When I was a kid, on days when I missed school due to illness, it was a special treat to get in Mom’s big bed with my sketch pad and colored pencils and create cartoon characters. I used Mom’s big Merle Norman face-cream jar as a guide, tracing around it to make my characters’ heads. Then I attached little-bitty bodies to the heads. Their eyes were quarter-sized; they had chubby cheeks. Girls had super-long eyelashes; boys had thicker eyebrows. Their clothes were a sign of the times - peasant blouses, and jeans with flower power patches and smiley faces. As I matured, so did my drawing; during a brief hospitalization when I was 12, I sketched my mean nurse – my rendition of Nurse Ratched.
During my college years, I continued to draw, and took a couple of design classes. I thought if I could draw, I could paint. Not so. My painted geometrical patterns were less than spectacular, and a paintbrush weighed a ton compared to my lightweight pen. So, I stuck with drawing.
One of my first purchases when I moved out of Mom’s house was an easel and a sketch pad. They gave my living room an artsy look. Oh, how I longed to be artsy; I still long to be artsy. But even my mother is more artsy than I.
“You need to have designs in odd numbers, not even,” she explained as she looked at pictures I had hung in my hallway. “That’s more artistic.”
How does she know this? She grew up smoking cedar bark and pretending dead, dry tumbleweeds were cows, when playing with her siblings. Whoever had the most “cattle” was rich, and they used wire hooks to move their prickly livestock. Eventually, she moved on from animal husbandry to a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism, but where did she get her art smarts?
“That painting needs to go in your dining room. And that one is too high. Move that print away from the window, or the sun will fade it.” And so on. She wears a tool belt with a level, a tape measure, and a pencil to mark the wall, every time she wants to hang a picture, or a calendar, or a clock, or a mailbox. It’s a major production.
I eyeball it and hope for the best.
When Cowboy was at camp last summer, I made plans for me and Flash to enjoy some culture. “Let’s go to a fine arts museum.” I waited for his reply.
“I don’t really get into that kind of museum.” It was the answer I’d expected.
“I know, me neither. But let’s go; it will be fun.”
We began our self-guided tour in rooms filled with ancient works. Flash spent 30 minutes looking at a sarcophagus up close, and took multiple pictures of it with his phone.
“Picking out your final resting bed, are you?” I hollered across the hall.
We’re the kind of couple who points and laughs at the male statues who aren’t wearing pants, saying things like, “Cover up, will you? It’s not like you have much to be proud of.” Why were there so many who let it all hang out? Who wants to see that? Bronze, ivory, onyx – a phallic symbol in any medium is still just that.
Still, the statues were impressive. Antiquity is impressive; those artists didn’t have the kinds of tools we have today, yet their works include people and angels and animals with minute details carved into them. If I merely try to draw a horse, it looks like a bug-eyed alien with huge nostrils.
Art that looks like what it’s supposed to be impresses me. If it’s a duck, make it look like a duck. If it’s a piece of fruit, I’m not all that thrilled by it, but make it look like a darn peach or apple or pear. It took me a while to appreciate Salvador Dali, but I like some of his paintings now. The melting clocks in Persistence of Memory are my favorite. But, of course, you can tell they are clocks.
My friend Dharma is a talented painter and sculptor. She weaves acrylics and watercolors and clay into masterpieces. Because she is my pen pal, which is a forgotten art, she often sends me postcards that she has painted. I love her work, as well as the fact that I know what I’m looking at. And my friend Spielberg finds what others would consider trash and paints it, displaying it in his backyard. He has something resembling a nuclear warhead (it’s not, so don’t panic) with multicolored paint down the sides, and he used old stove burners for eyes on the Sponge Bob he painted on his fence. I’m envious of his vision for creating.
I even appreciate paintings made up of many dots; I enjoy Monet. When I back up, I can see what the dots create.
But don’t give me nonsense. Oh, I know. Everyone acts like they appreciate anything labeled “art.” Have you seen some of the art out there? Can you honestly say you “get” what the artist is communicating? I shudder to think what some of them are trying to say.
After walking through a display of normal paintings in the museum, I glanced to my left. There it was - the kind of art that begs to be made fun of.
“Flash, come with me. You’re going to love this next display. This is my favorite room.”
The look on his face was more priceless than the sixteenth-century bronze bust we’d seen earlier. He furrowed his brow with an expression that screamed, “Why? How? What?”
To our left was a white canvas with a black square painted in the middle.
“What does that mean?” Flash asked.
“It means he ran out of black paint.”
As I walked further into the room, I saw a picture that was all black. No shapes, no rendition of anything. Just black. Being the Queen of Self-Restraint, I turned to the curator.
“Really? That’s art? Seriously?”
“Ma’am, did you see the title of that piece?”
“Yes, but I still don’t understand,” I whined to the stranger wearing a blazer.
She proceeded to act excited about her job as she explained, at length, why the artist had painted the canvas all black. But who else would know that without googling the title? And how many patrons would bother to google their way through that exhibit? It could take weeks before leaving the room.
I persisted, “And you think it’s worth the thousands of dollars someone would pay to hang that piece of darkness in their living room? My son painted better than that when he was six.”
“Ma’am, the pieces in this room,” she proudly said as she turned around, looking at all the art on the walls and ceiling, “are expressionist art. This is expressionism.”
“Yes, the artists are expressionists – they are expressing what they are feeling through their paintings.”
“Maybe they shouldn’t express so much.”
She indulged me with a smile that said, Maybe you would enjoy the Monster Truck Rally more than our glorious museum.
“Well, then,” I told her, “I’m going home and paint a huge canvas with hot-flash red and migraine black and water-retention blue. I’m calling it Menopause, and I’ll make a million dollars on it.”
She was silent.
When we left the museum, I told myself, Just face the fact that you will never have a mature, refined eye for art.
A few weeks later, a couple who lives in the Houston museum district invited us to their home. It was the most unusual home I’ve ever seen, and in every corner was a piece of art. Small statues were everywhere. A huge giraffe was in the bedroom. A water wall separated the hallway from the kitchen. It was entertaining and tasteful.
When I asked the hostess, Gloria, about her statues, she gave me a guided tour of the place, explaining all her collection. She is the epitome of an unpretentious art lover.
“You know,” I confessed, “Flash and I went to a museum a couple of weeks ago and we saw expressionists’ works.” I told her about the black painting. “But I only like art that looks like what it’s supposed to be; pictures that I can tell what they are.”
I thought she might think I was droll and pity me.
“Me too,” she said with a smile, “I don’t like that other stuff either.”
Ah, I’d found a kindred soul, and one with much more art education than I’ll ever have. She has a mature appreciation for art, but still likes for things to make sense.
Thinking perhaps I judge the art world too harshly, I’m trying to open my mind, but it’s slow going. I do have some abstract paintings lining my hallway, by my favorite artist, Cowboy. Mom also has a Cowboy Original hanging on her bedroom wall - a rendition in finger paint on freezer paper. Apparently, he was on a creative rampage the day he made it. As he quickly painted each picture, Mom would clear yet another space in the garage for it to dry. When he handed her this particular painting, she said, “That one’s a keeper.” What I saw as a simple finger painting 12 years ago, Mom immediately saw as a masterpiece. I’ve asked her to bequeath it to me so I can add it to my collection.
For years, I thought I had to see merit in all art in order to qualify as artsy. But artsy, like art itself, comes in all colors, sizes, and genres. I don’t have to like art that “only a mother could love” in order to have a discerning eye. My eyes are just fine. And more than appreciating works of art, I admire the artists’ bravery to pursue, and sometimes accomplish, their dreams.