Why “gray water”

by Howard Freeman

Karen and I have talked often about my chronicling her artistic process. We did so again on a drive to Montauk. A three-hour drive.

But I being merely the chronicler—the reluctant observer-writer. I being the memoirist of her journey. I was warmer the next morning to the idea than during the drive. Certainly warmer than a few summers ago, when a friend suggested I write about how Karen has influenced me and my writing.

The fact is, her effect has been profound, from when she gave me Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” in the summer of 2006, which led to my starting a blog and then self-publishing a collection of essays, to her introducing me to the thought and work of Christopher Alexander who, though an architect, has I believe made me a better writer. But in becoming a better writer I wanted to be the main creator; I wanted to be the one who makes something ex nihilo rather than the one who merely records the works and process of the creator. The role we had been discussing seemed secondary and, frankly, demeaning. Like a job interview when someone tells you first about the excellent vacation policy and health benefits, because the salary is so depressingly low.

Eighteen months.

It is nearing 18 months from when Karen first told me she was diving into art—I don’t even remember the occasion—and about the same length since she told a group of friends publicly that she was calling herself “an artist.” I do remember that moment. I remember our artist friend Gae smiling, audibly approving, maybe even doing a small symbolic hand clap. Like she finally had a compadre in the group. (Do you say commadre when referring to two women?)

The paints and canvases around our bedroom—the paint on the floor and even the rug—don’t bother me. Paintbrushes in old salsa jars in our room and bathroom, gray water a testimony of a hundred tangents in different colors—those, too, didn’t annoy me unless my foot bumped into one and tipped it over at the base of the sink pedestal. Exacto blades on the floor—not that I stepped on any—those were a little more challenging to accept. But I dealt.

The hardest thing to accept—and it’s so practical and even near-sighted as to be not just prosaic but also almost animalistic; I write to exorcise this besetting devil—is the lack of income around Karen’s art. She and Teak, in the fall of 2011, held a stoop sale featuring her work that made $170 in about three hours. I have always known that as soon as her work gets out there—as it did then and as it will now—people would grab it. I thought for sure after the stoop sale she’d be doing commissions regularly or producing lots of the “practical art” she calls key keepers, even patent the idea. I saw dollar signs.

But I think art, and specifically the process of doing art, has been Karen’s Sherpa out of 16 years of taking care of kids. She was working until the day she went into labor on March 17, 1999, and on March 18 she was given a new persona along with our new son. She has played the role well with now three sons, two of them teenagers and one who is an exceptional, and exceptionally challenging, boy.

But now it’s time for her to let a new persona burst forth.

So it was that, in January 2014, she started experimenting with different styles of art on hundreds—or so it seemed—canvases. Oils and acrylics, but then mainly acrylics. Still life, landscape, and then abstracts. The flower ballerinas. Later the sidewalk crack creatures. The one-off Bridget Bardot and then the girl with the red balloon. The urbanist-influenced patterns, abstracted. The diptychs and triptychs of late.

Many of these pieces I posted on social media. I definitely had my favorites, though the genres differed. People ooh’ed and ah’ed over each, and I gave her running totals during the day of how many “likes” she got.

“What!” she’d exclaim. “But it’s not finished!” Or, “that was just a study!”

“I don’t care,” I’d volley. “It’s beautiful. It’s getting tweeted.”

At more than one point, I thought she was going to be wildly successful, economically, and I’m sure that at more than one point, I mused about quitting the fundraising gig and being a full-time writer. I also imagined her being so successful, and me being so unsuccessful as a full-time writer, that she would fall in love with another man, an art dealer or even a hedge fund manager—I mean, why not?—and she would dump me.

I’d live in outer Queens.

Can you imagine.

And so my fundraising work continues. Just in case.

For this essentially, my friends, is my reluctance in chronicling her journey.

She has always been more “commercially” marketable as an artist than I have been as a writer. In some ways, I am like that sucker fish that hangs on the belly of the large whale shark and eats the bacteria or whatever shit that is on the skin of the whale shark. (Of course, the “sucker fish” is actually called a “remora fish,” but it does have a sucker disc in its mouth, and it eats parasites and leftover food. It is, for all intents and purposes, a “sucker fish,” and this second-class name fits the feel.) The whale shark doesn’t care about the presence of the sucker fish—the little fish takes care of a minor problem, and the whale shark is still a whale shark. It is both a whale and a shark, and pretty much everything else in the ocean can go to hell. It is a whale shark. I am the sucker fish, and for me to write about the whale shark’s art is to enter into a “symbiotic” relationship which, let’s face it, is more about the whale shark’s majesty, one that inspires National Geographic specials airing on Sunday night at 8pm Eastern, than about the…what is it again?…oh, yeah: a sucker fish. A fish whose mouth is a sucker disc and which eats shit off the belly of the badass whale shark.

Truth is, while I like to observe and be in the background and be introverted—and even trumpet that—I also want to be the center of attention.

Being the chronicler—the chronicleur, to use Karen’s whimsical word—is to take a back seat. It is to be Nick Carroway in The Great Gatsby. I want to be the hero in this journey—not merely write about the hero. Karen wanted to call this blog, “The Reluctant Chronicleur,” and each time she said the title, she would giggle and hold her left hand stiffly to her fulsome lips to mock-stifle a more resolute guffaw.

No way.

If I’m to be Nick Carraway, a sucker fish on the belly of a majestic creature featured on prime time television, then I’m at least going to name the blog.

Gray Water.

She can have the URL. (And someone else already had the other URL anyway.)

For the name is about her, and her art and process, and it’s about us.

The gray water, then, is three things:

  • The artist’s paintbrush jar when a lot of paintbrushes are placed there at the end of a day.
  • The murky relationship between Karen’s art and my writing about it, reluctantly at first, but with more intrigue as I go.
  • The indiscriminate combination of ideas, colors, and thoughts; tried genres and new directions; and beginnings, aborted projects, and the occasional finished work. The gray water is that place where everything is at once, yet nothing is defined. It represents creative output in the adjacent room and at the end of hours and days, and it also represents frustration, uncertainty, hesitation, lack of clarity. Yet in the end the brushes are faithfully cleaned and re-used the next day. The water is changed. It starts clear again, and it turns gray. The gray water will at some point represent only the artist’s paintbrush jar when a lot of paintbrushes are placed there at the end of a day.