Childish Things

BC1DA429-773E-479D-827D-173C94886559

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things.  — 1 Corinthians 13:11 (Christian Standard Bible).

When you’re a child, time is something you have to be inventive to fill. One of the things I hit upon to pass the time was art. I believe I started with painting and went from there to drawing. I still remember the time I first saw a really good oil painting in a museum. I think I must have been around nine or ten. I was completely in awe of it. It was a landscape. I couldn’t believe that a two-dimensional object could capture the three dimensions of nature so accurately. It was a very small painting, and yet so skillfully painted, so vibrant with deep, rich color that I felt almost as if I could walk right into it. I did not, however, conceive any desire to learn to paint like that myself. Since I had never seen anything before to compare with it and since it was obviously very old, I assumed the skill that had been required to produce it was a lost art.

I’d always been creative, though, so I was intrigued when I found a set of watercolors in tubes at the Woolworth’s my sisters and I visited every week just after we got our allowances. I was familiar, of course, with what are called “pan watercolors,” the little dried bricks of color regularly used in schools. I’d never seen watercolors in tubes, though, so I bought them.

I made a trip to the local art-supply store to get some watercolor paper and some information about how to use my new paints. I don’t remember how I learned that I would need special paper. Perhaps one of my parents told me, or perhaps I tried with regular paper and realized it wouldn’t’ work. I found the right paper at the art-supply store, and a book on watercolor by Walter Foster and set about learning how to use my new paints. The very first thing I painted was a banana.

My banana was good. It was a good painting for a beginner. It actually looked like a banana. It looked a lot like a banana. I was hooked. Soon I was taking my paints everywhere with me. When I couldn’t go anywhere to paint, or was not in the mood to pack up all my painting gear, I would set up a still life, or copy a photo from a National Geographic.

My mother learned that there were art classes for children at the local art museum, so she signed me up. That’s how I got into drawing, if I remember correctly, because it was a drawing class. 

I was good at drawing. I understood instinctively that a I needed to copy what I saw rather than what I knew to be true of the shape of the object before me. I was good from the beginning, even without the benefit of any instruction. That was exciting, of course, but also a little scary, because every once in a while I would do a bad drawing or painting and then I would fear that my strange gift had deserted me.

And then, when I entered high school, I began to win art contests. My senior year, I pretty much swept all the art contests for which I was eligible. I won first prize in an art contest sponsored by a local department store. I won a Governor’s Medal of Excellence in the Ohio Governor’s Art Exhibition (two of the three judges told my mother that they thought I had the best drawing in the show), and I won a Gold Key in the Scholastic Magazine Art Contest. The awards were exciting, but there were expenses connected with them, they required the drawings in question be professionally matted and framed, and they necessitated traveling all over the state, up to Columbus for the Governor’s Art Exhibition, and down to Cincinnati for the Scholastic Magazine Art Contest awards ceremony.

The latter was the most memorable for me. My parents drove me down there together, which would have been nice except that they had separated the summer before and were in the process of getting divorced. I have no memory of the ceremony, no memory of the drive down, or the drive back. The ceremony must have been in a department store, because afterwards, we walked through the kitchen section of a department store. My eyes fell on a display of kitchen timers. I was taking a typing class in school, so I asked my father if he would buy me one of those little timers so I could use it to practice timed-writing on the typewriter. 

“No,” he responded irritatedly. “I just had to pay ___ dollars to have your drawings framed for the Governor’s Exhibition.” I don’t remember the amount he stated. I remember only feeling as if I had been struck. I had been so proud of my awards. I worshipped my father. I’d assumed he’d been proud of me as well. And then there it was. He didn’t care at all, or so it seemed to me at the time. Worse than that, it seemed as if he would have preferred I hadn’t won any of them, that they were simply a source of inconvenience and unwanted expense.

I was devastated. I took the certificate I was carrying, the award I had just been given, and ripped it in half. I ran blindly to the nearest trash can with the intention of tossing it in, but when I got there and extended my hand, I couldn’t let it go. I wanted to let go. I wanted to drop it in the trash. I was as angry at the certificate, I think, as I was at my father, maybe even more so because had it not been for the damned certificate, that horrible scene would never have taken place. I would never have felt my father, whom I adored, didn’t really love me. 

