Alyssa Monks
1,336,919 views • 13:08

I'm a painter. I make large-scale figurative paintings, which means I paint people like this. But I'm here tonight to tell you about something personal that changed my work and my perspective. It's something we all go through, and my hope is that my experience may be helpful to somebody.

To give you some background on me, I grew up the youngest of eight. Yes, eight kids in my family. I have six older brothers and a sister. To give you a sense of what that's like, when my family went on vacation, we had a bus.

(Laughter)

My supermom would drive us all over town to our various after-school activities — not in the bus. We had a regular car, too. She would take me to art classes, and not just one or two. She took me to every available art class from when I was eight to 16, because that's all I wanted to do. She even took a class with me in New York City.

Now, being the youngest of eight, I learned a few survival skills. Rule number one: don't let your big brother see you do anything stupid. So I learned to be quiet and neat and careful to follow the rules and stay in line.

But painting was where I made the rules. That was my private world. By 14, I knew I really wanted to be an artist. My big plan was to be a waitress to support my painting. So I continued honing my skills. I went to graduate school and I got an MFA, and at my first solo show, my brother asked me, "What do all these red dots mean next to the paintings?" Nobody was more surprised than me. The red dots meant that the paintings were sold and that I'd be able to pay my rent with painting. Now, my apartment had four electrical outlets, and I couldn't use a microwave and a toaster at the same time, but still, I could pay my rent. So I was very happy.

Here's a painting from back around that time. I needed it to be as realistic as possible. It had to be specific and believable. This was the place where I was isolated and in total control.

Since then, I've made a career of painting people in water. Bathtubs and showers were the perfect enclosed environment. It was intimate and private, and water was this complicated challenge that kept me busy for a decade. I made about 200 of these paintings, some of them six to eight feet, like this one. For this painting, I mixed flour in with the bathwater to make it cloudy and I floated cooking oil on the surface and stuck a girl in it, and when I lit it up, it was so beautiful I couldn't wait to paint it. I was driven by this kind of impulsive curiosity, always looking for something new to add: vinyl, steam, glass. I once put all this Vaseline in my head and hair just to see what that would look like. Don't do that.

(Laughter)

So it was going well. I was finding my way. I was eager and motivated and surrounded by artists, always going to openings and events. I was having some success and recognition and I moved into an apartment with more than four outlets. My mom and I would stay up very late talking about our latest ideas and inspiring each other. She made beautiful pottery.

I have a friend named Bo who made this painting of his wife and I dancing by the ocean, and he called it "The Light Years." I asked him what that meant, and he said, "Well, that's when you've stepped into adulthood, you're no longer a child, but you're not yet weighed down by the responsibilities of life." That was it. It was the light years.

On October 8, 2011, the light years came to an end. My mom was diagnosed with lung cancer. It had spread to her bones, and it was in her brain. When she told me this, I fell to my knees. I totally lost it. And when I got myself together and I looked at her, I realized, this isn't about me. This is about figuring out how to help her. My father is a doctor, and so we had a great advantage having him in charge, and he did a beautiful job taking care of her. But I, too, wanted to do everything I could to help, so I wanted to try everything. We all did. I researched alternative medicines, diets, juicing, acupuncture. Finally, I asked her, "Is this what you want me to do?" And she said, "No." She said, "Pace yourself. I'm going to need you later."

She knew what was happening, and she knew what the doctors and the experts and the internet didn't know: how she wanted to go through this. I just needed to ask her. I realized that if I tried to fix it, I would miss it. So I just started to be with her, whatever that meant and whatever situation came up, just really listen to her. If before I was resisting, then now I was surrendering, giving up trying to control the uncontrollable and just being there in it with her. Time slowed down, and the date was irrelevant.

We developed a routine. Early each morning I would crawl into bed with her and sleep with her. My brother would come for breakfast and we'd be so glad to hear his car coming up the driveway. So I'd help her up and take both her hands and help her walk to the kitchen. She had this huge mug she made she loved to drink her coffee out of, and she loved Irish soda bread for breakfast. Afterwards was the shower, and she loved this part. She loved the warm water, so I made this as indulgent as I could, like a spa. My sister would help sometimes. We had warm towels and slippers ready immediately so she never got cold for a second. I'd blow-dry her hair. My brothers would come in the evenings and bring their kids, and that was the highlight of her day.

Over time, we started to use a wheelchair, and she didn't want to eat so much, and she used the tiniest little teacup we could find to drink her coffee. I couldn't support her myself anymore, so we hired an aide to help me with the showers.

These simple daily activities became our sacred ritual, and we repeated them day after day as the cancer grew. It was humbling and painful and exactly where I wanted to be. We called this time "the beautiful awful."

She died on October 26, 2012. It was a year and three weeks after her diagnosis. She was gone. My brothers, sister, and father and I all came together in this supportive and attentive way. It was as though our whole family dynamic and all our established roles vanished and we were just all together in this unknown, feeling the same thing and taking care of each other. I'm so grateful for them.

As someone who spends most of my time alone in a studio working, I had no idea that this kind of connection could be so important, so healing. This was the most important thing. It was what I always wanted.

So after the funeral, it was time for me to go back to my studio. So I packed up my car and I drove back to Brooklyn, and painting is what I've always done, so that's what I did. And here's what happened. It's like a release of everything that was unraveling in me. That safe, very, very carefully rendered safe place that I created in all my other paintings, it was a myth. It didn't work. And I was afraid, because I didn't want to paint anymore.

So I went into the woods. I thought, I'll try that, going outside. I got my paints, and I wasn't a landscape painter, but I wasn't really much of any kind of painter at all, so I had no attachment, no expectation, which allowed me to be reckless and free. I actually left one of these wet paintings outside overnight next to a light in the woods. By the morning it was lacquered with bugs. But I didn't care. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. I took all these paintings back to my studio, and scraped them, and carved into them, and poured paint thinner on them, put more paint on top, drew on them. I had no plan, but I was watching what was happening.

This is the one with all the bugs in it. I wasn't trying to represent a real space. It was the chaos and the imperfections that were fascinating me, and something started to happen. I got curious again. This is another one from the woods.

There was a caveat now, though. I couldn't be controlling the paint like I used to. It had to be about implying and suggesting, not explaining or describing. And that imperfect, chaotic, turbulent surface is what told the story. I started to be as curious as I was when I was a student.

So the next thing was I wanted to put figures in these paintings, people, and I loved this new environment, so I wanted to have both people and this atmosphere. When the idea hit me of how to do this, I got kind of nauseous and dizzy, which is really just adrenaline, probably, but for me it's a really good sign.

And so now I want to show you what I've been working on. It's something I haven't shown yet, and it's like a preview, I guess, of my upcoming show, what I have so far. Expansive space instead of the isolated bathtub. I'm going outside instead of inside. Loosening control, savoring the imperfections, allowing the — allowing the imperfections. And in that imperfection, you can find a vulnerability. I could feel my deepest intention, what matters most to me, that human connection that can happen in a space where there's no resisting or controlling. I want to make paintings about that.

So here's what I learned. We're all going to have big losses in our lives, maybe a job or a career, relationships, love, our youth. We're going to lose our health, people we love. These kinds of losses are out of our control. They're unpredictable, and they bring us to our knees. And so I say, let them. Fall to your knees. Be humbled. Let go of trying to change it or even wanting it to be different. It just is. And then there's space, and in that space feel your vulnerability, what matters most to you, your deepest intention. And be curious to connect to what and who is really here, awake and alive. It's what we all want.

Let's take the opportunity to find something beautiful in the unknown, in the unpredictable, and even in the awful.

Thank you.

(Applause)