Art is a Mirror

 When I was fifteen years old, my father taught me how to drive.  I was eager, yet scared; I couldn’t believe that I had actually passed the test to get my learner’s permit. Dad wanted to give me ample opportunity to practice before beginning Driver’s Ed at school, so we drove together often.  He’d pick a destination and I would drive while he critiqued and instructed me. Luckily, he is both an extremely patient man and an excellent teacher.

One Sunday afternoon, we set out on the highway.  He’d decided that after roughly 20 miles, I’d make a U-turn at a local historical monument and then head back to town.  It was a beautiful day.  No traffic.  He guided me as I turned into the monument parking lot, which was always an isolated and quiet place.  There were local urban legends, usually whispered by teenagers, that there was some sort of cult that hung out there.  I’m sure that wasn’t true. It was one of those tales that grew in the telling.  But, it was true that there had been vandals that had spent nights there, kicking over grave markers, spray painting graffiti, and littering the area with trash.  The place had developed a ghostly reputation and even now, if you google Killough Monument you’ll find a wealth of posts online from people claiming to have witnessed paranormal activity there. I find this ironic now,  given what happened  the day Dad and I made that unsuspecting U-turn.

'Oh, what's that in the hollow?', Edward Robert Hughes
‘Oh, what’s that in the hollow?’, Edward Robert Hughes

I pulled into the cul-de-sac parking lot and there was only one car there, awkwardly stopped near the center, facing us. As I maneuvered around it, I sort of just glanced at the man in the driver’s seat.  It was a quick glance, and for years afterward I was always baffled at the fact that it only took me a second to realize he was dead because from that angle, nothing was visibly wrong with him.  I’ve never understood how I could know so quickly, but I did and suddenly I found that I could not speak.  I think I took my foot off the gas, the car was moving forward at the slowest crawl possible.

My dad told me to pick up the pace, to keep going.  “That man…” I said.  “Don’t worry about him,” Dad answered, and I could tell that he was starting to lose his patience. I don’t blame him. He had not seen what I had seen and it was the most awkward, painful U-turn ever.  I pulled around behind the car slowly and could see the blood on the back window.  I continued on and once we were even with him, I stopped and turned my head.  From that side, it was painfully obvious that he had shot himself or had been shot.  I looked back at my dad. I will never forget the look on his face.

He must have been as scared and shocked as I was, but he gathered his wits and told me just to hit the gas.  He took the wheel, knowing without needing to be told that I just couldn’t handle driving.  I realize now that he didn’t want us to get out of the car and trade places in case the man had been killed and someone dangerous was still in the vicinity.  As we drove away, we saw a police car and flagged it down.  He’d already been notified by someone and was on his way to the scene.

And that was that.

We learned later that the man had died of a self inflicted gunshot wound.  That’s all I know.  Sometimes I wish I knew his name, I wish I had known who to mourn.

'Isabella and the Pot of Basil', John White Alexander. Also see Love, Death, and Potted Plants
‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, John White Alexander. Also see Love, Death, and Potted Plants

The rest of the week was horrid.  I had trouble sleeping, when I did drift off I saw his face.  I had nightmares where the entire scene would play itself out again, only this time he would look up and talk to me. It was disturbing,  horrible.  At fifteen years of age, I am not ashamed to admit that I ran into my parents’ room and climbed into bed with them.  I just couldn’t be alone with all these images in my head.  Since that day, I feel as if I’ve been punched in the gut every time I hear of a suicide, because I know the ugly truth of what they have done to themselves and how tortured they must have been to reach that level of desperation.  I’ve seen the aftermath of that desperation and it is now embedded in my psyche.  I remember it all over again and while I do, my heart breaks for the family members they left behind.  A death like this is nothing but tragedy and pain all around for everyone involved, even a stranger who accidentally wanders into the path of their destruction. There is no way to sugarcoat it, it is ugly. It is pain. One wonders if someone could have helped them before they reached this point.

'Hope in the Prison of Despair', Evelyn De Morgan
‘Hope in the Prison of Despair’, Evelyn De Morgan

Time went on and I thought of the incident less and less, but it was always one of those shocking things that hid there, lingering under the surface until some random thing would remind me of it.  When I would remember, it was as if it hung upon me, a miasma of sorts.

I shared the memory with my children once they were old enough to hear. I wanted them to know the horror, the permanence. I wanted them to know that nothing was worth that. I wanted them to know I am always here to turn to, no matter what.  Nothing is ever worth that particular choice.  I’m always here, I will always be supportive. Because I’m sure that man had at least one person in his life who would give anything to have been there for him had they known what he was going to do. I just want my kids to know that I will always help however I can,  I want everyone to know.  Even if I don’t personally know you. Even if you are a visitor to this site, reading my blog for the first time.  I’m here. I’ll listen.  You can email me.