But then for some reason, I couldn’t let go of it.

I began to cry.

My mother made some snide comment about how immaturely I had behaved. Neither of my parents had seemed happy to be there, and neither could appreciate how devastated I had been by my father’s remark. They were both too consumed by their own grief over the demise of their marriage, I realized only much later, to be aware of what was going on with their children. 

I never felt the same about art after that. I continued to do it, but more because I didn’t know what else to do than because I took any joy in it, or thought of it as a vocation. My parents were too preoccupied that year to help me with my college applications. Neither viewed fine art as a viable career choice. My mother suggested, however, that since I could draw well I might be able to make money as a medical illustrator. I learned that Ohio State had a program in medical illustration. It was a state school, a place my parents could afford, so off I went.

I wasn’t happy at Ohio State, though. I transferred several times before I ended up, finally, at Earlham College, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana, only a short drive from Dayton, Ohio where I had grown up.

It was at Earlham that I took my first philosophy class, inspired by my then boyfriend, Tim Riley, who had earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy from Earlham the year before. That was all I needed, that one class. I was hooked. I’d come to Earlham as a art major, but I quickly switched to philosophy. 

And then I went to graduate school. In the meantime, my father had moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to serve as the Director of Public Information for the Pennsylvania Electric Association. I spent the summer before grad school working as a canvasser for the Pennsylvania Public Interest Coalition. The canvassers were mostly college kids and one of them, David Leopold, became a close friend. Before I left for grad school at Bryn Mawr, David invited me to see the Bucks County farm and art studio of his great uncle Ben Solowey, one of the Pennsylvania Impressionists. Ben had died years earlier, but his widow and frequent model, Rae, was still alive. Rae showed us around both the more than 200-year old farmhouse and the studio Ben had converted from a barn. 

I remember still the feeling that overwhelmed me when I stepped into “the studio” and was suddenly surrounded by paintings. It was like entering a greenhouse. The paintings seemed to me to be emitting some kind of vital life force, the way plants emit oxygen. I breathed deeply, as if breathing them in. I couldn’t believe the riches hidden inside that old barn. It was like Aladdin’s cave!

Solowey was a truly great artist. He didn’t court commercial success. He made his living as an illustrator, selling theater portraits for several New York newspapers. He saved his money until he had enough to buy a farm in Bucks County and moved there with his strikingly beautiful wife at the height of the depression. And there they stayed. He sold a few paintings, of course, and received regular portrait commissions. He doesn’t seem to have been terribly interested in making money, though. His interest appeared to have been in pursuing his muse. He painted and painted. He painted the farm, painted Rae. He painted for years and seems to have kept as many paintings as he sold. 

The Studio of Ben Solowey, which David took over after his aunt died, now has regular exhibitions and to me, is one of the wonders of the world. It’s a comfortable, welcoming place, with one of the kindest, warmest, most welcoming hosts imaginable. I missed no opportunity to visit the place, even throughout the years I lived in Denmark. Whenever I was in the U.S., I would try to make a trip to “the farm.”

I moved to Denmark in the fall of 1990 to work on my dissertation on the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard. I was delighted to discover, shortly after I moved there, that very good quality oil paintings from the first part of the 20th century were available in nearly every antique and even junk store for almost nothing. I had very little money for most of the time I lived in Denmark, but what money I did have, I spent on paintings. I amassed a considerable collection of paintings, something like fifty, I believe, in the eight years I lived there. 

I had to leave all but a few of my favorite paintings in Denmark when I returned to the U.S. in the fall of 1998. But I was unfazed. I determined to build up my collection again with American paintings from the same period. Except that I couldn’t find any, at least not any I could afford. I was devastated when my most determined efforts to scrounge up decent art in junk shops turned up nothing. One does, at least occasionally see a painting in a junk shop in the U.S., but almost without exception, it is there because it is junk. 

