Carrer Verdi (Barcelona) P. Crockett
AS time passed I sensed the power of the path opening up before me, but also knew that my old life and many of its guiding assumptions had come to an abrupt and final end. Assuming I’m meant to still be here, I thought to myself, where am I supposed to go, and how am I to spend the many slow hours in each day? Suffering seemed real enough, but in most other respects I was simply going through the motions day after day, step by tentative step. Deep in my heart I felt the importance of acting as if life mattered, carrying on in the ways closest and most important to my heart. I was still here for a reason, and was not to waste my time. And so I survived by seeking the support of the friends who loved me, and diving into my painting.
Key West Lighthouse 1990. Splashed onto canvas two days after I’d received my life-changing diagnosis. In a sense, the colors you see here are my most defiant battle cry against a shroud of virulent darkness that seemed to have somehow made its awful way back into our garden, and was now at my throat. It knew only cold hunger, and hunted its apparently random prey with ruthless efficiency and serpentine stealth. For some years, the enemy lacked even a name. Yet it seemed to know all about ours.
The world itself might not have changed in the three days before this road-trip with my friend Justin down to Key West, during which I sat out by the pool at the Lighthouse Court bed & breakfast and did this painting. It might not have changed, but my perception of all within it had shifted suddenly and rudely a full 180 degrees. Everything seemed sickeningly in motion. In this emerging realm new to me, framed by a succession of canvases, the exactness of form, line, and hard-edges no longer really mattered as they once had. My artistic quest was now entirely different.
In retrospect, I was now engaged in a hunt for the Garden as if my very life depended upon it. I saw no choice but to live within the towering shadow of one great gamble, with the very highest of stakes. It was mine to lay upon the table all that I had, or ever even might, in service of one big bet. I needed to know, the consequences be damned, whether the promises made in the beauty of the natural world were still good.
If not– if the ancient dance of light and shadow itself stood revealed as but a cheap and faintly amusing parlor trick– if even color and light most majestic veiled only thinly an underlying corroding stain of Darkness, and had been already tainted to the core by the Horror, then all was forever lost, and I could not pretend. This was no rigged table, and the world no kind of safe place. But nevertheless I was alive, and the inquiry itself helped sustain me. As never before, Color equaled life. Blessedly, I had no place else to turn.
I HAD begun painting seriously following my HIV diagnosis in 1990, and found a freedom in the solitude of my artistic process that eluded me elsewhere. Often with Scott by my side, I would pack up my paints, brushes, etc. into a large, well-used backpack slung over my shoulders, carry my tape player with me, and seek out the beaches, mangrove swamps, tropical hammocks, and other rare and sacred places in South Florida not yet laid low by the hand of man.
Coconut Palm Lullaby 2012
Painting was sometimes a struggle, and the anxiety of the blank canvas with me often, but there were times, blessed moments, when the colors were splashing on just right and I was really getting it. Lost in a process having little to do with the conscious mind, I was capturing nature’s beauty and in the process seeing it as for the first time. Such peak moments refreshed my soul and carried me far.
Ibiza 1993 A world suddenly on fire, everywhere I turned
THE Wednesday following the Friday of Scott’s passing, my entire being weighted down as if somehow lost on a distant planet of much heavier atmosphere and feeling only dull pain where my heart had once been, I headed out with my paints as a leap of faith. Sitting outside listening to the tape Scott had made for me, splashing paint on the canvas as tears ran down my face, I captured in intense swirling color a wall overflowing with lurid bougainvillea, a tropical sky in motion above. On the bottom right of the painting I painted in light blue, lavender, golden yellow, and magenta the words My Dear Scott I will always love you. "This one’s for you, baby," I thought as I completely broke down and cried there on the street. "They always will be."
