Droplets of paint flick onto the floor as the brush moves along the canvas. A concentrated expression covers my face, and the tip of my tongue sticks out the side of my mouth as I focus on my work. Every detail needs to be perfect, just so, exactly like the original. My hand quivers under the pressure, and in one unintentional motion I accidentally spread the paint 1/10th of an inch too far in the wrong direction.
I sigh, grabbing the edge of the half completed canvas and tossing it into the piles with the rest of my failures. I set the brush into a cup of cleaning water and flop back into the chair, staring at the now-empty easel. I really thought this one was going to be the one.
I pick up my phone and look at the photo again, even though at this point I have likely accumulated a thousand hours’ worth of gawking at it, studying it. A lump in my throat forms and my frustration builds at my own inability to reproduce the work, but I quickly swallow it back down. Grief won’t paint this picture, and it won’t bring back the original piece that my grandmother painted 30 years ago.
It won’t bring her back.
No, the only thing to do now is to grab another canvas, take a 5 minute stretch break, and get back to it. I’ve already spent hundreds of dollars trying to recapture the artwork which was lost to a flood in my basement, but I will spend thousands if that is what it takes.
I know that I could hire a professional artist and commission the work from them, but they didn’t know my grandmother. They didn’t spend their summers at her side, learning the techniques of how to guide the brush in a fluid motion across the medium. They wouldn’t understand how to use this brush for a stippling effect, or this one to twirl little flower petals into existence. Their art may be well done, but I doubt any of them would use a wadded up tissue to create the puffy clouds, or reimagine the outline of tree branches using real twigs from real trees.
But I know these things, and I did spend my summers, the better part of my childhood, there with her in her three seasons room, with an old bed sheet spread under our feet to catch the inevitable spilled containers of paint. I was there watching her create magic with acrylics, oils, and pastels. I was the one to whom she entrusted all her knowledge of the arts.
The photo of her painting that exists on my phone pales in comparison to the real thing. It doesn’t capture the warmth of the sun as it spilled into the room while she painted it. The photo cannot reflect the giggles as she “accidentally” dotted paint onto my nose, and told me that art was about fun, not frowns. And it lacks the ability to pick up all of the hues of color she playfully mixed on her palette, or how she would say, “Ooooooh, I like this one!” when she arbitrarily arrived at a combination worthy of her eye.
Tears betray me as I realize my own inadequacy and increasing chances of failing to fix what I have broken. It was so careless of me to leave the work in storage, where it could be damaged. And now, remembering all of who my grandmother was, I recognize all of that which I am not. Guilt dances with remorse in my chest.
I catch myself feeling, and shake it out of my head. Stop that nonsense, I think to myself. Tears won’t paint for you.
“They could, if you wanted them to!” I hear my grandmother’s voice in my head. At least, what I imagine she would say to me. “Anything is art! Why not create a painting with tears? Remember the day we decided to turn our canvases upside down into the paint drippings, just to see what it looked like?”
I smile at the memory. My grandmother was always able to take the ordinary and make it feel extraordinary. Her artistry wasn’t limited to the canvas, either. She could walk into a kitchen and open what looked like a bare cupboard, and create a masterpiece of a meal. She could look through a pile of fabric scraps from the 70s and see an opportunity to teach me how to make a quilt. Her entire life was making something out of nothing, and finding beauty where others saw mediocrity.
I feel a change in my heart, shifting away from the blind rigidity of creating the exact same piece that had been lost. I realize that I was not looking for a way to bring back the painting.
I was looking for a way to bring back her spirit.
Hers was a spirit not tied to convention or imitation. It was enthralled by the inventive, the new, the progressive.
I take a deep breath, and close my eyes, taking myself back to those summers as a child, when artistic expression was the essence of joy, unencumbered by the trap of adulthood perfection. For the first time since she passed, I allow myself to feel, and the tears flow freely. I don’t hold back. Instead, I capture them, allowing them to mix into the paint.
In one swift motion I pick up the nearest brush and plunge it into the most colorful paint, no longer concerning myself with the “correct” brush or the “right” technique. The painting spills out of me and onto the canvas like a fever dream, wrought with pain and beauty and love. My tears add a slight thinning to the paint, allowing it to glide freely, blending colors in unexpected yet marvelous ways.
Hours pass by, and I am unaware of the shift in time until I am finished, and notice the roar of discontent within my empty stomach. Once more I sit back in my chair and examine the work in front of me. I look at what I created, then look at the photo of my grandmother’s painting. They are nothing alike, not in color, tone, or subject. Despite this, I feel as though I am finally released from my burden of shame, and a sufficient replacement has been produced. While I failed to capture my grandmother’s artwork, I still set out what I came to do.
I captured my grandmother’s spirit.