The Art Lesson

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
A painter is asked to teach. The lesson has an unexpected ending.

Submitted: November 28, 2011

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Submitted: November 28, 2011

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“I still want you to teach me to paint,” Jenna said.  The opening reception of a local art show was already crowded, but Jenna stood out with her glamorously put together outfit and perfect hairstyle.  It had been around three or four years since I last saw her.  She had been a fellow student in the same art center where we now attended an opening. I remembered her as keeping her clothes and hands neat and clean even though we used welding torches and rough pieces of metal, some rusty, some stained.

 

It did not take long for me to realize that her children, though now in their teens, were still the center of her life.  While we chatted, she took a quick phone call from her son, who needed some money to go out with friends.  She agreed to drive by a nearby shopping center after leaving the gallery to meet him.

 

Jenna had a fancy cell phone and her hands were immaculately groomed, although the wedding and engagement bands had been replaced by a rather large ruby set in a pink gold band.  To all appearances, she was still the vibrant, energetic woman I had known when we took that welding course.  In those days she had taken several calls from babysitters and one night almost singed a student nearby when she pointed the torch away from her work while on the phone.

 

I had always felt uncomfortable in her company, somehow wondering when another call from one of her children or housekeepers would interrupt the conversation.  Now, trying to view the paintings in this particular show, Jenna’s dynamic chatter and the crowds talking loudly, the event became a blur of colors and shapes of which I had no particular impression.

 

Even back then, Jenna wanted to be as close to the art scene as possible.  She bought pieces from local emerging artists, took various sketching and painting classes, and had a notable collection of art materials, much better than I had.  Yet, when I took her to my studio after one of the welding classes, she was quite impressed with my work, much of which was tacked onto the walls with tape or tacks.

 

“I still want you to teach me to paint,” she repeated.

 

“Look,” I said, “why don’t we meet at Prince Park tomorrow afternoon and talk about it?”

 

We agreed to meet at three in the afternoon.

 

It was a stall.  I did not have the nerve to give her a flat ‘no.’ then and there.  That was my lifelong problem.  I would delay, prolong, put things on the backburner.  Trouble was, the backburner would start to smolder at around four in the morning and all the unfinished projects,  the promises left hanging, would overwhelm my sleepless nights and drain the little energy I had to make it through another day.

 

In my innermost self I had never seen myself as a teacher.  The discipline, knowledge and above all, ability to relate to others, were skills I did not have, nor had an inclination for.  Knowledge, yes, I loved to learn things – but in no structured way.  There was no particular direction in my interests, no cohesive plan whatever.  After studying something for an hour or so I would get bored or overwhelmed, and often not go back to that subject again.

 

On my way home that night from the gallery opening, I had a twinge of conscience.  She had helped me out when the building I lived in was sold to a contractor and we all had to leave.  Had she not let me use her oceanfront condo for two months when I was trying to find another place and it just happened that she was visiting family in the mountains?  Maybe I could sit down with her for an afternoon and share some of the things I did when I painted. Jenna was an accomplished quilter and mold maker. I felt she had enough discipline so a little guiding would be all she needed.  What could it hurt if we spent a couple of hours playing with canvas and paint?

 

As I walked toward Prince Park the next day, I saw Jenna and a young man, presumably her son, sitting on a bench about fifty yards away.  Then the young man ran off in another direction.

 

I approached Jenna, who was now looking down at her cell-phone, and sat down next to her.

 

“Was that your son?” I said.

 

“Oh, Rudy,” she said, “yes.”

 

From the corner of my eye I noted another figure approaching.

 

There was a scream, a happy one, but due to the element of surprise, I was terrified.  It was Alcis.

 

“Where have you hid yourself?” she said, looking at me.

 

“Hi Jenna,” Alcis said, looking at Jenna as if they always met here at this park and I felt like an intruder. 

 

Alcis had also been in our welding class and also worked in egg miniatures.  I had seen some regular hen eggs which she had carefully hollowed out and within the egg, amazing lifelike images of street scenes would appear.  My paintings were a far cry from those precise, beautiful scenes.  I wondered why Alcis, who lived near Jenna in an old subdivision a short distance form the center of town, had not been asked to teach Jenna.  They were friends, both at least ten years older than me, and liked to run around together to workshops and writing seminars, both being very good amateur short story writers.

 

Soon enough the conversation turned to the dreaded painting class which I had been somehow elected to teach, unless I had the nerve to say no, which I did not.

 

“What would you think of us going painting en plein air?” Alcis said. 

 

Apparently she and Jenna had discussed this subject before.  I wondered what they saw in my painting that made them seek me to be part of their plan. En plein air was an expression the art community used to describe painting outdoors.  Somehow, although I had art training and for a short time had been successful in a commercial sense, I had never fit into the art scene or any other group, for that matter.  Rules, stability and orderly plans in life had always escaped me.  I was a free floating being, like a balloon, touching down here and there and quickly alighting again, seemingly without any direction other than where the wind took me.

 

Of course I missed those days back at the welding class.  The instructor, a young woman from South America, could have been a model.  Yet, her art, which was very cutting edge, was her main passion.  She would drop the welding mask over her face and tame metals with an energy as great as men who work in steel mills.  We, the students, were all thumbs and could easily have harmed ourselves or blown up the loft where we worked, but our instructor calmly guided us and laughed with us, so we loved to meet those Thursday evenings and afterward have coffee and cake in a café downstairs.

 

“Remember those days with Sinona?” Alcis said.  “She is now way up there in the art world.  She designed and built several main sculptures in concert halls and theatres in the Far East.  As a matter of fact, I just got an email from her from Thailand.”

