On her last day of high school, Kelly McArthur was called back into the art room. Mr. Brissenden presented Kelly with a large cardboard box filled with a range of art materials — watercolours, pastels, coloured pencils, felt markers, as well as student-quality oils in tubes that had never been opened. “They’ll just dry out if we leave them here,” he told her. “Take them and make art, Kelly — you’ve got what it takes.”
Kelly had her mother bring the car around to pick up the box. For several years the box lay untouched in her bedroom. Kelly proceeded through several jobs — banking, receptionist for a limo company, salesperson. When she got married she took the box to their new apartment. Kelly and George had two children. The box stayed in the storage space. When Kelly and George divorced, she took the kids and the box with her.
Back in her parents’ home, Kelly poked at the oil tubes to see if they were still good. They were. But Kelly was busy getting married again. When she and Daryl moved in together, she took the box with her. Kelly and Daryl had a baby. The box was relegated to the space under the basement stairs. Then Kelly and Daryl got a divorce — it was a difficult and acrimonious one. In her haste to leave, Kelly forgot to take the box. Daryl either threw it out or sold it for junk.
On her own again and now with three children, Kelly had bad dreams. She often dreamed someone was standing behind her — someone like Mr. Brissenden — or perhaps a woman painter she had always admired. Kelly was screaming inside, but somehow she felt guided. She now knew what she had to do. One day when the children were finally in school, Kelly went to an art store and bought some canvases and a set of student-quality oils.
This is an unfinished story. For a year now Kelly has been painting with vengeance. She has switched to acrylics and is working big. She has lots of ideas and lots of energy. She has developed a spirited style that has potential. She knows her work needs refining and that she has a long way to go. With a small amount of alimony and settlement, she gets by. George is supportive and looks after the older children. Kelly tends to her daughter and lives for painting.
PS: “Almost childlike, I jump inside and get ready to go out and play. The gate is being opened and I’m safe to be just as I am.” (Kelly McArthur)
Esoterica: There are sources of artistic passion. One is love and another is anger. Both work well. To some degree we all lose the box of opportunity we were given in our youth. Through ignorance, foolishness, obligation, or miscalculation, we veer away and lose our direction. Sometimes a shock is required to bring us back to our path. Even when the path disappoints or peters out, it is the path. Sometimes I think those who get the shocks are the most blessed.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering what happened to your letter and clickback over the past while, hackers attacked parts of our website and letter-sending apparatus. We shut down rather than risk compromising your work on our site. We are sorry for the inconvenience and the impersonal way your letters were sent. More than 38,000 received their letter as “Dear Artist,” with no connectivity and bad formatting. They didn’t like it one bit. There were too many complaints to personally answer and explain. We deeply apologize. All the gremlins have now been taken out and shot and we are more or less back to normal.
Art is the healer
by Valerie Kent, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada
Art is a healer of all manner of sorrow and is always a new beginning. People come to it with promise of creating, a sense of loss is overcome by the sheer energy of immersing oneself in the process. Some come for a sense of self, those that have lost someone find solace, seekers find what has been missing. The doing of art is the spirit of the soul born and reborn each and every time.
(RG note) Thanks, Valerie. “A box of paint” was one of those letters that received so many heartfelt responses. People had sad yet warm stories to tell — and spirited insights to offer. They told of the inner working and details of their lives. Each makes a story and could be a letter in itself. Many of them were rather long stories, and while we do not generally include the longer letters, we have decided to include three at the end of this clickback. We certainly appreciate your candor and your confidence.
Never give up
by Lorna Allan, Auckland, New Zealand
Today is my birthday and I am 66 years old and have just had my first ever solo exhibition albeit at a local community gallery but it’s onward and upward from here. I will never give up. My daughter said to me, “Mum, it’s only taken you 58 years but you have made it and this should be an inspiration to anyone.” My story tells the tale of a small girl who had a passion to paint, wanted to make it her life but fate was not kind in the realization of that dream until she was almost sixty-six. It is never too late to make your dreams come true. Turn your dreams into plans and make it happen. Never, never ever give up!
Desire to work on your birthday
by Terry Lawson Dunn, AZ, USA
Please tell Kelly that I am pretty much living her story (only I had one marriage… it ended two years ago… and just one child). The art took a back seat for a long time and my career was actually in the sciences. For the past couple of years I’ve been working with pastels with a vengeance and am also painting furniture. I am getting into juried shows, I have both types of my artwork in galleries on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, N.M. and things are starting to sell. I’m not even close to earning the money I need to, but I’m getting there! When you are finally doing something that feels so wonderful that you want to work on your birthday, you know you are on the right track!
