Saturday, March 24, 2018

Unfinished No. 37: The Meaning

This is part two of the story of my biggest painting yet, Unfinished no. 37. You can read all about the painting process in part one. It's been a few months since I published part one, but I promise I haven't been sitting around doing nothing...

I’ve always been inspired by swallows, and I’ve always enjoyed origami. So earlier last fall when my mom was given a box full of squares of origami paper, I thought I’d try my hand at folding a swallow. Several sheets of paper later, I had a whole gulp of swallows!

Unfinished no. 37. Acrylic, tempera, pastel, paper, and invisible thread on canvas. November 2017.
Those little grey paper birds inspired this painting. It’s one of the largest pieces I’ve ever made, and my proudest painting achievement to date. I’ve started many a painting, but rarely finish them. Those half-painted canvases typically go on to be covered in the glue and torn paper of a collage. So to have finished a painting, especially one so large, is a pretty big deal for me.

It had been a while since I felt so creatively inspired, so when that swallow origami caught my imagination, I knew I had to jump on the idea. I spent weeks doodling swallows, folding more paper birds of various sizes, and sketching concepts. Originally, this piece was going to be a paint-heavy collage. I intended to layer paint, colored paper, and other materials into the image I wanted. But once I got started painting, I couldn’t stop! I found myself layering paint on more paint, for once, building up texture and movement with the paint itself rather than using other materials. It seemed like painting techniques I'd been trying to practice for a decade finally just "clicked."

I did use an actual origami bird, and I attached two strands of plastic “invisible thread,” stolen from my mom’s sewing stash, as the threads from which the paper swallow has broken free… So I guess it’s not truly a painting in the purest sense. But for me, having struggled to ever truly finish a painting, this definitely qualifies!

Alongside this painting, I found it necessary to write a little explanation of the thought behind it, exercising my writing alongside my painting. I guess I miss academia, or something. Anyway, without further ado:

~ Unfinished No. 37 ~

To “swallow” means to ingest something, to cause or allow something to pass down the throat. Abstractly, this can mean to meekly accept an unpleasant situation, or to believe unquestioningly in something which seems unlikely. It also means to take something in and cause it to disappear; to stifle or resist expressing an idea or feeling, to engulf something (or be engulfed by something); to completely use up resources. There are many uses for the word, but they all stem from that concrete meaning of ingesting food or drink.

On another note, the word “swallow” also refers to several species of birds, also called martins, within the hirundinidae and rafinesque families, of the order passeriformes. Swallows and martins are found on all six habitable continents, which means they’re present in the lore of many cultures all around the world.

Swallows are easily recognized by their forked tails. There are many folktales which seek to explain this characteristic. One such story explains that the bird’s tail was burned when he stole fire from the heavens and brought it down for man. Physiologically, however, the forked tail improves the bird’s maneuverability, making swallows extremely agile fliers. In fact, the highly maneuverable American Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter plane is named after them.

One of the most commonly known meanings for the symbol of a swallow comes from the colonial era, when sailors used swallow tattoos to show how far they’d traveled in their sea voyages—one bird for every 5,000 nautical miles, because swallows migrate extremely long distances to follow warm weather. Today, they’re still strongly associated with sailing, the Navy, and nautical lore. The swallow also symbolized a safe return home, as swallows always return to the same place to nest and mate. However, the swallow also represents separation and loss, because long journeys can be lonely and full of hardships.

It was also believed that the swallow carries a deceased traveler’s soul to heaven; that the swallow will bring a drowned sailor to his final resting place. This belief stretches back to Roman culture, in which swallows were considered to carry the souls of deceased children to heaven.

Today, some ex-convicts have tattooed themselves with swallows to symbolize having “done their time,” having swallowed their sentence, having “done the bird.” The swallow represents a person’s journey from prison to freedom.

To street fighters, the swallow represents ferocity—“this first flies” if a fighter has a swallow tattoo. The swallow fights, ever fierce, for what he believes.

In some cultures, the swallow is a bird of death and resurrection. The swallow carries on its strong, pointed wings the weight of loneliness and the hope of returning home. The swallow believes, unquestioningly, that he will return home.

Unfinished no. 37, detail. Acrylic, tempera pastel, paper,
and invisible thread on canvas. November 2017.
I’ve always loved swallows, with their exotic-looking forked tails. But recently, they’ve come to mean more to me. I see much of myself in the symbolism of the swallow. I have flown far over the seas of depression and the mountains of anxiety.

I have swallowed pain, I have swallowed loss. I have put up with anxiety and meekly accepted tough life changes. Almost a year ago, I had to swallow the loss of my grandfather, four days before my birthday. Late that spring I walked uninjured from a car wreck that destroyed my car's rear driver's side door and rear axle, and totaled my emotions—another challenge I swallowed with difficulty. I'm still trying to work through the anxiety from that. I have often felt completely used up, entirely devoid of energy. Yet through all this, I have believed unquestioningly, if still weakly, in a savior who died for me at my very worst - a truth which sounds extremely unlikely in light of my failings.

I have flown far over the seas of depression and the mountains of anxiety. But I have a home to which I will return; a heaven to which I will fly. I am a child of death with a hope of resurrection. I have done my time, and these fists still fly. I have broken free, and am continuing to break free from the ties binding my wings. I have accepted the truth, believed that which seems so far-fetched but is in fact the very wind under my wings. I have accepted my losses, accepted my fears, and traveled on, carrying my fire even as the skies darken around me.


Note: YES, a group of swallows is often called a gulp and I couldn't be more thrilled by this fact! See a whole list of collective nouns for different types of birds here.

Sources: mostly Wikipedia and knowledge I've picked up over many years of interest in various world cultures, imagery, and symbolism... Here are some sources you can visit for more information. Just know that my academic writing was much better sourced and cited than this personal essay!

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