—David K. Slay
At some point the paintings seemed finished, and I could find nothing more to add. Standing beside me, my art teacher would quietly regard my work, and then ask, “May I?” Taking my brush in his hand, he would add a few strokes to the picture, darkening a shadow or an edge perhaps, or adding a highlight here or there. With only these few seemingly minor touches the picture would jump into focus, as if a veil had been lifted. I was always surprised, and a little disappointed, that I couldn’t see what had been missing, what still was needed. But I was young, just nearing adolescence, and happy to have the painting improved, and I quietly knew only my name would be in the corner.
Many years later, I found those paintings in a seldom-used closet, along with a collection of hardened tubes of oil paints. With a mixture of anticipation and curiosity, I put the bundle on the floor of my room and carefully opened it.
At first they seemed unfamiliar—as if someone else had painted them. Holding my breath, I looked for my name in the corner of each. Finding it, I felt relieved, but still a bit apprehensive, though I couldn’t say why. After looking through the paintings several times, they became more familiar, and I began to recognize the various items used in the still life settings.
I proceeded to hang one, a monochromatic oil in burnt umber. The composition was simple, a California pottery creamer and triangular-shaped water pitcher with rounded edges. The pitcher had a carved wooden handle attached to its neck. Although the pitcher had been rendered in shades of umber, I recalled it had been a soft blue-green, and the creamer a custard yellow. Then I stepped back to appraise my work.
I was impressed. The painting was well crafted and pleasing to look at, evoking a sense of calm. I was surprised at what I had accomplished at such a young age. I began to envision displaying all the paintings around my room, as in a small gallery. But then something about the piece caught my eye, and I drew near to examine it more closely. To my growing dismay, I could easily tell which brushstrokes the teacher had added—the selectively deepened shadows, the highlights. I could see the same effect on almost every one. Those he hadn’t touched looked flat and amateurish. Worst of all, I could see how the teacher’s brushstrokes were what made the difference between complete and unfinished, between art and craft.
I sat looking at the painting for a long time. I wanted very much to leave it there, and to hang the others as well. But I no longer could claim the work as mine. I had learned the craft, but he had made the art.
Janice Merendino is a teaching artist at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, college professor, founding member of The Clay Studio, and the founder of the Branch Out Project. Her works on paper and ceramics have been exhibited nationally and internationally. More of her ink paintings can be seen at janicemerendino.com.