Monday, August 29, 2011

Stay Open at the Top

A while ago I attended my first art class since junior high school days. I was nervous, since my early experiences with paints had been far from successful. But I went in spite of my fears because the teacher, Jackie, was a friend of mine. I thought she would be kind. She was.

There were three other students in the class. We all sat around the dining room table in Jackie's apartment and she gave a short introductory talk.

"Look with new eyes,” she urged. "Colors don’t have to make sense." "Don't be afraid to be tacky." "When you think you’re finished, it’s just the beginning." 

This all made good sense to me. But best of all was when she encouraged us to “stay open at the top.” 

Then we set to work. Scattered across the table were tubes of acrylic paints — bold reds and pretty pinks; lime green and forest green; a yellow so lemony it made my teeth hurt; orange and eggplant; sixteen shades of blue. 

There were old coffee cans filled with paint brushes in every size, and other cans filled with water for cleaning the brushes. We had white plastic dishes for mixing paints and little scraps of washcloth at hand for drying our just-cleaned brushes. So much wonderful stuff. 

I freaked out. 

Art paraphernalia makes me nervous since I am, basically, still at the finger painting stage. I tried to keep my state of mind to myself. I just gurgled quietly into my sleeve. Anyone might think I was coughing. 

Jackie demonstrated some effective brush-dipping-into-paint techniques, as well as some brush-going-on-canvas strokes. Maybe it seemed as though I was soaking it all in. I wasn't.
And then it was time for us to begin. I squirted some red paint onto my white plastic dish. A few inches to the right I squirted green. Further along the rim: yellow and purple and blue. I couldn’t yet handle the subtlety of blending.  
I painted a bright red spiral in the middle of my canvas. It looked like a squiggly piece of pasta. It was at this point that I ran out of ideas.

I looked around to see what my cohorts were up to. Sheer magnificence. Their canvases were filled with swirls of color that actually went well together. 

I hated them. 

I moved to another section of my canvas and painted yellow circles. Not perfectly round circles, but definitely circles. I painted lots and lots of circles. The full moon, over and over and over.
The woman sitting to my left looked at my canvas. “What beautiful suns,” she said. And I said “thank you.” I felt like the little prince in the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, when he draws an elephant being digested by a boa constrictor and the well-meaning relatives mistake it for a drawing of a hat.
But I didn’t correct my sister-painter because she had used the word beautiful. She didn't say “you stink at this,” and for that I was grateful, even though my moons would now be suns forever more.