Monday, June 28, 2010
On Saturday, June 12th, I got the call. Could I help Murch Elementary Class of 2010 create their end of class project? Each year the departing class creates a gift for the school. It is often a painted bench or some type of art piece. The time and budget was severely limited. I would have to work with the children and create a piece in a scant three days. And these were not traditional days. These were the last days of school. They were filled with graduation rehearsals, field days and summer vacation induced absenteeism. This was an eleventh hour project. Would I be willing to help? They were crying, “Rescue Me!” at the proverbial last minute. But, I wonder if they knew I was the one being rescued? June 17th 2010 was the one-year anniversary of my late husband Fred’s death. Instead of pining or wallowing in sorrow, I was up to my elbows in paint and gel medium surrounded by happy children who had been classmates of my son Freddie.
Oh, I well know that can art assuage sorrow. I have had a hard life. It has never been easy. As child in fear and sorrow, I begged God to help me. “Please, rescue me,” I prayed. He did not take away the causes of my sorrow, but instead sent me Art. I painted, I drew and I coped.
I struggled in school. First grade was a blurry lack of understanding. I vividly remember my confusion about letters and numbers. I could not understand what they wanted. The teacher told me “A” was for apple. Great, I get it. A=Apple. No, I was wrong. She tried to explain phonics to me and I didn’t comprehend. I could not read nor write well, but I could draw. I would draw an apple and then she would understand. That plan didn’t work. On the last day of school she gave me a card with the pictures of bees buzzing by. It was a note that said I would have to return and repeat first grade. “I would bee back.” Even as a child, I abhorred the cheery monstrous tone of this note even though I could not puzzle out all the words.
I had flunked. My few friends were now in a second grade. This year my class was the over-flow first grade in the basement of the school. It was one of very few classrooms at that level. It was dark and smelled of must and mold. I could not help but feel this was some kind of punishment. Mid year our room was vandalized. The vandal that broke in poured endless ribbons of our school glue throughout the room. For the rest of the year, the chalkboard was challenging to use due to all the raised lines from adhesive. I still did not really understand reading and math. I would draw elaborate pictures of the concepts that the teacher spoke of. Perhaps if I could draw it, she would be pleased. She was not. I spent endless hours in the principal’s office … drawing.
When I would be released to recess, I would run immediately to the far corner of the playground. I would pick up the pieces of Oklahoma sand stone and methodically rub them against the concrete wall. At first, they were an inexpensive chalk. As rubbed longer, I realized I could sculpt the stones by rubbing them. I made primitive carvings this way. I still have one of them today. When I watched Steven King’s “The Shawshank Redemption” in 1994, I thought of the seven year old me trying desperately to stave off the loneliness and feelings of imprisonment by carving stones like a little Andy Dufresne. Stone carving takes a long time. It is an art form adopted by those who measure time in weeks and days not minutes or hours.
As if school was not enough anguish, my father was torturing me at home. With words and belts and switches, he was making every day a private hell. I wondered what I had done wrong to suffer so. It is hard to be seven years old and wonder if you were going to die. Yet, I could draw, and God sustained me.
The years past and due to the amazing work of my fourth grade teacher, I began to read at grade level. Now my paintings would often accompany writing. I was discovering prose and poetry. In each piece I would try to place a subtext that was a cry for help. I loved poetry and paint. In these art forms you can tell people again and again that you really want to die, and the audience sees the beauty but not necessarily the despair. I loved subtext. It was a great way to avoid making a clear declaration of pain. Occasionally, I would have a teacher who would read my journals and wonder. They would write comments in the margin, but would not follow up. It was easier, I suppose, to let sleeping subtext lie.
Again and again throughout my life I would turn to art to rescue me. When the sadness became unbearable I could paint a picture, write a poem or perform dramatic piece. I could let all the anguish inside of me pour into the action of creation, and it was beautiful.
I began to working in retail in the early 90’s. I sold art supplies, books and toys for 15 years. I worked twelve years at Barstons Child’s Play in Washington, DC and three years at Jayhawk Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas. Each a student or parent would come into my art section and say, “Rescue me.” A project would be due within hours the customer would need my expert advice on how to finish or salvage their work. This was not active art on my part, but I loved helping them. I loved building up the work inside my head seeing all the potential pitfalls and helping them avoid them. They were anguished, just like I had been and I was happy to have the chance to help them through art.
