A Life Left Blank.

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A friend of my wife’s family, a woman that was in her mother’s tight circle of friends in school, passed away recently. Forgive me for saying this, but she was not an easy person to love — partially because she’d had a hard knock life and partially because her world was skewed by mental illness. It was hard to talk to her for any amount of time without her feeling slighted. Sometimes those misinterpreted slights grew into grand conspiracies in her mind. No one was safe to her. Any person who loved her was just another person who was going to betray her eventually. Near the end, she even believed her dearest friend, who paid for her apartment so that she could live relatively independently despite her illnesses and a paltry sum from disability, was going to evict her after decades of this living arrangement.

She lived nearby and she and I had things in common. She loved computers and art and even spoke some German (certainly more than I had retained since my four years of high school German). For a short period of time we tried, despite our differences, to make these commonalities into a friendship. But, like I said, she was not an easy person to love, and so I failed to make the leap from family obligation to friendship. A couple of years ago, after a particularly nasty argument about another family member, I stopped engaging with her altogether.

But last week she passed away and this week my father-in-law asked me to help sort through her art supplies, saying that he didn’t know what was valuable and what was trash, and might I be able to donate the good stuff to my school? Of course I was happy to help, but I didn’t really realize what I was getting myself into. In fact, I thought to myself on the way to her apartment that I was thankful that I was emotionally removed from her passing so that I could complete this task efficiently, without a heavy heart.

As I dug through three small bookcases filled with supplies, I was astounded. Every supply seemed to be of very high quality; she had spared no expense. But pad after pad of expensive, textured paper was untouched. There are at least a dozen pads of watercolor paper that were still wrapped in plastic. The pastels and colored pencils don’t show any signs of wear. As I unearthed more and more supplies, all still nestled safely in their potential, I began to quake. Here was a woman who considered herself an artist, who was very serious about the pursuit of art, who wasn’t actually doing any art. After looking through most of her supplies, I found only one set of thumbnail sketches and one plan based off those sketches for a watercolor painting, set out on tracing paper. It knocked me on my heels. I thought of all of her potential, wasted. And then I thought off all the supplies in my office that have been shoved away since the office remodel last year (and further shoved away when the remodel was abandoned for work on our nursery and then just plain baby craziness).

I have a feeling that our family friend was crippled by her fear of imperfection; I know she had talent, but all she saw in the few works she showed me over the years were the flaws. I don’t want to say I identify with that, but I do, I do. I have an instructor who once told my fellow students that at the end of class that day we were going to throw our canvases in the trash. Some students got disheartened and didn’t try very hard, but others pushed themselves to new limits because they felt free to “get it wrong.”

So, if you’re reading this (and I’m not sure anyone ever will at this point), go get out those art supplies and be imperfect! Art is created in imperfection. Art is imperfection.

 

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