, much of my life's artwork has been an expression of an interest in the nature of survival, why and how healthy survival occurs, individually and communally. I have come to believe that a major challenge in the survival process is to expose, confront and befriend our greatest fears. Once they are conscious and visible, we have the opportunity to give them our most creative and knowledgeable attention, foundations of health and hope. (I believe one of my functions as an artist is to give form, clarity and voice to that confusion of unformed, unconscious material.)

Each of us must find our own tools with which to do survival battle, to dance with our demons along this journey. Artmaking and "seeing," with its multilayers of light and lightness, coupled with a good sense of the absurd and humor, have been my survival techniques. For me, the miracle of our lives is that we not only do survive, but are able to survive with love and hope.


Andree Thompson has been teaching art for forty years. She has a large installation about
survival, water and environmental issues at Richmond Art Center through March.

Andree Thompson's art work is featured on the cover of this issue.

The Importance of Lightness

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