The flowers were for her
by Christine McMaster
I guess, like Kelly McArthur, I was given a box of paints by my high school art teacher, although metaphorically. Mr. LeQuesne gave me a mark of 99% in art and said he didn’t believe in giving 100, as nothing can be perfect. He also suggested I take Grade 13 art as an independent study for the exploration into textile art that I was doing at the time. After that, my story follows Kelly’s pretty much. I am now 54 and really enjoying my time painting, drawing, collaging and trying anything that appeals to me. Also, my daughter just curated her first show last Friday at the Art Gallery where she works. My husband and I were there for the event and were very proud of her as she received encouraging comments from the curator and flowers from her colleagues. The next morning after this big event in her life, she said she had a dream that the flowers weren’t for her but for someone else and she had accepted them. I laughed and said that no, the flowers really were for her. Several times that day I said it again only under different circumstances. And, I am wondering, why did I not fully realize in my life, more times than I want to count, that yes, the flowers were for me. And are, everyday, and I just need to accept them, gather them up, look at the gorgeous colours, smell the wonderful, heady scent, be amazingly grateful and go live and create.
Hard not to be bitter
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA
I suspect your letter will generate a huge response this week. For many of us, Kelly’s story is all too familiar. Many of us come to our art late in life, after a lot of twists and turns in the road. When we finally set our feet on that path, it’s hard sometimes not to be bitter about the time lost and the passion postponed. But then I think there is something poignant about our winding steps, a sense of joy that at least we finally DID find our way and a determination to make sure it never happens again — and that gives our work a distinctive power all its own.
I can do this
by JoAn Stangle
I am 70 years old and I have been putting my love of artwork on the back burner for so many years. I have been putting everybody and everything else first. I am, for the most part, self taught. Though I have taken three or four classes over these many years, shortly after the classes were over, my water colors, acrylics, oils, colored pencils and charcoal went back into their boxes and I went back to taking care of my large family.
Today, after reading your letter about Kelly McArthur, I am going to start my life as an ARTIST! Yes I am owning that term, today. I am an ARTIST. It is my nature. It is in my blood! It is my passion! Today is the first day of my life as an ARTIST! I Can Do This!
Explosion of art
by Mary Kilbreath, Ft Lauderdale, FL, USA
Kelly is traveling the road many of us have taken. That road is full of self-doubt and blocks that people and society throw up calling painting “fun, relaxing, and (my favourite) oh-how-nice that you-have-time to do it” (play, in their minds). We damp down our muse because we feel guilty about pursuing this joy which keeps niggling at us through the years. Our valuation of art in this society is demonstrated by our schools dropping art courses as unnecessary. The truth is that painting is work — hard work. It is a constant, difficult, engaging, engulfing, wonderful work. I, too, made the trip back to painting after raising my family and a few twists in the road. Finally I feel I am on to the secret, my secret. My Truth. I believe there is a reawakening taking place about art. People are going to huge art shows. Fairs are everywhere. The Internet is exploding with art. If we can get all those eyes focused on the great art being produced today, then we engage the brains as well. In this life we need beauty and truth displayed for us. Where would we be as a society without the visual stimulation given us by art?
by John Mullenger, Oakville, ON, Canada
I showed potential in grade 8 art class, but was lead into a world of computers and business (my father was also a pretty good artist in his day, but he too went where the money is). It is now 20 years later and I have given up on the business career (I did have modest success) because I just couldn’t enjoy it. I MUST enjoy what I do!
I do not have the divorce history of Kelly (yet), nor children, and my wife makes a decent living, but we are struggling. I am happy. No commute. No office politics. No lying (the modern epidemic in business). No back-stabbers; just me, my canvas, my paints and our dog. I too need refinement, and have also switched to the modern medium of acrylics, but also like to work in pastels and some watercolour. I have been at this for just over a year, and I am hearing the business world (money) calling again, but I cannot give up. Money does not make you happy, just comfortable. And I’ll take the poor-man’s stress over the commuters’ any day. So, as my neighbor’s garages continue to fill up with “junk,” I will continue to expunge myself of stuff and create. It is who I was supposed to be. God willing, there is still time.
