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A Pollock painting helped heal my broken heart

amy rubin flett The Globe and Mail

A few years ago, while on a trip to New York, I had my heart broken.

Okay, wait. Let me start over. A few years ago, while on a trip to New York, I felt like my heart had been broken. In retrospect, it was more like one of those paper cuts that really hurt.

It came in the form of an e-mail from my boyfriend telling me he had been unfaithful. It was both irksome and fortuitous that it happened while I was in New York: irksome, of course, because I was travelling, and it threatened to ruin an incredible trip; but fortuitous, because if there is any chance your day will involve rehashing details from your relationship drama to, say, a subway handrail, New York is the perfect place to be.

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So there I was, alone and stunned in my friend's Brooklyn walkup, trying to figure out what to do. I thought a plan might be helpful. It would offer structure. And I could potentially navigate through my day without having to meaningfully engage with the world around me.

So I decided to stick to my pre-paper-cut-heart plan for the day: the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA seemed like a good idea because: I'm an artist; it's a large, one-stop destination where I could spend the whole day; and I liked that while Paper Cutter was back home in Victoria at his stupid job, I would be nonchalantly on my way to MoMA.

I don't remember getting there, since I was likely deeply embroiled in rehashing my relationship drama to the subway handrail. But I made it. The hard part was over. I was at the Museum of Modern Art and could now do as I pleased.

I set to wandering through the hallowed walls. On one level, I was enjoying the art - I even recall laughing out loud at a William Wegman video piece - while on another, I was still ranting and wallowing in my head. Everything was going according to plan.

Until I got to the Pollock.

Have you ever seen Jackson Pollock's One: Number 31, 1950? In case you haven't, let me describe it for you: It's a canvas with paint splattered all over it. Now, maybe you're thinking of other canvases with paint splattered all over them that you've seen in your life, so let me add this: It is paint that has been splattered in such a way that it changed what art is.

But my intention here is not to bring up the tired old is-paint-splatter-really-art debate; I want to share my reaction to the painting, which was nothing I was prepared for.

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This painting was the best listener I'd ever encountered, except I wasn't saying anything, not even in my head. The ranting had disappeared. I suddenly realized that everything else I had seen that day asked something of me, even just to find a line and follow it; to say "oh, this is a house" or "oh, this is orange and pink together" or "oh, this is sad."

But not the Pollock. No, this painting was not needy. Come over if you want, it seemed to say, and I'll just be here doing my thing. There was a generosity that had nothing to do with the desire to give, any more than a tree grows branches in the hopes children will climb them.

I wasn't thinking; I wasn't reflecting. I don't think I was doing anything, except for maybe whatever a caterpillar does when it's undergoing metamorphosis - the painting was my cocoon and I was a strange gelatinous mass that was going to emerge as the next version of myself.

I sat for at least an hour and felt like I could have sat there forever. I was almost scared to leave it.

I know not everyone has this reaction to it; I don't even know if I would upon seeing it again. And yet it probably happens, in one form or another, on a daily basis. The museum staff had even been courteous enough to place a softly padded vinyl bench right in front of it. Could someone knowledgeable in art write out prescriptions for us, recommending specific artworks tailored to our personalities and the circumstances of our tribulations?

And what did Jackson Pollock get? He was helping me mend my heart, helping me know myself better, helping me transition in a healthy way. Was he capable of receiving such gifts? From the little I know of his life, the answer is no. His relationships were troubled, he struggled with addictions and mental-health issues and died a premature death. It seems to be the exception rather than the rule that artists who completely change their field live happy lives with healthy relationships.

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I dumped Paper Cutter. About three months later, I met the love of my life, also an artist. We're now parents of a wonderful child. This love has changed my art, grounding me enough to allow me to take emotional risks I wouldn't have taken before. I know there is only so much I can give to art, only so far I can go. But I also know the options available to me as an artist have been mined by people who, willingly or unwillingly, have gone farther into the reaches of human consciousness than I have ever been or probably ever will be. They have stayed there long enough to bring forth art like we've never seen before, art that resonates on levels we may never understand. Many of them have paid an enormous price.

And, whether you like the paint splatters or not, this is an incredible gift to all of us.

Amy Rubin Flett lives in Bear River, N.S.

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