Option 4, Ex 4.0.2, liminality, unknowing

27th January. On the morning before completing exercise 4.0, I encountered two real world liminals or transitions. The first at the vet’s where I was making a routine appointment for my cat’s boosters, and the second a little later along Lancing seafront.

The one on the seafront was a bunch of flowers propped on a bench. No one was around but the bench had a plaque dedicated to ‘Mum and Dad’ who had, like many, loved coming there with their dogs. It must have been an anniversary.

The first though, was about to become a memorial day. An elderly couple ahead of me had brought their old dog on its last journey. The man was bent into his jacket and full of sadness while his wife booked their dog in and then stood, unmoving, at the counter as if the world had stopped turning. There was nothing to be done then but wait, and so there she stood, waiting.

I’m going to try making representations of these two transitions; one past, one about to happen; but it’s possible nothing will appear on this post for some time or perhaps never if I can’t do them justice.

I have only a memory to work with of the couple and their dog, but I do have a photograph of the flowers.

This is from my Instagram post with the final image:

Last week I called in at the vet to make a routine appointment for my cat. An elderly woman stood at the reception desk while her husband sat cradling their dog. He was folded up in grief, she was holding herself together with stoic pragmatism. Their dog was on his final journey and they were distraught with the weight of that decision. I know what that’s like; the most awful kindness, the worst and best thing you can do for an animal who’s been part of your family. Their threshold of emptiness was palpable.”

This, at the time unformed, thought guided the painting.

I quite often run a layer of colours under what will be the palette of the painting proper. In this case, knowing it was going to be bleak, I used a very bright pink, and a quite luminous yellow. These would almost subliminally underpin whatever came next.

What came next was a layer of white, roughly applied so that it could be scrubbed off. The figures are made largely with a palette knife apart from the faces.
I had argued with myself over including the dog – would that inappropriately sentimentalise it? could I even paint a dog? In the end, I thought of my old chihuahua and hoped I could trust my arm to make the right movements.

1st February. I’ve done quite a lot of circling and glancing, looking and squinting at this. Part of it looks just as I want it and the rest I could do without. If it had been on paper, I would have chopped it up. The section above is the one I would have kept but fortunately it’s on canvas board so that wasn’t an option and I had to invent my way out of that limp left hand side.

At this point, I had remembered a poem I’d read a little while ago. It’s called ‘Not Quite You’ and it’s about the death of a pet cat, so I asked the author, with whom I’ve worked before, if I could use some of her words in this painting. I told her the story; she said yes.

I selected not lines but words and phrases that might, when you are in this position, be the ones most meaningful and poignant, then printed them in various sizes and tone. The words ‘faint’ and ‘frail’ needed to be small and light and ‘the tiny heart beat’ large and in deeper tone to reflect the hope people cling onto even when the ending is inevitable. I repeated them, overlapped them, jumbled them in the way thoughts so often become jumbled when all we have left is distress.

But filling the one side left it unbalanced, and while I wanted the man cradling their dog to be the focus, I also felt that the space on the left needed weight. So I turned back to the poem and found more words, this time they were about the context – the small green room – and the purpose, the end of a life.

I selected particular words and phrases, applied them to the support at first with water so I could push them around, and knowing the ink would fade. When I had them where i wanted them, I glued them in place with PVA glue.

These are vertical, like pillars; the small green sterile room repeating and interspersed with the purpose – the frailty of their elderly dog. Some of them encroach on the woman who, in the situation I found them, had become petrified – an architectural feature of the room and not a living thing at all, so unmoving was she. In this image, she is being drawn into the words and almost absorbed into the wall. I had intended to leave those edges straight and sharp but went back and ‘bruised’ them with a screwdriver so soften them. This, to me, works better.

I used charcoal to make lines of demarcation where I wanted to indicate corners or changes of perspective, and left these raw – drawn sketches rather than fully painted because in those moments, how many of us really see what’s around us, beyond that very immediate tunnelled vision of pain?

I’m beginning to judge better when I should stop, and in this case I think it’s now. I can tell the story, and despite having nothing material to work with, I feel as though this has done the couple and their dog justice. It reflects my experience of them, and my past experience, probably shared with them, of the bleakness inherent in making the decision that a pet’s life has to end. Sometimes the worst thing in the world for you, is the best thing you can do for an animal. I’m calling it ‘Small Green Room’.

I think also, while part of the liminality exercise, I will also classify this as work towards the parallel/personal project as it incorporates text.

Huggins, A. (2020). Not Quite You. In: The Collective Nouns For Birds. Maytree Press. P21.

Edit 27th July. A black and white version of this painting will accompany the poem in Huggins’s forthcoming collection. It’s the second painting to sit with a volume of her work, the first, Tokyo Ghost, was commissioned as the book cover for An Unfamiliar Landscape. This was assessed under wraps for Studio Practice but has now been released prior to publication in October 2022.

Text by @peterbarnfather (twitter) of Valley Press.

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