DP Challenge: Imperfections — in things, in people, in places — add character to life. Tell us about an imperfection that you cherish.
Time to reveal a secret ~ when I was a little girl, I was an abysmal failure in art classes. One summer school class, heading into the fifth grade, set the tone. We did paper mache, origami, probably other projects. I never made it past the paper mache project. Mr. Griffin felt my technique was lacking and had me redo the paper mache dragon over and over and over again. (Same thing happened in Home Economics ~ the sewing class with Mrs. Aiken in the 8th grade. “Rip it out. Do it again. Are you eating corn nuts, HuntMode? Open your mouth!” What a horror she was! Nonetheless, I can do a mean slip stitch because of that she-dragon.)
At the end of the summer session, Mr. Griffin looked down at me. Sighing, “So, HuntMode, do you hate art now?” I wasn’t talking to him by that time, so I just nodded fiercely. Someone in authority once said, “You couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler, HuntMode.”
Life moved on. Fast forward to 1998. I am 43 years old and I discover that I really want to paint. I’m terrified of it, quite defensive and a wee bit belligerent in that I am going to do it even if it is only finger-painting. I take my 9 year old self by the hand and we walk into a gigantic art store. A salesman asks me if he can help. I explain I want to paint, using oils and paint thinner to clean the brushes. (The quintessential essence of painting to me was the smell of paint thinner.) “I want to use the same materials Rembrandt used.” He nods, taking it all in stride, but does point out that here in the Pacific Northwest, oil paintings take about six months to dry and suggests gently I try Acrylics – dries in minutes, cleans up with soap and water. (He has no idea what he is up against.) Somewhere in that orientation, he points out that lead was a big problem in the old days and artists, who sucked on their brushes, went insane. Doesn’t deter me in the slightest. I buy a cheap little easel, a start up set of oils, a jar of paint thinner, when truly all I want to do with it is uncap it so the smell lingers in the room. We’re going for authenticity here, see?
I get home, put together the easel, lay everything out, uncap the paint thinner, set out the paint tray, squeeze out paint from every tube onto the tray, and approach the canvas, talking to myself. “Okay, this is just for fun, Huntie. We’re just going to explore what these colors are like, maybe mix and match ’em, we’ll see how the brushes work. This isn’t for keeps, it’s practice painting just to get the feel.” I’m working on a snow white carpet with an unsteady tripod easel and beginning to appreciate what the guy was talking about, eying the fascination of the dog and cat checking out Mom’s latest hobby. I crank up the music – Country – and plunge in. Here it is – my first painting, titled “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” (forgive the camera ~ it’s an old cell phone – the colors are actually sharper. If you click on the picture, it will enlarge.)
To my surprise and delight, it is the one painting out of maybe 50 or 60 canvases that children make a beeline for. “I like this one.” (Well, I love you.)
Life interrupted and I get back to pursuing my painting in 1999. I very quickly realize I want to paint recognizable paintings – you can look at it and say, “Oh, I know what that is.” I won’t go near an art class or art teacher – nobody, but nobody is going to rain on my parade. This is a private affair. I buy this wonderful book, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards. I videotape painting shows on PBS. I check out videos from the Library. On Saturdays, I would spend the day studying the videos and then practice what they painted on my own canvases. I still have all those wonderful shows, including this wonderful guy, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.”:
The summer of 2001, I eventually reached the point where I couldn’t paint corners or around them, realized I had to gird my loins and take some art classes – not one of which was painting. One was a 40 hour – five day class in drawing, simply fantastic. Taught by Antony Ryder, who wrote “Figure Drawing.” Another was sculpture and I’ve forgotten the third one. Sometime that summer, there was a competition here in Seattle and I entered it. I placed third (!) out of about 250 paintings. HA! HA! HA! That painting sold for $350.00. Oooooorrrrraaaaahhhhhh! The only picture I have of it is in slide form.
Another secret: I love every one of my paintings – good, bad and just plain awful. They are my kids. Being a writer, what makes me love those paintings is the stories in them. The travail in trying something over and over and over again. Griffin would be proud. So, here are some samples and the stories around ’em.
This one was September of 1999 – I was trying to capture my living room and the cat and dog sleeping on the couch. That apartment was on the 2nd floor and filled with spectacular light.
My brother always had an opinion and when he looked at this, without hesitation, he said, “Thanksgiving dinner?” He’s talking about the dog and cat on the couch (“Well, isn’t that the turkey?”) You be the judge. Tell me from the close up below that does not look like a cat and a dog. Turkey! Brothers!
He thought my colors were a bit dim and only after he had cataract surgery did he reassess his earlier opinions. “Oh! Well, of course, that’s the cat and the dog!”
