At eye level, downy brush strokes in silver with flecks of pink and brown billow, draw my eye in. The painting is large, ten feet tall and six feet wide, taking up most of the space on the wall. I glance upward and allow my eyes to adjust to the height. The brush strokes elongate with more energy and intensity, incorporating darker browns and blues, then fading into shadows. Is this an abstract? I think to myself and back up several feet to get a better view. I still cannot make out what I am looking at. Is it some sort of Rorschach test? The splash of paint begins to take form and I make out wings. No, this is not an abstract painting or ink blot test. I am standing before an angel.
Viewing The Annunciation by Jay DeFeo is both a frightening and gleeful experience as the painting places you before an angel—a position you never imagined you’d find yourself in. Looking up, I cannot make out its face. The space between the wings is dark, obscured. The result is ominous. Facing the unknown is a terrifying mystery to behold.
DeFeo used a palette knife to apply the thick paint across the canvas, creating a dense surface texture. Once I grasped the figure was an angel, the texture gives the appearance of feathers both far away and up close to the canvas. The angel is more raptor-like appearance, as opposed to the meekness of a dove.
Artist Jay DeFeo was born in 1929 and grew up in California’s Bay Area. She moved into the art scene in the mid-1950s, right when the Beat Generation community of artists, poets and jazz musicians exploded in San Francisco. DeFeo’s art never seemed to fit into any of the stylistic designations, such as the spontaneous drips of Jackson Pollack’s, Abstract Expressionism, or the geometric shapes of Frank Stella’s Minimalism, of the time. The art she created hovers between representation and abstraction. DeFeo wrote, “I believe the only real moments of happiness and feeling aliveness and completeness occur when I am swinging a brush. I don’t think I can do without it.” Painting became her breath.
To DeFeo, her Annunciation wasn’t specific to Mary or Christian interpretation. It was a promise to her, in particular, a “realization of all that is good in this existence…and of certain powers creatively.” For Defeo The Annunciation was a symbol of the “association between the words creative and spiritual or divine.” It was a symbol of her own Divine Inspiration. Her own connection to some sort of spiritual force that breathed upon her the desire to create.
In her poem, "The Annunciation," Denise Levertov asks, “Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives?” A very few “undertake great destinies.” Levertov says,
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
I wonder how often I do not notice an opportunity, for growth, for change or for inspiration. Or as DeFeo realized, do I see what is good in this existence? Or do I only notice what is wrong? Do I look at it as an abstraction instead of looking up to notice it is an angel standing before me, inviting me to feel alive and complete? Or do I give in to feeling small and helpless, allowing these feelings to overpower the words “Do not be afraid”?
Shemaiah Gonzalez is a freelance writer with degrees in English Literature and Intercultural Ministry. She thrives on moments where storytelling, art and faith collide. She is published at Image Journal's Good Letters, Barren, Fathom and Relief among others. She is pursuing an MFA in Seattle where she lives with her husband and their two sons.
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Photo by Roberto Catarinicchia on Unsplash
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March 12, 2020
Lovely! I love the artist’s connection between creativity and the divine!