"Centering", 48 inches x 48 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas, © Leslie Parke 2018
“Centering”, 48 inches x 48 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas, © Leslie Parke 2018

I painted “Centering” right after “Conversations with Giotto” and “Silver Light”.  In “Conversations” I explored the seminal story in Western art about Giotto creating the perfect circle. The circle itself became a symbol for the artist. In “Silver Light” I explored how I could turn a line into the field. When I painted “Centering” I was after something else entirely.

I was living through a challenging time when I lost the use of both thumbs and my hands were in splints for several months. I knew that my ability to paint was not just in my hands, nor was I the first artist to face this limitation. Renoir suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and his brush had to be strapped to his hand. Chuck Close became a quadriplegic but regained use of his arms. He, too, straps his brush to his hand and paints, sometimes guiding the right hand with his left.

With “Centering” I wanted to see if when giving myself the limitation of making a painting only using circles, I could make a painting that was also expressive of the upheaval I was going through. It did not come out right away. It was as if that aspect of the painting was buried. I started on a black background. I covered the entire painting with a thick coat of white oil paint. Then I made the circles with a pencil, dragging the point through the white paint revealing the black underpainting. I continued this way until I removed most of the white paint with the point of the pencil. It was not what I was after.

I decided to continue using an ivory black oil stick. Ivory black, the same black that was used by Manet, originally was made from a porous, black, granular material produced by charring animal bones. (It is no longer made this way.) It is also what Richard Serra used to make his heavily blackened drawings. I believe it was also used on his wall drawings at The Menil. All of these associations went into my choice of this material.

It was easy for me to wrap my hand around the large oil stick. I dragged it repeatedly over the surface until I was able to get thick dense circles. Ivory black is a warm black, and I wanted the circles to be dense, warm and primordial.

The hand injury made me question the source of my art. Where does it reside in me? These large circle paintings are meditations on that – the origins of art, where it comes from, and when the means of conveying it gets interfered with, will it still come out, will it still be a full expression of me and my intention?

As I painted this, the question it posed to me was – what makes me an artist, is it in my hands or does it reside elsewhere. I call the painting “Centering”, because like meditation it both poses and answers the question, and poses it and answers it, and poses it and answers it.