When I was six, I learned that I would never be an artist.
Like any other kid, I loved to draw and fingerpaint and glue stuff onto other stuff, especially if beads or glitter were involved. In the homes of my grandparents, my father, and my aunt, I was surrounded by evidence of art and artists: my great-grandfather was a master painter back in the Old Country (Denmark), and my grandfather had been apprenticed to him. My grandparents met when my grandmother took a class with the master painter, and my grandfather would offer to walk her home and carry her painting gear. The walls of my grandparents’ home were filled with paintings and drawings and woven tapestries and other work by my grandfather, grandmother, great-grandfather, aunt, and other artists. Every bit of wall space was filled.
The attic of my grandparents’ house was magical: it was my grandfather’s painting studio. There were no stairs; the attic was accessed by a fold-down ladder that fitted smoothly into the main floor ceiling. It was always a special treat to be allowed up there, to wander around the art supplies and breathe in the scent of oil paint and turpentine and canvas. The space was full of wonderful objects: the paint-spattered easels and stools, the many cubbyholes neatly labelled in my grandfather’s hand and filled with mysterious necessities, the overflowing bookshelves and the many folders holding photographs and sketches and articles and notes. The posters of various exhibitions he’d been in or helped organise. Mementos acquired during his many years working at the (then) Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature.
Mostly, visits up there were kept short. Very rarely, we grandchildren would be allowed to sit up there to draw: a high honour. My grandfather loved us wildly, but he was rough with us. He’d been raised by a harsh and authoritarian father, and although people don’t talk about it much, I think his wartime and post-war experiences were pretty bad. He had internalised some awful and damaging ideas about masculinity, like boys don’t cry, and never show weakness, and vulnerability is bad, and real men don’t show affection, and some groups of people [i.e. white men] are better than others, and so on.
The sad thing is that he really did want to show affection. He really did love his family with all his heart but he could not express that with kindness or gentleness, because gentleness was so at odds with his ideas of how to be a man. So he would try to hug us, or take our hands, or stroke our hair, but it would always turn bad. The hug would suddenly get so hard that I couldn’t breathe and got panicky. The handshake or hand-holding would turn into a crushing grip in which he would grind my hand so the bones slid against each other. (He was especially brutal about this when I later started bringing boyfriends over and he was “testing” their manliness through pain.) The head rub would turn into a half-nelson or skull-knuckling. He didn’t seem to know how to relate to women non-sexually, so he was always ass-pinching the women at work at the Museum, and as soon as I hit puberty he was making comments about my body, snapping my bra strap, touching me in ways that made me uncomfortable. He wanted so much to love and be loved, but he was so scared to be that vulnerable, to drop his shell of “manliness” long enough to simply be kind. So he ended up hurting a lot of us. My aunt, his daughter, refused to let him hug her; I first noticed that when I was around ten. She told me later, after he died, that she had always been very strict with him about not hurting her boys with those awful hugs and handgrindings, and she was so proud of herself when she told me that. But I was surprised at her naivete: he’d been doing all the same things to my cousins anytime her back was turned.
Despite all of this, he was a hugely charming and charismatic person, and highly entertaining for children. I remember as a child trying to stay out of arm’s reach as much as possible, but still wanting to be around him, because he was always busy doing something interesting.
One day, when I was six, he invited me up into the attic because he was going to teach me how to draw. I was delighted. He was a very talented painter, and the family culture held a lot of respect and even some awe for this (and maybe some excusing of his behaviour because of it). I was so excited because I thought he was going to teach me his tricks and then after my lesson, I would be able to draw beautifully.
Up in the attic, my grandfather built a carefully-balanced pile of a dozen or so wooden cubes and cylinders taken from the toybox. Like this, or this, but more complicated. And then he gave me a pencil and a sheet of paper and told me to draw it in perspective. I was horrified and did not even know where to begin. He watched me expectantly, then impatiently, and then, as I attempted a few lines and strokes on the paper, he got sarcastic. Obviously I was incapable of seeing like a painter sees, and I didn’t understand perspective. Dumb kid. Well, not everyone has talent.
It was all I could do not to cry, but I managed, because crying—a severe and damnably female form of weakness—was sure to bring down more sarcasm. So I told him I wasn’t really interested in learning to draw, and I scrambled down the ladder to go hang out around my grandmother.
This didn’t stop me from drawing. I have been drawing for my whole life. But it make me self-conscious about it, and it did stop me from drawing anything representational. Except for school assignments in elementary school where we were required to produce a house or a tree or whatever, all of my drawing has been abstract. Eighteen months (ish) ago, I finally tried to draw a shaded cube, a shaded cylinder, and a shaded ball. It was at once surprisingly easy and surprisingly frightening. But my whole life, despite all the creative work I have done, I have never taken that work seriously. It’s only in the last five years or so that I have started to think differently about the art that I make, and only in the last couple of years that I have started to think more seriously about an identity as an artist, and only in the last few months that I have started to think about my assumptions about art and talent and creativity.
It is likely that some of those musings will make their way to the blog. Stay tuned!