Caroll Sun Yang
In an artwork you’re always looking for artistic decisions, so an ashtray is perfect. An ashtray has got life and death. —Damien Hirst
A dollar store sketchpad captured me.
There were many varieties of flawed stationary to peruse, but this pad caught my fancy. It was the cover that got me—sketches of three horses, all in different stages of rendering, sexless and indeterminate in breed. The first horse was a flimsy thing; lightly sketched and tentative like infant hair floating on bath suds. The second horse bled through the first horse with a little more boldness, possessing shadows, nooks and traces of a wild wind blowing through its mane. The third horse was a black stallion, fully manifest with nostrils flared and up on its haunches, front hooves suspended above the ground forever.
This equine trio, galloping east and begging off the page, stopped me. I imagined peeling them off one by one, each rendering blooming into flesh, setting them loose into the air with a kiss. Why do we envision impossible scenarios, challenging science and reason as we hurtle towards death, standing in the aisles of stores, lost in a state of impossible longing?
Mommy? Mommy! Where are you?
I did not know what I expected to find if I lifted the cover of the pad. Nothing grand—like the days winning Lotto numbers, the romantic rumble of a Midwestern storm, or two tickets to paradise. But I expected something.
I discovered blank page after blank page, a pack of mutes I felt for quality. I fingered the corner of a sheet and ran my index across the horizon. Seemed a bit rough to the touch, pliable when it should be stiff, not transparent enough to trace upon but not thick enough to halt bleeding (paper, not people). It would be difficult to blend, trace, smudge, scrape, blur, stipple or draw “real” with these pages.
I concluded that this sketchpad was composed of the basest paper, meant to house redundant office memos and suffocating syllabi. It was messily bound at the top, with no ambition, by what looked like aging black electrical tape. This thing would not hold. It was not worth the hapless tree it once was. So, I put it down, walked away, thinking forever.
In an adjacent aisle, I selected a fluorescent orange toilet scrubber with matching holster and promised myself to never let fetid waters collect at its pit. That reminded me of all the reasons I need latex gloves. I also picked up some of those chalky blue tablets that live in toilet tanks, not because they are cleansing agents, but because I love the pretty aqua blue hue the water takes, reminding me of my childhood underwater dreams. I used to kick like a dolphin in my sleep, belly on the floor by morning, drooling a pool from my face. Breathing water is a lot of work!
We can induce buttery-heart-sweet nostalgia by things we piss and shit into. Every single thing becomes a part of my past, your past, our past. Facts.
I cruised the aisles collecting and investing in memorabilia…
Staring Neon Gummy Eyeballs
Urine Colored Anti-Bacterial Body Soap
Jesus’ Mother Shaped Pillar Candles
Scrubbing Bubbles Vanish Toilet Drop-ins
Ten Pack of Knock-Off Cristal Bic Pens
Three Pink Heart Camouflage Lighters
A Festive Flat of Canel’s Chicle Gum
Kitten Themed Two-Year Calendars
(Presumptions to Live That Long)
Two Packs of Vanilla Grace Pine Bed Car Deodorant Danglers
Short Tubs of Orange Creamsicle Frosting
Poop Emoji Wrapping Paper
After the harvest, I approached the end of a long checkout line, which gave me time to think, about images that have not been born, words in combinations not yet penned, thick and thin markers sliding over crisp white sheets, surreal formations and scrawl that only I will ever make, that only you will ever make—I felt myself lured back to the horses with their magnetic pull. The orphaned sketchpad was crossing from the territory of dispensable into the zone of crucial, becoming an enigma taunting perversely-
What are you gonna do to me?
If you find yourself wrestling with a noun, it has already won.
It was not a matter of cost. So, was it a matter of waste? Would this sketchpad become just another one of my many pads? Filled with fits and starts—phone numbers, half-baked ideas, mindless scritch-scratch, and attempts at art? A stunted diary all trampled and dusty under some bed next to graying socks and fluid encrusted tissues?
I sometimes fear that life will cease to inspire, leaving nothing worth noting. That’s dread.
Was this sketchpad meant for some poverty-struck, plump and pimply shunned teen who would draw himself out of his pubescent hell? I saw him, softly sunk of his stained bed, hunched over the pages, scribbling ferocious things about beautiful, kind girls and fancy flying cars and heroic creatures. All this wonder and joy he created as his suffocating city clinked and clanked outside and people fought each other in another room…another city…another country.
He is a pleasure to imagine.
What if this sketchpad was meant to be the depository for an exhausted woman’s fantasies? This woman with too many small children. She soaked in her bath-bombed water, a pale lavender womb protected by candles, and planned her pages. Hasty sex scenes and layers peeled off, moist forest beds, white flowing gowns and long skinny limbs from the land of I used to be…and the lost young men there. She thought about white floral birthday cakes. Picnics in the buff. Acres of land, worthy of portraiture. There were no children in her dreams. There were no jobs. No chores. No mate. Her drawings were crude, but her visions were pure and life sustaining.
