Photo credit: Gabriel Max Starner
Literary dedications are a strange genre of writing. They’re a relatively contemporary expectation. Surely not all works of literature were made for a single human? A book feels too large of a thing to give away to someone. I often think about how other art forms don’t have the expectation of dedications. Paintings don’t require a note about whom the painting was made for. And surely some paintings an artist makes for themselves? Or, some paintings an artist makes and doesn’t know if the painting was made for anyone, or for any purpose at all?
I know some books, and some works of art, are made for a specific person, in their image, or in their honor, but this wasn’t the case with Belly Up
. I don’t feel like the book belongs to anyone but me. But there is a lot of my grandmother in the stories.
The dedication page for Belly Up
reads: “After Ann Bullwinkel." Ann Bullwinkel was my grandmother, who lived in Bend, Oregon, not far from Powell’s, at the time of her death in December, five months ago. She moved to Oregon after the death of her husband, my grandfather. She said living in the Bay Area had become too painful for her. Everything (the bay, the water, the hill on which she lived, the house in which she lived with him, my father’s face, who looked like her dead husband) reminded her of him.
She was a painter. Before she was a painter, she was a potter. And, before she was a potter, she was a seamstress at Sears, one of the most elegant department stores in San Francisco at the time.
I lived with her and my grandfather, August Bullwinkel, for a year when I was 11. My parents had bought a home, a beautiful, old ranch house 30 minutes south of San Francisco, and the house needed a great deal of work to become livable, so we moved in with my grandparents and stayed there for the better part of a year during the most intense parts of the construction.
I like how loud it looks. I like the idea of a screaming painting.
When I lived with my grandmother, she was only painting large canvas, hyper-realist oil paintings of onions. Her canvases were generally 5x5 feet, or larger. The images were always so large that the onion, if viewed from close up, looked abstracted, like nothing more than a repeating pattern, or an excessive color theory experiment. She painted dozens of these giant onions. It took her months to complete one. Her favorite one was of a purple onion sliced open, facing up to the light. Its rings were defined and incredibly vivid. For years it hung above my grandfather and grandmother’s bed.
An Onion by Ann Bullwinkel
Sometime after I moved out, and before my grandfather died, she started painting landscapes. Sterile, easy images of mountains. Things that belonged to, and were bought by, dental and doctors' offices. Later, she did some of rivers and close-ups of water — huge wall-sized canvases of just rippling, still water. My sister, who’s a competitive surfer and enters into the ocean every day, loves these ones of water. I like them, too, but I still find myself most transfixed by the onions.
I think my fascination with them stems partly from the fact that I was living with her while she was making them. I think I also relate to the irrationality of painting close to the exact same thing again and again. Her repetitive onion painting was an obsessive thing to do. I know that I possess this obsessive tendency, too.
As a young person, my grandmother was the only person I knew who lived life contrary to what was expected of her. She was a deeply passionate, deeply impulsive, and deeply complicated person. Some of my earliest memories are of her asking me to look at leaves and tell her how many colors I saw in them, and what other objects I knew that also had those colors in them. She taught me how to sew, and how to make my own clothes, which I did during my teenage years. She painted her home in bright colors. She had long gray hair that, when I was a child, she wore pinned in a bun with sticks that were topped by dragons. She believed she was the reincarnation of a man from a past life. She didn’t believe in religion, but she did believe in psychics, and took me and my sister to one to talk with our grandfather after he died.
Last year, while she was still living, I asked if she’d be willing to gift me one of her onions. Almost all of them were in storage or packed away in her garage. She drove one down for me from Oregon in her gold minivan. It now hangs on my living room wall. Its energy takes up nearly the entire room. It’s huge. It’s the biggest visual image in my home, and bigger than what probably belongs on that wall. Its presence in the room is completely overpowering. I like how loud it looks. I like the idea of a screaming painting. The stories of Belly Up
are disparate, at times, in terms of their form and the characters they portray. However, I do like to think that they are circling some of the same things, and, even, some of the same people. My grandmother has her onions. I have my grandmother.
An Onion by Ann Bullwinkel, in the author's home
÷ ÷ ÷
’s writing has been published in Tin House, Conjunctions, Vice, NOON
, and Guernica
. She is a recipient of grants and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Brown University, Vanderbilt University, Hawthornden Castle, and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. Both her fiction and her translation have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. She is an Editor at Large for McSweeney's
. She lives in San Francisco. Belly Up
is her first book.