I don’t live on Observatory Avenue, but I drive past it every day on my way to and from my studio, which is just a few blocks away. As a visual artist, a street named “observatory” has built-in pull, and although I had noticed the sign before, what finally compelled me to take this picture (and use it to restart my online accounts) was the fact that from the front porch of my studio – housed in one of the original Craftsman bungalows in this neighborhood – I can actually see the observatory in question, its art-deco outline like a tiara on the brow of Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park. The irony is that I never paid much attention to that fact. I have spent my entire life thinking about the visual nature of this world, and here I am, working in the shadow of an observatory, dedicated to the visuality of other worlds, but I took it for granted. And I have a perfect view of that observatory, no less.
Maybe it’s because before this was my studio, it used to be my house. Everything in my adult life transpired here, not just the studio work. As a young couple, my wife and I shared a toast beneath the big Deodar cedar in the front yard, right after we had bought it, before we even had the keys to move in. We brought newborn children here from the hospital three times, and this is where they grew up with chickens and rabbits in the backyard, vegetable gardens and fruit trees we planted, sapling laurels and pines, some of which now tower even higher than the old cedar.
As the kids got older and couldn’t share one attic-bedroom anymore, we moved the family to a bigger place, but Sophie and I kept this as a workspace, she with her looms and textiles in the front rooms, I with my woodshop and paint in the back. Together, we came tantalizingly close to fulfilling a dream, which was to live by the ethics, the rhythms – and also the disappointments and frustrations – of artisans. They were halcyon days.
But we also shared the space with a shadow presence. It was hidden inside Sophie’s body. It appeared on MRIs. It was breast cancer. We both knew the disease could not be cured, we were both realists and tried not to harbor any illusions, but nonetheless I thought that if we remained conscientious about treatments and care, we could manage it, indefinitely, the way so many other illnesses are managed. And we did, for a long time, but eventually the doctors ran out of treatments. The shadows on the imaging machine began to spread, until, with devastating swiftness, the scale tipped; the balance we had struck with the disease shifted. Sophie died, at the age of 52.
After that, this house became the loneliest, most desolate place on earth for me. I couldn’t stand being here. I stopped coming. I abandoned it.
Some years have gone by now; I try not to count them. That number quantifies the passage of time in a way which is completely false. It implies, with arrogance, a kind of meaning about the state of things. I deny it that authority. It is an empty marker, that’s all; the meaning of this period lies elsewhere. It has to be assembled, painstakingly. It has to be discovered, in part, and it also has to be created. It comes to me in its own time, independent of the calendar. I have tried to be patient, and listen for it. Perhaps it is a kind of message from Sophie. Not a voice from beyond, but a message that was created without our knowing, when we were together, and which we left behind for one of us to find later. I wish it were her, walking down these sidewalks of her old neighborhood, studying the fall of light on the houses and trees, reading the sky for changes in the weather, finding this message in a bottle, but it’s not. It’s me. I look for the meaning in what we made and what remains; I owe her no less. It is the smallest way I can repay someone to whom I owe everything. It is the smallest act of faith in a belief – the belief that what we were, through all of our trial and error, and what we did, in all of its beauty and imperfection, mattered.
I paint now, from observation. Which is to say, directly from life, directly from locations. This draws me out into the world, where, among other things I suppose, I can feel less alone. That’s what made it possible for me to return to this house – a thought: that perhaps I could work here again. Not because it isn’t a home anymore – it will always be the home my wife and I built – I toggle between that past and this present every moment I am here. And not because I feel any less grief for all that I lost or sorrow for all that Sophie had to give up – that wound is always there, always available.
I could return because I have found a way to both hold all of that, and at the same time transform it. Heartbreak, depression, tears, rage, regret, sorrow. Perhaps those things can become motive. Motive energies; movement. Perhaps a different kind of studio can be built upon the outlines of what was once a home, where a family once lived, where children once grew up, where a couple once worked. Maybe that task would be worthy of my attention. It would be a new kind of studio for me, requiring a new set of skills – something to do with observation. Something to do with observing the world as the foreign place it is to me at this point, even the places I know best – especially the places I know best. Although objectively it is the same world I knew before, I inhabit it in a different way. Through painting, I can be a witness to that.
So I look at the observatory up on the hill and notice it now. I can see a parallel between my studio and that place. It is a sharing of concerns about optics, looking, seeing – rational things, but it’s also about something larger. It has to do with positioning – entities on different orders of magnitude revolving around one another, creating patterns, finding symmetry. I observe and try to interpret what is close, the astronomers, what is far.
I wonder: If the life you have lived, and the person you have been, and the person that you loved, should all split apart one day, and the images of those things refract and be arranged into a new set of relations, would it be wrong to look for meaning in that?