A Brief Creative History/2008

by Ginger Teppner

While I revisit my creative and intellectual development, the wholly un-original thread connecting the different chapters of my life is an ever-present ego that has simultaneously whispered of inherent creative strength while shouting, in a manner that could make a grown man cry, every conceivable inadequacy and shortcoming. Even now, I struggle to face this blank page and criticize what has not yet been written. I am intimate with this perfectionist streak, this overbearing parent whose demands I cannot possibly, and often don’t even attempt to, meet. That being said, at forty-one, I have begun to cross the street, and although I don’t yet live on the fearless side permanently, I, at least, get to visit more often and for longer periods of time.

First and foremost, I am a reader. When I was younger, if someone asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, my secret answer was, and truth be told still is, read and make stuff.  I come from a long line of readers and potential artists who became teachers, and I may end up following this well- worn path.  In the spirit of full disclosure, even as I write this my heart sinks a bit thinking about the unwritten stories that went to the grave with my grandmother who often spoke of a desire to write, and I am confronted by an image of my father, who never has less than three books going at once, and the startling revelation as to the possible depths of his interior creative life, which never seems to manifest (as far as I can tell) in his exterior life.

I love books. I love how they smell, the feel of paper, and the words, both individually and collectively. Twenty years ago, I went to art school to become a painter, and from this perspective the finished page is not so different from a finished canvas. For it to be done right there needs to be contrast, tension, juxtaposition, balance, color, cohesion and that bit, the rhythm, that is not quite definable but exists just the same. To choose the sensual supple, crisp antiquity, or the absoluteness of fuck and to follow where these choices lead, is the same process by which a painting evolves. Even without adequate vocabulary to describe why a particular piece of art works, connection through truth is proof enough.

In retrospect, I believe I chose painting because I could bear to be a mediocre painter, and I am not sure I can bear to be a mediocre or, in the words of Stephen King, a competent writer. (This word, competent, has now been added to my least favorite word list, biting at the heels of potential.) To acknowledge this desire, to release this dream into the world, to speak of it out loud, is almost, but not quite, physically impossible. After protecting this tiny flame from the wind for so long my instinct is to stay huddled over it for fear it could just go out, and then what would I be left with?  My ego bitch has suggested this is not a therapy session…so I’ll move on.

When I was eighteen, I opted not to accept a partial scholarship to Keuka College and moved to New York City. My two full time jobs:  waitressing at The Waverly Coffee Shop and frequenting every neighborhood bar in Manhattan, made success at Hunter College where I had enrolled, impossible. There simply were not enough hours in a day. The only positive thing to be said about aspiring to be an alcoholic in New York is that you drink in very good intellectual and artistic company. Even as I eventually made my escape to paint in the light of New Mexico, those hair- graying days in the East Village remain irreplaceable. I may have dated the same unavailable man in different bodies the entire time I was there, but I also was introduced to people who remain the most influential in my life to this day, and I was exposed to an arena flooded with a level of creativity which, I am biased in believing, exists no where else in the world.

In New York I studied drama, photography, film, painting, and the fickle shades of humanity. All this was a mere backdrop for exposure to literature and film, and often, the learning transpired outside the walls of university. What is that saying?  Jack-of-all-trades, master of none?  My early loves…. Margaritte Duras, Paul Bowles, DH Lawrence, Gabriele Garcia Marques, Salman Rushdie, and later Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Proux and Michael Onjaatje. Films like Paris, Texas and Breaking the Waves influenced me. I adored an Eastern European style of painting by artists whose names I have long since forgotten.  I bought a book (I believe I still have) on how to write a screenplay and wrote one, only to have the sole copy destroyed by an ex boyfriend in a ritualistic jealousy provoked rage. I was a stage manager for an off off off Broadway production of the Sam Sheppard play True West.  I took edgy black and white photographs of New York, painted, studied acting, and drank like a sailor (I fear Mr. King would not approve of my simile).

My crowning artistic achievement, however, was teaching drama to first and third graders at a community center in Jamaica, Queens.  Unqualified, both professionally and emotionally, the tasked proved daunting but ultimately more fulfilling than anything I have done since (besides raising my own daughters).  My first transcendent moment was realized when the time came for the part of one of my students, who, too shy to go on stage, had refused to leave the audience. The moment approached for his performance, I looked for his face in the crowd, our eyes locked, and at exactly the precise second, he became the most perfect alarm clock I have ever heard!

There have been other successes: The first time I saw a bus in Albuquerque drive by adorned with my painting, part of a traveling (literally) art show, the time I made a banana crème pie so yummy, a man actually grabbed my arm with two hands to thank me, the time I consoled an old friend with words written about her mother who had recently passed, and the mere existence of my two lovely daughters. These have been my small contributions to society.

I eventually got married, moved to Florida, had children, and bought a mini van.  Reconciling my self- image as an artist with my new mommy/wife identity (without the aid of alcohol or nicotine) proved more difficult than I imagined and I developed a profound anxiety disorder. Frankly, the attempt to maintain any semblance of artistic integrity during this period proved fruitless. Except for a few paintings that ironically were made up of abstract word-like script in the guise of love-letters to my husband, art consisted of children’s bedroom murals and hand-painted growth charts.

An absence of formal education shadowed this journey spitting venomous potential at every small success. This was but one of my ego’s favorite weapons of self -destruction.  My aim was to remove at least this one poison from the arsenal, and hopefully to then have enough presence to continue with what ever came next. I went back to school to study Psychology based on my new -found appreciation for all things mind related only to be faced with the truth that despite my fascination and personal relationship with the material, I am probably not hardwired for the related professions.

In 2007 I convinced my very southern husband it was imperative we move back to New York.  “It would be good for the girls to be closer to family…the schools are so much better…I miss the landscape and the seasons…my parents are getting older…” Suffice it to say, this decision does not rate high on the self-awareness scale.  You can’t go home again (me) and You can’t teach an old dog new tricks (my husband) may very well be the greatest understatements ever penned. That being said, I am deeply grateful to have found my way back to words, and to have been reminded of the very simple truth that at the end of the day I am still a girl who loves to read and make stuff.