So I couldn’t collect paintings anymore. I’d collected them almost compulsively when I’d lived in Denmark. I spent every penny I had on them. I spent money on them that other people would have spent buying food, or clothing, or household items. If I saw a painting I couldn’t afford, I would beg and plead with the shop owner to let me have it for less. 

I realized, I think, even while I was still living in Denmark, that one of the reasons I collected paintings so compulsively was that I wanted to paint. Collecting art was sort of a substitute for making it. I knew that, I think, but that knowledge didn’t drive me to try to paint because it seemed pretty obvious to me that I would never be able to produce paintings of the quality I could buy.

I just kept buying paintings, until I moved back to the U.S. and found I couldn’t buy them anymore. It took awhile for me to come to grips with the fact that I would not be able to continue buying paintings as I had been able to do in Denmark. When I finally did realize that, though, I decided that perhaps I should try to learn to paint. I’d tried oil painting a couple of times when I was young and been miserable at it. I’d not had any instruction though. It occurred to me that perhaps if I had some instruction, I might be able to acquire some basic skill as an oil painter, that I might be able to produce some vaguely impressionistic paintings of the sort that had made up the bulk of my collection in Denmark. I was not, after all, entirely without artistic talent. 

So I got myself some paints and one of those wooden boxes artists use and signed up for a class. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much in the way of instruction, not in that class, or in any of the other classes I took subsequently. There were always other students who seemed to need the instructor more than I did, so the only sort of feedback I ever got was, “that’s very nice.”

I painted in fits and starts. I might go a year, or even two, without taking a class. But then, eventually, I would take another class again. Over time, I acquired some skill, not a lot, but some, and every once in a while I would turn out a painting that I actually wanted to keep. 

I began house sitting for David in the summer when he and his wife, Laura, went on vacation. I would paint the farm, as Solowey had done, though my paintings were, of course, a pale imitation of his. Some years I would not paint at all between house sittings. But then I would be back at the farm, back amongst all that beautiful artwork, and the urge to paint would seize me again.

One summer, several years ago, when I was house sitting, I saw a small card in an art supply store announcing that a local artist, Frank Arcuri, offered painting classes at his house. I was intrigued, but also intimidated because the painting on the card looked like a seventeenth-century Dutch still life. It was truly masterful, way beyond the skill level to which I felt I could even hope to aspire. I kept the card, though. I thought to myself that perhaps one day, after I got better, I could take a few lessons with this Frank Arcuri. The other obstacle, however, beyond my lack of skill, was that I was rarely at the farm for more than a couple of weeks at a time. I assumed that Arcuri’s classes were like every other painting class I had taken in that they would involve an extended commitment. That would mean driving up to Bucks County from Philadelphia, a drive of more than an hour, a drive I couldn’t imagine having the time to do on a regular basis, at least not while I was teaching. 

Two summers ago, though, David and Laura were going to be away for more than two weeks. Perhaps, I thought to myself, perhaps I should give this Frank Arcuri a call.

Mr. Arcuri seemed very nice on the phone. He explained that his classes were three hours, from 10:00-1:00 and that because it was the summer and some of his regular students were away on vacation, he would be able to fit me in. I was a little taken aback, though, when I learned the classes were more than $100 each. I told him I feared I could do only two classes because of the expense. 

I drove past Arcuri’s house the first time, despite the fact that I was using the GPS app on my phone. The house is off the road, almost completely obscured by trees. I had to double back and nearly passed it again because the street onto which I had to turn was a gravel road and looked more like someone’s driveway than a street. I turned from that gravel road onto a steeply down-sloping gravel driveway that ended in a small parking lot next to an old but well maintained barn. 

Before I was even completely out of the car, a tall, slender, smiling man emerged from the door in the side of the barn.

“Marilyn?” he asked, still smiling.

“Yes,” I said, returning his smile as I gathered up my painting gear from the back seat.

“Come in,” he said, and then disappeared again inside the barn. 

