Misery, Math, and Mr. Rothko
There’s a lot to say about this piece. First and foremost, it was born out of the struggle between rest and frustration. It’s the result of the theme for the 2018 Wintersong music and arts festival, which happened about six months before the inspiration, design, and execution of the piece. I kicked myself a little bit when I was working on it this year because it was late, but then and now I’m also really proud of it- maybe the fact that the deadline had already passed released the pressure of anyone seeing it and made it easier to say what I wanted. At any rate it gave me time to think about the themes of rest and order that are represented in the finished painting.
When the first email announcing the 2018 theme came out early in the year, it seemed like it couldn’t be more ill-timed- I was in a season of life where I was wrestling with anxiety, anger, and depression. There were some very good days, but every day (good or bad) was busy and taking the time to rest felt like the enemy. There were a lot of nights where I had trouble sleeping even though I was tired, and some where it just felt like taking time to sleep or recharge would get in the way. Part of the initial challenge for starting the painting was just figuring out how to rest, and it was like wrestling a brick wall. I vacillated between brainstorming while panickedly scribbling in my sketchbook and avoiding thinking about the project entirely. I was, on some level, excited- I recognized at the time that my struggle could help me create something good. Maybe the pressure to create something really great made it worse. I really wanted to do something new and make the experience of viewing the painting restful, but my inner frenzy wasn’t letting me progress. I was stuck.
It struck me early on that one of the big roadblocks for me was the lack of order in my internal world (hi, fellow introverts). I was anxious and couldn’t slow down. Every moment resting felt like a moment wasted when I could be doing something productive. I knew the untruth of this; rest is incredibly valuable and essential- even God, who doesn’t need to rest, did. I began thinking about order as a necessary condition for rest. This gave rise to thoughts about reason and math. I’ve never been great at math, but I’ve always enjoyed the order and process of mathematical reasoning. Was there a way to visually represent mathematics in my painting to represent the goodness and restfulness of order? I discovered fractals (more on that below), which seemed like the perfect visual motif, but every idea that presented itself was still too safe and close to what was comfortable. I needed something different- something uncomfortable that would stretch me like the season I was in.
Wintersong was in December. During the summer and fall I continued to labor over the relationship between math and art, turning over some promising ideas- fractals, grids, the golden ratio- but nothing would come together in a satisfying way. A month before the paintings were due to go in the event space I made the decision to shelve the math idea and went with some paintings that were artistically accessible to me- familiar, representative subjects with organic shapes. They represented the most positive and optimistic feelings I was dealing with at the time. I managed to finish them, but those three paintings represented about ten percent of what I was trying to say. The event happened and the other 90% went uncommunicated. I wasn’t satisfied but I chalked it up to a normal artistic not-quite-what-I-envisioned and something to learn from. I sold one painting, made plans to paint over my least favorite of the three and moved on.
My three Wintersong paintings that were completed in time, 2018.
Several months later, in February or March, I was doodling in my sketchbook and reading a book by one of my favorite authors. I was beginning to feel better- anxiety, anger, and depression ebbed and sleep returned. Resting in general was easier, and I was beginning to feel ordered again. At some point while I was reading, my mind started to drift back to the rest prompt. The doodles and book notes in my sketchbook became squares in the shape of a golden ratio. Color palettes presented themselves. Organic and geometric shapes fit together. Actual design ideas came to mind- new and challenging. I made a digital copy of my notes and did some more experimenting. I leaned into the idea- I was on a mission now.
Initial sketches and color notes.
During my struggle with rest in 2018 I had discovered Mark Rothko while listening to an art history podcast. Rothko is known for his huge and distinctive paintings of large rectangles of color. Toward the end of his life, his paintings became darker and darker as he battled mightily with depression, a battle he lost when his life ended in suicide. I’ve dealt on and off with depression throughout my adult life, and learning more about his life gave me an appreciation for his paintings, and an artistic motif to work with in my own painting about depression, anxiety, and rest. Into the design it went.
Rothko, Mark. No 61 (Rust and Blue). 1953. Oil on canvas. 115.25 in × 92.00 in.
Fractals also worked their way in, the way I had always wanted them to. Fractals are present in nature, and are visually pleasing, which is maybe why we enjoy nature so much. Fractals are infinitely repeating patterns- like how trees repeat branching patterns all the way to the tips of their branches, and so do snowflakes. Whether you zoom way out or get really close, the pattern is constant. It’s the same with clouds. I held on to the image of clouds, and their soft fluffy organic fractal shapes felt like a good complement to the Rothko squares and the grid I wanted to work into the design. Also, clouds are some of the brightest objects in the sky on a sunny day.
There was, alongside this joy and burst and flow of inspiration, a haunting, esprit d’escalier, this-is-too-late-to-matter-anymore feeling hanging over me as I’d work. It was so frustrating to me that the idea for this came to me so pathetically long after I needed it- why couldn’t I have gotten it together and conjured the muse before my deadline? I tried to hush those thoughts as I worked on it- inspiration is, after all, unreliable, and emotional and spiritual warfare can cripple creativity. There was just nothing I could have done earlier about the season I was in. I kept going- I needed this painting.
It took a long time to finish the painting even after the design was nailed down. There was problem solving and time management and intimidation. But there were also glorious moments like the one where I realized that I (queen of the 6x6” painting) needed to paint big for this one, and that the 24”x36” canvas I’d been saving for three years, too intimidated to paint on it, would finally be used (although this meant starting over from the 12”x16” canvas that now felt too cramped for the composition I wanted). I also really like the design, and all of the squares and rectangles alongside the organic shapes. Also, that blue sky is my favorite color.
Klein, Bonnie. In the Chaos. 2019. Oil on canvas. 24x36”.
The finished painting has a Rothko-square background of washes of blue, purple, and magenta over black with the bright, thick sunny sky patches, fractals and ordered golden ratio breaking through. The contrast in color value is extreme. It is the 90% remaining of what I wanted to say in 2018. The fragments of brightness and order and joy war with the depression, anxiety, and exhaustion.
Closeup of “In the Chaos”, colors enhanced to show the background color better. You can see it in real life but my camera doesn’t capture it well.
The name of it came about three weeks after the last brushstroke and on the day it was dry enough to varnish. I was going about my day and doing something unrelated to the painting when the song “None But Jesus” by Hillsong United ran through my head- particularly the line “in the chaos, in confusion, I know you’re sovereign still”. “In the Chaos” stuck, because that’s what the painting is about- the battle of finding peace in chaos. In 2018 I hadn’t gotten to the “you’re sovereign still” part- I was still in chaos and confusion and yearning for the confidence to say to God “you’re sovereign still”. I’m still working toward the “you’re sovereign still” and making progress.
There it is, then. This was a pretty tough painting to create, and it’s tough again to write down the journey- it’s amazing how no matter how much you love something and feel proud of it you still hesitate to show it off. I’m excited to share it, and I hope it connects with someone.
Thanks for visiting.