On Being an Artist: Three Vignettes
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One of the funny realities of adopting a baby is that one never really knows what’s going to unfurl. Today, with all of our popular and legal understanding of DNA, people adopting look a little deeper into situations and are more often than not a little bit more armed with understanding regarding genetic traits. However, when I was adopted, things were a little vague in that regard, and only the most basic of details came with my papers. Me being an artist was probably one of the earlier and defining characteristics that showed itself. Neither of my parents were artistic or really very interested in the art world save for music for which they were both ardent fans of blues, jazz, and rock and roll. With my artistic bent also came a not so subtle eccentricity that I think was at times difficult for my very conservative, business-oriented parents who had never seen on either side of their families a sprouting artist.
My parents, however, were always wildly supportive of my various, curious endeavors even though they did not fully understand what could drive a child to spend hours drawing and painting by herself in her room. Besides making art, I also had another passion, and that was playing teacher in my room to an imaginary class of students. I never used stuffed animals—only my imagination. Again, my parents completely supported this hobby and bought me a large chalkboard and textbooks to teach from. For hours on end, I would teach classes ranging in every subject. One time I was teaching vowels and all of their various sounds. My mother must have been waiting outside my door as she waited for when there was a pause in my instruction before entering my room. She was always very respectful and polite when I was teaching—she hardly ever interrupted my class. When she entered, she looked at my chalkboard and then at me and then back at my chalkboard and smiled. However, it was not a happy smile, rather, a fearful smile. You see, instead of a chalkboard filled with vowels and various words to illustrate my points, there was an abstract field I had created, covering the whole of the large chalkboard. I had created the field with crossed lines and squares and utilizing a few rules I had invented regarding what move I could make next. While I was teaching vowels to my imaginary class, I was making an abstract work of art.
In art school, I took one printmaking class: Beginning Etching. On the first day, we were given a tour of the etching studio. At the end, we were shown the zinc plate cutter as the zinc plates we would be using were sold in a large rectangle and would need to be cut down to make prints that would fit the printing press. Also, the smaller the print, the smaller the cost, which was very important for art students. The contraption required a person to stand on a metal bar, and while using their weight along with a little bounce, the blade would come down and slice through the zinc plate. Now, it was clear that this contraption was from the turn of the century and was nearly all cast iron. Also, it was clear that it was intended for a larger person to operate it (and for the rest of the year, the 6’4” teacher’s assistant did almost all of the plate cutting). However, when the class was asked if anyone would like to try everyone nominated me. I was very naïve to the fact that I was not large enough to effectively get the blade to punch through the metal. It is also import at this juncture to add that I am very well endowed, and so as I was repeatedly bouncing as hard as I could while wearing a pair of jeans and a snug sweater, it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps I had walked into a joke, and by the time I paused, the entire class had erupted into laughter.
When you are an artist, you keep odd hours and do a lot of walking around during the day. I always lived in a house that I could make a suitable painting studio, so I could transition easily from working to cooking to socializing to sleeping to working as sometimes the call to work was both untimely and unpredictable. My husband is a real saint regarding this, and it is often that he will hear me scuttling about at four in the morning. With that said, I need to do a lot of walking around. Most of the time, it’s just to get some fresh air, but sometimes it is also to work out a problem I was having with a piece I am working on. The neighborhoods I live in always get to know me as I am always walking around. My main sidewalk and porch friends are senior citizens, as they are the ones primarily at home during the day, and they are always looking for a little chat, and I love that because it can be very lonely being an artist. The only sad part is that if I am in one place for some time, then eventually I watch all of them die or disappear into nursing homes, and their house is put on the market and sold. One of the elderly gentlemen I particularly loved was a big joker. He would wait for me by a little chain-link gate in his front yard and have a new joke for me. One day his joke involved a shocking punchline. As he was telling me the joke, it was a day that I was working through a problem with a piece of work of mine, so I must confess that I was not paying attention and even now I have no idea what was the run-up to the ending. However, I will never forget the punch line: he slapped me across the face and then burst out laughing.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.” You can follow Jennifer on her Instagram here.
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.