Thankfully, I have not yet experienced de Kooning’s dementia struggles, but I do know some of what it is like to be caught by the easel. It happens, for example, every time I try to end a painting session and go home or to some other life task. Ending and walking away from the easel takes at least three tries every day. Rationally, I know it is time to stop, but I can’t. The easel calls out questions like: “Don’t you want to fix that one little bit before you go?” Even when everything has been put away, I am forced to respond, taking whatever remains at hand – a paper towel, a not completely cleaned brush, a little bit of paint that remains on the palette – and I use it to make the work better. It feels like there is no greater responsibility than to soften that edge, darken the tone, or remove the little highlight; or take care of all three and more. Eventually, the easel lets me go for the day. It knows I will be back the next morning and even before I take off my coat and unpack my stuff, I will be back at it, with paper towel or whatever, to fix some mistake that I didn’t see the night before.
Why the phrase, “caught by the easel?’ The word “caught” just feels right. But not caught in the trapped or “gotcha” sense. It is more like rescued or saved. The existential philosopher, Martin Heidegger, tell us that we live in the world in a state of thrownness (his fancy term). It is as is we have been tossed without rhyme or reason into our chaotic world and we must do our best to contend with that, to make meaning of that, to make some contribution to ourselves and others in the midst of that. Perhaps, the easel is like a large comforting hand that even if it can’t end the thrownness of life, the living in the throw, it at least breaks and eases my fall. The easel is a way to meaning, a way to some sort of contribution; a tool for possibility.