Where did my art come from?
Have you ever received an inheritance from a relative or friend, but you didn’t realize its true worth until later in life? It wasn’t until I sat down to give a little history of how my love for art has affected my life in ministry did I realize the rich inheritance my mother passed down to me through her creative, unselfish love.
My inheritance began when my mother heard me drawing at our small kitchen table when I was six years old. So, how does one hear drawing? Simple. Boys make noise. And I was almost screaming the “r-r-r-r” sounds of a firetruck speeding to an apartment fire where folks were jumping out of windows onto round nets that looked like trampolines. That’s when Mom bolted into the room and shouted louder than the screams of people and the firetrucks siren,“What in the world are you doing?”
“I’m drawing, Mother,” I cried out with as much fire in my voice as the flames that were engulfing my art piece. “And I’m gonna win the art contest cause the winner is going to have his work hung up by Mr. Hooper’s office. He’s the school principal. Now some think he’s a mean old man but I kinda think…”
And before I could finish my sentence she reached over my shoulder, grabbed my busy little hands and said, “Stop! Not like that are you going to win anything.” Then she turned over my paper, while sternly warning me not to make a move till she got back.
I sat motionless while I heard her fumbling around in the toy closet, wondering what could she find in there that had to do with my master piece? When she returned she put one hand on my shoulder, reached across me and placed on top of my drawing paper a toy firetruck. Then she pulled up a chair beside me and began pointing out its shapes and curves–– horizontals and verticals–– and how those proportions changed at different angles. The way she connected my vision to that little metal toy was amazing. Then she told me to close my eyes and asked, “Can you still see it? Use your imagination. Can you see it?” Suddenly I did see it, and that’s when I received my first and most valuable art lesson: “Son, when you can see it with your eyes closed, then you can draw it.”
Today, sixty-six years later, at 72, I realize that that evening after supper at a kitchen table with a toy firetruck and a wise mother, I was given a great inheritance. I was taught how to see with my eyes and my heart. No, the drawing of the toy firetruck did not hang by the principal’s office, but what has hung with me is the realization of what makes an artist:
An artist is first and foremost sensitive. Yes, so sensitive to what they see, hear, think and believe, that their life is incomplete until they find a way to share it with the world around them. What they create is called art–– an expression of the heart.
So as I grew from one grade to the next, my love for expression in art grew. Whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was always the same: “I want to be an artist.” I’m sure that’s what drew me numerous times to the hobby shop window, where I would visually relish its art display of pencils and pastels, art easels, brushes, canvasses, water color pads, all crying out like orphan children wanting to be picked, taken home. But there in the middle of the lavishly, artful display was a beautiful oak box with brass latches, with Grumbacher stylishly etched in its cover, with linseed oil on one side of its tray, and turpentine on the other. There between the two bottles were—and at each visit I’d carefully count them—thirty-two tubes of oils, all arranged according to their color and hues. It was simply beautiful to my sight. I searched the 780 pages of our wish book, the Sears Catalogue, and found the exact same set on page #181, and every evening while Mom stood by the stove in her cooking apron, I’d hold up the catalogue and point to my dream, promising, “Oh Mother, I’ll be good for a whole year if only I could get this for Christmas. They have it at the hobby shop. Please, Mom.” What I was asking for was very expensive, but I wished for it anyway.
My wish nearly became a nightmare that Christmas morning. My mother, anticipating my huge disappointment warned me as I opened the small box, “Son, I’m sorry. For this Christmas I could not get you what you wanted, but I did get you what you needed.” As I removed the lid from an old card box I first thought it was a joke and the real gift was hidden somewhere else; but when Mom left to start breakfast in the kitchen, stabbed by the knife of “hope deferred makes a heart sick,” tears filled my eyes as I tried to erase, like a bad dream, the five, big, fat, ugly tubes of paint. “Needed?” I cried out to my mother, “How can this be what I needed? There’s no browns? No orange or purple? Just black, white, red, yellow and blue. There’s not even a green?” Mother answered quietly from the kitchen, “Come in here, and bring your paints.”
I trudged heavily into the kitchen with my little box in one hand while I wiped my eyes with the other. There stood my mother in her work apron, not the one she cooks in. She had covered the same table where I had my first art lesson with newspaper and asked me to squeeze onto the crude plywood pallet she had made, a small bit of Cadmium yellow beside a dab of Cobalt blue. Then she meticulously began blending the two colors together with the old bone-handled butter knife. Suddenly, like magic, when yellow and blue became green, and red and yellow became orange, and when a hint of black added to more red, she mixed siennas, and with more yellow she created endless hues of umbers. But the best part to it all that morning, I quickly forgot about what I once wanted. Disappointment vanished. And throughout the Christmas holidays my mother and I created all the colors of the universe–– from five tubes of paint.
And Mother gave me a second inheritance: A love for color.
And I did paint my first work, an old water mill. That was only the beginning of many paintings I’d do for family and friends, and yes, even once did one for my ninth grade girl friend. It must not have been worth much cause she dumped me for some football player after she got the painting.
I could not afford expensive canvasses, so I learned to adapt to painting on scrap pieces of plywood that I’d pull from trash dumps at building sites around the city. My senior year I tackled the largest piece I’d ever done of clipper ship on plywood that remains with us even now.
From Oils to Watercolors–– From a Hobby to a Calling
“I’ve received a treasure from my father that is like the one Jesus said we should lay up in heaven where nothing can destroy it,” my friend Brendon shared with me. “Yes, I got and inheritance from my dad that all the money in the world can’t buy. I got from him faith. He lived his whole life trusting God for everything. I got faithfulness too, cause he was always faithful to my mother and loved her and her only. And I got hope, for when things went sour in life, he was the most hopeful person I’ve ever known.”