Last year, I was reading Neil Gaiman’s book The Ocean at the End of the Lane and suddenly I got a glimpse of Dad and myself on that day.  There’s a scene in the book where a young boy and his father find a man who has committed suicide in a car. After so many years, it was the first thing that I had ever read that captured the essence of what we experienced. It was so profound that after reading that passage, I had to set the book aside and walk away as if to literally separate myself from it as I processed the synthesis of my memories and the fictional scene. That scene had unleashed a wealth of emotions, but instead of feeling the stifling weight of that horror,  I felt for the first time as if I was setting it free. If it is true that art is a mirror, then reading my own experience set within a world of Gaiman’s creation had given me a safe outlet in which to reflect upon emotions I had long ignored. It was quite cathartic. It was a very moving experience for me and my words will not do it justice.  But I will say that I felt as if reading that enabled me to take the memory and say farewell to it.  Not as if I was burying it or pretending that it had never happened. I’m sure the memory of it will pop up every now and again.  Yet somehow after reading that book the memory doesn’t have the same hold.  The sick feeling I usually experience upon remembering has dissipated.  Books are an art form that allows us to indulge in escapism and sometimes, without looking for it, we can happen upon a book that heals.

'The Mirror', Sir Frank Dicksee
‘The Mirror’, Sir Frank Dicksee

Because of this experience reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I’ve begun to ponder art as a mirror. Perhaps the art, literature, and movies we love are so important to us because through them, we see either ourselves as we are or the self we would like to be.  Are we seeking what heals us? On several occasions, I’ve told people that in studying and blogging about Pre-Raphaelite art, I uncover as much about myself as I do the paintings and artists that I pursue.  The art that resonates with me is not merely a collection of beautiful images that I find aesthetically pleasing. There is something deeper there and whether it is symbolism or a certain narrative, to explore art in a rich way like this gives ample opportunity to not only research the lives of fascinating artists, but to also understand and know myself.  It’s not just dry research. It’s a quest.

“Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that’s what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you. When your mind is trapped by the image out there so that you never make the reference to yourself, you have misread the image.

The inner world is the world of your requirements and your energies and your structure and your possibilities that meets the outer world. And the outer world is the field of your incarnation. That’s where you are. You’ve got to keep both going. As Novalis said, ‘The seat of the soul is there where the inner and outer worlds meet.”– Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth.

Regular readers of this blog know that I like to explore Pre-Raphaelite art in a deeply personal way.  I’ve shared how it has inspired my personal mantra, and how melancholy often seen in Pre-Raphaelite works can fuel our creative life.  I’ve shared the poetry that has helped me through recent health problems. It has become something that influences different areas of my life in a hundred different ways.

Pre-Raphaelite art includes many beautiful yet different types of women. On one end of the spectrum, we have damsels in distress that need to be rescued. Or fallen women in need of forgiveness for having fallen (as if they fell by themselves). On the other end, we have goddesses and mythological women who need no rescuing and burn with the strength of their own power.  Here I am, a modern woman drawn to Pre-Raphaelite art because I have played each of those roles at some time in my life. This is what art and literature does, it reflects back to you who you have been and who you are, but it also lights the path and shows you who you can be. Right now you may be the fallen woman or a damsel in need, but you can transcend that and become a goddess.

'The Beguiling of Merlin', Sir Edward Burne-Jones
‘The Beguiling of Merlin’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

We are all in search of something, we all have memories to heal.  In writing this post. it occurs to me that the most healing moments I’ve experienced through reading have never occurred in the pages of a self-help book.  No disrespect to self-help authors, by any means, but my healing moments have come through the words of Shakespeare and Keats.  Mary Shelley.  Tennyson.  A.S. Byatt. Neil Gaiman, Audrey Niffenegger, Theodora Goss. James A. Owen. Kris Waldherr.  Catherynne Valente. Kirsty Stonell Walker. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper. Daphne Du Maurier’s nameless heroine in Rebecca.   It’s a swirling and endless list.  My personal healing comes through Millais’ Ophelia, the collective ladies of Shalott, the skies of John Atkinson Grimshaw.  The blue of Mariana’s dress. Richard Dadd’s fairies. And, as always, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Astarte Syriaca gives me strength.

Astarte Syriaca, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Also see Those Rossetti Lips
Astarte Syriaca, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Also see Those Rossetti Lips

So my point in this is that no matter what, keep pursuing. Keep reading, keep thinking.  Nourish ourselves intellectually, emotionally. Don’t shut yourself off. Seek out good literature. Envelope yourself in music. Watch movies, explore paintings you love. Meaning will follow.

Find something beautiful.  Hang on to it.

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6 Replies to “Art is a Mirror”

  1. Thank you for this – very insightful… I work as an art therapist… and I now have a very exciting idea for creating a way to help women identify parts of themselves they have forgotten… Many thanks. This is pure gold.

  2. Thank you. Sometimes people picture suicide as a romantic statement, especially those of us who read too much Byron as a teenager & would rather envision the world as a PreRaphaelite painting. Death is usually not beautiful. (I would still like my life to resemble those paintings though!)

  3. I read this today while deep in the oft-visited pits of my own depression. The promise of release from emotional torment sounds wonderful, and I hope every single day that I’ll find a way to get through it. Thank you for the momentary relief and art ?

  4. Such a powerful post – like Cat, I have been struggling with depression. Reading about your struggles and the power of our beloved Pre-Raphaelites to connect us to the eternal is inspirational to me, too. I’m motivated tonight to reread Possession and reflect on the power of art to ground us. Thank you.

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