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Archive for April, 2014

Oil La Dee, Oil La Da

As indicated in my Glass Class Post, I’ve always held this innate curiosity for places that I pass by day in and day out and have no idea what’s going on inside. I’m pretty sure I got this trait from my father. He would often entertain his curiosity by exploring everyday places to see what was there. I grew up outside the city, and along the beautiful community I grew up in, there were ample places to peek around in.

One Sunday afternoon when I was about eight years old, we were heading home when I decided that I wanted to see a place called “Helen’s Arts and Crafts”, I couldn’t really explain to you what possessed me to ask that day, and I can’t really explain to you what possessed my father to say yes, but as he pulled into the parking lot, I beamed with excitement. I remember it being late afternoon and that it was winter, and I remember seeing that beautiful deep pink and orange colour of the sunset, colours that seems especially crisp in the winter months. The store was an extension of the house the owners lived in, it was a garage that had been converted into a store/gallery space. I walked into the store before my father, being surprised by what I saw inside. I don’t know what I was expecting to see exactly, but I remember just feeling so happy. There were paintings all over the walls, and there were shelves full of different kinds of things I couldn’t now describe. Helen came down from her house and warmly greeted us. My father and I being quite a scene; because my father being deaf, couldn’t talk, and I, a child was speaking quite a lot for someone my age. I don’t remember all the things I might have said, but I do remember point blank, asking her how much it would cost for me to learn how to paint. I don’t think Helen ever expected to teach people how to oil paint in her store, particularly to a nine year old, but she came up with a sum she thought was reasonable, and I excitedly interpreted the conversation to my father. In my childhood, I can’t count the amount of times I had already gone ahead and made plans without notifying my parents beforehand, something they became reluctantly used to as the years went on. I told him at that moment that I wanted to learn how to paint, and that it was going to cost this much and could I do it? Talk about being put on the spot, but my father looked down at my pleading face, and looked at Helen’s kind face, and then gave his slow nod, letting us know without words, that we could go ahead and paint.

The nice part about living in a rural area is that you get to know your bus driver pretty well, on Wednesday afternoons he would drop me off in front of Helen’s instead of my house. I would walk inside and she would be there to greet me; I’d take off my backpack, and my jacket, and hang them up inside of her house. She’d have an afternoon snack ready (which in hindsight is a really telling quality about Helen), and we’d sit and chat about my day at school before we did anything. After about 15 minutes or so, she’d lend me one of her old, worn, painted shirts and we’d sit down and get to work. I’m going to be honest, when I first embraced the idea of oil painting, I imagined bright, beautiful colours, instead we started with the ocean. Now, I loved the ocean then, and I certainly still love it now, but it’s not exactly what I had in mind when I envisioned myself as an artist. For my whole life I get this incredible sense of happiness when I see an array of colours. Be it a hardware store in the paint department, a new box of Crayola crayons, a stack of construction paper, I am in bliss. While we were painting the ocean,  I would longingly looked at the gorgeous colours surrounding me and ask if we could use them. She patiently told me that in future projects we could pick any colours we wanted, but until that time, we needed to focus on the colours in the ocean. Whenever Helen and I would paint, we would talk about the most interesting things. I loved that she talked to me as a person where I felt my opinions and thoughts mattered, she treated me as if I had insightful views to offer. We would talk about the most mundane things that I thought were fascinating, I don’t know why this particular topic of conversation sticks out to me, but we talked about whether the taste of the tap water from the bathroom was different than the kitchen. Of course we both agreed that kitchen water was far superior, but we couldn’t really explain why.

One of my closest friends when I was growing up was (and is) an unbelievably talented artist. I used to be around her in this constant state of envy, she could draw and paint the most beautiful things. For the amount that I loved colour, it didn’t seem fair to me that I had no artistic ability. At the moment I finished my first painting with Helen I felt an incredible sense of pride, I had painted something recognizable, and it had some depth to it. I’m under no grand disillusion, Helen probably painted most of it, I mean I was eight; left to my own devices it would have looked like something a dog had accidentally walked across with paint.  We then moved onto other things, more tole painting based projects, which meant I could use as many of the different colours that I so desired. I picked out some wooden figures and painted them with whatever colour tickled my fancy, and Helen would help me put the nice finishing touches so that it would be a somewhat presentable item to show  to my parents when I’d bring them home (although to their credit they pretended to love everything I created). I loved the one on one time I had with this woman, as a chatty child (that’s an understatement), and as a curious one at that, it was amazing to me that I could sit with this woman once a week for an hour and a half, paint pretty things, and have enlightening conversations.

As per usual, something else came along and I abandoned oil painting. My school started offering after school ballroom dancing lessons, and my parents asked me to choose which one I wanted to do more. I chose dancing, and to this day I really don’t regret it, I was never a really good painter (to be fair, I was never a really good dancer either, but I enjoyed it so much more.)

I did go back to Helen a few years later. It was summer time, and I was one of those children that tried to her best ability to be independent. I was one of those kids that insisted on making her own sandwiches, cooking meals, and planning actively for the future. On the day I went back to Helen (I think I was ten at the time). I asked her for a summer job. Again, I can’t even imagine what Helen must have thought about me at that time, probably amused, but she did hire me. I basically, cleaned, dusted, sat to answer the phone and greeted any customers that came in. To be honest, it was pretty boring, and didn’t exactly fit into the working girl’s glamour that I initially imagined. However, I was paid for my work, I think it was a whole $10.00 a day at the time, and I was never prouder of the money I earned. During these days I would eat lunch with Helen and her husband Gary. Gary cut wood and so spent most of his hours (no matter the season) outdoors. We’d all sit inside the kitchen and have a little chat and eat lunch. It was the first time I’d ever seen the inside of Helen’s house. It was incredibly cozy, there were paintings everywhere, it really represented who Helen and Gary were as people. One day I remember going up to the attic of Helen’s house to help her bring down some things to put into the shop, and it was exactly the kind of attic you would see in a movie. It was pouring down rain, and I remember just falling absolutely in love with the place, I was too busy looking around, taking in every object. She asked me to stop and listen, and it was the first time I had ever noticed the sound the splendid sound rain can make on a roof. The summer came and went.

