Becoming an Artist
I wrote the following essay my sophomore year of college while taking my very first painting class. It started as a way to explore my fondness for growing up in Louisiana. By the end, however, I realized it’s more of a window into my unique, artistic perspective.
Writing this essay made me realize that I look at and move through the world very differently than most people, and ultimately, this unique perspective is what makes me an artist. These words become dearer to me as time passes, because they really do capture my creative outlook and the beginnings of my journey as an artist.
I hope this essay gives you insight into how I “became” an artist…or rather, how I discovered that perhaps I’ve been an artist all along.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Lady
Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment. —Claude Monet
[9:30 AM. First day of fall classes. Painting room. PROFESSOR hands out syllabus to STUDENTS.]
Welcome to Painting 216. We’re gonna learn how to paint this semester. No experience required. Just a willingness to look, listen, and learn. Sound good enough?
[STUDENTS stare at PROFESSOR in silence. Some STUDENTS smile, nod their heads.]
All right. Well, let’s begin with the most important thing—color. Good use of color is crucial to making good paintings. Does anyone know why?
[STUDENTS continue to sit and stare in silence.]
Gosh. Cat got your tongues? Okay, first day, I get it. Well, I’ll answer for you today. Color [pause] is what makes two-dimensional images look three-dimensional. Color fools our eyes. It makes us believe we are seeing depth, even when all we are looking at is a flat canvas. Precise color makes things look realistic. So, when you’re painting trees, remember—trees are not brown. Leaves are not green. They may be partially green, but they’re not wholly green. Squint and you’ll learn to stop seeing in objects and start seeing in colors. So, who’s ready to paint?
I constantly think about Louisiana, though I’m not really sure why. I lived there when I was little, only until I was ten. We lived in LaPlace, a small town west of New Orleans, in a two-story, cream-colored, green-shuttered house. Pretty normal.
I spent most of my time by myself—dancing, swinging, climbing trees, coloring, singing, dreaming. I loved it there, but I don’t remember anything significant, really. I mainly remember colors.
Every day, when my Dad came home from work, he and I went outside, walked around the backyard together, and looked for little white, orange, and yellow golf balls. Sometimes we found pink ones. Once, we found a white one with Mickey Mouse on it. All of these my Dad saved in a little cream trash can in our garage.
Whenever he went golfing at Belle Terre, he walked to our house from the golf course, just to say hello, and I met him outside with a glass of ice-water. Sometimes he brought me lost golf balls he found on the course, and I put them in the garage with the others. These were usually white, probably because no one could see them.
Before going to bed, I liked to spend time in Dad’s study with him and Mom. Mom cross-stitched and watched ER or Law and Order while Dad taught me about history, which he tried to do before I went to preschool.
Nearly every night we put together a puzzle of the United States, and he tried to teach me the names of states and where they went. The states were different pastels—light pink, orange, yellow, green, and purple—and sometimes I think I remembered their names just because of their colors. New York was yellow. So was Texas. Montana, purple; Tennessee, orange; Maine, pink.
Sometimes he grabbed the globe from his book case and tried to teach me the names of countries. I couldn’t remember many, maybe because they were all brown and I couldn’t think of the names in colors. He also tried to teach me the names of presidents by showing me their pictures in the encyclopedia, but the pictures were all black and white and surrounded by shamrock-green, and I couldn’t remember them very well, either.
What is art but a way of seeing? —Thomas Berger
[10:22 AM Beginning of semester. Painting room. Twelve STUDENTS work on paintings while PROFESSOR walks around room.]
I’ll say it again—trees are not brown. Trees are not brown. Trees [pause] are not brown. But Herb, you say, we’re not painting trees. Of course not! I know that! But the same principle applies to apples and pears. Pears are not yellow. They’re also purple. And green. And pink. Look closely. You’ll see it.
After dinner, when the sky changed from bright to dark blue with streaks of pink, orange, and purple, Mom usually went outside to water the plants, and she always asked me if I wanted to go with her. At night, I could run up and down the hills of the golf course or go look at the sand bunkers without golf balls hitting me on the head.
Usually, though, I stayed in the backyard with Mom and looked for caterpillars and lady bugs on the trees. Mostly I found black lady bugs with yellow spots, but sometimes I found red ones with black spots. Other times, I just sat on the swing and watched Mom water the plants.
Some nights, after dark, Dad and I walked around the neighborhood while he smoked a cigar. We carried a dark wooden cane with a white eagle’s head on it, just in case we saw any stray dogs. We walked slowly, and I liked to look at the night sky and the stars while we walked.
When we got back to our house, he let me drop the cigar in the gutter at the edge of the road. I liked doing that because the gutter looked like nothing but a black, empty hole before I dropped the cigar, and the orange end lit up the gutter and you could see inside. The cigar looked like fire all the way down there at the bottom.
When we drove to Mississippi, I always knew when we crossed the Louisiana-Mississippi line because the road changed from white to black. When the road turned black, it meant that we were almost to my Grandma’s house.
During springtime, red, purple, and yellow wildflowers lined the edge of the road, and I begged my Mom to stop and let me pick some for decorating Grandma’s kitchen window. Sometimes she stopped; other times she didn’t. When I was really little, she tells me I cried and yelled at her when she didn’t stop because I thought the red flowers were strawberries and wanted to eat them.
Every child is an artist... —Pablo Picasso
When we lived in Louisiana, I danced around my living room floor almost daily. And by “danced” I mean that I did what I saw Kristi Yamaguchi do on ice-skates in her sparkly outfits—I twirled around my living room as fast as I could, sometimes jumping, sometimes jumping and twirling, to see if I could do a triple lutz or a triple toe loop. Even if I spun around only once, started or landed on the wrong foot, or never even picked up my foot, in my world I had landed that jump.