Love Never Dies 1996 P. Crockett
FROM the very beginning, I felt in the deepest part of me a need to honor and celebrate this man, and the mystery of our love. It was during times of such remembrance, it seemed, that the clouds parted somewhat and I felt most alive. In the month of May, I dedicated myself to the project of preparing in Scott’s honor a quilt panel to become part of the Names Project in San Francisco, California. I had heard that a showing of the complete quilt, perhaps the last one possible as a result of its monstrous hugeness and constant growth, was scheduled to be held on the Mall in Washington, DC the following October. I felt it important that Scott’s panel be a part of it, and read that a deadline of June 1 had been imposed in order to guarantee inclusion in the display.
Scott and I had been stunned by the quilt’s visit to Miami Beach only a couple of years before, and he had volunteered as an assistant during that exhibit. Each six by three foot panel eloquently documented the pain of yet another soul lost, and the overall effect was staggering. To me, as majestic the project and joyful some of the panels, the exhibit as a whole cried out of an anguish beyond measure or depth. My sadness turned to rage as I was brought to tears by one panel after another, finally leaving me only numb. My mind raced with painful questions. Why had not Reagan even spoken the word during the first several years of the epidemic, turning a blind eye as all these good people suffered and died? How could that precious window of opportunity to save lives have been lost? And how long would we all be paying the price?
I had no idea what form Scott’s panel was to take, but I knew that it had to be beautiful and had to express our love. In struggling to find a concept suitable for this enormous task, I came across a copy of the invitation I’d painted just weeks before to a party planned in celebration of our sixth anniversary. It was to have taken place on Saturday, March 9, and we were to have flown out the following afternoon for a pilgrimage to Mississippi, where Scott had planned a long-awaited reunion with the college friends he dearly loved. Our plans were changed by Scott’s death on the morning of March 1.
When I’d shown Scott my first sketch for the card, he smiled with pleasure. He had one reservation, however. As he studied the colorful image, he’d said "It’s great! I love it. But do you really think we should include that hospital panel on a party invitation?" Returning his questioning look, I replied "Yeah, I thought about that. But I really do." Pausing a moment, I said "Honey, think about it. It’s a big part of our experience. How can we leave it out?" "O.K.," he’d agreed, "Let’s go for it!" On the bottom of the card, underneath the images, I exuberantly scrawled the words SIX YEARS TOGETHER! In the face of Scott’s illness, we had known deeply and fully that each new anniversary was a real cause for celebration. This one was not to be.
As I undertook the project of the quilt panel, I became fully engrossed in priming and then painting the large canvas panel, acquiring the materials, sketching out the drawing and the panel’s composition, and marking out the spaces for the text. On the top of the panel, following his name, I planned to paint the dates of his birth and death. First, I painted in light blue the day of his birth, Sept. 27, 1959. Then, as I began to outline for painting the date of his death just below, I broke down.
March 1, 1996 was just a date, simply a collection of letters and numbers, yet it seemed to suddenly slap me in the face and sting with its awful finality. Though to others it might signify little, simply another day on the calendar, to me it drove home hard the point that Scott was now forever gone. Since his body had been cremated according to his wishes, the canvas laid out on the floor before me was the closest I would likely see to a tombstone bearing his name. On some level, I suppose, the creative endeavor of bringing the panel to life was healing for me, but I had to stop for a while. Crying from my gut, I suddenly saw through the intensity of my focus on this new "project" and felt it all meaningless. Filled with rage and pain, I stood back for a moment and realized with horror "My God, I’m making a quilt panel for Scott!" That was something I’d never wanted to do. Yet here I was.
"What does this really mean?" I thought to myself, storming off in frustration. "What difference does a damned piece of painted cloth really make? Is this any kind of substitute for having him here? What was I thinking?" After the shedding of many tears, I finally came to some peace with an understanding that the quilt was just the quilt, and each of its panels commemorating a life, just a panel. It was what it was, nothing more nor less.
The Angel of Death and the Sculptor, from the Milmore Memorial. Funereal sculpture in marble, 1921. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Yet it was also a most personal tribute, and one I had to make and to share. Scott’s memory, and the love we had shared, had to be celebrated.
In a sense, that was what I then lived for. As sung by John Lennon & Elton John:
"Whatever gets you through the night,
it’s all right,
it’s all right."
To Chapter 15