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woman (anonymous) painting
photo courtesy of Kevin Connors, USA

"Sunday painters," my friend shook her head. "You have no idea how they plague me." We were in her studio, where fabulous mythic paintings lined the walls like the caryatids of an ancient balustrade. "Every time I jury a major show, they want their work included. I feel like a right bitch, but I have to turn them down. Their work simply isn't ready."

She has a point. I felt the same way at an arts event a few days earlier, when an unpublished writer stole the time away from waiting poets to read an unedited sentimental story. (In the interests of full disclosure: yes, I was one of the waiting poets.) As she read on and on, I felt both irritated and astonished. The first, obviously, because my own poems would not be heard; the second, because the woman was so cheerfully unaware of her work's ineptitude. Like those Sunday painters, her work just wasn't ready, but she didn't seem to notice.

Nonetheless, in the presence of my artist friend, I felt a silent discomfort. For I have a new guilty pleasure. Oil painting. Even worse: I paint on Sundays. Yes, I have become one of those dreaded Sunday painters. I hasten to assert that I have no intention of inflicting my work on anyone, especially art-show jurors. But in learning to paint, I have rediscovered the joys of amateurism -- a word that derives from the Latin verb amo, "to love." I have rediscovered doing something simply for the love of it.

A friend of mine, upon turning 50, dedicated herself to doing 50 things she had never done before her next birthday. (She filmed her experiences; look for Etta Worthington's "Fifty at Fifty" soon at a film festival near you.) She noticed how fearful she had become; she dreaded looking silly, not doing things right, revealing herself as a beginner. Such fears inhibited her natural curiosity and adventuresomeness. So she worked as a mall Santa, sold peanuts at a baseball game, played the harp, even shaved off all her hair -- and broke through those fears.

Despite the maxim about old dogs and new tricks, I don't think age alone creates such fears. Our society values professionalism and disdains amateurism. Why should I try Irish dancing when I can see "Riverdance"? Why should I attempt to play piano when I can pop Count Basie into the CD player? Why should I expose my clumsiness in sports when I can watch the Ice Capades on the telly? Such emphasis on professionalism makes us consumers rather than dancers, musicians, skaters -- or painters. We stop doing things just for love and start spending money instead.

The capital letter "M" in Medusa scripty clearest memory of being discouraged from artistic amateurism came when I entered high school. Like most children, I had always loved art: building pudgy clay pots, painting flowers for mommy, coloring everything colorable. But high school changed all that. My first day, the art teacher -- a woman, I regret to say -- informed us that the world is divided into artists and non-artists. Artists, as she told it, were different than ordinary folk. They saw things more clearly, felt things more deeply, suffered torments as the crass world grated against their sensitive souls. Such people, she said, were rare and precious. They were geniuses. She had never seen more than one per class. One genius, all the rest clods. Our work would reveal the truth. She would be the judge.

Then she gave us our first assignment.

You can imagine the anxiety as we drew silently, each hoping not to be revealed as an insensitive clod. Appallingly, I can still remember my piece, a little landscape. It seemed very sensitive indeed to me, seemed to reveal my inner torment and depth of soul. I shook as I handed it in.

I shook even harder when the teacher picked up my little drawing. My heart stopped in anticipation. I felt like I was choking. Was it true? Could it be I was an artist? A genius?

But no. The teacher picked my drawing to show how plodding some work could be, how derivative, how lacking in insight. Another student -- I do not remember who, I was in a blur of pain -- was pronounced the class genius.

I vowed, at that moment, never to paint again.

Somehow, I did enough in the class to pass 9th grade. But thereafter, I avoided paint and canvas. Because I continued to love art, I took appreciation classes, hung out in museums, had artist friends. But I never picked up a brush. Nope, not ever, not even once.

Although my experience was extreme, this approach to teaching art is so common that most Americans withdraw from making art before they graduate from high school. My college students tell me, firmly, that they are "not creative" when I ask them to write a poem, make a sketch, or otherwise try their hand at art. I know what they're feeling: they'd rather not expose their cloddish souls to ridicule, thank you.

When I tell my students it doesn't matter how well they do, they look at me with disbelief. Of course it matters! They have no intention of revealing their inadequacies. But I am even more adamant than they are. So finally -- usually the night before the term ends -- every one of my students creates something. The result: they are ebullient. Their journals show that their souls have opened as well as their senses.

Sometimes I think we are cursed to teach so our own words can come back to haunt us. Every time I heard myself encouraging a student's amateur attempts, I thought of my own fears. For no matter how confident I was about my creative ability, I believed it only worked with words, not images. My hunger for the visual crept out here and there -- I knit, crochet, sew, make little collages for Christmas cards -- but the ban on brushes and canvases remained.

red & black
photo courtesy of Gracey, Ontario, CA, Canada

Thus it was with wild trepidation that I went to an art store earlier this year. For I had decided that I would finally heal that old wound. But I was unprepared for the intensity of my feelings. I felt physically nauseated as I bought tubes of paint, brushes, canvases. I felt faint when I wrote the check and walked out of the store. So, when I got home, I set up the new easel and put a canvas on it. Then I left it that way for a couple of weeks.

Perhaps Mrs. Whoever, the art teacher, had just been trying to help us. I am certain she had been hurt somehow; after all, she was teaching junior high school in Alaska, not exhibiting at the Sorbonne. Perhaps she had been turned away from an important show because she was a woman, perhaps mocked for her ambition, perhaps derided for being formally adventuresome. Whatever happened to her, she may have tried to save her little charges from suffering that way. Or perhaps she was nothing like that; perhaps her own resentments boiled within so that she lashed out at children, parroting the criticism she had heard and, in the process, creating more resentment and pain.

For whatever reason, she bred a fear in me so deep that, decades later, I had to swallow hard and frequently as I finally took out the paints, brushes, turpentine and linseed oil. But within minutes of covering the blank white canvas with a blue undercoat, I was absorbed, mindlessly delighted with the brilliant colors, dizzy with joy at the odors and fragrances. I painted for hours. I didn't like what I painted, but I kept on. It's been months now, and I'm still painting. Mostly I don't like what comes out, but with each painting I learn something.

As a result, I find myself more deeply appreciating the work of real artists -- and by that I don't mean the "geniuses" that my former teacher praised, but rather those who spend a lifetime perfecting their art. I go to art shows more often these days, studying how artists capture their visions and spirit. I see where one uses an impasto technique, the paint thickly expressive. I see the bumpy scumbling of another's clouds. I stand in awe of painters who use oils like water, building up a dense image from many thin coats. I've been looking at paintings much of my life, but I've never seen so much, nor so clearly. Trying to paint has made me humble before the work of those who engage in the difficult, invigorating, sensuous process of making art.

The capital letter "M" in Medusa scriptore importantly, my eyes are opened in a new way. I find myself marveling at the way light plays on clouds. The special glitter of water, the way it shatters light. The contrast of a horse's dark coat against brilliant green grass. The world has become a heady place of color and shape, in a way it has never been before. My paintings are -- I am the first to say it -- inadequate in capturing the beauty I see. But like my students, I experience the exhilaration of the soul's opening that art provides.

And so I'll keep painting. Every Sunday. But don't ever ask to see what I paint. I do this for myself and for my soul. I do it just for love.

A new edition of Patricia Monaghan's award-winning book of poetry, Seasons of the Witch, will be published this fall by Creatrix! Publishing in Madison, Wisconsin.

Graphics Credits

  • woman (anonymous) painting, photo courtesy of Kevin Connors, USA.
  • red & black, photo courtesy of Gracey, Ontario, CA, Canada
Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without permission. All other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the
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