I followed him in and was instantly enchanted by the surroundings. If the barn has ever housed animals, that had been long ago because the inside of the barn was finished like a house, with smooth wood flooring and walls painted a soft taupe, the color of the stones in a riverbed. It was summer, but the air inside the barn was cool and marked by a faint, but pleasing smell that I later learned came from the resinous painting medium Arcuri used. A long shelf, illuminated by spotlights, ran the length of the far wall and on it sat a collection of objects used to compose still lifes. The walls on either side appeared at first also to have shelves running their length at about shoulder height. Closer inspection revealed, however, that these shelves were actually a collection of individual shelves containing a variety of small still life set ups.

Then I remembered that Arcuri had asked my height when I’d arranged the lessons. It was so he could adjust the height of the shelf, he had explained. 

Arcuri, I learned, is extraordinarily meticulous in his approach to teaching. One might guess this from how finely detailed are his paintings. One might guess this. But one might be wrong. I’ve had other painting teachers who painted in a similar, realistic style, but who have a much more casual approach to teaching. 

Arcuri didn’t tell me, “just get started,” as nearly every other painting teacher I’d had had done. He told me how to get started, how to approach sketching in the arrangement of the objects he’d selected for my still life, how to measure with a proportional divider to make sure they were symmetrical, and with what paint to do the sketch. He explained to me the difference between a cast shadow and the shadow side of an object and how to tell where, on an object, the light ceases and the shadow begins. This is not actually an easy determination to make because as the surface of an object turns away from the light it gets increasingly dark even though it is still receiving some light directly from the light source. This determination is complicated even further by the fact that the part of the object that is in shadow, which is to say that it receives no light directly from the light source, is not absolutely black because it receives light indirectly. That is, the shadow side of the object is illuminated by what is called “reflected light” from the surface on which it sits, as well as from the surfaces of the objects around it. It is crucially important, however, for creating an impression of realism, that direct light be rigorously distinguished from illuminated shadow. 

Arcuri carefully and patiently explained all this to me in what turned out to be a private lesson because all his regular students, whose paintings I could see around me in various stages of completion, were away on their summer vacations.

Arcuri explained to me how shadows were “warm” and light was “cool” because light bleached out color, and how as an object turned away from the light, it got not only darker, but more saturated with color. 

He explained all this to me on the first day, and then suddenly, the lesson was over. Three hours had passed in what I would have sworn was only a half an hour.

My head was swimming. I was giddy with everything I had just learned. There was so much to remember, and yet it all made perfect sense. I felt so empowered by this new knowledge it was almost as if I could fly. When Arcuri explained that the lesson was over I began to babble about how, despite that I had taken many painting classes by that point, I felt I’d just received the first real instruction I had ever had.  No one had ever explained to me any of the things Arcuri explained to me that first day. 

All my other painting teachers, if they had given me any instruction at all, had focused on getting me to paint what I saw. Copying what one “sees” works to a certain extent with drawing. It wasn’t until Arcuri that I realized, however, how futile that approach to painting is. Visual experience, I learned when I took a graduate class on visual perception, is marked by a number of neurological “corrections.” No object is completely uniform in color because each point on an object is oriented differently relative to the light source, or sources, so some parts are lighter or darker than other parts. Also, all objects receive reflected light from the surfaces of other objects. This reflected light is very subtly colored by the colors of the objects themselves hence not only are some parts of a single object lighter or darker than other parts, they are also, oh so subtly, variously colored. These slight changes of value and hue are not consciously registered, however, at least not without a significant amount of artistic training. The brain corrects for them so that we see a white ceramic cup, for example, as uniformly white. It takes an enormous amount of artistic training to learn to see all the variations of value and hue in that cup. To tell a beginning painter to paint what they see, seems to me now to be not only futile, but cruel. 

Not only are there all these principles to learn before one can paint well. Oil paints, unlike watercolors, are extremely difficult to manipulate. They don’t behave the way one would expect. Two colors that are almost indistinguishable on a palette may behave very differently when mixed with other colors. Venetian red and burnt sienna are a case in point. Venetian red looks just like burnt sienna when it comes out of a tube, but it is much stronger, or more highly saturated than burnt sienna. It has what artists refer to as a higher “tinting strength.” The tiniest amount of venetian red will turn any color into which it is mixed a bright red color. That’s the only way I can tell them apart, actually. Burnt sienna is much less saturated. If you want to create a slight reddish cast to a neutral brown, for example, you will have to put much more burnt sienna into it than you would venetian red. 

