Tag Archives: art

Paintings of language overload and its opposite

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I painted these earlier today. I started photographing these while Fey was hiding in the bathroom:

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(Picture shows Fey hiding in the bathroom, looking octagonal. I knew someone with an octagonal cat once. But didn’t know Fey could be octagonal too.)

I only wished I was hiding. There was a fireworks show tonight and I could feel every explosion rattling my bones or something.

Anyway, the first painting is about language overload. There are letters in it, which show much better in real life than in photos. So I took one photo of it the way it should look, and then another photo with light behind it so that it would show where the letters are. But the photo with the letters has extremely distorted colors for the same reason that the letters show well.

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It’s orange because that’s the color that always seems to be there when I’m overloaded by language. There’s letters throughout (ones that are yellow, orange, or clear synesthetically) but they don’t actually spell words (the same as language both imposes on me and makes no sense when I’m overloaded by it). And in general it’s supposed to convey what it’s like to be stuck in this overloaded language mode and not be able to get out.

After doing that, I felt kind of icky even though I wasn’t overloaded, so I did another painting that’s the opposite of language and the opposite of overload both.

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This one looks a lot better when you look at the larger versions on flickr. I have no idea how to describe it. It’s got a lot of layers and texture, and it’s hard to see some of the texture in a photo (but you could actually put your hand on it and feel some of the shapes). The photo isn’t a direct shot because that seemed to get the flash to mangle the colors, and I’m not good at photographing the kind of paintings I do. They always end up looking less complex than they are, when I photograph them. But that one photographed reasonably well as long as I did it at an angle like that.

What I mean by “beneath” words.

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I was trying to explain to someone what it meant when I said that I spend  so much time “beneath” words, and have to climb up to them from below. And it hit me that I could depict all of the different layers I go through one on top of the other. I once depicted them (but not all of them, and not showing them as layers) before, so I already knew some of how to do this. I used cut out pieces of construction paper to do the top six layers, and paint for the bottom two.

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I’m numbering the eight layers from bottom to top, but describing them from top to bottom. So I am going to start with the eighth layer.  Also these are the layers for written language specifically. Some of them do correspond to spoken words.  

The eighth (top) layer shows the words, “Don’t you know another”. It could be any words, but after not having a clue which to use, I chose the start of a sentence that a guy in an emergency room told me when I was a teen, after I was picked up very overloaded in public and humming one tune over and over to calm down. (He was in that mode people get in when you’ve become unable to talk so they suddenly decide you’ve become unaware of your surroundings too, and they mutter at you in a specific tone that seems to assume you will never tell anyone what they said.) These words represent what happens when you understand the words perfectly well.  

The seventh layer reads “melly doxel rin tunsh”. It represents being able to recognize the sounds a word might make, but not being able to understand their meaning. Whether or not you know that words can have meanings (I didn’t know that when I learned to read, and had skipped over some layers entirely that only became meaningfully separate later).  

The sixth layer reads “ncj fv rztlh xlm hnnc”. This layer involves recognizing the letters as letters, but not deriving sounds from them. 

The fifth layer shows a series of symbols such as circles, squares, zig zag lines, and other shapes. They are arranged as if they form words with spaces between them. This represents recognizing the letters as symbols, but not as recognizable letters.

The fourth layer shows a series of small slightly wavy lines, arranged in a pattern. This involves recognizing the letters as separate things, but not recognizing them as symbols. 

The third layer shows a bunch of joined together lines. This represents seeing and noticing a black pattern on the background, but not really separating out the pieces. 

The second layer is painted. It shows a variety of shapes, some recognizable and some not, some vague and others clearer, all blending into each other and the background. The photo has different colors than the real object due to the flash, for instance something medium green came out almost light pink. There is some loss of the actual multilayered texturing that’s in the real one too.  This layer represents just sort of seeing a lot of shapes and colors and visual textures, and the patterns those things make, and not even noticing the text at all.  Although it’s by nature visual, this is usually happening in all the senses at that point. 

The first layer is gradually and unevenly shaded into by the second layer. It shows a textured black background with a white circle in it. This is when not even sensory impressions make much of a dent in conscious awareness. The white circle is meant to show that even though this may seem completely blank in some ways, it’s not as empty as it may seem. (When things seem totally empty I feel “disappeared”. I did not attempt to draw this, but it would be zero.)

The things I drew were usually somewhat arbitrary. It would be possible to include more or fewer layers, or things “off to the side” that don’t fit into a simple sequence. I drew this to communicate a basic idea, not to do a perfect representation of everything.  There are doubtless layers above eight too — but I drew this to show what is beneath what most people think is the most basic, not to show all the different levels that fluent reading can take.  

