Painting with my dad
vs. painting alone.
I’ve been thinking, lately, about my dad. He died two years ago in August, from Alzheimer’s, so it was, as they say, a long goodbye. Still, I found his ultimate loss unacceptable. The truth is I got a kick out of my dad, even when he was so utterly changed. As I’ve written before, his spark was still alive, his funny charming innate self. The hard edges were softened. Again, I don’t want to make Alzheimer’s sound like I recommend it; it was wrenching to witness, especially when he was scared and confused. But knowing how poorly he felt didn’t make it easier to lose him. Maybe that’s selfish of me, to still want him around, even when he was suffering.
I used to paint with my dad. He got me into watercolors, and encouraged me to keep a sketchbook with me at all times, especially when I traveled. We took a watercolor class together at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, probably ten years ago? Just before he was diagnosed. For years, whenever we saw each other, he would give me what he called “extras” of art supplies I like to imagine he purchased with me in mind: fancy paints and brushes, even fancier paper. And I got really into it. I didn’t think I was painting for him, exactly, but it was a conversation we were having: I would show him my sketchbook and works in progress whenever I visited, and I would point out whatever it was I had attempted to do, and he would tell me whether or not he thought I pulled it off. He wasn’t exactly brimming with compliments; that was never his style. But just hearing him say that, yes, he could see how I had achieved a certain effect, or to see his face light up when he checked out my sketchbook—that was the equivalent of high praise from Dave Bradley. It was not always easy to connect with my dad, so this opportunity wasn’t one I was going to pass up. He encouraged me, and I loved his encouragement. He asked my advice on his own work, and I cherished the opportunity to be helpful to him. He loved painting, and so I did, too.
Painting by my dad, above.
My grandmother. Painting by me.
But as I started to lose him, my enthusiasm for painting and sketching waned. I kept it up for a while as he began to decline, but once he stopped wanting to talk about painting, I found myself not wanting to do it anymore. It felt awkward, like I was continuing a conversation and the other person had hung up.
Since my dad died, I’ve barely managed to doodle. It’s like my hands don’t work anymore. Painting suddenly seems confusing and hard. I have so many paints I inherited, so many I purchased on my own, but they feel lifeless, inert. I know my dad would want me to keep painting. But I can’t seem to muster the desire, and it’s that absence that I feel almost as keenly as I feel the lack of my father. I associate almost every tube of paint with him; he had an opinion on everything. How you should mix New Gamboge with Payne’s Gray for a perfect grass green. How a real watercolor artist mixes paints to create black instead of using black paint. Why a sable brush is absolutely worth the price. I can’t open my art bin without feeling how much my dad is not here anymore. I want to say I’ll get back to it. I really do. It feels like a real shame to abandon something I remember loving. I’m just not sure how.
Just keep writing is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Agree - "like I was continuing a conversation and the other person had hung up" - but do they? Don't we keep up those conversations long after the other person is gone? Isn't that one of the ways people we love are stay with us? I love this piece - painting with words :) thank you.
“ It felt awkward, like I was continuing a conversation and the other person had hung up.” YES YES YES