This Thing Called Community

The other day someone asked me when I knew I was an artist. I didn’t even hesitate because that day had nothing to do with art. It had to do with something far deeper and hungrier in me, the need for community. And I sought it for most my life.

It started in my late teens when I spent about three months in a commune. It was a period of time when I struggled with a lot of things. I needed to get away from my father’s violent temper and his drunken rages. I mostly stayed with Kristina in a cheap motel room where the only window overlooked an alley where the working girls entertained clients who couldn’t afford to pay for a room.

We both worked in a coffee shop owned by an Armenian immigrant, who gave us jobs during our high school years and paid us under the table. He was the closest thing to a stable family for both of us then. He knew what my father looked like and he always hid me when he saw him coming. We always felt safe at work. Other than Dimitri’s coffee shop, neither of us really had a home other than the beds of temporary boyfriends.

That changed when we became involved in the Peace Rat collective. We helped young, scared men apply for conscientious objector status, the first joint writing project Kristina and I did together. When their applications were denied, we helped them get to Canada. During the height of the Vietnam war the fervor to go after pacifists like ourselves was at insanity levels. Several of us were evicted from our apartments, and found it nearly impossible to rent another because we were considered anarchists. So when we heard of a communal living situation in the foothills, we went for it.

It took three months for me to know as much as I loved the community and the people in it, I was basically a loner and living among so many people was not something I could do. I went back to work for Dimitri and rented a cheap hole in the wall studio apartment in a seedy part of town. But I stayed in touch with the folks from the commune, and I still communicate with some of them.

My experience there taught me the value of being around those who saw the world through the same filters. We were not the same people, but we shared similar visions. We wanted peace. We wanted equality for all humans. We wanted love and kindness to guide us along whatever path we walked. We wanted a sense of belongingness, a community where it didn’t matter if we were understood as long as we were accepted.

Over the years, through the pursuit of all those pieces of paper that pronounced me educated, I experienced that same sense of community in many different ways and with different people. I was a member of a peyote church for about a year. I went to what were then called happenings, love fests, music festivals. I moved on to barter fairs, rainbow gatherings, and Dead shows. I was part of a community that grew and changed according to my need to take part in it, whether it was a small introspective group harvesting peyote for a ceremony or a gathering of several thousand naked dancing hippies. It was all community and it all fed me.

As I grew older I began to narrow my search to one that was more permanent and less transitory. I wanted permanence. Understanding of who I was inside became important. Introspection in others became important. I became impatient and finally discouraged by the shallow and the selfish because I knew the good that was out there. I had followed it for decades and knew the hold it had on me. I didn’t want to explain anymore why the inner world mattered as much if not more than the outer world. I didn’t want to explain anymore. I was tired of trying to fit into that square peg with my round life.

And then I noticed something start to happen. Some of my circle of what I thought was my community started to fall away. It wasn’t any one thing most of the time. It was simply that one day I realized I had what I wanted all along. I didn’t recognize it at first because of the layers of clay, ink, paint, and dye that covered it. But eventually most of the people I felt the most connected to, most of the people that were the constant in the communities I was part of were artists. It was that way since i was 14 and it is that way now. I had completed the circle. The realization was like suddenly realizing I had ten digits when I thought I only had nine. I felt whole for the first time in my life.

It’s been a few years now since that day but once it became clear there was no going back. My community are people who spend a lot of time alone giving life to what lives inside them. They’ve explored the light, the dark, the good, the bad and everything in between. When you’ve gone through that it doesn’t need to be explained. It’s in the very air you breathe together. It’s in those quiet moments when you understand what it means to see behind your eyes. It is the baring of souls through art. It is drawing the depths into the foreground so others can, if not understand, to at least accept. It is belongingness. It is community.

