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Relearning a Set-Point

Lia Farnsworth

I am an artist.

I am an artist.

I am an artist.

It’s Monday. I have been repeating the above mantra to myself, licking the words about my lips, trying to understand the rhythm in their syntax, the rhythm in their meaning. I have oil paint stained in the crevices of my palms, in the matting of my hair, on my clothes, shoes, books, papers, carpets, sheets. This morning, I found a spot of alizarin crimson in the bristles of my toothbrush.

I spent the first twenty years of my life preparing to be a doctor. It always seemed natural and essential to me that I follow my duty as the eldest grandchild of my Korean doctor grandfather, trailing him to his hospital clinic in Seoul, laying out pink and blue pills in groups of perfect sevens that the nurse would slip into wax paper packages. I was five at the time. It felt like I was born to sort those pills, to don my plastic nurse cap from the toy hospital kit I’d received for Christmas. It felt like the most important thing in the world, to make my grandfather glow with unrepressed pride as he showed me off to his second-floor Noryang-jin clinic patients, to dance about those rooms wallpapered with documents of his Fulbright studies in Germany and medical school achievements.

Eight years after my grandfather passed away, it still seemed like the most important thing in the world. I learned to laugh, I learned to let my friends laugh at the glaring Asian-ness of my med school dreams and my Suzuki-trained violin performances in an attempt to pack away my ever-increasing obsession. I packaged away my violin and writing and swimming and history dreams to sign up for a major in biochemistry before I fully knew what the word meant. I trained my hands to reach robotically for my uniform of lab coats and goggles and practical close-toed shoes to replace my necklaces and noisy ballet flats and effect my metamorphosis. I learned to replace sleep with diet coke, music with chemical equations, and frustrations with exclamation points, because I was going to be a cardiovascular surgeon! I was going to do the most important thing in the world!

On the afternoon I had planned to take the MCAT, I sat in Borders with a random stack of magazines on the table in front of me, staring at the cars driving by the window. I watched them, slowly, meditatively, tracing the pulsations of their peristalsis by the change of the traffic lights, thinking about everything but the exam I wasn’t taking. When it grew dark, I pushed back the unopened magazines, and drove home.

It takes a lot of energy to fight a set-point. In an indulgent midnight tabloid session between the pretzels and Tostitos on aisle ten of the grocery store, I read an article in Elle magazine that claims that the style of our hair has a set-point. An important concept. No matter how we might style our hair, the article declares, no matter how many fashion makeovers we might subvert to in panicked reaches for trendy updates or au courant timelessness, our hair will always revert back to a set state. I think of my next-door neighbor in her two-story town home, her maroon-dyed hair and perpetual half-mullet managing to defy the passage of trends and time. I sprawl my legs across the grocery store tiles, rest my arms against my soy-milk laden basket, and lapse into contemplation.

My hair is half-wavy, brown, fine, naturally frizzy, and often finds itself in a knot at the nape of my neck. My go-to outfit of choice since 2003 has been a cardigan with a skirt and patent-leather flats. And my life has always been clean, organized, filled with books lined in alphabetical order and appointments detailed in color-coded tabs in my pocket planner.

I rub at the coarseness of my hands, quiet the weeping of my skin against the cruel baths of lithotine and aspartame that my lithography class has forced upon them. My life has always been clean, organized – coerced to be so, set to be so. Not filled with these late nights painting, not filled with this aching skin, these stained clothes.

Your gesture paintings are the truest reflection of your style, my figure painting professor says. We’re nearly a month into the semester, and he’s just called me out to the hall for our first critique. I lay out my gestural figure paintings in a crisp line along the white tiles, letting each drop to the floor with a satisfying click. We step back. The sun filtering through the windows of the hall bathes us with an afternoon lethargy, quiets the arbitrary greens shadowing the legs of my painted figure and the purples hugging her hair, showers my pieces with a new objectivity. My professor points to a gestural portrait of my grandmother. The painting is still saturated with the wetness of the night before, with the memory of squeezing oils from tubes like frosting that I’d buttered across my panel with a palette knife, blending greens and pinks with the tip of my left index finger.

This is your most successful piece, he says.

The painting is a mess: a thick smudge for the nose, wipes of black and white and lavender for the hair. I pick up the panels from the floor, stack them into a neat pile, tuck them to rest in my locker incubating with the perfume of linseed oil and turpentine. My clothes are caked with oils, my fingers are lined with a sepia brown that clings to my nails like filth. This is my new uniform, these are the layers of my metamorphosis.

After the critique, I stare at the large figure painting, the midterm project I’ve been working on for weeks, painstakingly glazing colors over colors in an attempt at high-realism. Prokofiev beats in a dramatic wave of chord progressions through the headphone in my right ear, then through my left, repeating again, again: your gesture paintings are the truest reflection of your style. Your gesture paintings are the truest reflection of your style. I take the piece off the easel, walk it down the stairs, out the door, on the lawn, then rub off the layers with a piece of 40-grit extra coarse sandpaper, pausing only to see the white of the underlying canvas breathe its gratitude.

I found out I’d made it into BYU’s art program over a phone call my junior year. For two months I had driven frantically from campus to art lessons in Salt Lake, thrusting together pencil sketches and watercolor glazes into a portfolio I’d submitted anxiously, hopefully, before succumbing to the wait. I was sitting in a physics class when I saw that my mother had called, and when I called her back, listened to her mention nonchalantly on the other side of the line that oh, yes, I had gotten an acceptance letter, but really, I should think through things, I paused a moment in delirium before bursting into overjoyed tears.

