by Brandon Shimoda
When my mother was pregnant with me, she took a class on color theory. The class was at California State University Northridge. It was the spring of 1978.
For her final assignment, she made a painting. It was the first painting I ever saw, but I did not, when I first saw it, know that it was a painting. It was colors on the wall different than the wall: yellow darkening to orange behind a grid of green and blue. It looked like a window, which was also colors on the wall different than the wall, but the sky was yellow and orange and the texture of dried egg, and made the shape of an imploded sun. The sensation was of being thrown off the planet into heat, then looking back, and not seeing the planet, but the stain of where it burned out.
By the time I began to see, my mother’s painting was familiar, was family. It hung on the wall at the bottom of the stairs in the house where I grew up. I never walked down the stairs, I always ran. Into the painting, my older twin sibling.
In The Elements of Color, one of the textbooks from my mother’s color theory class, Joseph Itten writes: Colors are the children of light, and light is their mother. Light, that first phenomenon of the world, reveals to us the spirit and the living soul of the world through colors.
When I was very young, my family—which was also very young—lived in Belgium, outside of Brussels. We—my mother, my father, my sister, and I—spent a lot of time in museums. My mother and I often went alone. The paintings, that I did not yet know were paintings, hung in ascetic, high-ceilinged rooms. They ranged from what I was beginning to recognize as shapes and colors, to what I was beginning to recognize as people, if not people I recognized. People stood before the paintings as they did before windows and mirrors. It was not entirely clear what they were seeing, let alone looking at, therefore why they stood so silently and so still. The revelation of the world outside the rooms in which they were standing registered on their faces as blankness, as if the revelation was that beyond the orbit of their individual lives, there was nothing.
My mother and I were facing a painting on a wall. It was a strange and colorful window. My eyes went everywhere around it. I could not see my mother, but I knew she was standing behind me. I remember Rubens from our visits to museums in Brussels, my mother told me, many years later. I remember you sleeping in your stroller, one of those old rickety kinds of strollers you don’t see anymore. That is what it was, and that is what it still is, many years later, to look at a painting.
We were in Belgium for my father’s work. Our plans were indefinite, but we only stayed one year. My father hated his job, was discriminated against by his coworkers, who only spoke German in meetings. My father is Japanese American and deaf. He was the only Asian person in his office. He did not speak German, only knew a little, so could not read his coworkers’ lips. My mother, a white American, 30 years old, at home with two young children, was depressed, and had no friends. She was an artist, but had no time to herself to paint, so she visited museums.
She remembers seeing The Rape of Europa by Rubens, which is in Madrid, but my mother has never been to Spain. Europa, abducted and seduced by Zeus, in the form of a white bull. Why do I have such a vaporous memory? my mother asked me. If you hadn’t been asleep most of the time, you could fill in the gaps for me, even though you were only three years old.
Belgium is where my memory begins. I told my mother recently that I wished we had stayed in Belgium. When I said it, it sounded like I wished we had stayed in Belgium so that I could stay where my memory begins. As if my memories would have gone no further. But I meant something simpler. That is where paintings, for me, began.
Maybe that is also where paintings began for my mother. She felt, while looking at paintings, included. She felt responsible for the goodness in life. She started making. What she started making was her will. She turned away from the painting and left the museum.
My mother tells me, quite often, that she was never in love with my father. Her first love, maybe, was separation—separation from her mother and her father, from her family, from where she grew up (Southern California), from our family, from a life by which she felt constrained, from a life by which she felt held away from her desire. Separation meant being more fully in her life. In front of a painting, my mother felt fully in her life. The painting too was making, and in the guise of being complete. In that, she and the painting were contemporaneous. But the moment my mother became inspired, and turned away from the painting and left the museum to making a painting of her own, she fell back into not having any time for herself, and experienced, almost immediately, the loss of making, the loss of not being made.
There was a period of years when the only time my mother cried was when she was making art. She touched a pen or pencil or paintbrush to a surface, and started crying. That is all it took.