Anyway, in different people who experience all these layers, things may work differently. For instance someone might live in the sixth layer, climb to the seventh layer easily, climb to the eighth layer with more difficulty, fall back to the fourth layer during ordinary shutdown, and the second during more severe shutdown. Such a person will have a very different experience of each of these layers than I do (for instance viewing the second layer as total confusion instead of comforting, familiar, and easily navigated).  And a second person may live in the sixth layer also but never make it to the eighth and have great difficulty with the seventh. And someone else may live in the fourth, and climb to the seventh easily by skipping the fifth and sixth altogether. 

I generally live in the second and first layers. This is where I am comfortable and have the widest experience navigating. I have a lot of experience built up there and it isn’t disorienting.  There are things that can disorient me during shutdown but they aren’t part of the scope of something about reading and are hard to depict. And then there’s layer zero during shutdowns. 

Climbing up to layer three and four can be done with some effort. It’s not always possible but it’s easier than the things above it. 

Layer five has a barrier that takes much willpower and effort to push through. Layer five is when things become pretty painful. It’s like each time I look at a symbol and recognize it for one, it burns my brain and squeezes on other aspects of thought until they run off and hide. 

There is a similar thing that can happen to me when at a similar layer in perceiving my surroundings in general. For instance, I might pick out anything circular in my surroundings and each circle I see hurts my brain the same way.  And in listening to my environment, I will generally pick out a really annoying and short musical rhythm or tune from the sounds around me, and hear it boring its way into my ears over and over. 

Past that barrier, things might be hard but nowhere near as hard as going through that barrier is.  Sometimes I go to the sixth level and sometimes I skip it and go straight to the seventh. 

Between the seventh and eighth there is another barrier. Not as big as the barrier between fifth and anything below it, but still recognizably difficult. My guess is that’s because putting actual meaning into the words is very different from, say, matching a set of sounds to a set of visual squiggles, which is just pairing one sense with another without having to match it to concepts. 

(The concepts themselves are usually not one word at a time. It’s more like, what set of words goes the most often with what set of experiences, and then which patterns of word orders and such go with which others.  And then skip the words you don’t understand (more than you might expect) and take what’s left and hope it makes sense.)

Anyway, obviously most of these layers involve climbing, and some parts of the climb are steeper or more difficult than others. But often I will find that it’s impossible to climb any higher than a certain point no matter how hard I try. Other times it’s impossible to climb because I entirely forget that the higher layers exist. Frequent cutoff points for both of those are between two and three (the point where the text is noticed), four and five (the point where symbols are recognized), and seven and eight (the point where meaning of words is introduced).  

Additionally, most of the time I let go I fall down to at least the second layer if not the first. Sometimes I fall down to the third or fourth instead. But there are two really terrible things that can happen instead. I can get “stuck” in one of the really painful areas. 

Getting stuck in the fifth layer happens sometimes. It’s as if the symbol-recognizing thing in my brain has so much momentum that it takes time for it to stop and drop down to something easier to take. Everywhere I look there are symbols. And every symbol noticed is pain. There is no way to stop this except to ride it out. 

But even worse is getting stuck at the eighth layer. This happens if I read or write too much without falling back to the lower layers to rest. I described this layer as the one where meaning is added. But I meant this only in the sense of matching a set of words to a meaning. I didn’t mean meaning as in meaningful. Quite the opposite.  

When stuck at the eighth layer, there is no escaping the words whether I look at words or not. The words have gotten inside my head.  The meaningfulness that I derive from the second layer is nowhere to be found. Direct experience is nowhere to be found. The only thing to be found is words, words, and words. 

Things go orange or yellow (the two most painful colors) and flickery, accompanied by an equally flickery ringing in my ears, and a dry burning all over my body.  And inside my head all I see or hear are words. Flickery words. Buzzing words. Words. Words. Words. Words. Words. Repeating like that in an endless loop.  And the terrifying emptiness that to me seems like the essence of what words and all other abstractions are (yes I am a writer with a loathing for words).  

The longer I try to do something like read to take my mind off the flickering, the worse it gets and the longer it takes to go away. Time seems infinite at times like this. The only thing to do is suck it up, lie down in a dark quiet room, and tough it out until it either disintegrates or I fall asleep.  If I’m awake, I gradually experience more and more periods of dark quiet, until finally the humming flickering wordiness dissipates. Usually at that point I’m exhausted and possibly have been frozen in one position for hours. 

I can think of very few experiences I like less than becoming stuck in the eighth layer.  I would far rather deal with shutdowns where nothing I can’t feel/see/etc. exists and I keep hitting layer zero and vanishing from my own awareness. 

