Did I ever tell you about my very first painting? Probably not. It wasn’t anything close to a Rembrandt or a Dali. It wasn’t a portrait, or a bowl of fruit either. If anything, it was more like plein air or a landscape. The setting was idyllic. It was late spring, in a valley, near a hamlet called Valley River and about a 15 minute drive from my home in Dauphin. Gorgeous, lush parkland, and at that time of year one can work long hours . . . the sun hung around at least until 10 at night.
I didn’t pick the site, rather it picked me, or perhaps more accurately my dad helped pick it out. I was still a teen then, didn’t even have my driver’s license, so he was instrumental in getting me there. By the way, he was teacher most of his life, and a real whiz at math . . . that was his passion. With six kids and always in debt, he took on odd jobs in the summer months, self-employed light carpentry and painting. That’s how my first painting came about – it was a barn and it hadn’t been painted in about 30 years!
It was one stubborn fucking building, I’ll say that! Keep in mind that this was 1974, so 30 years prior, they were using material from around WWII time – lots of lead – I’m sure a similar concoction would eventually find it’s way into the making today’s hockey helmets, it was that tough. The building was in remarkable structural condition – no warping or rotting or anything. But that paint, all three layers of it, oye what a job!
After all those years of being exposed to the sun and wind, it was drier than David Letterman with a hangover! There were a million tiny, stubborn, nasty paint chips . . . about four would fit on the nail of your little finger . . . each clinging to the wood like they used crazy glue . . . more like “completely psycho glue”. And they drove me nuts!
But wait, there’s more!
I could bitch about the process all day. I’m pretty sure it was the first time my dad knew that my cussing vocabulary was fully developed. That took perhaps an hour or so. He didn’t seem to mind though, and I’ve always appreciated his patience and understanding. He just let me vent, would move to a different section and give me that space, and get his own too I suppose? He worked so hard and never complained. However, you could tell by his eyes if you had hurt him or were doing something wrong, so just by looking at him I’d find myself thinking, “Stop being such a jerk!” and then I’d calm down, at least for awhile.
After 3 weeks of evenings and Saturdays on this barn, I actually did feel like we’d accomplished something, and at that point I’m sure there was even a little smile of accomplishment. After all, the scraping was complete and now we could do some painting.
Well son-of-a-bitch . . .the next news came as a complete shock. Having read the stories about Tom Sawyer and Huck, I felt duped . . . this was no goddam picket fence! Now we had to put plaster all over the place, not on every square inch . . . mostly where I’d left some nasty gouges in the wood from my “aggressive” scraping technique. There was that and then over the head of every nail, and in the cracks where one board joined the next.
Still, it was much easier than scraping, and by the way, now that I think of it, that’s the year where my throwing arm really developed . . . launching bullets rather than darts! Anyways, after about another week this puttying was done and I could hardly wait to start painting, or so I thought. Well mother-fucker, no one told me we had to sand this pig first!
As you can see, I’m still not quite over the swearing-out ceremony!
I can still feel that pain in my shoulder as I’m typing, but at least I’m not sweating buckets and swatting mosquitoes or worse . . . those tiny no-see-ums. No smell of cow shit lingering either. Finally we got to the priming, and then two coats of grey with white trim, and by then this part felt like a vacation.
I have to say though, after all of that, it was one of the best experiences of my life. There is nothing in 19 years of schooling that could teach me what that project taught me. The building was beautiful, especially in this valley setting, on a bit of an incline, surrounded by trees and close to the creek. And the wood almost seemed grateful – you could literally watch the paint soothe its dryness, and it felt wonderful when it was all done. It felt just as great some 20 years later, which was the next time I saw my friend, the barn. I had actually forgotten about the place, and was there kind of by accident, so it was quite a surprise to see it again, especially since it looked exactly like it did we finished it!
The grey with white trim was still there, and it was still our original paint , , , I could tell just by looking, but don’t ask me how. It was like time had stood still in that serene, secluded place. A nice rush of warm memories came over me and it was then when I realized how good this was to do. I have no idea how much money dad gave me. It wouldn’t have been much. It’s hard to remember, but I think that’s the summer I got a ten-speed bike and a really great baseball glove. I got that and an allowance that would be enough to treat my girlfriend to a Saturday night movie and a soda after, at the Grange Cafe . . . if we could talk her dad into that extra hour or so . . . he was even more stubborn than me.
Most importantly, I learned about patience and perseverance. Maybe that’s partly innate? I don’t know. What I do know is that for the next decade I spent my summers painting houses, barns, churches and more, and pretty much loved every minute of it. Before graduating from high school I had gone solo. I loved the self-reliance aspect and it paid for most of my seven years of college and university, including grad school. Ever since then all I’ve ever really wanted was to have that kind of independence again, no matter the endeavor . . . owning a small business, and now that includes my art and writing.
Back to the future . . . soon
It all seemed much easier then. In many ways earning a living by painting houses is much easier than selling paintings. After all, people needed their houses painted and most abhorred doing it themselves. Few people see a need for art. Believe me, I understand that. However, I guess there is one odd little commonality between painting the houses and the pictures I paint. With the houses I had this quirky little thing about color. I’d always recommend the color and color scheme, and insisted on using really good paint, but not necessarily the most expensive. However, sometimes my customers would have their own color ideas.
If I didn’t approve of them I simply wouldn’t take the job. Thankfully there was seldom any real disagreement. I did walk away from one job opportunity though, because I just couldn’t put those colors on that house. Don’t forget, my reputation was on the line with every job. So that one time I walked away and got as far as the curb . . . by then she had called me back, agreed to my color selections, and loved it in the end.
How is that common to my art? Even though it’s digital painting, the final printing is not so simple . . . it’s not just pushing a button. There are decisions to be made, nuances in the final process, and believe me this is all very personal . . . the little details that really do matter. So you can be damn sure that my final printing approval is extremely stringent before I sign any piece of my art. I guess I’m just stubborn that way . . . maybe that’s the one time when it’s good to be one’s own toughest critic?
Finally, I loved this movie when it first came out (see below). Every time I see this scene I think of that barn, and of my dad. He had a few faults, but a lack of kindness or patience was never among them. I’m happy to say that I do miss him.