I remember the first time I saw my mother cry. It was in the 1980s, after Belgium. We were living in Connecticut then. My parents had friends over for dinner. At the end of the evening, everyone was standing, for some reason, at the bottom of the stairs, in front of the yellow and orange painting, but my mother was standing, for some reason, at the top of the stairs, in front of a framed print of a painting of a young white girl looking at herself in a mirror: Girl in Mirror, by Norman Rockwell. Girl in Mirror was one of the representatives of my father’s (now erstwhile) devotion to Americana. (When he moved, years ago, to Southeast Asia, he said he hated the United States, and that he was never coming back.) Girl in Mirror, along with several other Norman Rockwell prints throughout the house, held us hostage within a mocking and, more perilously, an obstructive ideal of personhood, within which our difference, our Asianness, in white Connecticut, was made diminutive and depressed. Even still, I could not, at that senseless age, help but love the girl in the mirror, because I grew up with her, as I did with the yellow and orange painting. Plus, I was convinced that she too did not entirely believe in the environment in which she was living. She looked despondent and a little anxious. She looked like my mother when my mother was young, and I thought that she was: a portrait of my mother, a portrait of my mother’s youth, a portrait of my mother’s despondence and anxiety, enshrined and protected on the wall.
The lights in the hallway at the top of the stairs were off. My mother, standing in front of the girl, and presumably about to come down the stairs, was neither moving nor speaking. Her face was contorted and her hair was especially yellow.
There was a period of years when the first thing my mother saw when she woke up in the morning was a wave of black ink washing across the ceiling. It took her an hour to get up. The wave was occasionally accompanied by illustrations, in the air, of objects, simple and mundane—a key, for example, or a cup. She did not question the objects, but held onto them long enough so she could draw them when awake.
Then every morning for a year, my mother saw, lying in bed, with her eyes still closed, a page of printed text. It appeared inside her eyelids. What she saw most clearly, especially when the sun shone through her window, was the middle of the page. The text was always different, and though the pages appeared for a year, she was never able to read them.
One morning she woke up, opened her eyes, quickly closed them, and saw the page of printed text. To her surprise, two words were clear. The words she could see were:
T H E A T T A C K E R
Suddenly, my mother said to me. His memory vanished. Why was he looking directly into the sun?
Now, reading what you wrote, I said to my mother, I’m thinking that reading and looking directly into the sun are similar, synonymous even, with what is being read being the sun, and the words being the bright burning that makes staring directly into the sun so hazardous, so threatening, yet so tantalizing, alluring.
Do you ever see printed text behind your eyelids, my mother asked me, like when you close your eyes at night you can see a page or a paragraph of text even if you can’t make out the words?
No, I said to my mother. Maybe sometimes if I’m staring at a crossword puzzle for a long time. Do you?
I do see text behind my eyelids when I close my eyes at night or in the early morning, my mother said to me. For real. It must get copied onto my retinas. This morning I was even able to read some words, like this.
In Yasujiro Ozu’s film, The Only Son, an aging mother visits her son. She lives in the country, in Shinshu. He lives in the city, Tokyo. She is a widow and lives alone. She had, when her son was a child, devoted her life to him, working in a silk factory to provide what she could, and now, not having seen him in many years, discovers he is married and has a child of his own. What would you like to see in Tokyo? he asks her. I don’t know, she says. So he takes his mother to the local garbage incinerator. They sit on the ground outside the garbage incinerator, where they talk, and listen to skylarks.
Almost as soon as I learned that a painting was a painting, I learned something else: you are not supposed to touch a painting. It was, in that way—and in the admonishment—like fire. That I could not touch it was the beginning of it becoming a painting. A painting was fire arrested.
It is because a painting is not made to be touched, yet responds to the sense of touch, that it can drive one to insanity.
Another thing I learned was that what a painting is—what makes a painting a painting—is not entirely visible. But if it is not entirely visible, then where is it?
The first hint of where it was, the part that was hiding, was on my mother’s face. Standing before the painting, she too was not entirely visible. She partly disappeared. But if I knew my mother, or, as a young child, was beginning to know her, then I could add together the parts of her that had not disappeared to figure out which part of her was missing. The missing part would be the painting. That was the part, in her, that was changing.
The Only Son. Directed by Yasujirō Ozu, 1936.
Brandon Shimoda's recent books include The Grave on the Wall (City Lights), which received the PEN Open Book Award, and The Desert (The Song Cave). His next book, on the afterlife of Japanese American incarceration, received a Creative Nonfiction Grant from the Whiting Foundation, and is forthcoming from City Lights. He is the incoming Assistant Professor of Creative Nonfiction at Colorado College.