Painting your tears
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I find this letter more upsetting than anything. I have thought about it a lot over the past two days. While I am glad that the outcome was this woman found her passion, I am saddened that it took her so long after two failed marriages and a herd of kids. I see this so often with students I went to art school with, the ones who were really talented and had a great voice behind their work. They showed a bit after art school and then got jobs as a travel agent or working in an office. They often had children and they always say they are going to get back into it. I see this with other friends who have troubled marriages and have lost their way. They don’t know where it all went wrong and it seems like such a long journey back to what made them happy. While I have been sidetracked once or twice and experienced a long term break up, I knew that what defined me was being a painter. I could go into my studio and paint my tears. I don’t think it matters if you’re a painter or not, the important thing is to maintain a passion. I have a great quote I tell young artists, “…Whether you are painting or singing or acting or dancing, do it with passion, do it everyday and do it like you don’t need the money.”
Story of a single mother
by Rhonda Bobinski, Red Lake, ON, Canada
There is nothing worse than squelching your creativity for years. It feels like a beast that is growing in you and will burst out of your body at any second if you don’t do something about it. The urge to create is just as important as breathing. I too had to put that box of art supplies to the side for years while I went through a separation. Even before the separation, I did not have the time to do any art work because I was very busy as a new mother. At the time, my partner and I came up with a compromise, and I was delegated an “art hour” Imagine, working in a dark, cold basement trying to force creativity at a specific time of day while your child cries for Mama upstairs. Not very conducive to creativity. So, after years of unhappiness, we finally separated and I was left as a single mother. I moved into a little old house and spent that time fixing things up and landscaping the yard with my son. There wasn’t room for an art space I used my kitchen table, but soon found that I couldn’t leave my artwork out, unless I wanted my then-four-year-old to make a contribution to the art piece. I was stuck and didn’t know what I was going to do. I started an art club in the community, so that I could have a space to create, but because I’m also a high school art teacher, some of the people in the club felt that I should be teaching them when I got there. That isn’t what I wanted to do, and I reiterated that, but it didn’t seem to work. A year later, I still hadn’t done any of my own art, and I folded the club. Then one night I couldn’t take it anymore that beast was really getting to me, and I had an epiphany I’m going to build myself a house; a house with a studio. So, I thought about it and thought about it and let it consume me, and then I started talking to a builder and sending pictures and the rest is history. I knocked my old house down and built a new one that is exactly as I want it, with a studio. As a matter of fact, I even built a studio for my son as well. How did I do that as a single mother? Just because I’m a single mother doesn’t mean that I can’t do what I want it’s called creative determination, I guess. I have one chance at this thing called life, and I’m going to do it the way I want to, and I choose to do it the most creative ways possible.
By the way, one of my son’s favourite things to do is to hang out with mom in her studio. He knows that it is a special privilege to be in there and he’s loving it. What a tremendous feeling to pull out that old box of art supplies.
Anyone can dance
by Carole Ann Borges, Knoxville, TN, USA
This could have been the story of my mother. Always the devoted caretaker of my handsome, adorable father who had been published in a couple of magazines, the shy one, who for years hid behind his rather large and protective shadow, was (from his perspective) the somewhat daffy and confused love of his life. But behind that seemingly shy personality, my mother did have dreams. I remember her shocking me once by saying when she was growing up she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to be a movie star or a gun man’s moll. Inside mother’s soul there was an artist, a performer, a person who craved to be seen and to be known.
After my father died, Mom went through a period of fear, but soon she came round to a new self. She went out. She made new friends. At 83, she joined a Toastmaster’s group. “Your Dad would have been so proud of me” she giggled, then she enrolled in a writing workshop for seniors. It didn’t matter that she was diagnosed with latent leukemia or that her eyesight, which had always been poor, was so bad she was officially deemed blind. Macular degeneration. No hope. Mom squinted and held her writing pad to her nose. She scribbled in large black Pentel ink, her thoughts, her memories, whatever needed to be said. As the colors of her world began to fade faster and faster, Mom’s artist spirit grew wilder and bolder. Unleashed from any restraint, words poured from her. She said writing gave her a reason to live.
Because her positive attitude amazed everyone, people started asking her how she remained so even keeled, so bubbly, so downright joyful when her future seemed so frightening and challenging. Wanting to answer that question, Mom sat down and wrote MARIE’S Guidelines for A Joyous Senior Life. After writing down all her “happiness-secrets” and revising and revising them, she finally read her Guidelines out loud one day to her workshop group. Everyone cheered and wanted copies. Then a newspaper found out about her and printed her article in a local paper. Mother was thrilled. When she was asked to come and speak at a blind support group, she couldn’t believe it. Yes, blind eyes can weep too. My mother’s gratitude for having a chance to achieve something literary melted her right down. “I feel I can die happy now,” she said. “I’ve made my mark on the world. I’ve helped people and made a difference. That’s all I ever dreamed about doing.”
