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  • I'm a painter.

  • I make large-scale figurative paintings,

  • which means I paint people

  • like this.

  • But I'm here tonight to tell you about something personal

  • that changed my work and my perspective.

  • It's something we all go through,

  • and my hope is that my experience may be helpful to somebody.

  • To give you some background on me, I grew up the youngest of eight.

  • Yes, eight kids in my family.

  • I have six older brothers and a sister.

  • To give you a sense of what that's like,

  • when my family went on vacation,

  • we had a bus.

  • (Laughter)

  • My supermom would drive us all over town

  • to our various after-school activities --

  • not in the bus.

  • We had a regular car, too.

  • She would take me to art classes,

  • and not just one or two.

  • She took me to every available art class from when I was eight to 16,

  • because that's all I wanted to do.

  • She even took a class with me in New York City.

  • Now, being the youngest of eight, I learned a few survival skills.

  • Rule number one:

  • don't let your big brother see you do anything stupid.

  • So I learned to be quiet and neat

  • and careful to follow the rules and stay in line.

  • But painting was where I made the rules.

  • That was my private world.

  • By 14, I knew I really wanted to be an artist.

  • My big plan was to be a waitress to support my painting.

  • So I continued honing my skills.

  • I went to graduate school and I got an MFA,

  • and at my first solo show, my brother asked me,

  • "What do all these red dots mean next to the paintings?"

  • Nobody was more surprised than me.

  • The red dots meant that the paintings were sold

  • and that I'd be able to pay my rent

  • with painting.

  • Now, my apartment had four electrical outlets,

  • and I couldn't use a microwave and a toaster at the same time,

  • but still, I could pay my rent.

  • So I was very happy.

  • Here's a painting from back around that time.

  • I needed it to be as realistic as possible.

  • It had to be specific and believable.

  • This was the place where I was isolated and in total control.

  • Since then, I've made a career of painting people in water.

  • Bathtubs and showers were the perfect enclosed environment.

  • It was intimate and private,

  • and water was this complicated challenge that kept me busy for a decade.

  • I made about 200 of these paintings,

  • some of them six to eight feet,

  • like this one.

  • For this painting, I mixed flour in with the bathwater to make it cloudy

  • and I floated cooking oil on the surface

  • and stuck a girl in it,

  • and when I lit it up,

  • it was so beautiful I couldn't wait to paint it.

  • I was driven by this kind of impulsive curiosity,

  • always looking for something new to add:

  • vinyl, steam, glass.

  • I once put all this Vaseline in my head and hair

  • just to see what that would look like.

  • Don't do that.

  • (Laughter)

  • So it was going well.

  • I was finding my way.

  • I was eager and motivated

  • and surrounded by artists,

  • always going to openings and events.

  • I was having some success and recognition

  • and I moved into an apartment with more than four outlets.

  • My mom and I would stay up very late

  • talking about our latest ideas and inspiring each other.

  • She made beautiful pottery.

  • I have a friend named Bo who made this painting

  • of his wife and I dancing by the ocean,

  • and he called it "The Light Years."

  • I asked him what that meant, and he said,

  • "Well, that's when you've stepped into adulthood, you're no longer a child,

  • but you're not yet weighed down by the responsibilities of life."

  • That was it. It was the light years.

  • On October 8, 2011,

  • the light years came to an end.

  • My mom was diagnosed with lung cancer.

  • It had spread to her bones, and it was in her brain.

  • When she told me this, I fell to my knees.

  • I totally lost it.

  • And when I got myself together and I looked at her,

  • I realized, this isn't about me.

  • This is about figuring out how to help her.

  • My father is a doctor,

  • and so we had a great advantage having him in charge,

  • and he did a beautiful job taking care of her.

  • But I, too, wanted to do everything I could to help,

  • so I wanted to try everything.

  • We all did.

  • I researched alternative medicines,

  • diets, juicing, acupuncture.

  • Finally, I asked her,

  • "Is this what you want me to do?"

  • And she said, "No."

  • She said, "Pace yourself. I'm going to need you later."

  • She knew what was happening,

  • and she knew what the doctors

  • and the experts and the internet didn't know:

  • how she wanted to go through this.

  • I just needed to ask her.

  • I realized that if I tried to fix it,

  • I would miss it.

  • So I just started to be with her,

  • whatever that meant and whatever situation came up,

  • just really listen to her.

  • If before I was resisting, then now I was surrendering,

  • giving up trying to control the uncontrollable

  • and just being there in it with her.

  • Time slowed down,

  • and the date was irrelevant.

  • We developed a routine.

  • Early each morning I would crawl into bed with her and sleep with her.

  • My brother would come for breakfast

  • and we'd be so glad to hear his car coming up the driveway.