There are hundreds, of different colors of oil paint, and to complicate matters even further, the same color paint from different manufacturers may have different properties. Venetian red will always be much stronger than burnt sienna, but one company’s venetian red may be stronger than another’s. It may also have a slightly different cast, may lean every so slightly more toward the cool end of the red spectrum. Every color is different. Every color has different properties, behaves differently when mixed with other colors. Even if you know exactly what you want the paint to do, you still have the challenge of figuring out how to get it to do that. 

The only way one can do that is through practice. You develop a feel for how the colors work if you work with them long enough. Arcuri has that. He can make the paint do exactly what he wants. I have to lay out massive quantities of paint on my palette because I make many mixing mistakes. I spend a lot of time mixing paint. Arcuri doesn’t. He knows exactly how to get the color he wants. 

I’ve heard it said that watercolor is a more difficult medium in which to work than is oil paint. I disagree. What is meant by this, I think, is that watercolors do not allow for corrections. You can’t fix anything in a watercolor, can’t paint over anything. If you get something wrong, you are forced to throw out the painting and start again. The same thing is not true, with oil paint. Oil paintings can be “corrected.” If an edge isn’t right, it can be painted over. If the distances between objects in a still life are not right, the objects can be moved. If the paint is still wet, it can be rubbed off with a soft cloth. If it has dried, one can simply paint over it.

I’ll never forget the day I arrived at Arcuri’s classroom to find that what had been a bowl of peaches in a small still life he’d been working on along side his students to give him something to do when he wasn’t engaged in instructing them, had become a bowl of oranges! Everything else in the painting was the same, except now the fruit in the bowel was oranges and not peaches. 

“What happened to the peaches?” I asked in dismay. I’d loved those peaches. Peaches are a particularly beautiful fruit because of the contrast in the skin between the areas of pale creamy beige, warm red, and deep, almost bluish scarlet. 

“I painted them over,” Arcuri replied casually. “I was envious of the oranges you all were painting,” he continued with same offhand air, ‘so I just decided to make them oranges.”

In fact, I think Arcuri sacrificed his beautiful peaches in order to demonstrate something about painting oranges to his students who did all happen to be painting oranges. That’s the kind of teacher he is. He is completely dedicated to developing his students’ skills as painters.

But back to the point about the relative difficulty of watercolors and oils. Watercolors are unforgiving, but they are far more predictable in how they will behave. Oils, on the other hand, are just weird. They do not behave the way one would assume instinctively, that they should behave. I once purchased a tube of what is called “terre verte,” or “earth green,” for some landscape painting to the great amusement of the person teaching the class. I think he actually laughed out loud when I produced the tube. Terre verte, he explained, was completely useless for landscapes because it had an extremely low tinting strength. You’d have to use the entire tube, and even then, it would probably be a very washed out landscape. It was used, he continued, primarily for toning down extremely “hot” colors, such as the aforementioned venetian red, and for shadows in portraits. Who would ever have guessed that a color called “earth green” was more useful in portraiture than in landscapes?

And then there is the issue of the consistency of oil paint. Watercolors are easy. They should always be flowing, like, you know — water. Oil paints may have a variety of consistencies, though, and in fact should have a variety of consistencies even within the same painting. Some areas need thinner paint, and some thicker. The general rule is fat over lean. That is, the first layers of a painting should be almost like a watercolor with the paint thinned down with some kind of solvent such as turpentine or the now more popular mineral spirits. Paint like this will dry quickly and provide a good, absorbent surface for subsequent paint layers. These subsequent paint layers may be painted with paint right out of the tube, or paint diluted with a variety of “mediums” that contain some kind of oil such as linseed or walnut oil. The variety of mediums is staggering and each type will cause the paint to behave slightly differently. Also, the amount of medium added to paint will cause it to behave slightly differently. Paint has to be precisely the right consistency to sit properly on top of the paint that is underneath it and that is usually still wet when paint is applied on top of it. 

