Bath time with Frida Kahlo

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I’ve been thumbing through, “The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait,” for the past week or so. It appeals to me that someone can use both writing and drawing at the same time, in the same place, to capture their inner world.

I knew very little about Frida. Just that she had a sweet unibrow. And I could recognize her famous self-portraits like a lot of people. A few months ago I bought a pair of bottle cap earrings with quarter-sized portraits of her painted onto them. I wore them around a music festival I attended with a friend. A lot of people were delighted at the sight of Frida dangling from my earlobes.

All but one of the drawings in this diary I’m reading never made it out. It was her space to make sense of things. I had to read the translated notes because I don’t understand Spanish, but I still found myself examining her multi-colored writing. She wrote in colored pencil and left scratch marks and scribbles, as one would do with a pen. It’s nice to know someone as regarded as she had visible second and third thoughts, could allow herself to stumble on paper.

It turns out she was quite the writer too. Here is one of my favorite letters, one of the many written to her beloved Diego:

Diego,
Truth is, so great, that I
wouldn’t like to speak, or sleep,
or listen, or love.
To feel myself trapped, with no fear
of blood, outside time and magic,
within your own fear,
and your great anguish, and
within the very beating of your heart.
All this madness, if I asked it of you,
I know, in your silence, there would be
only confusion.
I ask you for violence, in the nonsense,
and you, you give me grace, your light and
your warmth.
I’d like to paint you, but there are no colors,
because there are so many, in my
confusion, the tangible form
of my great love.

Frida suffered from a lot of physical ailments throughout her life. She beat polio in her childhood, and in her later years was in a near fatal accident that left her physically impaired for the rest of her life. She had close to 35 operations in her lifetime, and was unable to bear children. Much of her art depicts misplaced body parts, parts outside her body. And a spiritual and sexual longing to reproduce. It’s no wonder she painted so many self-portraits. Despite her immense pain, she found a way to steal her own joy and find love in her life.

Many consider her to be Mexican hero, who appealed to Mexican women and more broadly to the plights of women everywhere, but a lot of her critics thought her work was intensely self-directed and incapable of moving past self.

“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best,” the artist once said.

Essayist Sarah M Lowe wrote, “Her work was deemed so excessively personal and self-referential that it is thought incapable of expressing universal emotions or the human condition. In time, her self-portraits, though they never cease to shock, have overcome some of the prejudices against women painting their own lives.”

I started drawing women in bathtubs a few months ago. I’m not exactly sure of the reasoning behind the choice of vessel. I know that both baths and drawing calm me down when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the weight of things.

And baths are where some of my best ideas have come from.

In a college writing class I wrote a metafictional story about this woman who takes a bath and gets the idea to write the story of her life. There’s a talking shower head that is encouraging her to write and also shouting innuendos.

The woman rockets from the bath in a Eureka-like moment, water spilling all around her and plummeting to the carpet. She runs butt naked into her garage and wrenches out these old, dusty bins filled with her old journals.

She searches one of her journals frantically, dampening the pages with the water falling from her hair. She finds the passage that is supposed to help her define this moment of certainty. She realizes the passage is in fact not the missing piece she needs to solve her life story. She’s frustrated at her younger self for leaving such a poorly constructed record of her life. She scoffs and criticizes every line in that single passage then moves onto mocking some others. Finally, she flings the journal across the room.

Looking back at this piece, I realize it was about my idea process and the frustration I face in creation, particularly writing. When I have an idea, I feel that well-known mania, and I need to write. RIGHT NOW. URGENT HURRY. A lot of times I lose the feeling. Then I over complicate the idea. I rage about the hopelessness of memory. The idea vanishes as quickly as it comes.

Drawing these bathtubs was my way of coping with my issues with writing. I love these hours I spend shading, erasing, coloring. It’s obvious I don’t have formal training, but this doesn’t stop me from getting better and sharing my work. Putting my work out there has only made me feel braver.

For now, the bathtubs seem to be working. Drawing has helped me reunite with writing. I’d like the two to become friends. Like my girl Frida, I’d like a space where I can combine both worlds.

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