Sunday, July 23, 2006


Today I saw my favorite client. I know I shouldn't have favorite clients, but I defy anyone to resist favoritism, with a client like Susan O. When she first called me, about a year and a half ago, she asked if I was 'taking on new clients.' At the end of each session, she re-books the next session, overtips, and urges me to let her know if I've raised my prices, yet. At Christmas she gave me a BAM gift certificate, with which I obtained a ticket to hear Ute Lemper with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. In my own mind I call her 'sweetie Sue.'

Sue is pregnant with her firstborn, due in two weeks; I consider it a rare privilege to have escorted her through the pregnancy. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling, to think that people like Sue are populating the planet.

Anyway, while I was working on Sue, and meditating upon Sue having an easy delivery, and a healthy baby, I suddenly found myself watching my own hands while I worked. Usually I take my hands for granted, unless I have a cut or a hangnail; then I fret, and realize just how fragile is my livelihood. One moment of carelessness, one wrong move, and I could be out of a job, indefinitely to permanently. If I decide to learn glassworking, I may very well have to get a grant for it; one cannot be a massage therapist with cuts and burns covering one's hands.

I realized that I do a huge amount of thinking with my hands--as well as magic. Magic is as good a word as any, for what happens when I touch someone. I discovered it almost as soon as I started massage school. I'd lay my hands on someone's shoulders, and they'd exclaim, "oh, what are you DOING?" "Nothing, what?" "There's heat. Coming from your hands."

There's really no adequate scientific explanation for why this happens. What I noticed was that, after years of practicing meditation, if I lay my hands on someone and empty my mind, my palms heat up. When I receive bodywork from people, sometimes their hands heat up, sometimes they don't. Everybody's touch is different. There was one girl in my class, Jessica F., who put her hand on my lower back during one of the very first sessions. She put it exactly in the sore place, in the lightest, gentlest way, and said, "oh, it's swollen." There was something sort of silvery and magical about it. Intellectually, Jessica F. was not a giant, and was so lacking in self-confidence that she almost dropped out of massage school after a couple of months. I made it my business to make sure she didn't quit. We swapped bodywork a lot, and I came to trust her implicitly. If there was ever a person who should be touching people for a living, it was Jessica F. She was one of the proudest people I've ever seen, at graduation. I hope she's still massaging.

When I got my Reiki attunements, I asked my Reiki master about the heat thing. She said, "Every person is tuned into their own frequency of healing energy. The Reiki attunement is in addition to that." Her own hands were like a furnace. She was a blast--a little gnome-like woman, living in a semi-commercial one-room space in a converted Berkeley warehouse, with a hot plate, a clothes rack, some cushions, and spiritual books and paraphernalia strewn everywhere. Her conversation was a stream of consciousness anecdotes, punctuated with aphorisms from Gopi Krishna or the Course in Miracles, and the occasional blissed-out sigh. In any other century she would definitely have been burned as a witch. She embodied an archetype.

I have always sensed that the energy of the gesture in my hands is a large part of what I'm doing in my artwork. I will put down the paint with a brush or a palette knife, but most of the time I go over it directly with my hand, so that the entire surface of the canvas has been caressed, coaxed, smoothed, sometimes several times over, with the human touch, as though it arrived there directly from me, with no intermediary tools. My contemporary, Margaret Kilgallen, used to say that the touch of human hand was a huge part of her passion for making art; I found it odd that she would have to say so; it would seem so obvious. But it seems that we have gone, conceptually, a long way from valuing the manual touch of the artist, in most modern art. And I feel that this is a serious loss.

As I write this I'm listening to Rachels' Music for Egon Shiele-- the last track, "Second Family Portrait," with the insistently repetitive, almost pleading pathos of the violin, over the ponderous syncopation of the piano's rhythm. The touch of the violinist, the tiny shifts of emphasis within each note, are what create the music. The essence of the art is in the tiny, scruffy, inarticulable detail. Not the Concept, not the overarching Idea, but the gritty individual manifestation in time. A painting is like that; a massage is like that.

When I give a massage, it lasts at least seventy minutes. Not the idea of the massage, which might take ten minutes to explain, or to perform in the most perfunctory way. The actual manifestation of a massage is unique, personal, rhythmic, intuitive, tailored for the particular person in the particular moment, just like a conversation. For me it's a dance, with a passive audience of one, who is not watching but feeling the movement. The moment I make a false move, the audience knows it. But usually I don't falter.

A painting, for me, is a static object which encapsulates a piece of time, a set of gestures, like a frozen symphony. Oftentimes while I'm working I'll put a certain piece of music on a repeat loop, until the painting has arrived at the corresponding vibration, in my perceptions. Thus the painting is something completely different from a 'picture.' It may 'depict' something, but it is something far more than the sum of its parts. This one of the little thistle in the crater, for example--it's about sharpness and lightness and rosiness and deepness and bleakness and dryness and openness and explosions of clarity--and a picture of the painting contains little to none of that. So much is contained in the history of the actual object.

This touch is something we all feel, both when looking at art and in going through our normal lives, but we so seldom acknowledge that it exists, that it is perhaps the most important thing there is. There's almost no way to describe it. It's as though the thoughts of God are seeping through our palms.


danonymous said...

I do have to say that I very much enjoy reading when you talk about your work and explain your feelings about who you are and who you are in relation to your work.

Chris Rywalt said...

Serena, darling, you should be a writer and a painter. I don't say that lightly, either -- as someone who's pretty good with words myself, I keep my compliments close. But this, what you've written here, it has intimations of greatness in it.

One of the things I find so magical about paintings is you can stand in the exact same place the artist stood while they were making it. You can look at a Rousseau and see it the same way he did while he was painting it. You can (theoretically) visit the caves in Europe and see the bison on the walls the same way they were seen almost 40,000 years ago.

There's magic there.

Speaking of hands, my father tells me -- I don't remember this -- my father says I once spent all my time drawing hands, because I'd read that hands were the hardest things to draw and I was determined to master them. I don't remember doing this at all, but I am still really good at drawing hands, and I still find myself captivated by them. My mother says she fell in love with my father because of his hands. I think women notice hands more than men. But I notice hands a lot, and I always see something new, some detail I missed, some proportion I overlooked.

ERic said...

Just a quick hello from a fellow Glass Eye fan.

serena said...

Thanks, guys! Just so you know, my computer died immediately after I posted this, so I won't be online much until further notice. Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves, and give me a call. I'm off to the beach! Screw it all!

Anonymous said...

I read somwehere in Hindu writings that healers exude warmth from their hands.

painterdog said...

are you not posting?