As a young child of five I loved the picture books my mother had from her childhood and the new ones she bought for me. My early crayon pictures were copies of what I’d seen in the picture books. I had begun to understand how to draw shapes, but not much else. Many of those early attempts ended up on my bedroom walls or were given to my grandmother. She and my mother gave me the encouragement to keep drawing. The power I felt as I scribbled away was something new for me. I could create whatever I imagined.
Finger paints were my next medium. How I loved how to mix colors. Then my mother introduced me to watercolors. I had to use a brush to create what I envisioned: trees, houses, waves, the sun, animals—anything that came to mind—no more of the colored finger painted shapes and blobs.
I didn’t like the art classes in lower school because we were made to paint certain objects. It wasn’t until much later I realized the importance of those exercises. I liked free painting the best. I could paint whatever I wanted in brilliant colors. In ninth grade I was never popular and began to be teased about the colors I used. I’d see green but was told it was really gray. Black might be blue; brown was red looking and so on. My father an ophthalmologist was quite concerned and produced the Ishihara colorblind test.
One night the whole family sat around the kitchen table. The test consisted of 38 circular plates filled with colored dots to determine red, green deficiencies. Although I could see red and green it was the pastels I had trouble with, To this day I still have to guess at most of the colors I see.
I was color blind. I went up to my bedroom and looked at the pictures I’d made. What was I to do? I was cursed because I couldn’t paint what I saw.
My mother had been painting all her life and the day after I’d taken the test she let me try using her oil paints. She had a flexible palette knife with a notch at on one end, which I began to use almost as much as the brushes. I loved the textures I created.
She marked the paint tubes for my painting efforts. At first, I got mad at her, then understood why she had done it. She had created a world of colors I could understand.
I dipped into the yellow paint with the pallet knife and smeared it onto a canvas, the textures left by the palette knife excited me. I dipped into the blue and mixed it with the yellow—what was that color? I made a mental note to remember the mixture. That was when I learned to paint with oils and when she took me to a Van Gogh exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum and later to a Corot exhibit.
I began to explore the colors and shapes I once scorned. I wanted to paint like Van Gogh and live like Gaughin. I took one of mother’s paint boards and began to use the palette knife to paint what I saw in my mind— A lone and majestic centaur against the night sky I painted with the palette knife The stars white blobs above. How long it took me to finish I can’t recall. I stood back to study my early masterwork.
I had years to study that early effort to remind me where I had come from as an artist. Although the picture lacked any depth. I had communicated what I felt through a piece of art.
Entering the tenth grade the teasing about my color blindness did not stop as I painted and drew more. Frustrated and angry my paintings were swaths of color poured out by my emotions and nothing else.
In 10th grade I declared myself as an art major. Thus began my first real lessons with the gifted Mary Lou Scull as my teacher. There were eight of us who would work together for the next three years giving each student encouragement. Through exercises she taught us how evoke the right emotional color: blue, my favorite was a color of peace, calm and serenity,
We drew and painted people, objects, and scenes full of the colors communicating the way we felt and hoped the pictures would be something to behold with viewer’s eyes
For the next three years I produced many pictures of flowers in a vase, and clumsy attempts at painting models. A painting I called “Culvert” ended up being in a student art show. From a mass of overgrown grass the blue water of the culvert could be seen.
It stood out among the landscapes and portraits that lined the main hallway. Every time I walked past the exhibit and saw my name my head swelled. Most of the comments about my effort were not helpful. However, Miss Scull liked it because it was different.
As her students we were given frequent assignments to draw – to capture a scene in a few powerful lines, then bring the sketch alive with paint. That was when I began to experiment with colors beyond the primary colors. My favorite color was still blue and my experiments with it continued. Yet the color blindness hung over me like a dark cloud. I wondered if I could paint the cloud would it go away? I was filled with frustration. Two of my efforts still exist. One was a yellow bird on fence the other was an assignment to draw someone from memory: my younger brother. The highlight of my senior year was a visit to famous The Barnes Foundation. Many of the pictures I’d seen in art books filled the museum. Little was said as we experienced the power of the paintings. It was like walking into a sacred place.
For my efforts I won the major art award as senior. The prize: Mainstreams of Modern Art: From David to Picasso, by John Canady, which I still have.
To this day I wonder what would have happened if I had gone to art school? I did eventually graduate from a traditional college with a BA in English and a minor in art. Thankfully Windham College where I ended up had a strong art department. One of my minors was art appreciation where I didn’t have to paint but increased my love of looking at pictures and visits to explore both the paintings of Turner and DeKoonig in local museums.
I didn’t do much painting in college because there were so many other things I let distract me. Even though l had images in my head and tried to make quick sketches I hadn’t brought my easel and paints was still afraid of my colorblindness.
Where my first published poem came from, I have no idea. I had struggled with a sketch of a man putting out a twilight moon.
The evening of the day croaked
And hopped cloudy lily-pads into night.
Leaving bone crushing stillness
Echoing among hollow reeds
Hypnotized in black water.
And the crow, a smudgy speck
In the ghost laden fog,
Called to the halved moon in terror.
And the greeny rustle
Encrusted the swirling mist
With owl hoots and rattled
Bones of skeletons alone
On a sagging hill above
A delicate bridge.
And the clean-shaven artist wet
His brush and began again
Painting man as he flew to
Put out the moon.
There it was– I had created images for a reader’s mind not for their eyes. Perhaps I was to be an artist of a different kind where my color blindness wouldn’t be a hinderance. Poetry started pouring out of me. I was painting with words. As a sophomore I won the Robert Frost poetry medal and Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead. Many of those early poems were also quite visual:
Jagged summits shake their shoulders free of rain like an animal
Sun rubs frosted sage
Responding, I watch the feverish gush of lily
Across my body I hear the passing scream of birds
They have become the light
They have become the light.
The images were there as words: the silver leaves of the frosted sage and the gush of lilies.
For the next few years, I called myself an impressionistic poet. Painting with brushes was something in my past. Now I could paint with words and not worry about being color blind. Several of my poems were published until one day these words appeared after I had read some Conrad:
“The bridge was the only bit of good road within one hundred miles. It was flat and hard as a floor, and one eighth of a mile long. Below the bridge as he crossed was a horseman in traditional poncho and sombrero splashing across the river with dog driving a few cattle. Naked children swam in the shallows where naked children had swum before the Conquest.”
I found it harder, but more satisfying to write fiction. The words I wrote were wonderful and rich in meanings as were the oil paintings I produced, but they were for the eyes. I wanted my words to create images for the mind. Yet it was painting that gave me the foundation I needed to color a reader’s mind with images as if I were a painter. I don’t think I could ever have achieved my current writing style if I had continued as a painter. For me words carry connotations that paint pictures, recall memories, enrapture and command. Much like painting each color I use in my writing must be carefully considered.
As I paged through my prize winning collection of stories: “Creek Bait,” I felt the excitement of the images I used to evoke my readers: “Herons poised on yellow sticks,” “Her hair fell upon them like a black and fragrant grave.” Here I added a smell—something that couldn’t be done in painting.