Kate Taylor’s Art

Sorting Through The Remnants

The first year is for grieving, and the second seems to be settling in as a time of contemplation, of remembering and sorting. In the time since Kristina’s death I’ve read as much as I could handle about the type of personality changes that occurred when her tumor spread to her brain. Much of what happened to her mentally followed the set pattern for prefrontal tumors, but some of it was rare and uniquely her, as she was, as her life was.

We met when we were both fourteen years old, behind a wall of headdresses worn by showgirls in Vegas shows. Her mother was what they then called the wardrobe mistress. She kept all the little pieces of sparkly material and shiny things whole. I remember how her fingers sometimes bled from hours of stitching beads onto tiny pieces of fabric. I also remember her kindness, her love for her daughter, and her acceptance of me, a strange little white girl from a family who mostly spoke something other than English.

I remember that night so clearly. The dancers entered the stage in a mist that cast a muted light on their nearly naked bodies. It allowed every toned muscle, every shadow, every curve to stand out. They wore tiny pieces of flesh covered gauze on their mandatory covered parts, and a powdery glitter on their bodies that danced with them as they moved. It was magical and both Kristina and I watched enchanted as they danced to the haunting notes of a single flute.

This is how our friendship of fifty-six years began. Over the years we became the vaults of each other’s darkest nightmares. I listened to her fears that one day her father would kill her mother. She saw my bruises, the welts, the broken fingers I showed no on else. We became good at hiding each other, of waiting in the shadows until it was safe to come out.

We were with each other during our first high school crushes, and then through all those that came after. I was with her the night her father killed her mother. She was with me the night my father cracked two of my ribs when he kicked me in a blind rage because I wouldn’t give him money.

We learned love broke our hearts over and over again, but we still continued to believe in it. We fell in love with each other, with others, with those who loved us back and with those who didn’t love us back. We both got married in college to men who were not like other men, men we knew would never hit us, abuse us, or abandon us. We were determined to break the pattern, to fight back, to say no, to not live our mother’s lives.

When it came time for graduate school, we ended up on opposite coasts, but not a month went by without a letter, a card, a phone call, and in later years, emails, texts, messages, long full pages of thoughts we worked out on each other. We used our ability to shape thoughts into words for a business that was uniquely suited to who we were as ourselves and to each other. We worked as freelance artists in both print and digital. And we wrote 500 word essays for blogs, news sites, individual writers. The buyer would fill them in with their own words, their own expanded ideas.

We worked hard for little money. It was mostly boring. One of us would start the essay, the other would add to it. We emailed each other the pages back and forth until they were done, ready to sell, boringly complete and precise. Vanilla writing for vanilla people. Even now it is impossible to tell who wrote what sentence. We both did is the only correct answer. It was how our minds worked with each other.

As we got older birthdays became milestones instead of celebrations, and the one that stood out for both of us was the 70th. We called it the year of no fucks left to give, the year we would finally experience complete and total freedom from the expectations of anyone and anything. We plotted and planned, thought of contacting our old peace rat collective from high school, and all the artists from then whose friendships kept us alive during those awkward years. But shortly after her 68th birthday, Kristina was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She dealt with it the way she did everything. She researched it. She studied it. She interviewed those who had it. She visited the dying when she learned it was terminal. But she thought she had time. We both thought she had time. We continued to plan. We continued to hope. And then it spread to her brain and everything turned upside down, inside out, and changed everything forever.

Her memory seemed burned away, forgotten, and replaced with nothing but confusion. Except for one small piece, a period of time when we first met, our high school and undergraduate years. Those years were clear as the present, as real to her as me and Stefano and everyone else in our lives. Except for the holes in her memory of specific times and places, she seemed the same Kristina, as long as we lived with her during that period of time.

But she wasn’t the same Kristina. She didn’t just remember those years. She moved into them. They became her present, her current life, her only memories. In retrospect I can understand how it was more than the tumor. It was also something else that happened as we aged. We remembered the past again. Things that were forgotten are suddenly remembered.

For me it was difficult beyond words. It was a painful time of my life, one I’ve done my best to bury. But because the woman who carried my life inside her, the best friend who knew everything about me went to live there, I had no choice but to follow her.

