My father was an artist, but throughout my entire life I never saw him paint. I knew he went down to the bottom of the garden each day, knew he did something creative down there, but I don’t remember actually seeing him do anything. That could be because I blocked it all out, I don’t quite know. Of course I saw the fruits of his labours hanging on the walls: the swirling landscapes, the swampy green Canadian forests, the big oily orangy yellow sunflowers all hanging in our house. You could see all the potential in every brush stroke. All the hope for success.
From the age of about 18 to the age 37 I was estranged from my artist Dad. I was so full of anger at him for one reason or another and I completely despised and diminished his art. I swept away, with great venom, all the mass of his work. In my head he was no artist, he was hardly even my father. Then, curiously, like the way life works sometimes, we were brought together again and I looked after him until he died of cancer in 2005. I lived in his house for 6 months, a house full of his pictures and writing. I was forced, due to circumstance, to consciously live with his art again.
Strikingly, I discovered, his art had completely changed over the years. The pictures I remembered from my youth weren’t hanging on the walls any more, they were either in the shed at the bottom of the garden or upstairs in his studio randomly piled facing the wall. The pictures he had painted in those in-between years were far removed from the emotional swirls, the life-splatters, and the textured surfaces he created whilst I was a child and teenager. The art he had produced in the interim years were cubed and contained and his colour palette had transformed from reds and greens and browns to blue and black and white. Every element contributing to the picture was put into an outlined box or a rectangle, and then further confined and reasoned into a picture. It was as if my father had boxed his creativity and spirit and shut it all up for good. I found his art made me feel very uncomfortable but I couldn’t take any of it down because he was dying and he loved them so.
After he died, as you do, I had to clear up his house. I had to go through his pictures, give some of them away. I had to work out what to do with a lifetimes worth of creativity, expression and effort. It made me think long and hard about what could have caused such a massive shift in style, and what I would say was also a dampening of his skill, and a narrowing of his heart.
My father never quite made it as an artist. He had the ambition but not the chutzpah to actually turn it into reality. He still painted but never got the acclaim. He could have, but he never put the real day-in, day-out effort you have to put in to get to where you want to go.
I also remembered that he had fought in the second world war. He had come back a changed man, I was told. His art on his return, apparently, hadn’t immediately change as a consequence of what he had seen and what he had done, but his heart had. As the years rolled by the damage done to his heart and psyche inched its way into his art. Nothing happened immediately and for a good long while, through the orange and red, and the green and the brown he could still communicate his feelings; but slowly there was a shift and eventually the weight of life got too much for him and emotions had to be contained and life and all it’s joy had to be put into squares. He had to box it somewhere. Whether it was insecurity, fear, laziness (it’s hard to gauge) he somehow lost track of why he created. He was creating from a cold heart but still creating, and one wonders what the benefit of that was to him.
The reason why I’m talking about this is not because it’s cathartic or therapeutic it’s because it’s a story of what can happen if you lose sight of what your creativity (whatever that maybe) is about. It’s what happens if what you express isn’t connected to the reality of all of you. If you deny yourself access to feeling the whole breadth of you (in all your muckiness, the good and the bad) what you are left with creatively can flow away, and you too can end up metaphorically in a room of blue, boxed paintings. You also have to be able to take responsibility for your art (if you really want to do it properly; and by art I also mean writing, poetry, sculpture etc. too). You can’t just sit there like my father and expect somebody else to do it for you, or for something to magically happen. It doesn’t work that way.
And I think in my father’s heart of hearts he knew that. So by way of punishment he put all the blue ones up and all the red-green hopes away, turned to the wall. He knew he’d let his creativity down.
But in the end my father didn’t let me down. Just before he died, for the first time in my life, my father told me he loved me, and hearing it that one time was enough to shake off all those decades of embitterment. With one regret, I suppose, that I could have done with hearing it earlier because I had never had an inkling and it would have dissipated my phantom anger sooner. But life does seem to give you things when you most need to hear them and when you can hear it (even if it doesn’t feel like that at the time).
Now, I live in his house and all, I have to say, of the blue pictures have gone, they are now the ones banished to the shed and facing against the wall in my studio upstairs (the one that once was his). I’ve replaced them with some of his earlier work. The paintings where I can see his heart and his talent. I rest easily here with them on the wall.