You may think I am making painting with oils sound more difficult than it is. I’m not. It is that difficult. I cannot tell you the number of times I have tried to paint one color on top of another only to produce a smeared mess. You cannot, in general, paint dark colors on top of light ones in an oil painting. I continually find myself doing this, though, because that is the order in which one has to lay down colors in a watercolor. Light paint cannot be layered over dark paint in a watercolor. It has to be layered over dark paint in an oil painting, though, for some reason I don’t quite understand. It has something to do, I think, with the physics of light refraction. The dark areas of a painting denote an absence of light. You can’t lay an absence of light on top of light. It just doesn’t work, at least not in an oil painting, unless, that is, you are painting over a painting that is completely dry. Then you can get away with a lot. 

If you are painting wet-into-wet as they say, then you have to be extremely sensitive to the consistency of the paint in each stroke you lay down on the canvas. The wrong consistency and it will dig into the paint layer beneath it, creating a muddy smear, or alternatively not adhere at all to the paint already on the canvass. This sensitivity to the consistency of the paint with which one is working is a matter of touch and it can be developed only by practice, a lot of practice. It takes a long, long time to develop the skills required to produce a good oil painting. 

Or it takes a teacher like Frank Arcuri. I don’t mean to suggest that studying with Arcuri is a substitute for practice. It isn’t. What studying with Arcuri does do, though, is give one a sense that one’s time will not be wasted. I wasted an enormous amount of time doing things I now know would never have worked. There is so much to know about oil painting that it took many generations of painters to develop the technique required to create the kinds of realistic still lifes of a painter like Arcuri. I could never have figured it all out, even if I had begun oil painting earlier rather than going into philosophy. I could never have figured out by myself all the things I have learned from studying with Arcuri. 

I’ve begun to turn out paintings I’m actually proud of. Friends and family tell me I should start trying to sell my work. I’ve begun to think about that, but apart from the fact that it would mean I’d have to quit giving so many of my paintings away, I’m afraid it might take away some of the joy I get out of painting. When I was young, when I first started painting as a child, it seemed to me that there was something magical in the process. It was a source of sheer delight to me to be able to take my paints and produce an image of an object that actually resembled the object in real life. 

I’ve always loved things. One of my earliest memories, after I began to paint as a child, was being struck by the beauty of light emanating from a small table lamp in our living room. The room was dark, save for the lamp and the warm golden-to-deep-orange light coming from it stood out against the darkness like a glowing jewel. I thought it was breathtakingly beautiful. Oh if I could paint that, I remember thinking to myself, how happy I would be!

I don’t want to worry about whether I am producing enough work, or whether my work will sell. I want to paint for the joy of it, like I did when I was a child.

That brings me back to the scriptural quotation with which I started this piece. We have a tendency, I fear, to read scripture prescriptively. From that perspective, I Corinthians 13:11 means something like “When I was a child, I said foolish things, I didn’t understand anything properly, and couldn’t reason well. But when I grew up, my speech became measured. I gained wisdom and learned to reason properly.” 

That could be what it means, of course, but then the following verse would make little sense. “For now we see through a glass darkly…” If we gain wisdom with age, shouldn’t it read something like “But despite this, I still understand so little…”

Perhaps 1 Corinthians 13:11 isn’t meant to be read prescriptively. Perhaps it is only descriptive. Perhaps it means something like. “When I was a child, my speech was spontaneous and honest. I looked at the world with wonder, as transcending my comprehension. But when I grew up, my eyes narrowed. I saw the world as full of dangers and thought only of how to protect myself, and reasoned how best to do that.” 

If that’s what it means, then “For now we see through a glass darkly” makes sense. Scripture, after all, is written for adults, for those whose eyes have narrowed, whose vision has darkened. And, of course, it is important to remember that children are constantly held up in scripture as model for adults to emulate. Mark 10:13-16 recounts Jesus as saying “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

So perhaps 1 Corinthians 13:11 is actually a lament, a description of how, as we age, we lose the joy we once took in creation as children. Perhaps, if there is any prescriptive dimension to it, it is that it is telling us we should not put away our childish things, or childlike ways. 

Perhaps it is trying to tell us that we should strive to view creation with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: