Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Brian's Masked Sunrise

I stare at the painting. Its reds, oranges, yellows and flight move me as they have for 27 years. All things being equal, odds are, based on everything else I no longer have, that I would not have this either. For a good while it was 90% of everything I owned. It traveled with me from Seattle to Santa Fe, from Santa Fe to Dallas, back to Seattle, in the cargo of the plane to New York, and in the back of the mini-teeny truck home to NC. It traveled to Las Vegas, to a small apartment in Hilton Head and on to Atlanta, then to the NC tobacco barn, the log cabin and finally, this home where many lives and stories, merged.  I  have left clothes, furniture, books and most other things behind, but Brian and his Masked Sunrise have remained a constant, the first thing in place no matter where I landed, like my own sacred cornerstone, a sacred cornerstone and a sacred knowing, as long as Brian was with me, I could rise free as his birds into the sunrise.

Masked sunrise, maybe it was a metaphor for his life, the potential, the glory, and the mask. For me it was and is always about the sunrise as metaphor for possibility, goodness, love, sustenance, awe, for the true in nature and the true in us, for the palpably beautiful and the palpably real.

I see the blackbird winging towards the heart of sunrise and I think how much it is like Brian. Always in motion, always striving, determined to make it even when the depression, the suffering, the callousness, the disrespect and inhumanity tried to crush his beautiful soul, he was always seeking to fly, he was always seeking glory in the morning.

He has been sitting company a lot with me these last days. It has just been his birthday and mine.

I see him as I first saw him, leaping across the stage in the hot pink stretch pants that he later  gave  to me, the ones that defined him and later defined me, the ones I wore with hot pink stillettos, funk, bad taste and full-on "this is who I am." They were "who we were," shared.

I remember the first Thanksgiving where he invited all his alone friends and he cooked for us from his heart in his gourmet way.  I had not yet cultivated the taste for chestnuts, and brussel sprouts, or seaweed, I was longing for  thick gravy, stuffing made with butter and a pile of mashed potatoes. In memory it became two things, the Thanksgiving of trying to swallow what I'd rather have spit in the napkin and the Thanksgiving where alone hearts were embraced in a day of giving thanks for all the hearts. It is why each year, the tables and borrowed chairs grow and Mama's and my plates merge and each year it is more challenging to feed the growing Thanksgiving numbers, but it is why the Blessing Bowl overflows. It is Thanksgiving as ritual and heart, and as Brian defined it in 1977.

Brian was deep and deeply committed, a deep thinker, a deep feeler, a deep everythinger. He was deeply healthy and deeply working on staying that way, in either a slim and lithe dancer's body or the body builder, muscled and strong one. When he was training he'd think nothing of working out for 3 hours and ending the work-out with a visit to see me, running up the 46 flights of high-rise steps to get to my office. Most often, he'd walk in barely breathless and giving me "the look." The one that came when he saw my croissants and bacon and butter that he knew I'd either taken the elevator to get or sent Tina to get while my own butt stayed parked happily in my chair.  I would meet his look, reach for my bacon and we would talk. One day he waved his arm at me when he walked in, his hands held a rolled up  sheet of paper. An almost perfect likeness of me drawn from memory. The frame has long-since disappeared, the offwhite paper is smudged and dirty, but it hangs between my office and bedroom.  It is signed by 4 fingerprints turned into hearts that I remember he said he had blown kisses into.

He called me early one Saturday, he had a borrowed car, and took me to a  beach on the peninsula, a picnic basket of feast treats and a bottle of champagne and we sat and stared at the wild ocean and huddled together in appreciation of magic.  It was one of many Brian surprises, he delighted in giving and he delighted in surprises and he was master at combining both.  I was often the recipient of full-out serendipitous goodness.  The first gift ever I found on my pillow. He'd taken a bus from Seattle to Kirkland, broken into my house and placed an inscribed copy of The Red Balloon on my pillow. He'd locked the house back up and quietly left.  Years later when he came to visit he would leave behind more gifts or mail them after he left. The green bowl, the weaving he'd done on his grandmother's loom, "Things Not Seen" a painting I"d fallen in love with from the slides,  As I finally quit traveling and most of what I owned was not just my sunrise, as my possessions began to grow again, so did the gifts from Brian. He delighted my heart and my home.

The last thing that came a handmade book, each page a page of his last vision quest, each page a short poem of his soul that day, each page one day closer to when he decided that he wanted to live and not die. It is a beautiful book, fragile, delicate and unmeasurably strong, it is him. His grandmother's teachings about life and art had mostly sustained him, he had made peace with the love of his family and the love of his family removed. He had found partners and left partners, had had successes and the many lean times when having been the first Barista for Starbucks he would always return to that for making the money to pay the rent when the stretches between one man shows were too long. And he had doubted himself, his life and his gifts more times than a human being should, but finally, had found some peace.

Sometimes we would lose each other for a year or 2 or 3 but always we would find each other again. His last trip here he stood over the pool in the woods imagining his next one man show and beginning to draw figure after figure swimming, diving, flying, leaping, all of the figures in a place of movement but also all in a place of surrender  (just like him). He would cook our dinner, and draw, he would laugh at Jeff not smoking smoking and the curiously funny way that Papa broke his leg, he would talk of his Borzois and how he missed them. He would come upstairs to tell me he would be sleeping on the couch in the den because the spirits in the basement were way too active.

He would leave. For the last time.

I knew he had moved to a small town north of Seattle, had finally found a partner he was happy with, that he was teaching and working on several new shows I knew he was finally almost as close as genius can ever get to being happy.

I lost him for 2 years, I googled him. I couldn't find him and then one day a review appeared, of a one-man show of figures leaping and moving, dancing and flying off into surrender. I finally reached the gallery to ask  them to have him call me.

"Oh." She said.

"I don't know how to tell you this...
 That show was 2 years ago...
 and well, Brian died."

I hung up.

Over the course of the next few days I would learn about an opening night, a mosquito bite, a headache that started and wouldn't quit, a hospital that said nothing was wrong, a return trip back a few days later too late, a coma and then his death. I would learn of a family who did not want his paintings but finally took them anyway, unhappy with what they perceived as a burden.
I would never learn about his partner, the end of his life, his final almost happiness.

I would learn about fleeting, and about too sudden. I would remember big generous and big love.

These days he has been with me. His birthday August 28.
Telling people I love them is something I do, every day, and as often as possible. For whatever reason, I never told Brian enough.

I place the Red Balloon, the green bowl, the poster, the card, his handmade book on the woven throw, the throw that is  on the guest bedroom bed,  the one he wove with love, the one that adds his love to mine and reaches out in welcome to the one who comes to stay. I look at what is symbolic of the person who so enriched and continues to enrich my life. The soul I believe still paints the sunrise, while sitting in the middle of it.

I wonder if he knows how big he was, how gifted, how loving, how powerful, how beautiful. I wonder if he knows how much I loved him, how much he gave me, how much because of him, that glorious sunrises and flight free as a bird have always been and always will be, my possibility.

Things Not Seen
A note to me, a poem sealed with a kiss.
 "We fall & climb again into arcs of radiance fill the sky with vibration
 impelled like summer birds."

33 years of gifts that traveled in one small box across the country and back again.  The Red Balloon inscribed in 1977, the last handmade book from his 2004 vision quest, the weaving made on his grandmother's loom.
The article on Brian in 1996 New American Paintings: A Quarterly Exhibition, Open Studios Competition Number VI


  1. I am happy to know of Brian and the story behind the Masked Sunrise and the Lucie sketch signed with fingerprint kisses that I remember hanging on your cabin wall. Love you, Beener

  2. This is such a beautiful tribute. Masked Sunrise has always been one of my favorites.

  3. Beautiful interpretation of love.