  • So I'd help her up and take both her hands

  • and help her walk to the kitchen.

  • She had this huge mug she made

  • she loved to drink her coffee out of,

  • and she loved Irish soda bread for breakfast.

  • Afterwards was the shower,

  • and she loved this part.

  • She loved the warm water,

  • so I made this as indulgent as I could,

  • like a spa.

  • My sister would help sometimes.

  • We had warm towels

  • and slippers ready immediately

  • so she never got cold for a second.

  • I'd blow-dry her hair.

  • My brothers would come in the evenings and bring their kids,

  • and that was the highlight of her day.

  • Over time, we started to use a wheelchair,

  • and she didn't want to eat so much,

  • and she used the tiniest little teacup we could find to drink her coffee.

  • I couldn't support her myself anymore,

  • so we hired an aide to help me with the showers.

  • These simple daily activities

  • became our sacred ritual,

  • and we repeated them day after day

  • as the cancer grew.

  • It was humbling and painful

  • and exactly where I wanted to be.

  • We called this time "the beautiful awful."

  • She died on October 26, 2012.

  • It was a year and three weeks after her diagnosis.

  • She was gone.

  • My brothers, sister, and father and I

  • all came together in this supportive and attentive way.

  • It was as though our whole family dynamic

  • and all our established roles vanished

  • and we were just all together in this unknown,

  • feeling the same thing

  • and taking care of each other.

  • I'm so grateful for them.

  • As someone who spends most of my time alone in a studio working,

  • I had no idea that this kind of connection

  • could be so important, so healing.

  • This was the most important thing.

  • It was what I always wanted.

  • So after the funeral, it was time for me to go back to my studio.

  • So I packed up my car and I drove back to Brooklyn,

  • and painting is what I've always done, so that's what I did.

  • And here's what happened.

  • It's like a release of everything that was unraveling in me.

  • That safe, very, very carefully rendered safe place

  • that I created in all my other paintings,

  • it was a myth.

  • It didn't work.

  • And I was afraid, because I didn't want to paint anymore.

  • So I went into the woods.

  • I thought, I'll try that, going outside.

  • I got my paints, and I wasn't a landscape painter,

  • but I wasn't really much of any kind of painter at all,

  • so I had no attachment, no expectation,

  • which allowed me to be reckless and free.

  • I actually left one of these wet paintings

  • outside overnight

  • next to a light in the woods.

  • By the morning it was lacquered with bugs.

  • But I didn't care. It didn't matter. It didn't matter.

  • I took all these paintings back to my studio,

  • and scraped them, and carved into them,

  • and poured paint thinner on them,

  • put more paint on top, drew on them.

  • I had no plan,

  • but I was watching what was happening.

  • This is the one with all the bugs in it.

  • I wasn't trying to represent a real space.

  • It was the chaos and the imperfections that were fascinating me,

  • and something started to happen.

  • I got curious again.

  • This is another one from the woods.

  • There was a caveat now, though.

  • I couldn't be controlling the paint like I used to.

  • It had to be about implying and suggesting,

  • not explaining or describing.

  • And that imperfect, chaotic, turbulent surface

  • is what told the story.

  • I started to be as curious as I was when I was a student.

  • So the next thing was I wanted to put figures in these paintings, people,

  • and I loved this new environment,

  • so I wanted to have both people and this atmosphere.

  • When the idea hit me of how to do this,

  • I got kind of nauseous and dizzy,

  • which is really just adrenaline, probably,

  • but for me it's a really good sign.

  • And so now I want to show you what I've been working on.

  • It's something I haven't shown yet, and it's like a preview, I guess,

  • of my upcoming show,

  • what I have so far.

  • Expansive space

  • instead of the isolated bathtub.

  • I'm going outside instead of inside.

  • Loosening control,

  • savoring the imperfections,

  • allowing the --

  • allowing the imperfections.

  • And in that imperfection,

  • you can find a vulnerability.

  • I could feel my deepest intention, what matters most to me,

  • that human connection

  • that can happen in a space where there's no resisting or controlling.

  • I want to make paintings about that.

  • So here's what I learned.

  • We're all going to have big losses in our lives,

  • maybe a job or a career,

  • relationships, love, our youth.

  • We're going to lose our health,

  • people we love.

  • These kinds of losses are out of our control.

  • They're unpredictable,

  • and they bring us to our knees.

  • And so I say, let them.

  • Fall to your knees. Be humbled.

  • Let go of trying to change it

  • or even wanting it to be different.

  • It just is.

  • And then there's space,

  • and in that space feel your vulnerability,

  • what matters most to you,

  • your deepest intention.

  • And be curious to connect