This one is from 2002. Those are supposed to be haystacks in the foreground. Sigh. I had read a Dick Francis novel, “To The Hilt,” where the hero, who is an artist, goes through hell protecting a family artifact. Along the way, he’s painting. Dick Francis, who was once the Queen’s Champion Jockey, is famous for writing of both horse racing and for picking a profession and writing extensive background material around that profession – throwing in a race horse somewhere in the mix – always. He does a fabulous job on describing his artist’s techniques and has him attempt to do a portrait of a woman when she was both young and (simultaneously laid over it) her current older self. He describes it as painting various layers in the first portrait and then using a sharp instrument he carves into the thick wet oil paint the image of her elder self, knowing full well that if he loses his nerve, the painting is ruined. ….ummmm, that sounded interesting.
In the foreground, I lathered thick, copious amounts of acrylic paint and then attempted to carve haystacks. I didn’t lose my nerve, I just did a lousy job. Herein lies the critical difference between oil and acrylic. Oil is forgiving. If you make a mistake, you’ve got plenty of time to fix it. Acrylic is not so forgiving. In fact, it’s a rigid little bastard when carving haystacks. The painting dried in about 10 minutes – I couldn’t stop it. What that means is, no matter how many times I redid those damn haystacks, there were ridges in the painting itself – the number of haystacks couldn’t be corrected for balance, they were just there. It was a three day weekend and I swear to God I repainted that foreground 37 times. At one point, I just covered it up with a bright cheerful shade of green. My brother, passing by, said “Oh, I like that! That works.” Yeah, if you want it to look like some Microsoft executive’s mansion. A while later, he passed by again. “I dunno, Huntie. It looks a bit like a Seal Team taking down a farm-house…” And, yes, I know the windmill looks like something out of Ghostbusters. Here’s a close up of one of the stacks:
I learned to keep the interior critic busy by having C-Span book festivals on or playing a book cd and painting at the same time. Quite often, I would come to and find myself standing absolutely transfixed by some author’s discussion of his research of the civil war and the amount of stuff left on the Gettysburg battlefield.
This one never got completed. It was supposed to be a vase with daisies tumbling out of it, but I fell in love with how the “table” came out, which now to my eye looks like a dock…
This is titled, “Deux Femme.” So, it turns out that when I’m just noodling around or doing an exercise I designed to see what happens if you do this or maybe that… those pieces often have mysteries hidden within them that were certainly never my intention – including being wholly different if turned upside down or on their sides. For instance, I did one experimenting with oranges and reds and yellows and blues and greens – I think this is one of those painted one way and turned upside down in the final display – I had divided the canvas into four squares – focusing on greens, blues, oranges and yellows and how they change when shaded or combined or merged at the borders. I wasn’t trying to paint anything recognizable, just noodling around. At the end, when it came to the finished product – by this time, I’d learned to look at the painting from every angle – it turns out there are (not sure this will translate well in writing) two different images people see – one group will see a woman with long blonde hair in profile staring out into the distance which might be of the sea; the other group will see two women in profile – of the front and one from behind….
This one came out rather dingy in the photo. It is actually bright yellow with a very vibrant red. Titled, “Look at Me!” (I am a flower!) – her dancing shows up in her fronds.
This one was painted right after 9/11, entitled “E Pluribus Unum” and is included in the 9/11 Project.
Here’s the explanation of it – I began it somewhere around the 20th of September – we were in that horrible period of waiting, of not knowing whether more attacks were coming or what our response would be. My skill at the time fell far short of the subject and the idea and intent as you will see. The painting is divided into panels – the lowest level (the very bottom of the painting) is of the (Hudson?) the NY waterfront with the Towers reflected in the water because we will only see them in our mind’s eye now; the next level is divided into thirds – the left third is of NY, the far right is of the Pentagon, and the middle is the National Cemetery; next panel up is a strip of sand, which is Afghanistan and its flag, and the final top panel is divided into thirds – on the left is a dove and on the far right is hawk, and in the middle is the American Eagle landing on Afghanistan. Those were our choices – all around the edges of the painting are the flags of all the countries who joined us with two blank ones left open. I finished it in December – just determining the flags took forever…. I learned later that there are small brushes that are good for tiny work like that…. Generally, this painting makes people uncomfortable and it sure did at the time. But for me it was moments and memories captured. That day truly did change my direction into emergency management, including getting my masters in strategic intelligence….
And, for last, is “A World of Light.” After finishing E Pluribus Unum, I wanted to add something positive to the world. I used to visualize the world wrapped in a gridwork of light, which I always saw in the shape of diamonds, so this has the planet Earth spinning in space with stars everywhere. If you can see it, Earth is surrounded in a grid of silver and gold diamonds, a holding of light around the planet.
As I said, these are my children and I love them in their very imperfections.