Marilyn Kirkman can’t recall when this piece was done. Ten years ago maybe? The artist does not date her work. She is blind, and she worries that dating with a marker or brush would turn out messy. Anyway, it’s just a date, a reminder of her limited time.
Kirkman, 83, holds this piece and admires it the only way she can: by feeling it, tracing her fingers over the ridges of silk she pinched and firmed with adhesive, the image of a forest coming to her mind along with the colors of the dye, colors she intimately knows from a previous, sighted life.
Her eyes fail, but her imagination does not. Nor does her understanding. Some amount of powder will make a color more intense, she knows, and a certain amount of water will dilute it, creating the precise color volume she has in mind.
“She knows somehow intuitively,” says Tim Carpenter, a friend who drove her here, to be with her work at Old Colorado City’s Arati Gallery. “It’s like inside her spirit. She just knows the colors.”
That’s one explanation of the “silk sculptures.” Another is from the pamphlets kept at the gallery: “Marilyn Kirkman has developed a way to continue her art in spite of macular degeneration. Silk and dyes are manipulated to create a highly textured and brilliantly colored painting.”
But this one she’s holding now is different. When she drapes the silk over a board, she almost always starts by brushing yellow across it, covering every mesa, crack, crevice and valley she formed.
“You have to have contrast,” she says, and she can make out that yellow in her mind, letting it be her guide as she begins adding colors. “It’s kind of like, Where’s the light? You’ve got to have light, got to see the light.”
Blue does not go well with yellow, so she avoids the combination, fearing some yucky green. That’s why this piece is different. Blue dominates.
While others resemble a fall scene, this one is wintry, blue and cool around the edges. A peach-colored, heavenly glow seems to linger in the distance, between the trees.
That is a common effect in Kirkman’s art. With big silk folds and bold colors up front and smaller folds and fainter colors in back, and by allowing a converging path in the center, she makes the illusion of going somewhere. “Outlets,” she calls them.
She gives a raspy chuckle. “I don’t know if I’m coming or going, but every one of them seems to have an outlet.”
This blue one is especially beautiful, says fellow gallery artist Carole Patton.
“It looks weird. I don’t know,” Kirkman says, chuckling again.
“To you it does,” Patton says. “To us, it looks so good.”
When Kirkman picked up the blue dye — making out the bottle’s label with a magnifying glass — she wasn’t sure how it would go. She’s more comfortable with warm colors and the shapes most familiar in her mind.
Those shapes include the rocks of Garden of the Gods and sunflowers. They lend themselves to her technique. She can form a great, silk wall and fill it with the color of sandstone. She can feel the top of that wall and know that everything above should be without yellow, filled with sky blue. She can fashion a circle, knowing it is the center of the sunflower, and she can shape the oval petals around it.
She gives the pieces names such as “Joy” or “Happiness” or “Follow your Bliss.”
“For a lot of artists, it would be a total disaster losing their vision,” says Jan Oyler, a friend of Kirkman’s at the gallery for 20-plus years. “But she knew how to make lemonade out of lemons, and now she does better than ever.”
It started with lines waving. Not ideal for her watercolors, for her depictions of Colorado Springs’ old buildings and cityscapes seen in historic pictures. Kirkman couldn’t keep the lines of the buildings straight. And she started to wonder: Was that black or blue?
At first, she thought something was wrong with her glasses. She went to the doctor and got new glasses, which still weren’t right, so she went back. The doctor took a closer look.
Fluid was leaking into the macula, the part of the retina responsible for central vision.
“That was about 25 years ago or thereabouts,” Kirkman says.
It got worse. She kept trying to paint, but her anger grew along with the feeling that she was losing the thing that always gave her peace and purpose.
She was always coloring as a kid growing up in Sheridan, Wyo. Art, she believed, was most important to the kindergarten classes she would teach. Later, she left to teach military families’ kids in England and Germany, where she would tour the galleries of masters, believing maybe she could join their ranks.
She met her husband overseas and moved to Colorado Springs with him in the 1970s, becoming a stay-at-home mom with four kids. It was hard finding time for herself, but when she did, it was with her easel.
“When you’re down and can’t pull yourself up, you don’t go to the kitchen and cook,” Kirkman says. “You go paint something.”
And when she felt she no longer could, she fell into despair.
“It was the day I was most mad, most frustrated, most disgusted, when I threw a piece of silk on a board and said, ‘I’ll make something out of this mess.’”
Once again, the Arati Gallery embraced her. There, many years before, she had met Marian Busey, who became an encouraging force.
“You have to have somebody who tells you you’re good,” Kirkman says. That was Busey with watercolors, and that was Busey again with the silk sculptures. She kept telling Kirkman to try and keep trying, an ever-present help until her death last summer.
Amid her own health scares, Kirkman keeps trying. She had open-heart surgery several years ago and later a stroke.
Art is like her elixir, says Carpenter, beside her in the gallery. “You’ve glimpsed your mortality, I think,” he says. “You know time is short, you feel it.”
Kirkman shrugs. “Those things could worry you, but you can escape.”
She can’t see it, but she knows the glowing “outlet” is there in this unusual blue piece. She’ll try another one like it soon, she tells herself.
“What did I call it?” she asks. “’Paradise.’ Isn’t that ridiculous? But something about it ... I just felt the colors were wonderful. I just felt it, like paradise. If I could get in there, it would be all right.”