The artist as a boy

In the beginning was the canvas, a tabula rasa of promise, patiently waiting for a brush to touch its emptiness and leave color behind. Facing the canvas, the artist chanted softly like the magician he was, conjuring his art. His brush unraveled its colors onto the linen, the man’s voice breathing hope into what had only been possibility, potential.

One moment there was nothing: the next, lines drawn on the canvas, some straight, some crooked, some curved into a circle the shape of a woman’s face, and then a blast of color to fill what was only a skeleton of a thing. Soon there was the splash of a Rembrandt sienna for the woman’s hair, her eyes a dancing Mediterranean azure, a sinopia for her smiling lips. The artist easily worked the oils, his hand and its brush passing back and forth, dabbing an extra texture here and there, molding the paint into the form he desired.

Adam Jarvais, five years old and tall for his age, watched the artist touch his brush to the palette, then stroke the canvas once, twice, three times. His grandfather, who was the artist, made a woman’s chin, then a slender neck and shoulders. Soon the woman’s head was covered with an indigo scarf. Like a cat focusing on its prey, the boy studied the older man. How he moved his arms, his hands; how he stood, his feet seeming to be nailed to the hardwood floor. His Grandfather Peter was a conductor waving his baton, his motions playing the oils like an orchestra.

The fifty-eight-year-old Peter Jarvais wiped the bristles of his brush clean of paint and settled it down beside his palette. Stepping back one step, two, a third, he admired his day’s work, then grinned, sighing an audible “ah” that said he was pleased with what he saw.

He came over to the boy, knelt down to have a face-to-face, and looked deep into his grandson’s eyes. With practice, those eyes would observe the world for what it was and what it could be. He wrapped his hand around the boy’s and stood up and said his usual afternoon, “Come, boy.”

Instead of the daily walk grandfather and grandson made to the lake nearby, instead of the skipping of the rocks across the clear waters of the lake, instead of the daily ritual of tossing the boy into the air and catching him, this particular afternoon Peter led Adam over to a stool. He had arranged it in front of a blank canvas standing lonely against its easel, waiting for the companionship of some colors, a canvas blank as that first morning sky before the gods made the sun fill the heavens with sunlight. Lifting the boy, he stood him on the stool, then went over and brought a table with its palette and brushes back to the five-year-old.

The artist whispered into his young apprentice’s ear, “It’s time to paint.” Setting a brush into Adam’s open palm, he said, “This is your friend.” He stepped behind the boy. He

knotted his young student’s hand into a fist and touched the canvas with the brush. There was no paint on its bristles. Grandfather Peter made Adam’s hand swish back and forth. “Feel the motion,” he said to his grandson, nothing but kindness in his voice. “Feel the air that passes over your hand. Feel the wind that runs with the sea.” T he boy felt the motion, he felt the air across the back of his hand.

“Now let’s gather some color onto your brush.” The older man guided the brush to the palette and touched the tip to the paint, gathering just enough for the brush to begin to have color. “Just a bit more.” He pressed Adam’s hand a little firmer. He lifted it and led brush to the canvas.

“So what if you want to make a horse? All you need do is touch your brush to the canvas before you, and a horse will appear. As if by magic. Your magic.”

The boy hesitated as apprentices are accustomed to do. For they live with fear. Until the fear dissolves with the practice of the doing the thing they do. “What if Grandfather Peter is wrong?’ he asked himself. “ What if I have no magic in me?”

As if his grandfather could read his mind, the older man encouraged his young pupil, “It’s okay, boy. There’s nary a thing to be afraid of. You have magic in you. I know it. All you have to do is trust it like you trust your Grandfather Peter.”

But what if…?

The boy’s hand trembled. He concentrated and tried hard and could not stop his hand from trembling. It shook as the bristles touched the linen stretched before him. An electric charge shot up his left leg through his chest and shoulders and down his arm and onto the canvas. His hand stopped its shaking as a long black stroke became the hind leg of a mustang, and it was running wild and free across the arroyos and through the canyons of New Mexico. Adam was making something out of nothing just like he had seen his grandfather do.

“Follow the brush,” the older man encouraged him again and again. “Follow the brush. It will lead you to the place you are to go.”

So Adam followed the way of the brush. And the what-if never came. Session after session he hummed, “A little dab’ll do you,” and dabbed his canvas with paint. Or sometimes it was “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as he drew lines nice and straight or crooked to create the outline of a very large mountain above a small village in the backwoods of France or some such place.

For eleven years, he kept at the work. Even the accident could not stop him. When he was eight years old, he sneaked into his father’s studio. He was alone. The late afternoon sunlight fell through the full wall window and glanced off the steel blade of the samurai sword on the other side of the room. The weapon drew Adam toward it like a moth to light. He padded across the wooden floor. His hands reached the sword and lifted it out of its setting. What a thing of beauty and power it was.

It was heavy, heavier than he had thought. It slipped from his hands. The blade caught on his sleeve as it fell and bounced off the floor. It nicked his left hand and took his pinkie  and suddenly he was unconscious.

A few days later he was back at the canvas, one finger short on his painting hand, but unwilling to give up on his work. And he became good. Very good. Even his grandfather was surprised at how good an artist he was becoming. Somewhere along the way, he switched from oils to acrylics. Then one day it struck him that something was missing, something very important. Oh, the splashes he threw on the canvas were okay, the dabs were good, and the lines were good enough. But good enough was not good enough he decided. He wanted more.

One lovely afternoon in August, at least Adam remembered it as August; after a rather long session of things just about right and just about perfect, Adam realized what he had not known before. What it was that was missing. What he had been leaving off the canvas. It was the emotion, the feeling. In frustration, in despair at not-knowing the how of connecting his feelings to the canvas and pouring them into his work, he threw his brushes and his palette across the room. They landed at his grandfather’s feet.


16 thoughts on “The artist as a boy

  1. I’m glad you linked this, and I got to see the seed of what inspired your novel. It’s a mesmerizing piece! I, too, believe our novels need time to breathe. I especially liked where this ended, with frustration at the lack of emotions, or imperfections.

  2. Very nice… I liked Adam very much! Isn’t it amazing how technical perfection can also be devoid of passion? It is not the brush strokes that count, but the spaces between. A bit like music, really. The ear repels itself from mechanical perfection. We love what we are. Imperfect. Fallible. Human.

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