Just as the Cypress College Art Gallery opened for business, the bell in a nearby tower tolled ten times. I hated that it reminded me of a death knell. I was there to see a retrospective show of the paintings of my friend, Christine Taber, who had lost her life in a bike accident fifteen years earlier. Shortly after she died, I wrote the descriptions of her abstract paintings that later became the inspiration for the realistic, religious paintings in my upcoming debut novel,Contrition.
The bell also evoked a churchlike atmosphere– fitting because Christine’s paintings have a sacred quality to me. I was grateful for this retrospective show of Christine’s work, a chance to reflect on how her tragic loss motivated me to write the book and how her astounding art gave it meaning.
Standing amid Christine’s subtly beautiful paintings gave me a feeling of peace, but also a sense of the bubbling, churning, tension beneath the surface of each canvas. Washing over that tension was a quiet acceptance, an appreciation of beauty, a reminder of the profound gift of life. At 32, Christine was a master of her own mind, body, soul, and heart, someone who’d learned to view disappointments as challenges, let go of failures, and carry on bravely despite the inevitable frustration and insecurity that comes with being an artist and a human. When she was alive, I was in awe of her gift for living. Did she figure out how to live at such a young age because she somehow knew she wouldn't be here for long? If so, when will I learn?
I became aware and annoyed that students were talking in another part of the gallery. Conversations clashed in disjointed rhythms, book bags hit the floor, and a skateboarder rocketed through a nearby hallway. These distractions interfered with my desire for a silent, reverential environment- until it occurred to me that the murmur reflected the agitation underlying the calm in the paintings. Christine had heard noise, felt the energy of others, was doubtless sometimes annoyed by disruptions herself. And yet she painted through and with them, conveying a complex but composed world view.
I’d awakened full of anxiety that morning about looming deadlines, missing my husband and children back home, and wondering if traffic would be bad. I’d closed my eyes in bed and tried to meditate, but my mind bumped up against all the things I had to do, the books I needed to read, the grant I needed to apply for. Later, at Christine’s show, my wide-eyed appreciation of her art easily accomplished what the closed eyes of my morning mediation couldn't manage. It was as if the paintings and I were in it together. Deep, slow breaths were natural here. Every moment I took to truly stop and look at a canvas made me aware of how shallow my breathing usually is.
After an hour-and-a-half, I needed to leave for an appointment. I stood from my seat on the cold, cement floor, only to abruptly sit down again, unwilling to go. With so many of her works around me, Christine was still alive there– reminding me to pay attention, put things in perspective, and appreciate. When I eventually forced myself to gather my things, I felt more rested than I had that morning after eight hours of sleep. Instead of obsessing over my to-do list, I savored the anticipation of the moment when I would be back home to fold my daughters into a long, close hug, one from which I absolutely, positively would not be the first to pull away.
As I walked out, the bell chimed again on the half-hour— a short, lively melody ending on an up note.
Christine Taber earned a BFA in painting and printmaking from SUNY Buffalo and her MFA from USC. Her work has appeared on Columbia Tri-Star television, in Volume 25 of New American Paintings by Open Studio Press, onNextMonet.com, and in galleries and private collections across the country.Christine Taber: A Quindecennial Retrospective was on display at Cypress College Art Gallery from 2/5/15 – 3/5/15.
Editor's Note: This piece originally ran on Dscriber.com.