But I was a bystander and she was a participant. She imagined events were happening that long ago passed into faded memories. She tried to set me up with my high school crush, like she once did all those years ago, only he was long gone. But her brain couldn’t grasp that. She simply did not understand me when I tried to explain. The extent of it didn’t become clear until Stefano and I went through her laptop.

She used voice to text software to contact our past, to give it shape in a world that no longer existed. She wrote to people who didn’t exist, and she wrote to those who did, but not as she remembered them existing. She professed love to those who damaged her ability to love, and she apologized to those who hurt her. Her world was upside down and I was merely a member of the cast, a silent one too numb to do much but shut down everything I felt so it wouldn’t hurt so much when I lost her. But it still hurt. And it still does.

And now it has been over for a while and I understand much more than I did. I know why she chose that period of time. It was where all the unresolved issues lived, because as we aged we developed the skills to at least smooth the edges of those issues that came after. But then we were clueless and so they festered inside us, interfered in everything from choice of lovers to career paths. Our pasts didn’t go anywhere. They just lay in wait.

So besides her loss, besides cleaning up a very large mess she left behind with her strange and bizarre letters to people in our pasts, besides learning to say to myself what I once said to her, I’ve been cleaning up my past. I’ve been confronting the worst of it.

I’ve been painting some it with the help of an art therapist. But most important of all, I’ve been healing from it. I can’t change the damage that was done to me physically, spiritually, psychologically, but I can find the point where I can live with it. In a strange sort of Kristina way, that was the best parting gift she could leave me and I thank her for it. I thank her for living. For loving. For helping me get to this point of delicious freedom where I have no fucks left to give, and all the best memories live in my heart.

Kate Taylor’s Art

Stretching The Boundaries

My art, like my books, tended towards the political. I focused on the external world and topics that affected us as human beings, issues like global warming, climate change, pro-choice, separation of church and state. I tended to create both my words and my art realistically, with little emotion or personal interference.

I felt this gave it the rawness I wanted to inspire a reaction in the readers and the viewers, because if it didn’t inspire a reaction then nothing would change. We would rot away in our complacency happily unaware of civilization collapsing around us under the weight of greed, corruption, and religious fanaticism.

While I was working on the third book in the series, When The Last Ocean Dies, a novel that explored the changes and growth that took place in war, in traumatic situations, and as a result of visionary experiences, I began to explore the concept of patterns both within us and in the external world. I started to understand what I always assumed was habitual behavior was actually a falling into something that was already there.

The many wars, the plagues, the times of great creativity and the times of intellectual exploration were more than behaviors of specific individuals. They were part of waves that followed timelines. These periods of time ebbed and flowed, changed shape, died back and then grew once more.

I saw if I charted events on a timeline, patterns began to emerge. When I applied that same timeline to humans and spiritual growth, yet another pattern emerged, often alongside an existing one. The patterns grew from each other and into the next pattern.

The separations weren’t as clear as the continuity that gave form to the new ones. But I began to see shapes and forms in a different light. They were more than lines and squares and rectangles. They were pieces of a larger whole that connected.

After a conversation with an abstract painter, I decided to explore those patterns in my art. It was very different than anything I’ve done. It was a new way of looking at the familiar and finding the shapes, the designs, the patterns of color and form that I saw. I created the idea of something instead of the actual thing. I created the shape of something to give it form. The more I did this, the more the patterns began to emerge.

This is an exploration that is in the beginning stages for me. It’s part of my promise to stretch my boundaries in the coming year, to examine different approaches to the familiar. I suspect this will be a continuing exploration in both my writing and in my art.

I know there are many new ways of looking at things to gather from such explorations, and in time they will make themselves known just as the patterns made themselves known. Some examples of my new way of looking at the world are now up in an online gallery at Fine Art America. You can view it here.

Kate Taylor’s Books and Art Ursine Logic