I’ve never been one to enjoy school all that much. I never got the knack of enjoying it, even into college.
I was too introverted throughout, and made the mistake of being a commuter and attending college one town over rather than moving away. There was, however, about three semesters there at the end where I really and truly enjoyed myself, and it’s just a coincidence that they were my last three semesters. There were many different classes I took those three semesters, one of which I hated and the rest…the rest set my soul afire. Art. Art history and painting classes and ceramics classes and art theory. The works.
Painting seemed tailor-made for me. We were required to learn almost the WHOLE process, you see. We weren’t grinding and mixing our own pigments but we were required that first semester to learn how to cut the wooden firring strips and quarter round and bits of plywood for the corners to make our own canvas stretchers, taught how to stretch the canvas and staple it on, and then how to gesso it and sand it and prepare it for pigment. I was in heaven. An art class that involved carpentry too? I spent that entire semester with an erection. I was working with wood, painting canvas with gesso, watching the whole thing come together, right up to and through completing the painting itself. Almost like building your own house, then moving into it.
There was a painter there, a young man about a year ahead of me, himself also a pursuer of a BA in Studio Art . He kept for himself a smallish studio downstairs, a tiny office that he’d emptied of furniture (except for one ragged, piebald, swayback couch) and swathed in drop cloths from floor to ceiling tiles. A bank of windows opened from waist to ceiling on one wall, and it was that light toward which his canvases turned like eratically-coloured flowers.
His were not the small canvases. When I, heady with paint fumes, built and stretched a 3’ x 4’ monstrosity he still had me beat, easily. Being a college student and on a budget but being a truly driven artist he was buying pup tent halves from the local military surplus store and stretching them on 2x4 frames whose height often threatened to burst them through the ceiling. Resting on the floor he’d wander around them barefooted, pouring Red Devil black paint from pint-sized cans in huge loops and puddles, a deeply unsubtle Jackson Pollock. After that dried they’d be leaned against the wall in dyptich or tryptich series and he’d assault them with brushes so big their handles looked like sawn off broom handles. Later in his schooling he used “oil bars,” oil pigment that had been formed like an oversized stick of butter, and he'd paint with them like massive rectangular crayons.
Me, I was more content to use brights and filberts in a more normal size, though I soon relaxed and found real pleasure in using a palette knife as a brush, spreading paint like mayonnaise, building crests and valleys, swirling pigment around for the sheer joy of seeing what each muscle twitch action would do to the thick, buttery stuff. I moved from a shy child so afraid to ‘waste’ paint that I could barely get enough pigment down to cover the white gesso to a painter who bought paints in six and ten ounce tubes, morbidly obese cousins of toothpaste tubes.
So there I was, free of thoughts of waste, inspired by the madman downstairs who locked himself in his studio and physically assaulted his canvases, and I was required, REQUIRED to be in my own shared studio at least two hours a day. I was forced to go and do a thing that filled my eyes with cold fire and made my heart feel like I was sitting in a straight chair that I had just tipped back too far and was about to fall. I was surrounded by other people of like mind, but when I stepped (barefoot) onto the torn and spattered comforter that served as my drop cloth and studio’s ‘walls’ I was in another world entirely.
Those days though, like any great ecstasy, had to pass lest I be burned in it’s fire. I graduated again, completing my psychology degree a semester earlier, and I stepped out into the real world where a Bachelor of Arts degree in Studio Art meant that I could flip burgers for minimum wage, and a BA in Psychology meant mostly the same, only it was mental ward patients I could flip, to change their bedpans.
As I got older the real world intruded more and more. I couldn’t make a living painting any more than I could make a living just walking around staring at the pretty sights, so the easel and canvases got pushed to the back of the room more and more, then into the Art Closet, and there they’ve sat for a very long, very sad time.
Once in a while the fire will come upon me with breath-taking ferocity and I drag my tools out. I lay out the paint-specked comforter on the floor, open the glass jar full of turpentine and fill the air with it’s sharp yellow stink, and carefully sort out the crinkled, dusty tubes of pigment. Palette on my left hand, store-bought canvas balanced on the easel I lay brush to paint and then to pristine white canvas, crisscrossed with a pencil cartoon and I remember, just for a little while, those eighteen heady months.