The Red Buffalo

Back in August of 2016, I was standing in a garage with a tupperware container full of my paintings, watching a bespectacled woman carefully page through my work. I had been invited there to cut stained glass with a group of grandmother-age ladies, but I had brought my paintings in case the hostess' daughter (an artist in a local gallery collective) happened to visit.  

I got lucky - she came by, and her mother insisted she look over what I brought.  And after two years of untrained play with watercolors, I bit my lower lip as she rifled through the container, expressionless.  She paused over two my pieces, murmuring compliments about color and composition, and encouraged me to submit them to an upcoming open show at her gallery.  She thought they had a real shot of being good enough to get in.  


"Sophie's Adamanth", the painting he named 
I felt giddy on the drive home and called my friend Jess, a professionally-trained artist with a Fine Arts degree from CCAD.  "So I just heard about this open call to artists for this gallery show in the Short North ... we should both submit something!" She had never been exhibited in a gallery before either, and she eagerly agreed.  So while she went into the depths of her basement to photograph some of her gorgeous pieces of raku pottery, I went home to my husband to ask for his help naming one of the two paintings I planned to submit.

Jess and I sent in our applications in August on a lark, with an attitude of "we'll see what happens".  And I all but forgot about it in the following weeks.  At the end of August, I went out of state for ten days on a vacation with my sister and her boyfriend; and in the first week of September, I moved out.  The first 48 hours after I left, I was paralyzed with grief and had no capacity to wonder about those paintings I had emailed to the gallery.

But then I was at work, barely a week after leaving my husband, and Jess started flooding my phone with texts.   She had been accepted into the show!  My eyes bugged out and I rushed to my personal email account ... and I had been accepted, too!  Glee trumpeted in my ears, muffled by the shrill drone of my heartache, but still beautifully audible.  How mysterious the world can be, so simultaneously cruel and generous.  And which of my two paintings had they accepted?  The one my husband had named, of course.
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It was Saturday, October 1st when the gallery opened the show that exhibited my painting and Jess' pottery.  I had told my husband about the show, but I did not explicitly invite him; he did not come.

But I barely had time to notice his absence - a steady stream of friends and family continued to arrive all evening, some bringing wine, all voting for my piece to win the "people's choice" award.  It was a sparkling blur of laughter, hugs, congratulations, glasses of wine, and a deep and satisfying joy. 

Between guests, I stepped outside the gallery for a moment alone.  I crossed my arms and stood on the curb, just feeling the night.  It was a cool fall evening, and the visible strip of sky over High Street was black and starless.  A hundred bundled people walked quickly by on the sidewalk behind me and across the street, their conversations mingling into a wordless hum of voices.  A street performer's song crackled through a cheap speaker across the street, accompanied by the horns of traffic-jammed cars and the percussion of footsteps and doors.  The black steel arches curved over High Street were alight, their bulbs bright and white, and every shop window glowed and writhed like television screens, full of light and the movement of people inside.   The night tasted like wine, with the same warm heady feeling of being tipsy, and I inhaled deeply, pulling it as deep into my lungs as I could.

"This is my night," I said out loud.  "And it is the best night."

And then my parents spotted me on the curb, and with a wave and a smile I returned with them to the gallery.

And guess what?  At the gallery reception the next day, my painting was awarded "people's choice".  Just like that, at my very first gallery show, I became an award-winning artist.
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Try as I might, I cannot make sense of the juxtaposition of this great grief with this great joy; it feels so ... unnatural to have them be such close contemporaries.  But, the more I think about it, perhaps their companionship is not so unusual.

While wandering the internet, I ended up reading the blog of an Oklahoma cattle rancher's wife.  She explained that, in order to feed their cattle the best grass, it's not uncommon for ranchers to intentionally set their own prairies on fire.  This fascinated me, so I went deeper into the internet and found the following on the National Parks website:
"The role of fire is prevalent in almost every ecosystem. However, few involve fire as frequently as does prairie ... As years progress, the old dead leaf litter accumulates and creates a thick thatch covering the ground. New shoots find it harder to take in sunlight, while the ground stays cold and insulating, causing a delay in the spring plant growth. Nutrients are locked up in plants yet to decay ... The benefits of fire are enormous. The tied-up nutrients that take months or years to decay are within seconds turned to ash and in a form usable to plants. Sunlight warms the blackened ground and stimulates dormant plants to sprout and grow. Grazers are able to feed, uninhibited by dead litter, further stimulating growth. Trees and shrubs with the stems and branches exposed to the intense heat are killed, allowing the ground under them to receive full sunlight once again  ... Fire is nature's way of starting over. Fires are started naturally by igniting flammable material or by man, both accidentally and intentionallyThe Plains Indians started fires to attract game to new grasses. They sometimes referred to fire as the "Red Buffalo". Ranchers today start fires to improve cattle forage and for prairie health ... The prairie has long been known for its incredible fertility."
That is the best visual I can find for what I'm going through: new fertility coming from death, from burning down the house.

It still feels unnatural, this marriage of death and birth, but it seems to be an ancient coupling.  Like the two sides of a doorway, one side an exit and the other an entrance, inextricably linked.

... When I explain to people why I left my marriage, I often use words like "drowning" or "suffocating" to illustrate my feelings.  The visual of the burnt prairie, revived, helps me understand those feelings better.  I think of that dry hoof-beaten field, anemic and buried under the thatch of dead stalks.  And the only way to bring life and fertility back to the field was to burn it to the ground.

I do wish it hadn't come to this, that this part of my life would've continued happily and hadn't ended in fire.  

But I am deeply grateful for the beautiful new life that's already sprouting up from the still-warm ashes.

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