We were studying electric potentials. I no longer had to care, I no longer could care: my life had just changed.

I’m sitting on a bench outside a campus lab building, drinking in the warm milk of the mid-afternoon light. The sun clings to my dark tights, the purple ones I had thought to buy in a brilliant moment of fashion forecast on a Seoul sidewalk this summer. I let the warmth wrap around me, bury within the plumes of green pashmina wrapped about my neck.

My science book flutters open in front of me, glaring its GENES: IX title with a sneer of intimidation. I have a quiz on all tenets of chapters 16 through 18 within the next hour. I haven’t begun studying. I open the cover. I look up. I check my phone. I think about my paintings, begun this afternoon, drying quietly in the blueness of my studio closet. I try to read the opening sentence again: “Single copy plasmids have a partitioning system that ensure,” I look up, “that duplicate plasmids,” I check my phone, “are segregated…” I spot a stroke of orange paint I’d failed to remove from the underside of my wrist and juxtapose it with the brilliant green of my textbook cover. I try to read the sentence again.

It’s 1:23 PM, 37 minutes from the start of class, from the start of one of my final courses in advanced molecular biology that will guarantee me a bachelor’s degree in physiology and then promise to leave me alone forever, absolve me from the chain that is my study of science. I envision myself entering the classroom, attempting to appear incognito on row four of six, three seats in, trying to look placidly concerned about the answers I am randomly circling on our weekly quiz, attempting to disguise my blasé over the presentation on the differences between tRIM5a and PtERV1.

This much is clear: I am not, by choice and by passion, a scientist.

I fell in love with Modigliani’s long-necked and blank-eyed portraits at seventeen, marveling at the elongated curves cradling his deep, sensuous reds, worshiping the longing in his figures’ almond eyes and clenched fingertips. I traced and printed out his paintings on bits of leftover cardstock paper that I pasted into my books, locker, walls: holy relics I would bow silently to every afternoon on my way to the cafeteria.

During a summer trip to Italy after a year of hard science at college, I made my mother travel back to Venice with me (back, because we had already been) to visit a Modigliani exhibit we had missed through massively frustrating doses of ill-planning. We boarded a train at six in the morning, eyes glazed and tired, bodies draped over the sticky plastic of our third-class Eurorail seats. It wasn’t until we walked into the halls of the museum, it wasn’t until I saw the works across the hall lapsed in glorious light, ghostly artifacts, holy gods, that my fingers tingled and my eyes welled and I remembered that I was alive.

Layered oils. Almond eyes. Slender fingers.

While my mom waited impatiently outside, I wandered the gallery for hours, sketching the particulars of the paintings, closing my eyes and wishing desperately to engrain the images into the deepest recesses of my understanding, to reach out and learn the artist’s secret, to become him.

Modigliani died at the age of thirty-five of tubercular meningitis, drugs, alcohol, women, and a Bohemian lifestyle.

I sit in my car three days after I break up with my best friend, after three days of kneeling on the floor and scrubbing the kitchen tiles with cloroxed sponges, three days of repeating Rachmaninoff’s cello sonata in g minor from the quivering living room speakers while my roommates avert their eyes and tiptoe past, softly, pityingly. I peeled at my skin, rubbed it raw, rubbed it new, and as I sit in the heavy quietness of my car after three days of trying to forget I finally begin to weep, the clear salt of my tears sanctifying the sadness from my eyes, carrying the messiness from my heart.

As a child I would iron the wrinkles in my bed sheets, straighten the books on my shelf, and vacuum the peach softness of my bedroom carpet in parallel to my father mowing the front lawn. When the deep green scent of lawnmower would begin its drift through my open window, I’d fold my hands crisply inwards and perch near a wall, legs crossed in meditation, lips upturned in quiet satisfaction. Cleaning meant perfection, control. Holiness.

We gather around my oil painting professor’s computer, craning to see the rolling footage of Susan Rothenberg wandering the foothills of her solitary New Mexico ranch, sitting in her studio with a palette so thick with the history of oils that she cups her new formed colors into her hands and flings them nascent, free onto her skyscraping canvases with slingshots of cardboard.

I worship her art. I worship the carefree messiness of the line that transforms into horses, landscapes, houses, people, the flowing suggestions of vivid color that congregate into swaths of representation on her twelve foot canvases. I worship it because I long for it, because I am terrified of it. I worship it because I know that I have to learn to let go, to let my gesture paintings act as the truest reflection of my style, to go forward into art and relinquish my vestigial hold on medical school and its guarantee of plans and my blueprinted lists and be okay with not knowing what I’m doing, where I am going, what mess I may be making.

I sit at the kitchen table, fingering the last line of my journal, dated a week prior. How do I feel about perspectival lines, it reads, about dripping galkyd, about dripping galkyd on top of perspectival lines?

The light curving through the window rests heavily, spicily on my tongue, the redemptive amber glow of a 4:00 in October. I drink in the warmth, feel it coat my thirsty cells with its viscous and healing trickle. In this moment, I am satisfied, I am granted the wisdom of a late afternoon glow, and I understand that I can call myself an artist, or not call myself an artist, and worry about messiness, or not worry about messiness. My painting will still be waiting in the studio upstairs. My fingers will still be stained with color.

I close my journal, take a final sip of tea and put on my apron. Ready for work.