Another important thing is that people operating at the same layer are not necessarily experiencing the same thing. My ability to read means I can operate at the eighth layer despite living at the first and second most of the time. Another person might live at the eighth. Another person might live up at some sort of eleventh layer I haven’t got into, and be experiencing the eighth due to shutdown. The person who lives there will be the only comfortable one. I will be uncomfortable because I am greatly stretching my abilities and hanging by my fingernails. The person from the eleventh layer will likely be distressed and disoriented because their usual abilities are gone and they don’t have the long experience functioning in that layer that someone who lives there does. 

This is one reason I find it really offensive when people assume that every person who can read and write (at least some of the time) has identical experiences. That assumes that everyone who can sometimes get to the eighth layer lives there, doesn’t understand the other layers that come before it, and can always get there. It’s not that simple. It’s not even as simple as the picture makes it look (and this picture is only about reading!). Life is quite a lot more complicated than that. 

So that’s my simplified guide to what I mean when I talk about living “under” or “beneath” words. Similar but not identical things apply when I talk about what’s “beneath” certain kinds of thought, perception, movement, etc. Oh and generally writing something this long puts my reading at layer seven at best, which is one of several reasons I can’t easily proofread, summarize, remember what I wrote, or do various other things.

Why I almost didn’t paint.

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This is one of those subjects that I have gone back and forth on whether to be public about. On the one hand, it’s a big part of my life. On the other hand, after so much unexpected media scrutiny, privacy is vital to have in at least some areas. But after believing myself alone in this regard for so long and then finding out it’s more common than I thought, it seems like one more thing that trips the switch in my head that goes “You know what, if one of your goals in writing is to show others they’re not alone in the same way others have done for you, then you may want to think about writing this.”

So… okay. I was absolutely sure as a kid that I sucked at art. Painting in particular but also art in general. I was usually one of the slowest kids in art class (where we had to exactly reproduce someone else’s technique and subject matter) and in one of my art classes it was worse than that.

The art teacher made us paint things she had already painted in exactly the same way she had done it. And aside from being crappy at that kind of art in general, I was incredibly crappy with paintbrushes. The art teacher got so frustrated with me that she would paint my paintings for me and pass them off as my own. My parents would ooh and aah and I would be mortified. It took me a long time to figure out words for what was happening to me and even longer to overcome my terror of that teacher. She was always treating me like I was completely stupid and if she was yelling at anyone it was me for screwing up another painting or sitting around stimming on the paintbrushes (“AMANDA BAGGS WEREN’T YOU LISTENING I JUST TOLD THE CLASS YOU CAN GET LEAD POISONING THAT WAY PUT THAT DOWN THIS INSTANT!”).

The rule was you started with landscapes. If you were good at those you could do flowers. If you were good at those you could do animals (we were told we had to paint every single hair). If you were good at animals you could do humans (every single hair too). And original paintings were not okay. I wanted to paint cats and I was terrible with a paintbrush. I very much did not fit into this arrangement.

So I took to hiding in the bathroom, a strategy I had already perfected out of overload. I would pull every paper towel out of the paper towel dispenser, pull all the soap out of the soap dispenser, then play with the soap for awhile. When I was done with that I would lock the door behind me on my way out, which for some reason I found very interesting as a concept.

One day the art teacher told us that it was criminal to lock doors in this manner and that she could call the police. She said that she knew exactly who was doing this and would talk to them after class. But she never talked to me and she never called the cops. I kept locking the doors.

Anyway with that and copious other similar experiences in art class, I was absolutely convinced I could not paint. I did one crappy painting (using brushes) after that and it only confirmed to me that I was a terrible artist and an even worse painter.

For the three months when I was in high school, I had lost even my previous thin pretence of not stimming on stuff. (I was not a stiff formal autie, I was a chase after dust particles and stare at moving colored objects autie. More on that in another post, but suffice to say I was more like Luna Lovegood than Ernie Macmillan.) After I backed into a corner screaming when a math teacher changed a routine on me, he threw me out of class and publicly accused me of drug abuse. An art teacher brought me into her class instead and told me, “I don’t care if you move around or behave strangely. I don’t care if you sit under the tables. All I care about is that you produce art.” So I would go into her nearly empty classroom, sit under the table, and draw. I was more comfortable than any previous art class but I still knew I wasn’t like the other art students. I received no instruction at all.

Next year I was in college way too early considering my level of overload. Because of that (good) teacher I chose mostly art classes and did okay in them. (The most painting they required was filling in the lines of something, and I could mostly do that.) After that I did a few attempts at crappy paintings with brushes in some of the art programs I was in within the psych system over the next several years after my spectacular burnout. But again it was too much somebody else guiding me.