When I wasn’t jumping and twirling around the living room, I played outside, where I liked to swing on the swing-set for hours, sometimes silently, other times quietly singing, but always dreaming and pretending to be someone else.
I liked to lay down in the grass and pick flowers, little white ones that my Mom told me weren’t flowers but weeds, and I liked to draw pictures of cats and dogs on the concrete with rainbow-colored chalk. Sometimes, I picked the plain white flowers, weeds, and colored them pink, yellow, orange, and blue. Color made them prettier.
Whenever Grandma visited, she drew and colored pictures with me, and when I was ready for a snack, she made animal toast, which was just buttery toast carved to look like an animal. Once we got done with our pictures, we’d hang them in the kitchen window.
On days when it rained and I couldn’t go outside, I watched movies like Alice in Wonderland, The Sword and the Stone, and The Great Mouse Detective. I watched them with my stuffed animals and dolls, who I pretended were my friends. They sat in my tiny chairs and dusty pink bean bag, and I sat on the carpet, always extremely close to the TV.
After Mom brought baby Phillip home from the hospital, I watched movies with him. He sat in the bean bag when he was really little, which made him like a doll, but when he got a bit older, he sat on the carpet with me. His black cat and lime green and lavender Buzz Lightyear started watching movies with us, too.
After Mom gave us a tea set, we started playing tea together. We sat at the kitchen table with little pink-and-navy flowered cups and plates, and we pretended to be the king and queen of England, which we knew about from watching The Great Mouse Detective with our stuffed animals. England was just like the movie, only with people, not mice.
Every Sunday morning before church, Mom made cinnamon rolls for breakfast, and I always begged her to make me one with colored icing, and she would. She made homemade icing by mixing milk, powdered sugar, and food coloring in a little steel bowl. If she had extra, she put it in the fridge for the next week.
When there was only some icing left but not enough to cover an entire cinnamon roll, she made more icing of a different color and my cinnamon roll would be two colors. Green and blue. Red and green. Blue and yellow.
After breakfast, I followed her to her bathroom and helped her choose an outfit, which she always let me do. I usually picked out a dress that matched mine, and then I’d dig through her little pink jewelry box to find earrings and a necklace that matched, too.
…the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. —Pablo Picasso
[11:14 AM. Beginning of semester. Painting room. Twelve STUDENTS work on paintings while PROFESSOR walks around room.]
Ms. Brumfield, have you painted before?
[Continues to stare at painting. Face becomes flushed.] No, not really.
Really? What art classes have you had?
Just drawing. Drawing one.
Anything in high school?
No, just here.
What is art but a way of seeing? —Thomas Berger
Really? [Pause.] The colors are spot-on. Excellent. Keep it up.
I love colored lampshades. Even when we lived in Louisiana, I noticed that if I turned on my lamp, my room became extremely pink, which I liked a lot. Doing this made rooms glow like gemstones, and my room looked like rubies. My brother’s room, sapphires; The guest room, emeralds.
Oftentimes I danced in the colored room that fit my mood, and I eventually started making CDs of music that sounded like the color of each room. I called them “smiley face CDs” because I labeled them with colored smiley face stickers, one smile on each CD in its respective color.
I still make those CDs. Even tonight, I’m doing it. Patty Loveless’s “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”—sounds like red and gets dragged to the red playlist. Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend”—sounds like blue and goes to blue. Alan Jackson’s “Like Red on a Rose”—green. Goo Goo Dolls’s “Iris”—black. Celine Dion’s “Call the Man”—turquoise. Others, brown, pink, orange. Another to green. I keep mindlessly dragging songs for awhile, creating splotches of sound that make sense together, even though each splotch contains several artists and genres.
It’s like painting. I create pale green by mixing splotches of red, blue, and yellow. I create the turquoise playlist by mixing splotches of Alison Krauss, Celine Dion, and Eric Whitacre. It’s all about color.
[9:36 AM, critique day. Mid-semester. Painting critique room. Nine paintings hang on wall. Enter three late students. Last students hang paintings, making twelve. Students sit in chairs facing wall of paintings.]
So, what’s working up here?
[STUDENTS remain silent for a few minutes.]
The painting of the leaf looks pretty cool.
Can you defend that?
It looks realistic. The movement of the painting is good. So is her use of light and dark colors.
Okay…Ms. Brumfield, what do you think about this painting?
I mean, [pause] it’s obviously a leaf, which is what it’s supposed to be, [pause] so…yeah, I guess it works.
Are you sure? You can disagree, you know.
[Laughs nervously.] Well, it’s a little boring. And it’s not really that realistic. She’s only used one color of green and mixed it with white and black. That’s what it looks likes anyway. It needs more color.
I mean, [pause] color’s interesting, makes things more memorable. And nothing is only two colors.
Great. That’s exactly right. This painting does need more color. Right now, it looks flat. Ms. Brumfield, can you point to one you think does work?
Um, [looks around room] that one. [Points to a small painting with a deep turquoise background. The painting is of a bright yellow pear, made with golden yellow, plum purple, and olive green paint, and an orangey-red apple. Both sit on a shiny copper bucket, which reflects the fruits’ colors around it.]
That’s a good painting, yes. And I’m not surprised you pick that one because it’s created using splotches of color, which I’ve seen you do before.
Your art is to be the praise of something that you love. It may only be the praise of a shell or a stone. —John Ruskin