A Bird in the Hand is Much Better Than Ten in the Bush

Terry Cox-Joseph

There was something about it that bothered me. Mostly, the huge, front-and-center, corpulent, overly bright cardinal. And the overly bright background.

“Angry Birds in the Garden” started out as a nature study. It turned into a Disney cartoon on LSD. The imagery was supposed to curl and curve gently. Smaller images of birds would emerge from the background, guiding the viewer’s gaze to tree branches and bright gingko leaves that presented a finale: a commanding, eye-grabbing cardinal. Or, as was more obvious, the cardinal in the front, his mate to the left, and a variety of species behind and beyond in a sickening vortex.

It didn’t work. Too silly. Too big. Too fat. Too bright. Too amateurish. I changed the cardinal to an owl.  That was even worse. I moved it closer to the edge. That ruined the circular pattern of branches. I set it aside.

For three years.

And then it came to me—one of my favorite birds was a bluebird on the upper-left center. Repaint that bird, forget any larger birds, and introduce a beautiful fairy woman. A birdlike woman. No, not bird legs like a New York model. Something delicate and bird-like. Her hand would reach toward the bird, gently welcoming him into her world, just as he welcomed her into his.

I used my own hand, minus a few wrinkles. The face, um, no. She was a total figment of my imagination. I painted over the course of four days until she emerged, fully formed.

I toned down the colors. No more glaring crimson and gold and yellow oxide. Replaced the whirling vortex with an art nouveau frame, woven with vines and tresses. Now, the focus made sense.

Someday, I may attempt another bird painting that curves and draws your eye deep into the interior. It will be more mysterious, calmer, less in-your-face. It will have fewer species crying out for attention.

In the meantime, I am just relieved that I revived an old painting that hurt to look at. It ruffled my feathers. It was driving me cuckoo. Cawing at midnight. Chirping off-key. I had committed all of the cardinal sins of art in one piece.

Molting makes it easier to move on to new work.


Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Of all the philosophies and theologies I have learned, the most difficult is the idea of impermanence. Think, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Most people have heard about or witnessed the creation of Buddhist sand mandalas. On the other hand, few have witnessed the erasure that follows. The erasure is a ceremony unto itself, symbolizing the temporary place that we and all life on Earth hold.

Over the years, much to my dismay, several of my murals have been painted over. I had hoped they would remain until long after I had passed. I have learned to accept some of this impermanence, mostly because there’s usually another commission or gallery opening just around the corner. Still, I yearn for some kind of immortality through my art.

My first restaurant mural actually had a long lifespan. I had decorated all four walls of a local Italian restaurant. The less-oft’ viewed back of St. Peter’s Basilica; the crumbling Coliseum; romantic couples in gondolas with laughing children racing across the bridges overhead; horses sporting brightly colored headdresses, pulling equally bright Sicilian carts; an Italian phrase that echoed our oft recited, “Eat, Laugh, Live,” (and which I had to research with help from the local university); and even the iconic fingertips of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” over the dessert freezer (what more appropriate spot?).

For years, my family, friends and locals reveled in the authenticity of the Sicilian family’s recipes, with my artwork as a backdrop. But the neighborhood changed. Mama Lina’s closed its doors.

A couple of weeks later, perhaps with a touch of masochism, I stopped by. A half-dozen white, work trucks were parked outside and the sound of drills and hammers echoed throughout the empty space. I walked through entryway, once decorated with a vine-covered lattice arch, to see only whitewashed walls. Stark. Eerie. Depressing. Almost dreamlike, in a nightmarish sort of way.

As I stared at the blank spaces that had once danced with life, workmen came up to ask me if I was the artist.

“How did you know? 

“The way you walked straight in and stared at the wall,” one of them said. Of course. Who else would walk into someone else’s business, uninvited, and stare at all the blank walls? They were sympathetic, and even asked for my business card. But they had a job to do.

Another restaurant hired me to paint numerous Egyptian scenes on wood-stained clapboard—no easy feat. I first had to prime the area. While that was drying, I sketched scenes from various internet travel sites, merging each as it moved along the wall. The iconic Egyptian pyramids; sparkling gardens and lush, tropical flowers; women carrying basketsful of fruit atop their heads; and a twist on the traditional, tourist camel ride—the owner and his family atop the camels. Each family member posed, an exercise that added many hours to my work.

They did a good business for a while. But the location never stuck. Attempts to make it into a nightclub flopped. I heard rumors that they may close and so I made a trip over, only to find the camel scene marred. Someone had whitewashed the family’s faces. I never returned to witness the complete erasure.

Admittedly, I have destroyed some of my own artwork. My skills have improved. Some items were water damaged. And I don’t need three portfolios of college work. Still, my stomach does a little flip each time one of my works ends up in the landfill or hidden beneath four coats of Kilz.

All things have a lifespan. Cars. Buildings. Glaciers. Magazines. Medicines. And, of course, humans. I have, through necessity, adopted a more laisse faire attitude toward the sometimes-transient nature of my work.

And when I hit a real low, I pick up my brush and start again. I can always create something new.