After I got out of all that and ended up on my own in adulthood, I basically considered myself terrible at art and even worse at painting. All of the encouragement I got was too little too late to get that one terrrible teacher’s voice out of my head. Plus, whenever I dared think of myself as an artist, there was always someone else who took that role, and for some reason in people’s heads there could only be one person who was The Creative One in any group. For instance in special ed (after my attempt at college — I’m the only person I know who this happened to in that order), there was a boy who was The One Artist in our class. He got to participate in a program for disabled artists. I got nothing. Repeated situations like that convinced me even more that I didn’t have what it took to paint.

By the time I started getting these ideas in my head that maybe, just maybe, if I decided to paint on my own terms rather than the terms of others, then things would work better… it was three or four years ago and I was already getting more attention than I wanted for my writing and videos online. I felt like the world was a big eyeball and it was pointed straight at me — exaggerated, but I hate that feeling. The absolute last thing I wanted to be was “an autistic artist” instead of an artist (something similar happened in my teens with a local newspaper and some of my crappiest art), or to have the world confirm to me that I was terrible and stupid for even trying.

So quietly in private, telling only one person, I began to paint. I used acrylics. I painted with my fingers. I painted lots of things but mostly I painted cats and very abstract scenes. And when I dared to show a few more people, they liked it. Not because an autistic person did it but because they liked it.

Still I was terrified to let anyone find out I did anything, you know, (horrors) creative. Because I’m not creative, that’s what other people are.

But the other night, I told someone about the music teacher who chastised me for playing the wrong chords and convinced me I couldn’t be musically creative until I learned chord theory. (I am very easily intimidated when the charge is that everyone else is better than me at something because they can do something I can’t. And I can’t do chord theory.)

And the other person, who knows more about that teacher than I mentioned here, told me he sounded like the kind of teacher who believes music is more about technique than about passion and creativity, and who themselves hasn’t succeeded because they lack passion and creativity, and who therefore has a chip on their shoulder and tries to stomp into the ground anyone who shows more passion and creativity than orthodox technique. She told me if John Cage had tried as a child some of the piano stuff he did as an adult, he’d have been grounded for weeks and never allowed near a piano.

So I got a little bit braver and told her about the art teacher from hell. She told me it was the exact same type of person and that such people single out someone who wants to do something out of bounds, and proceed to treat them like crap. And that my troubles getting paintbrushes to do what I wanted would have only made it easier to do that.

She also told me that my fear of scrutiny was understandable, but that if I let it control me I would be as bad as the people who do whatever they think will get them the most scrutiny and attention. Because either way you’re letting other people control you. And that makes sense, this is a particular area I have a lot more cowardice in than shows openly — I hate being singled out for attention and once you’ve had CNN and Wired and the CBC in your home, that’s enough attention to leave me shaking in a corner when they leave. I only ever agreed because someone pointed out it would also bring attention to the self-advocacy movements and that I shouldn’t let my fears control me. And I’m good at pushing myself to do something terrifying and only freaking out afterward. (After CNN left I barely ate for weeks.)

So I guess this is my declaration that I’m an artist, not just an autist, and have been doing my own thing in this regard for years once I got the idea in my head that it might be permissible for me to produce art of my own kind, in my own technique, and in my own way.

I don’t know why I’m so easily cowed by people telling me that I’m no good at something, that I’m downright stupid, and that my lack of ability in one particular area means that not only shouldn’t I (paint/write music/etc) but that I shouldn’t even try. (See Why I never expect to be right.) But I am. I’m also intimidated in situations where I’m in a group of people and only one person there is called The Artistic One, The Musical One, The Creative One. I once even saw that happen where one girl was called The Musical One even though there were five other musicians in the room, one of whom had been paid for it. But even knowing it was illogical, it still made me feel like I had no right to call myself a musician, or an artist, or whatever. Combine the two plus fear of being singled out and I do it all hiding in a corner somewhere and then wig out every time I have to tell someone.

So I’m not only happy that those teachers were full of crap, but also somewhat mourning the fact that I spent over a decade too scared to defy these people that I thought immeasurably above me. Only to find out they were just people acting out their own insecurities on me. I’ve been told art and music teachers do this to people all the time, and here I thought it was just me.

The thing is, though, that creativity feels like this force inside of me that needs to have some kind of outlet or it will burn me to a crisp. But I’d been making do with writing. And even though I was writing, I’d still feel like there was this white-hot thing inside of me trying to force my body to let it do something, anything other than just sit there. And writing and painting and music all still feel like something doing me instead of me doing something, and like my consent is only a formality on the way to these things happening.

Oh, and last year someone said they’d like me to do a painting for them and that they’d pay for the materials. I wanted both to paint something and to create something that would be interesting to sit around looking closely at. So here it is. The photograph is really bad because of the flash.

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Could anyone summarize this? I’m really bad at summarizing things, all I can say is it’s three cats on a glittery and somewhat busy background with objects stuck to it.

Edited to add. Littlewolf has written a really good summary in comments, read that and my comment after hers if you can’t see the picture.