When the email arrived inviting me to join friends at a guided-painting event, I hesitated to reply. My sister – an accomplished printmaker and book artist living in Minneapolis – would be in town, and I worried that she wouldn’t want to spend an evening “learning” how to paint.
At the same time, I thought it might be fun to have a “girls’ night out,” which would involve wine and appetizers in addition to creating a canvas. What’s more, the event was a fundraiser for the local Boys & Girls Club, so we would be supporting a good cause.
My sister was game, so off we went to the Canvas studio in Kirkland on Sunday evening.
As we enjoyed a glass of wine, a selection of cheese and veggies and irresistible chocolate cake, we spotted small easels and canvases awaiting us at long tables, as well as a copy of the sunflowers painting we would replicate.
(Feel free to pause for a moment to check out my sister Jody’s website, and you’ll see why I started to feel this was a grave mistake. Bright flower paintings aren’t exactly her artistic style.)
I could tell Jody was feeling uneasy as she searched the wall—chock full of examples for other class sessions–for alternatives. However, she was game, as always, and picked up her brush.
The instructor gave a few pointers for mixing paints and using brushes, and then led us in covering our canvasses with a background color. Three of my friends mixed aqua, as instructed, and my sister created a lovely deep blue. Two other guests had selected a tulip painting from the wall, so worked on a cream-colored base.
I was envisioning a way to match my artwork to my home, which includes several burnt-sienna (remember your Crayolas?) walls. Thinking I would make a bold artistic statement, I mixed yellow, orange, white and a little blue into brown for my work’s base. “We have a name for that color at art school,” Jody said. “Monkey sh@t brown.” We both burst out laughing, which caused the instructor to glance our way.
We sang along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” as we painted our canvasses. The instructor covered hers in sweeping strokes of aqua, and then suggested we refresh our beverages and appetizer plates while the paint dried. At that point, my canvas was only half-covered, as was Jody’s.
After a short break, it was on to the flowers. “I really just want to paint dots,” Jody whispered to me. This was no surprise; some of her early prints included dots and other “do-dads.”
“Go ahead,” I told her. “It’s not like you’re going to get in trouble for painting what you want.”
She gave me a big smile and said, “Thanks. I really just needed someone to give me permission.”
So, as the rest of us painted stems and pedals, Jody worked on rows of yellow dots on a deep-blue background.
My painting wasn’t shaping up all that well. I loved the model, but didn’t want to replicate it exactly. I continued to divert from the instructions, and my sister – who actually teaches art at a college – couldn’t help giving sideways glances to my disaster-in-process.
“I tell my students to beware of using black outlining as a crutch,” she told me, as I worked to outline every pedal in black, in an effort to salvage my chef d’oeuvre.
I admired her yellow-dot painting, which was coming along very, very slowly, and suggested I could pick her up from the studio in the morning.
Meanwhile, the other women at our table were creating perfect, lovely copies of the model.
Jody and I started giggling again, realizing that neither of us was following instructions. Our stomachs literally started aching from the laughter. And when Jody reminded me of a giggling episode from several decades earlier, we could barely focus on our paintings.
The first time we took a trip alone together – when I was 14 and she was 19 – we accompanied our grandmother to church in the coal-mining town were my father was raised. We were surprised to find paper fans in the pew advertising a funeral home. It just seemed wrong, especially in light of the aging population in a no-longer-vibrant town.
I absolutely had to take a fan home as a souvenir, so stashed it under my dress. That worked fine until the congregation stood to sing, and I had to hold the hymnal and my mid-section (to keep the fan from falling) simultaneously. At the art studio, Jody gave an imitation of me trying to stand up, with an arched back, one hand on her belly and the other pretending to hold a book, and we both laughed even louder.
Since that trip to Eastern Pennsylvania so many eons ago, Jody and my lives have taken very different paths. She attended a small, very academic liberal-arts college. I went to a Big Ten university, where I joined a sorority.
Now, Jody is a nationally known book artist (in fact, she gave a lecture at the University of Washington the other day), who makes a living teaching art and selling her work. She lives a very cultured, urban lifestyle in Minneapolis.
And while I do work part time (writing, editing and teaching French), I live a very kid-centered life in suburban Seattle. Jody’s visit emphasized this disparity, as she accompanied the family to a homecoming parade, high school football game, dog walks in the park and pre-dance photo gatherings.
However, out with the gals, drinking wine and breaking rules, the boundaries between our diverse lives broke down. With paintbrushes in hand, we gave each other permission to be ourselves—to be who we always were—while rediscovering our common ground. I am sure we will laugh about our failed guided-painting endeavor for years to come.
– Linda Williams Rorem, 22 Oct. 2012
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