orbits and returns

A perfect stranger reached out through the internet to ask permission to get a tattoo based on a drawing of mine. Grateful to be asked (in an era where most simply lift artists’ work without permission or attribution), I consented, and got a fun update from him not long after.

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The gentleman who reached out to me had found my drawing on a very old post from my long-defunct prior blog. Even at the time of that post, the drawing was older still. While I can’t speak to its symbolic importance in his life, it certainly made me recollect its importance in my own.

The drawing was one component of Sputnik, a large panel comprised of multiple drawings executed in 2002. I had just left a teaching job I loved that year: having realized that I was burning out and risking the loss of my art practice, I took time off to figure out how to be an artist in the world, and to find my way. Over the next year, I undertook 3 artist residencies (in upstate New York, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the south of France): it was a heady period of creative discovery, adventure and independence, but often lonely and uncertain, too.

Having read Haruki Murakami’s haunting “Sputnik Sweetheart” while in New York, I became fixated on satellites as poetic, solitary devices: isolated in their orbits, in perpetual slow motion, always transmitting, never permanently connecting. Murakami’s book had little to really do with that particular Russian satellite, but it dug under my skin regardless, given my state of heart and mind at that time.

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“And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.”

(“Sputnik” translates as either “companion,” or “travelling companion,” in Russian.)

One marvelous aspect of maturing as an artist is the gift of hindsight. I can appreciate with fondness the earnest clarity that went into an earlier moment of creative and emotional expression, while no longer being tormented by it in that moment. It’s fun to look back on things that were then-new semiotic realizations, and to see how I was first encoding which images with what meanings. These are the gifts of art, on the best days: knowing ourselves a little better, sharing our humanity with others, and inscribing a certain part of our identities even more deeply on some surface, somewhere.

So, when a random stranger reaches out through the ether to ask if they can inscribe some part of your iconography in some part of their dermis, you accept. And while their reasons for doing so have nothing to do with your reasons for making the image to begin with, it doesn’t matter.  It’s lovely and human.

Here, a different favorite book from an earlier pivotal era in my life:

“Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights: the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like Braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story.”

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