I didn’t see Helen again until probably a year later, she had hired me (and my best friend at the time, the same unbelievably talented artist I was referring to earlier) to help her during this community wide craft sale that took place over two weekends in October. I was unbelievably excited, and to be working with my best friend was obviously any  pre-teen’s dream. There was an artist working collaboratively with Helen and did metal work. It’s funny now to think that the same friend who was with me, now works with metal as a professional artist.We basically spoke to customers, cleaned up and served refreshments, and tried to stay out of the way, which again, pre-teens don’t tend to do very well at.

Helen looked different, her hair was shorter, and really patchy. She seemed to be thinner. She had cancer. I remember feeling really stunned by the casual way she had mentioned it. My friend didn’t seem too fazed because she had a few family members affected by cancer. However, Helen was the first person I had ever known to have cancer. I don’t remember the kind of cancer, but I knew that from the time I had previously known her to now, she looked and acted differently. I was profoundly worried those weekends I worked with her.

It was the last time I ever saw her. She died a year later. She was also the first person I had known that had died. I don’t know if this makes sense to you, but no one I had ever known, had died. I knew her, and then she was gone. It was difficult for me to wrap my mind around, but obviously, life carried on.

Eventually, the Helen’s Arts and Crafts Sign came down, Gary continued living there, and did wood cutting, but the store was no more.

Years passed, I still loved the arts, but didn’t pursue any visual mediums, I stuck with drama, and dancing, I eventually moved away from Halifax.

It wasn’t until about I was twenty four and living Fredericton that I decided to take on visual arts again. I saw this poster called “Let My Stick People Go”, a sketching class for beginners. The instructor was formally a high school teacher, and also had a Masters in Fine Arts. He was fantastic, and there were twelve other people in the class, of all ages, and all professions. It was at this point that I realized how mathematical art can be. I’ve always struggled with math, and it seemed to click why I’d always struggled with drawing, but I learned some things and carried on with his next class where he taught water colours.

I was sitting in my living room one night doing some art homework when I thought about Helen. It had always been a regret of mine that I never got to buy one of Helen’s paintings, it made me wonder if after all these years, were there any left to be purchased? I called Gary. I introduced myself and he remembered me, we chatted about what I was doing in Fredericton, and how he was doing. I inquired about the paintings, and he informed me they had all been divvied up among family shortly after she died. I assumed that would have been the case, but I told him I called just in case. He then told me the story of how he and Helen met. It was a cold, winter day in Halifax. They had both been skating at Chocolate Lake separately. Suddenly, Gary tripped on the ice and fell down, when he looked up, he saw a beautiful woman, to which she said to her group of friends:

“See ladies, I told you, men are constantly falling at my feet!”

She helped him up, they talked, they fell in love, they married. He said that never in his life did he expect to meet anyone who he loved in the way that he loved her. He also said he didn’t expect to again,

“If you find a person like that for you once in your life, then you should consider yourself lucky, because so many people don’t.”

I couldn’t believe this story. We spoke for a little while more, and then gave each other our best wishes. I felt a strange sense of closure I didn’t know I was looking for.

Now at 29, in England, I’ve given visual arts another go. There is this little shop at the bottom of the hill I walk down often. One day instead of passing by, I decided to walk in. It was this outdated, but lovely little shop full of lovely paintings. Inside was an outgoing, but kind older man who told me about his oil painting classes on Tuesday evenings, he asked if I would join, I told him to sign me up.

Tuesday evening came, and I walked in, supplies in hand, to this little room of about five other painters. I was the youngest there by about twenty years, they were so excited to have a new participant, especially a Canadian. My instructor and I picked out a picture, and I got to work. Again, I’m not a confident painter, but I loved all the colours, and figuring it out what I was going to do. I also love that, one of us will catch a glance of someone else’s painting, and everyone will take a little break to “ooh and ahh” over the work in progress. It’s an incredibly supportive and heartwarming group. I finished a painting, and am starting a new one. It’s my zen time. The instructor makes us all a cup of tea, puts it down beside us as we’re lost in thought. I don’t have to think about my job, expectations, or where I’m at in my life. I just take those two hours to mix, paint, and admire the work around me. Everyone is so different, but our reasons for painting are the same, to get immersed in something, just one thing, see what comes out of it, and momentarily leave the world behind.

How long will I be painting? I don’t know. Will something more interesting come along? Maybe.

What’s more  important at this point is that it reminds me that twenty years later, painting is still a pretty great way to end a day.

 

This is where I paint.

This is where I paint.

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Palette and tea!

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First class.

Second class.

Second class.

 

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Third Class, finished painting, and the original picture.

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New Picture I’m painting from.

 

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First evening of new picture.

 

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Second evening painting the picture.

 

Paintings of my classmates’, they’re beautiful!

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My instructor’s work.

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My instructor made an 8 ft. replica of the Titanic

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Here it is again, isn’t it incredible?

 

 

 

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