There are many things one may learn by being in quarantine, not including that very special ennui that makes you daydream about finding a Halliburton case full of street drugs, or getting hit with a cricket bat by someone in a gimp suit.
For the most part, I have barely noticed the California shelter-in-place order, because, thanks to my childhood friend, the artist Kimberly Brooks, I have been in a gleefully self-imposed quarantine since late last year.
My first contact with Kimberly came in high school, when I was a lowly freshman and she was a sophomore. She was the Queen Bee: the prettiest, bossiest It-Girl in several Bay Area school districts. With no formal introduction, she grabbed me by the collar of my jacket and dragged me into the girls’ restroom.
“We need to talk about that makeup!” she hollered, in a warm, drill-sergeant way, smashing a wet paper towel into my eye-socket. I hadn’t known anything was wrong with my makeup. I had one brown eyeliner to my name. “See? This is how you do your makeup!” She backed me up against the bathroom wall, and resting her forearm on my cheek, applied liquid eyeliner behind my lash-lines.
I liked the makeover. It was a thrilling, enjoyable kind of bullying, which I later described to her dad as being “assaulted by royalty.” We have been friends ever since.
Kimberly contacted me in October of last year to love-bully me into taking a new eight-week painting class she’d developed in an online format (which turned out to be a prescient choice). I had made a few messes with a brush before, but never actually painted anything in oil that didn’t eventually turn out a gray-brown dog’s breakfast. I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it another whirl.
“I’m going to teach you everything they never tell you in art school,” she told me.
I learned to build paintings architecturally, to think about them three-dimensionally, to start painting from the background forward, among many other things. I did my first painting in late November. It was lightyears better than any other messes I had ever made on canvas.
By the time the eight-week course was over, I was the wretch I am now: an unhinged woman vehemently obsessed with oil painting who wrestles with it like a feral person for hours every day. I had earth-moving revelations as I graduated from using makeup brushes to real sable, and switched from canvas to linen panels. My formerly adorable kitchen now looks as though Francis Bacon had assaulted a pope in it. I know things about linseed oil its own mother doesn’t know.
Deep into the wee small hours, I devour paintings online, discovering things like Russian Realism and tweeting out pictures of my two favorite subjects: birch trees and cuts of meat. I don’t know why I love them, I just do. Boxes from Jerry’s Art-O-Rama pile up on my doorstep.
After the eight-week course, I begged to be enrolled in Kimberly’s six-month bootcamp—a class in which you undergo all of the preparations necessary for an actual art show. In short, a relentless bender of what has become my drug of choice.
I’m in the middle of it now. I don’t even remember when the shelter in place order actually started.
Since I am a beginner, I try to compensate for what I lack in ten thousand actual studio hours with content I find amusing. Kimberly, who is a lavish and elegant painter with a very sultry Post-Impressionist style, is always supportive but doesn’t always entirely agree that I need to paint Mr. Spock in pearls, or Voltaire in X-Ray specs, or robots watching naked women sleeping, or roller derby scuffles in the style of Fritz Scholder. But she respects that this stuff is in me and it’s going to come out, for good or ill. (The roller derby is currently on my re-gesso pile, since it is truly hideous.)
Much to my delight, she still channels my aesthetic energies in new directions in much the same bossy way she did in high school:
“Stop painting that. Back away from it! You don’t want eyeglasses on the Indian nurse; there’s already too much going on with the lobsters and animal print. Everything will be fine. Paint something else now.”
We seem to disagree most about robots. I painted a landscape and was either going to paint a robot in it or the words “VIRGIN SUEDE” over it in an Ed Ruscha/Wayne White style, as that is what the landscape suggested to me. She recommended the text, because there’s apparently a whole movement of robot paintings I knew nothing about, and it might be tricky if I was mistaken for being affiliated with it. She looks out for us students with this kind of insider savvy.
I painted the robot in the landscape anyway. Even if she was right, my landscape needed a robot, dammit. What is art anyway, if not a form of organized defiance? Virgin Suede will be my next canvas.
Kimberly is essentially still making me wash my mascara off so she can terrorize my freshman self into having better eyes. She calls me one of her baby vampires—I’m one of several students her courses have changed into compulsive painters. All I know is: none of this mania shows any sign of abating. Even when I’m allowed to leave the house again, I’ll still be here, sharpening my fangs.
This is part of “My Quarantine,” a continuing NYR Daily series in which our contributors share how they’re spending their time while social distancing.