I have been working hard on a particular batch of paintings– a triptych for a nursery for a very dear friend. My paintings have been less than inspired lately. The strokes feel labored, my subjects tired (gee, I wonder whose energy they could be reflecting?) so when this batch came out effortlessly and joyfully, I was thrilled. I had been waiting for a painting win and they always arrive…eventually.
Basking in the glow of paintings that finally didn’t torture me, I decided to start photographing some of my newer pieces in preparation for an upcoming website release. Photographing paintings is harder than it sounds. I’ve got to move mostly wet paintings from the garage through the house, out the screen porch, and into natural light that isn’t too bright. I can’t just open the garage doors because then I’d unleash my precious AC into the neighborhood and in South Mississippi, that is just not something you can recoup without letting it run again for at least a few hours.
I had a lot of paintings to photograph so I brought on an unpaid intern, my seven-year-old son, to serve as the door holder. First, he’d open the door from garage to house and close it behind me, next he’d run ahead and open the door from house to porch and close it behind me. Finally, he’d open the screen door from porch to backyard and close it behind me as I’d carefully walk my paintings out to their photoshoot. Rinse, repeat for about five rounds. We have to be diligent about closing the doors because our fifty-pound poodle likes to run onto the porch where she’s been known to bust through the screens in pursuit of her nemesis, all of squirrel-kind.
For a kid who doesn’t have much going on these days, my son was delighted by this circus that was doorholder/artist assisstant. I was too. In fact, on our very last round, I got a little too confident and tried to shortcut the system. Instead of keeping our jobs specialized, I asked him to grab the last painting so as to bypass another trip. He held one painting and opened the doors while I carried the last two canvases. We made it to the last door in the obstacle course when, as he opened it, awkwardly because of the large painting he was trying valiantly not to drop, the poodle dashed up beside him, brushing her beautiful black fuzz all along the surface of the very wet painting I had just completed earlier that day.
I cried out in anguish and horror and my son burst into immediate tears. I could see the whole thing happening in slow motion, and in the half second before the dog was covered in oil paint and my painting ruined, I could not find the words to make it stop– “BAD THING” I almost, futility, yelled.
It was mere days ago, I was telling my son that the best part about painting was that you could just paint right over anything you didn’t like. There were no mistakes. Accidents were oh so often happy. He is far more of a perfectionist than I am and doesn’t share my love of imperfect shapes, colors that smear beyond their boundaries, and lines that aren’t straight. I honestly don’t find them that often, but if this wasn’t one of those teachable moments, I didn’t know what was.
If my son hadn’t been there, I would have lamented longer and louder, but I had to practice what I had just preached to him. So I wiped as much of the hot pink and green off the dog’s butt and legs as was possible with an entire pack of makeup wipes, assured him it was not his fault and that my anger was solely poodle-directed, and explained to him that I could definitely fix my smeared painting– that it would almost certainly be better because of the incident.
Here we are, days later. The groomer can’t take the dog for another two weeks despite my recounting to her of this horror story, the dog’s fur still has a springtime tint to it, and, doggone it, I’ve got a painting with more character than it did originally. I’ll post the new and improved version soon.
Let’s face it, accidents aren’t always happy and I didn’t recount all this to suggest that they are. That’s one of the reasons I paint– to make prettier messes out of less pretty ones. To organize (haphazardly, chaotically) what is haphazard and chaotic. To deal with rotten luck, frustration, bad timing, dissapointment. I paint because it allows me to adjust, reinvent, pivot, and, yes, sometimes cry out in anguish, curse and shout.
I don’t know if any of this will matter to my son the next time the lego tower he’s been constructing for hours falls over, or he inadvertently writes his “d’s” as “b’s” again. But even if it doesn’t, if he still bemoans and rages against imperfection, I’ll take it as a lesson in my own tenacity– keep going, re-working, trying. Keep teaching him even when it’s not sinking in. One day, I am sure, like oil paint on poodle butt, the lessons are going to stick.