Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Portrait of A Young Girl
When I was in Catholic high school, I decided to take art classes. My comfort zone was writing, but my friend, a natural artist, insisted we should take at least one class together. I adored the class. I fidgeted through half my day, everyday, impatiently waiting for art class. Walking into the chaotic room was to come alive!
The mess, the speckled residue of paint on every surface, the long wall of windows, the energy, all were respite from the stuffy, dim, serious classrooms guarded by vulture-eyed teachers. While control vibrated like clenched fists through the rest of the school, the art room pulsed of those white knuckles split open. I found the assignments painfully boring or stifling, however. I wanted to jump in! I wanted to go straight to the doing! Who cared about theory or color wheels or (especially) rules! Just let me create and I'll figure out the how and why later. I didn't want to waste time on instruction, I wanted to be covered with paint to my elbows, cheeks smeared with charcoal dust, lips cracked from chewing on them, lost, blissfully lost, for those forty-five minutes in an atmosphere no heavier than paper, no more imposing than eraser grounds.
One assignment changed things. It was our final exam and it was a personal turning point because it unleashed in me a lifetime of understanding and completely misunderstanding.
The assignment was to paint a replica of a Master's work. No other direction, simply paint a copy of a work of our choice. I pulled a large book from the library shelf and let it fall open. I looked no further into the volume than those strange yellow green cat eyes of Joan Miró's Portrait of a Young Girl. She looked so happy and fresh, as if having just finished skipping and singing. Most important of all, he used dark lines to create the eyes, the nose, the lips on the verge of smiling. I could do this, I thought, with my rudimentary skills in painting. I checked the book out, spent a great deal of time painting my copy, and proudly displayed her on the easel for all to see and my teacher to grade.
My teacher, a woman who reminds me exactly of Professor Trelawney if she had a thick white streak in her black hair, was quiet, for what seemed a painfully long time. She had been praising the half dozen awkward Mona Lisa's I sat through waiting for my turn, but for me, complete silence and a squinty thing happening all around her face. I remember reaching out and placing my fingertip on the edge of the easel, hoping it would keep my entire body from crumpling into a heap of eraser grounds right there in front of the whole class. I was dying, I would be dead soon, there, my heart was stopping, I could feel it lurching and grinding to a halt.
But, I wasn't quite dead yet. That finally happened when she spoke, "Monet never painted this, Heather." I blinked. "And if he had, he would not have used black lines to paint features like a cartoon!" I added another fingertip to the easel. Then, somehow, without breath or blood, I managed to squeak out, "But, I didn't say it was Monet. I said Miró." To which she responded nothing and waved her hand for the next student to kick my seeping head off the stage and take my place on the gallows. By the next class, I had ransacked the library looking for the book to prove myself, to no avail, I could not find it again, as if I had dreamt the whole Miró thing into existence. I responded like any introverted fifteen year old would. I took to half hearted drawings and never touched paint to a canvas again for 25 years.
Why? Because I couldn't paint. At least that is what I told myself. After some time, I wholeheartedly believed myself. I remember a friend who insisted he was allergic to milk, except chocolate milk. No matter how absurd we told him this was, he absolutely believed and could not be reasoned with otherwise. When I was baby proofing the house again, earlier this year, I came across the Miró copy, facing the wall in a dark closet. Yes, I had kept her. I had kept her through six moves over two decades. I studied my copy, seeing how colorless she was compared to the original, partly because of the cheap grade paints and partly because I was so intimidated by color in the first place. But, I could see the resemblance still, faded and soft, as if mine was an under painting of the original, and I was pretty darn close in composition. I wondered why I kept her all those years, this utter failure of mine. And, here, friends, is where the understanding happens.
This failure was not mine. I picked up my teacher's lack of knowledge in Miró, fastening it around my fourth rib, until it became a part of me. I thought, like most children, my teacher knew everything. How could you even be an adult unless you knew everything? All of the adults around me knew everything and they told me often, repeatedly, ad nauseum, how they were right because, "I am your_____" father, mother, teacher, priest, coach, etc. When I argued otherwise, I was reminded I was just a child. When I stood up for myself, I was led to believe I was uppity or angry or making their life difficult. When I had hard evidence, I was ignored or patronized. When I had an emotion, it was quickly deemed insignificant compared to their emotions. I found myself playing out these scenarios through adulthood, with bosses and other relationships. What complete nonsense. It took me half my life, but I can now say with confidence, what utter foolish garbage. No wonder one of my favorite songs was always "My Life" by Billy Joel. I heard that song when I in first or second grade perched unsuspectingly on the cusp of ritualized conformity.
When I placed my copy back in the closet that day, I also bought some paints, and slowly over the course of the past several months, have been making time to paint. I always end up covered in paint and charcoal dust, and dream of a studio where I won't have to be careful not to drip on the floor or clean up immediately. I have found that lovely lost in my bliss feeling again, which now hangs in place of the failure.
As for the authority I had willingly handed my authentic self over to in order to keep the peace or placate their need for attention and control, well, it is an everyday process. One foot in front of the other, slipping back, catching myself, and climbing up again. I understand now, that my struggles, perceptions, beliefs, are the ones I live with, they make up my life, the only life I have. Everyone else can keep theirs, I do not have the time or space to internalize them anymore. This past year was a lesson in what matters most to me, my husband and children, including my own needs and self worth. I feel this upcoming year will continue to be about the tipping point into change for the better, one personal revolution at a time, no matter how small or large. I'm worth it. So are you.
"In a picture, it should be possible to discover new things every time you see it. But you can look at a picture for a week together and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life." Joan Miró