The sorrows and joys of taffy

Here I am with a taffy painting I started in February, but have been deterred from finishing because of multiple family obligations. Nevertheless, slow but steady.

I embarked on a series of enlarged images of salt-water taffy last year, unable to reach cruising speed for the work because of a slow flood of continuous family obligations. Over the past year, I’ve had to keep halting my painting (and writing) every two or three weeks for multiple reasons, including several trips to Florida to prepare my parents’ condo for rental or sale, since they’re no longer able to get down there—as well as flights to L.A. to spend a welcome week with my kids and grandkids, after long absences. Having just gotten back from one of those weeks in L.A., my mother fell and broke her hip and then amazed the Highland Hospital staff with her rapid ability to get moving again after a partial hip replacement at the age of 94. So, with my time devoted to helping both parents adapt to all of this at home, my work has been on hold for yet another week as of today. 

Caring for aged parents has provided an energizing counterpoint to work at the easel, especially because I’ve been focused on such what seems at first such a trivial subject, dollops of salt-water taffy veiled behind twists of waxed paper, in contrast to the somber, chastening experience of advanced age. Lauren Purje, after she saw my paintings of candy jars seven or eight years ago, remarked, “There’s sadness in them.” It was undoubtedly what charmed her about the paintings, though at the time I was nonplussed by the comment, unconscious of everything about those paintings other than my formal intentions. Sad candy seemed like an oxymoron. They offered me a way to bring more color to a still life—giving me a softened geometric image, a grid, and the format let me choose the colors I could put down. It also offered a balance between flatness and representational depth. The emotional pull of the image wasn’t even on my radar—I was too aware of my formal goals to be alert to what the act of painting had smuggled into the image on its own, while my attention was diverted to the paint itself. In other words, the candy jars were a reminder of how I think art actually operates, embodying a world of feeling and imagination despite an artist’s conscious intentions, conveying more than the artist is, or can ever be, aware of.

I chose taffy for formal reasons as well: the way in which it enabled me to pick and choose different color harmonies and presented loosely abstract properties in the shapes of the paper and the molded nougat-like candy full of supple curves with a few sharp edges. Each bit of wrapped taffy, when the image is enlarged, looks sculptural, muscular, but also ethereal and vulnerable to me—like the contrast between the modeled wax and fabric of Degas’ sculpture of an adolescent dancer. The spirals and tiers and spots of color in the candy itself feel—to me—like wistful, sotto voce references to color field painting, translated into three dimensions. Stacking them and setting them near a window for the shadows cast by a single source of natural light, I’m fascinated by how much drama the images can evoke, like glimpses of rare birds. Their shapes and lines, and the variation in opacity and transparency, give them an almost psychological resonance when I look at the finished work. They seem full of personality. And, simply in their shape and the way they catch the light, a stacked pair of these treats evokes for me a dozen different things: insect wings, tropical fish, rock faces, raptors, carved marble, Elizabethan portraits, skulls, and flesh clothed in sheer fabric. There is a slightly erotic allure in the way these little chunks of sugar present themselves for viewing though the lumpy quality of their form makes this sort of reflection amusing. All of it is amusing. It’s a little funny simply to find oneself painting images of candy and talking at any length about it. Thiebaud kept having to fight the notion that he was crazy to pick his sweet subject matter in the beginning. 

Whether or not anyone else has an inkling about any of this while looking at these paintings, it’s what makes me want to stick with it for quite a while: all of these associations give the act of painting these images a luxuriant feel of being immersed in an encouraging certainty that this is exactly what I should be painting right here and now. That’s a rare feeling, because it’s so easy to get away from the feel of settling into exactly what you most want to do with paintings that answer to what you want to see when you are done. I forget about how slowly the work proceeds and delight in the process itself, in the feel of the paint as I apply it. When you are in that zone, it hardly matters what you are depicting or how, because there’s a sense of perfection in the process that justifies itself anc conveys something essential about painting to a viewer. Again, this is ironic. I’m representing objects riddled with imperfections, wrinkles, crimps, dimples, and cracks, squeezed, smudged, torn here and there, and yet by painting all of that a certain way, they look exactly right and they evoke for me the perfection of any and all imperfections in a subject when they are subsumed into a good painting.  

Lately, too, these paintings feel like an intersection between life and art for me. I’ve been surprised at how the light itself, the way it falls on these punished-looking yet stubbornly cheery servings of empty calories reminds me of the slow, suffering decline my parents are enduring. A sentinel of mortality hovers in my peripheral vision every day now, the sense of impending surrender that skulks around the emotional family campfire, waiting for the flames to gutter.  They aren’t going anywhere. Their health is comparatively good, broken bones notwithstanding. But the erosion of age is relentless. The perky quality of this candy, seemingly eager to be unwrapped and enjoyed, reminds me inevitably of how my parents continue to crack jokes despite the indignities and disorders of advanced age and how they delight in the simplest things, the company of nearly anyone—how they still revel in the color of new leaves in the spring, the beauty of their grandchildren (as hard to make out through the distortions of macular degeneration as it is to see edges of candy behind waxed paper), the weary smile of a son showing up every other day to help. The nurses and techs who came to my mother’s room loved her after three days. She and my father still live independently at home, but it’s a cluttered place now, full of devices to help my father move around, countless pill bottles, machines to magnify whatever my mother needs to read, and lingering smells that wouldn’t have been there ten years ago. They are at the age when they still want to live, and be with the ones they love, though they are ready for whatever might follow the encroaching squalor of a struggle that gets harder from one month to the next.  I could try painting portraits of my parents, but in an oblique way, for me, these taffy paintings are representations of their lives, their struggle, their spirit.

So the sadness of jelly beans may be in the process of being upstaged by the brave tristesse of taffy. Whether the work conveys joy or sadness, life or death, if they turn out the way I want, the images this subject gives me will—I hope—hint at a larger beauty that encompasses all of those polarities. One thing that hasn’t changed and doesn’t fluctuate is love and much of this work is a celebration and direct expression of it. I love my family. I love my work. I may be painting taffy for quite a while, and all those wings that will never fly. I hope I can find time to paint other things as well, though maybe I shouldn’t worry about that just yet. 

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