Here’s my 2018 CBC contest non-fiction entry – didn’t make the cut but here it is for you to read and decide for yourself whether it’s a worthy essay. Enjoy 🙂
MY LIFE IN PAINTINGS
There’s a painting on an easel in my living room right now. It’s half finished. A little boy is splashing a skipping rope in puddles in our driveway and the splashes are flying up into the air. I love the photo it comes from, and that young fellow is my son fifteen years ago. I started the painting last fall for a contest then life got in the way. It hurts to continue right now and that’s why the brush got put down. My son is grown and living elsewhere. I will finish it though, regardless of whether he’s around or not. I am his mother after all, and nothing can diminish or erase the fact that I have a son I love beyond measure because I am his mother, no matter how old or distant he is.
I have a painting in my spare room that is leaning on the wall, sitting on a shelf. It’s big – 18×24 – and it’s a portrait of my mother. It’s pretty much finished but it hasn’t got a frame. Someday soon I plan to put a frame on it; it’s expensive so that purchase has fallen to the bottom of the list for years. This painting I made for my mom at her request – she liked a photo that was taken of her while she was visiting a cousin in B.C.
My mom loves to travel. I was going to say loved but I won’t because she’s still with us. She’s almost 99 and is in a nursing home, a small shadow of herself brightened by occasional glimmers of memory. This painting though, she liked it except for one thing: her chin is too long. So here it is in my house, many years after she asked and long since forgotten. She was right. Her chin is a little too long so I will fix that and frame it and put it on my wall. It kind of makes me sad to work on it at the moment so I haven’t yet. But I will. I promise. It’s also the last portrait I completed, mainly because I haven’t been asked again but also because I discovered it’s hard to make a portrait perfect enough to suit other people.
I say this because when I was single I used to visit my young nephews (I had two then) fairly frequently and I took a lot of pictures at that time. One photo I really liked was my sister in a chair with the baby in her arms and the oldest at her feet reaching up. Kind of Madonna and Child if you will. So I did an acrylic painting of that photo. It took me a few months and then I had it framed in glass and wood. At the time I thought I’d done a good job and gave it to her for Christmas. She didn’t like how I made her legs look so that was that. I have no idea what happened to it. The thing is that’s probably the best portrait I’ve done and you know, it was a sweet moment in time. I hope someday she comes across it and realizes that – if she still has it after several moves and all this time.
In my basement I have a painting that I call 26. It is the only self-portrait I’ve done and I was newly married when I did that. It’s me in a summer dress with a pattern I loved, sitting in a hanging swing in the gazebo of my ex-husband’s mother’s cottage in New Brunswick. What’s not in the picture is the guitar on the floor – I had gone there for a bit of space and to play my guitar which I did a lot in those days. I used to write songs and work out the chords for favourite tunes then I’d record them and give copies to people who wanted one which at the time was pretty much only my dad.
I appreciated the colour of the trees and the wood and my dress so for fun I put my 35mm camera on a beam and took a few timed exposures. One photo stood out so I painted it. This one I put on show in Mississauga once. The only comment I got was “Why is this called 26?”
It lives in my basement because it’s big and it’s me and maybe if I had a larger house I’d find a wall to put it on but for right now it feels a little self-aggrandizing to hang it somewhere prominent. Regardless, I like it. I think I looked my best around that age. It’s a nice reminder.
I had one painting come back to me. This one doesn’t have people in it but it does have trees. It’s quite large and it is of an entrance way to Apfeldoorn Het Loo castle at the end of a long archway of trees – the play of shadow and light and the arching branches were striking, and this is one photo I have from the time when my aunt took me on a National Art Centre trip to Holland and Belgium. Auntie traveled often and this was the only time she took me on one of her trips. She usually took my mother but for this one she knew I’d appreciate the outstanding artwork in the Netherlands. Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists. I was in my early 20’s and I had had a horrible year.
A dear friend died suddenly and a few months later I came down with walking pneumonia so between the two I was emotionally and physically knocked flat. Auntie thought this would make me happy and she was also pleased that I was old enough to travel with her. I gladly went and the trip was just what I needed; it was wonderful to spend all this time with her getting to know her in an environment experiencing something we both had in common: a love of art.
When we came home I made her a photo album of our trip and for Christmas I gave her the framed painting of Apfeldoorn. She proudly hung it over her bed – she collected original artwork and displayed it all over her apartment so for me that meant a lot that she liked it that much. That painting stayed there for a few years but it was also at this time her health started declining and she only went on a few trips after the one with me.
She died in 2000, and sometime after that I was given back the photo album and the painting with the mat still there but oddly, the outer frame is missing. That’s okay, it still looks good. It spent 10 years over the top of a stairway in my house in Arnprior, and now faces a door in my little bungalow in Fredericton. It reminds me of a person who was important to me, and of a time of my life just before I got married.
Just as important though are the sketches of paintings not yet done. One is a sketch I did of my daughter as a baby and I have to laugh because its very existence is much like an essay I started writing back then about life as a new mother: it ends mid-sentence after about three paragraphs. I haven’t tried to finish it because you know what? That’s what being a new mother is all about, this not enough time to do anything.
I also have a sketch of Grammie-great. I promised to paint it for my daughter someday because Grammie-great (her great-grandmother on her father’s side) simply adored her. She died when my daughter was four and I think she’s her guardian angel. I will do this one soon, now that she is grown.
I’ve fallen behind in my paintings of people: my dad, my daughter, my spouse. I’m just looking for the right moment in time and the right inspiration to come. I may be old and white-haired by that time but hey, that’s what retirement is for isn’t it? I think George Bush Senior would agree.
My latest printed photo album ends in 2004. With the advent of digital cameras I now literally have nearly a decade and a half of thousands of images that if I don’t print them or something they will be lost in time. I’m not alone in this certainly. A painting can last forever though. Why not put the really special moments on canvas in a way that maybe will long outlast me? They might wind up in a dump somewhere, sure, but I hope when the day comes and I’m not here, that for at least one or two somebody will say: “Hey, I like this. Let’s put it up on the wall. Who did it?”
“Oh, it was Great-great-grandma. Cool, eh?”
(c) Catherine M. Harris, 2018. All rights reserved.