What if this pad was not for me, but for any child, who makes the art that is the truest?
Obsessive art, suns and rainbows and guns and eyes and grasses and shades of sky-blue sky so false (but simultaneously so damn true), sincerely drawn people with enormous heads, dogs with smiles, feet-less parents, drippy blood, stripy kittens, awkward knives, bad men, suspended angels, blobby siblings, yelling mommies, towering papa’s…oh, so many wonderful flowers! Art that signals abuse, art that signals adoration and the quotidian between.
Understand, there was so much at stake. This was the last pad. If I took these blank sheets, I was burdened to fill them, to marry that void and make magic. I felt frozen in the stationary aisle, with an epic decision to make. Wild horses couldn’t drag me away. So, I bought it. I bought the whole goddamn 99 cent dream. It was nerve-wracking. A sheet of paper is potentially forever. After I am deceased, parts of this very sketchpad may remain. My body will melt and shrivel, my brain at last. My good organs will be donated. The eyes that saw all that I was bound to see, plucked from me. My ears that heard given to another. The rest of me, the unusable bits, incinerated and strewn into the wild. I’ve made my peace with all of that (though I urge you not to bet on it). But where will my pages go? Who will find them? What will they convey?
I flipped through the pad again. It was beyond sufficient now. Whatever criticism I had regarding its value, had vanished. When it was time, I placed it gently on the conveyer belt. Like a bomb. I thought hey lady please be careful with that. I heard the sound that is made when the tired checkers at the 99 Cents Only Store swipe items across the scanner? It goes uh-oh / uh-oh / uh-oh…like we’ve fallen into an abysmal, echoing Grand Canyon of mistakes. I had purchased the last sketchpad. Who knows? Maybe my last. Uh oh / uh oh / uh oh…
I stood there thinking about the first thing I wanted to lay down in the tablet. When I buy fresh paper, I want to ravage it immediately. I saw, because a lot of times we see first what we may fail to achieve, what I wanted to draw, and it populated my skull like this:
A GIGANTIC WEDDING RING. HEAVY AND SQUARE, MANLY. ALL SLICES, ANGLES AND TWO-DIMENSIONAL SHIMMER. THIS TREASURE SURROUNDED BY CARTOON SPERM THREATENING THE RING AT GUNPOINT. THE BOTTOM OF THE PAGE FEATURING IN STENCILED LETTERING “I GUESS” IN A MILITANT FONT. THE ENTIRE PAGE WASHED OVER IN A PLEASING, PALE WET SALMON SHADE. A LITTLE BIT LIKE A BLUSHING VAGINA OR FRESHLY EXPOSED BRAIN.
Was this an ecstatic vision? A premonition? Derangement? Indigestion? Does it matter?
The checker had to remind me to swipe my credit card. She had to walk me through this process like I was a toddler. I had lost my mind somewhere between the deformed stationary aisle and this woman’s register. Everything tunneled. I heard her long acrylic nails clacking on the keys, her glorious blue-black bouffant trembling, the names of many men and babies inked on her neck, the way she said in a raspy, concerned way Miss? I smiled, then she smiled. Our eyes touched.
I knew that she and I will end. We have that in absolute common, if little else. Between now and our final breaths, we will perform many similar things. We will hold people and paper. We will try to be good but end up being so bad. We will be ill and get well. We will feel invincible and we will want to die. We will go through every emotion, at times cycling through them in a disorderly way. A lot of things will beat us down. A lot of things will lift us high. There will be boredom too. We will remember and forget. We will earn. We will pay. We will be left. We will leave.
Sometimes, we gallop.
* In Gallo-Roman religion Epona was a protector of horses, ponies, donkeys and mules. She was particularly a goddess of fertility, as shown by her attributes of a patera, cornucopia, ears of grain and the presence of foals in some sculptures. She and her horses might also have been leaders of the soul in the afterlife ride.
Caroll Sun Yang earned her BFA at Art Center College of Design, an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University and holds certification as a Psychosocial Rehabilitation Specialist. Her work appears in Hunger Mountain, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Columbia Journal, Diagram, Juked, Barrelhouse, and her piece “The Waist That You Are From” was a Pushcart nominee. She identifies as a Korean American writer/ artist/ career-waitress/ vintage peddler/ mother/ wife breathing in Los Angeles, CA. She is at work on a mixed-genre collection titled “Guest Check.” Find her at online at www.carollsunyang.com and on Instagram @franzialux_rellickroad.