As the years past and word of mouth grew, people would call Child’s Play just ask me about school art projects. My boss, Steven, would show such patience with customers whom would talk to me for thirty minutes buy a few items and leave. He understood that the customer would remember we had helped them out in their time of stress. We had listened, asked questions, made eye contact and gave the customer options. I do believe that part of my horror at the way my husband was treated while hospitalized was due to all the years of excellent customer service by the staff of Child’s Play. We were treated very often with neglect and avoidance while Fred was dying. I would never have treated a customer buying a toy in the way we were being treated.
After years selling art supplies, I began getting requests to help with school auction projects. In DC, most schools have an annual auction in which class creations can raise money for the school. I was sometimes called to help with this process. At first it was just a couple schools that asked for help, but the spring of 2010 was the year I had the most requests. In the months of January, February and March of 2009, I helped five schools. I was doing projects at CCBC, Temple Sinai, Murch, Little Flowers and St. Bart’s. Our tiny one bedroom apartment was covered in art supplies. In total I was working on 19 different canvases with hundreds of different children. In addition, I drew 150 close to life-sized body drawings of all the students of CCBC depicted as Circus performers. It was a frenzy of art. I had never done this level of art out-put at any other time in my adult life.
I guess God was preparing me for what was to come next.
On March 27th, 2009 we found out Fred’s body had tumors and growths. He was in the hospital. I still had several pieces I need to finish that I had begun. The night of the 27th I needed to finish the piece for Little Flowers. It was a Warhol inspired self-portrait series of the entire kindergarten class. The Auction was the next day. There was no more time. I heard later that that piece went for several hundred. I wonder if they owners have any idea how valuable it really is? Normally, when I adhere rice paper onto canvas I use a lot of water and gel medium. This time I used gel medium and tears. I cried for all of our lost tomorrows into that bright canvas. Art and sorrow were so intermingled within my life.
As the weeks past by Fred grew worse. He lay in his hospital bed. He could no longer walk. I sat beside him and began to cut out the cherry blossoms that Mrs. Schaffer’s 2nd grade class at Murch Elementary had painted onto rice paper. These were part of a composition that framed an acrylic painting of the Washington Monument in cherry blossom branches. It had been a cool spring. Outside the cherry blossoms were just beginning to unfold. Fred looked over at me. My lap was filled with painted paper cherry blossoms. “I guess I will miss seeing the cherry blossoms this year,” he said. I looked up at him. He continued, “I hope I am here to seem them next year.” I looked down quickly and continued cutting so Fred would not see my eyes fill with tears.
The next day I brought the finished painting to Mrs. Schaffer’s Class. The teachers circled around me and held me close as I sobbed. Other than the few glimpses Fred would see during his ambulance transports for radiation, Fred would never see cherry blossoms again.
As Fred was dying, I would sit beside him. I would write complaint letters, and poetry and I would paint. I would pour my anguish into a palette and create the concepts that would soon appear on walls. Fred would look at my work with pride, but he would worry. “How will you manage when I am gone?” He would look at me. His face drawn and yellow tinged from cancer and failing kidneys. I told him I would be okay. I was going to change everything. Nothing would be as it was. “But, Regina,” he said. “You are not very good at being alone.” He was right. I wasn’t good at being alone. Loneliness had driven me close to edge before. “Fred, I will not be alone. I have my friends and family…. And I will paint.”
Fred died and I began to paint. I painted and blogged and wrote speeches. I never stopped doing creative endeavors. In a frenzy of creation, I didn't feel so lonely. God was with me and filled me with a sense of hope. I was in his arms. I was not alone.
So when the parents from Murch Elementary called me with their plea for help, I could not help but say yes. They had not dropped ball, they had merely thrown it to me. Each toss affected lives and hearts, until 61 fifth graders and a widowed artist and a fellow art teacher had created a thing of beauty. I found the peace that surpasses all understanding, while gluing row upon row of mustang head paintings onto a canvas. There are 66 Mustang heads on this piece. 61 of them represent the students who graduated. Five have no names upon them. They represent the ones that moved away, the ones that started the journey with us and are with us no longer. But in the creation of art they are with us still, and we are not alone.
That is the power of art.