 

“They just finished renovating the old town square park,” Jenna said. “There’s even a dog park and a water park in the complex.” The old town square park was about a fifteen minute drive from this suburban park.

 

Jenna looked at Alcis.  “Why don’t the three of us get together and do some painting there; Just for old time’s sake, since Sinona is there in spirit?”

 

I was relieved at this suggestion.  Feeling quit inadequate to teach Jenna how to paint, I figured she would help Jenna in a more guided, professional way.

 

Jenna looked at me with hopeful eyes.  “What do you say?”

 

“Sure,” I said.  What would be the worst that could happen?  They would hate me for being so incompetent as a painting teacher?  Jenna would ruin a perfectly good canvas and waste expensive paints because I misguided her or said just the wrong thing at the wrong time?  I was willing to face those consequences, hoping to capture some of the old glow from having a fun time at the welding class.

 

Back at my studio, I put together a portfolio with canvas, paint, brushes, and various other necessities when painting outdoors.  My easel was too large, so I took a wooden sketching board to prop the canvas on.  Jenna and Alcis were to bring some materials and they had portable easels which they agreed to bring.  The old town square park had lots of benches, so we did not need folding stools or chairs.

 

As I approached the park on the appointed day, I was amazed at how beautiful it now looked.  Even the streets facing it, which had for a long time become blighted, now were being renovated and much landscaping had been added to the area.  People were milling about, families, workers going to offices – it was not the fearful inner city area I had remembered from years past.

 

Then I saw the dog park.  I have always been attracted to animals – pigeons at a bus stop, dogs of all kinds, kittens, cats, even lizards.  They seem to be oblivious to civilization and looking at them is a bit of rest for me from the busy hubbub of modern society.  A large golden retriever was running as fast as he could, making circles around the fairly large fenced area.  There were several smaller dogs, the fashionable tiny yorkies and shi-tsus sporting rhinestone studded harnesses.  Then I spotted a familiar red splash of color amid the greenery of the park.

 

“Shrimp,” I thought.  “Who else uses a color that bright on their hair.  And where else would I find her but in a dog park?”

 

Shrimp, although a dear friend of mine, had a habit of isolating, not because she did not like people, but because she loved dogs, many dogs, many, many dogs.  It was not unusual for her to board three or four strays, along with her three Doberman’s, none of which had their ears or tails clipped. She spent more money on the finest of dog foods, medicines, veterinarian visits, vaccinations and trips to dog training classes.  Her dogs were very lucky, getting the full attention of a very caring lady. I had not talked to Shrimp in months.  This dog park had only been open about a month, so I should have expected to see her here.

 

I saw Jenna and Alcis unloading their cars on the opposite side of the park.  Lugging my portfolio out of the back seat of my small car, I dragged it along with its small wheels, toward the chain link fence of the dog park.  Shrimp had spotted me and walked toward me.

 

“Why, hello,” she said in her usual cheery voice.  “How nice to see you.”

 

“Hi,” I said. “What a nice park.  Which are your dogs?” The words had hardly come out of my mouth, when a very large black dog, with proportionately small feet suddenly broke free from a group of dogs and began galloping toward us.

 

“Sweetie,” Shrimp said in a firm, angry tone. “Stop, stop.”

 

Sweetie did not stop. The log lunged over the fence and knocked me down, portfolio and all.

 

“Sweetie,” Shrimp kept calling.  I had never heard her voice so loud and harsh, as if it was another person whom I did not know, nor want to know.  But Shrimp was on a mission.

 

Jenna and Alcis had seen me from across the park and, leaving their art materials, they began running toward me. When Sweetie saw them run, she (I assumed it was a girl) decided to have some fun.  I guess she thought the two women wanted to run and romp with her.  She jumped on Jenna, the taller one, knocking her down.  Alcis tried to pull Sweetie off her friend, but Sweetie decided to knock Alcis down, too.  This may have been a sign of affection in the dog brain of Sweetie.

 

The two women had left all their belongings by their vehicles, easels set up, paints carefully placed on folding tv tables.  As they scrambled to their feet, relieved that Sweetie had no intention of mauling them, they rushed over to where their art things were.  Sweetie, thinking no doubt, she had made two new friends, ran alongside them.  When she saw the easels and tubes of paint, and especially the sable brushes, an urge only known to her, flooded her dog brain, and she began chewing on the brushes and squeezing paint out of the tubes with her canine teeth.

 

Jenna and Alcis were unable to speak.  They just stood there, not even turning to see Shrimp and me running over, Shrimp screaming “Sweetie, no, Sweetie, no,” over and over again.

 

Needless to say, I was not asked to give any more painting lessons.  Jenna went into therapy and is now learning to detach from her teen-age children, being told it is better not to answer all their phone calls or give them money whenever they ask for it.  Alcis has moved from quilting and painting miniature eggs to creating large intuitive paintings guided by an artist who is well known in the art world for blasting music in a large room while throwing cans of paint on large dropcloths.  Each dropcloth has a title such as No. 47 or No. 33.  These works are sold at major art fairs for large sums of money.  Alcis’ intuitive paintings have not found a buyer yet, but she has a good income selling off the rest of the quilts and miniature egg paintings from her past.

 

Shrimp was not sued.  As a matter of fact, she was able to find a family to adopt Sweetie, a stray.  That family has a very large ranch and Sweetie loves to run every day, enjoying playing hide and seek with raccoons, rats and field mice.

 

I am very grateful to Sweeties, because now when someone asks me to teach them to paint, I just say “No.”


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