Melanie S. Wolfe
I was at the hobby store Michael’s this morning, looking at fall decorations and on one of the endcaps sat this paint-by-number of a Dalmatian. Instantly it became hard to see as my eyes filled with sweet sorrow and I ran my fingers over the dog’s face, it was my Gracie. If anyone could help me break my fear of painting it was Grace.
Do you want to know why I am scared to paint? It’s not because I am new to it or inexperienced, no, it’s quite the opposite. I was born into the elite of the elites in the art world. But before I disclose all that, first, I want to tell you a little about Grace. Since she is my inspiration for today’s piece.
Grace, or Gracie, as sometimes I called her, had this old soul quality about her that oozed from her aura. She guarded me, protected me and loved me like a mother should. And I wouldn’t be telling you about my fear of painting if it wasn’t for Grace.
My experience with the art world is one of joy and sadness. Joy because it was my mother’s domain, and sadness because it took her away from me.
I’m not sure if my mom really loved painting or if she did it just to prove to her famous father that she was worthy of his time. I can recall being around the age of twelve and standing in a fine New York City art gallery… pretending to be interested in a painting while I was really absorbing her every word. She spoke to the owner about her latest commission, and how she felt she deserved more. They argued and of course her father’s name came up.
The owner, a tall man, who wore only the finest suits, would look down his pointy nose at me and run his eyes down my too young body. His formal name was Daniel, the nickname I game him was Captain Creepy. Later, I would learn, during one of their many fights that he was just using her to get to her dad. Once Captain Creepy discovered the truth of her relationship with her father, he dumped her. This was sort of the theme in my mom’s life.
I was jealous of Daniel, he got more time with her than I did. Sometimes, I would wake up and walk down the hall, Grace loyally following behind me, and there would be Daniel, in our apartment, sleeping in my mother’s bed. A place where she and I would have our most intimate talks.
It wasn’t unusual for my mother to have sleepovers, it was the mid 1970’s after all and she was a very progressive woman. So many nights while Grace was babysitting me, Mom would be at her second home, Studio 54, escaping her reality.
Her first home was her art studio, like the dance club, she used it to escape but this was a different kind of escape. Painting was her way of connecting with the master artist who controlled her life.
One day, I walked into my mother’s studio and she was staring at this giant blank white canvas as if it was speaking to her but in a dead language. “Mom, can I take Grace for a walk?”
She didn’t respond and reached for her drink that looked like tea but was not and chugged it back. Then she took a long drag from the short, neglected cigarette, forced the smoke out of her mouth as she crossed her arms and stared at her future masterpiece as if she were millions of miles away. She turned to the table near her where the ashtray sat and quickly smashed the nicotine stick down into the graveyard of other butts.
I asked again, “Mom.” Still, no response.
This time I yelled, desperate to see her eyes. “Mom!”
She jumped and screamed, “What? What do you want?”
For the first time, Grace barked and growled at her, startling us both.
I stepped back. “Um. Grace needs to go pee.”
“So, take her! You don’t need permission.”
It was dark out, I guess she hadn’t noticed. Normally, she wouldn’t want me to go outside in the dark.
“Hon,” she said, closing her eyes and centering herself. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be cross with you. You know how I get when I paint. I have a name to maintain. People have….expectations…ya know. This is serious work, and I can’t be interrupted.” She summoned me to her. Kissed me on the forehead. “Get Grace out of here. You know how I feel about her in here.” And with thoughts of only her masterpiece, she returned to worship her flat, white god.
It was much later in life that I would realize why maintaining a name would be so important to her. She was born out of wedlock, a big taboo in those days and her father didn’t want anything to do with her. Her mother was simply a mistress for a season. My mom grew up watching her famous father make headlines in popular newspapers, magazines and give interviews on TV shows. He would go down in history as one of the greatest artists to ever live.
Everyone knew she was his daughter, too, she had his last name, his eyes and nose, not to mention, his insane talent. She did try to introduce herself to him once while at the Met Gala ball but she wasn’t embraced with open arms by his wife, and in fact, my precious, beautiful mom left humiliated.
That night, she came home smelling like wine, and found me in my room, standing at my easel, trying to paint a picture of Grace. She stumbled over and flopped on to my bed, next to Grace and said, “Why does Grace have paint all over her? Was she in my studio?”
“Yeah, Mom,” I said sarcastically as if to punish her for coming home drunk. “I went into your studio and decided to play paint the dots on Grace.” In reality, Gracie slept below my easel earlier and caught a few drips. I normally didn’t let her do that but for some reason I allowed it today.
Mom laughed hysterically, then laid her head on Grace’s backside while looking at my painting. She sat up, still staring, then walked over to the easel to get a better look. “Hmm, keep trying, darling, you’ll get there.” In her mind she was giving me positive reinforcement to keep going but in mine, it was the opposite.
As the brush made its last stroke, I stepped back. Grace’s head popped up and she tilted her mostly white face with a few splotches of pink mixed with her black spots, as if she knew something was wrong. She was right. My piece sucked.
I put the brush down.
Many moments like this, rolled into a theme for my life. My work, my art, my creativity was wrapped up in this invisible identity that knew only rejection, suffering and neglect. And all because this great, powerful artist never embraced his daughter as his own and his daughter couldn’t accept that.
I wish I could say she got herself together, that she realized she was missing out on her own daughter’s life and started living in the present moment but she didn’t and she’s gone now. So, here’s why I, the granddaughter of the famous painter, Mateo Romero am scared to paint, it’s simple, really. Painting is just pain on paper.
As I aged, I worked through a lot of the darkness my grandfather and mother refused to deal with so that I wouldn’t repeat the same cycle, yet, all those decades I stayed clear of painting. It was the one thing I couldn’t confront. Even though I built a happy life and a big, beautiful family and have been totally present with my children, embracing and enjoying every second with them, I couldn’t, or I wouldn’t touch painting, until today.
I guess, this was the last fear to embrace and conquer, and if anyone could help me break my fear of painting… it would be Grace.