“Art school never happened but…”

By Jim DeBrosse

“Art school never happened but…”

By Jim DeBrosse

I hadn’t touched a brush or oil paints in decades, not since my college days, but in recent weeks, I finished a simple street scene that certainly will pose no threat to Edward Hopper’s reputation, nor even Grandma Moses.

The important thing is, I’m painting again. Mixing colors without a clue, and discovering surprises. Inhaling the sweet, haylike smell of oil paint and, with it, all the memories of my youth that it stirs. Negotiating with the canvas (I wish I could say “attacking”) in diffident dabs and endless corrections, yet still enjoying myself as something takes shape before my eyes that at least approximates the vision inside my head.

It was days after I’d finished the painting that I noticed something unusual about its composition. The wide street beckons from the foreground, twists sharply to the right as it narrows, then disappears like a question mark into the dark cluster of houses in the background.

The road not taken?

I showed some early talent as a child, or at least facility, in putting crayon to paper. I drew continually, usually battle scenes with soldiers, tanks, ships and planes, all of which would end up obscured by machine gun fire and explosions, until I set up the next scene.

My kindergarten teacher saw enough there to offer me encouragement. She rolled out butcher paper on the tiled floor and let me draw trees and houses and flowers to my heart’s content, sometimes across the entire classroom.

A year later, I was in a small Catholic grade school where the art instruction wasn’t much more than pulling out your crayon box on a Friday afternoon and doodling for an hour.

I didn’t learn until 30 years later, after my father’s death and more than a decade into my journalism career, that my teacher had urged my parents to send me to classes at the Dayton Art Institute. There were scholarships available, she had told them.

My mother said yes. My father said no. Why? According to my mother, who would pass away just two years later, my father feared I would become gay.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

My mother had waited until after my father’s death to tell me — she didn’t want me to be angry with him. She needn’t have worried. Misguided as he was, I know my father had acted out of love — and ignorance.

A factory worker all of his life, he had probably never met a gay man, at least not an uncloseted one. He had no reason to rise above the fears and prejudices of his day, or for that matter, our own.

I sometimes wonder how much my life would have been different had I taken those classes and pursued a career in art. What comes to mind is the scene near the beginning of Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage,” when the protagonist, living hand-to-mouth in Paris, asks his art teacher if he has real talent. Like a falling guillotine blade, the teacher’s answer is mercifully swift: Pack up your palette, kid, and go home to London.

But even if I did miss a life-changing opportunity, it’s nothing compared to what my father sacrificed during the Great Depression — a full ride to a local college because his father insisted that he work to help support his 10 younger siblings.

Too often, we judge the people in our past by our own standards and awareness. I think of a recent disagreement with a friend, who couldn’t understand how I could call Gone With the Wind a good read when it was obviously so racist.

I guess I try to remember it was written in the 1930s, when few Americans even knew the meaning of the word “racist.”

I tremble to think what sins our children will pin on us as they grow older and we find rest in our graves. Will we be labeled “careerists,” who put job before family and children?

Or “sprawlists,” who ravaged the countryside in our quest for the Dream Home on a two-acre plot?

Or perhaps we’ll be known as “Hummerists,” who wasted the world’s precious energy for an image of power and prestige.

I’ll leave that judgment where it belongs — to future generations.

In the meantime, I have found the perfect place to hang my painting. In my bedroom above my favorite bookcase, the one lovingly crafted by my father.

DATE: October 27, 2006 

PUBLICATION: Dayton Daily News (OH)

Copyright, 2006, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.