There are many moms out there. For years I taught “Artist Way” classes to people whose inner artist had been imprisoned and starved. One woman had loved dancing when she was a little girl, but when her family’s fortune fell, she could no longer take lessons. At one of our meetings, this deprived dancer confessed that ever since she started working in her twenties she had bought herself a pair of new tap shoes every time her shoe size changed. She kept the shoes in her closet, but would sometimes take them out and dance around the house. When she announced this, everyone’s heart went out to her. Every artist knows the pain of not being able to express. It is a torture than can wound and sometimes even kill you.
When the woman returned a week later, she said she had finally realized that she wasn’t really even interested in tap anymore. Instead she had enrolled in a ballroom dancing class. She laughed when she told the group she had sent out invitations that week to her 60th birthday party, but had slipped a small note into the card. She told her guests to be prepared because on her birthday she was going to give herself a special gift. She was going to tap dance to I’m a Little Tea Pot. She explained how she had always wanted to be a tap dancer, wanted to perform in front of people, but had been forced to discard her dream.
“And nobody better laugh,” she warned.
Opened the box again
by Jean Marie Chapman, Lake Oswego, OR, USA
Like most artists, I drew and loved art as a child. My mother shared my love of art and filled the home with prints by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Monet and other artists that she loved. When I was in my late teens I had arthritis and was homebound for several years. On my 20th birthday my parents, trying to find something for me to do that would occupy my time, presented me with a Grumbacher oil painting set. That weekend, while my parents were away on a trip, I leafed through our set of Time/Life art books and set out to copy the self-portrait of Eugene Delacroix. It was an amazing feeling to paint the portrait, and it was fun to see the shocked expression on the faces of my parents upon their return. I continued to paint with a passion and produced several portraits for friends and even had a few commissions. When I married my college sweetheart, and started a family, there was little time to paint, and the box of paints was packed away. Ten years went by, and then betrayal and divorce set me on a path of survival and trying to support my two small children alone and afraid of the future. It was a painting, one of my first portraits, that got me a job at a newspaper. I’d taken the painting into the paper to advertise as a painter of children’s portraits. The editor offered me a job in design and layout as I was inquiring about the ad. The newspaper job led to a public relations job at the local college. Throughout all of those 25 years or so, the box stayed put and I was busy working to “make a living,” as they say. In 1990 I remarried and started a new life in a new city, where I was hired as Public Relations Director of a local hospital. I was so happy to be where I could be near my mother and dad again. But in 1999, my mother suffered a terrible stroke, lingered for seven weeks and died of pancreatic cancer that had gone undetected until the very day before her death. She died at the hospital where I was serving as Public Relations Director, in a room just a few feet from my office. To say it was a devastating experience would be a gross understatement. I had been by my mother’s side every day during her struggle, and took care of all the details of her funeral and memorial service. For three months I continued to work, care of my grieving father and seemingly was functioning in some kind of miraculous way, with strength I’d never have imagined. Then the bottom fell out. And when it fell, it was a headlong decent into depression. My health broke in body, mind and spirit. I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and could no longer do my job. The thought of having to pass by the very room where I’d seen my mother die was more than I could bear. My doctor suggested that I go on permanent medical disability, as she felt I was broken beyond repair. Out of stubbornness and pride, I declined the recommendation.
Losing my job meant selling our large home and moving to a rental. It was a difficult adjustment from the life and professional success I’d enjoyed before the loss of my mother. But life had lost its color and joy. All I could think about was not having my mother in my life and all I’d lost.
Then, one day I was walking through our little town and happened into a small art gallery. There on the wall was a portrait of such beauty that I was stopped short in my tracks. As I looked into the face of the blond girl in the portrait, it took my breath away. Something began to stir inside me and I remembered my portraits of so many years ago. I spoke with the gallery owner, telling him of my early work and asked if I could show them to him. I wanted his honest opinion as to whether or not I should open up that box of paints again. I hurried home, unearthed several old paintings and rushed back to the gallery. For the first time since my mother’s death I felt a flicker of something alive inside of me. The gallery owner looked at the paintings and was quiet for a moment. My heart was beating hard as I waited for his decision. “You should be painting portraits. I want you to call the woman who did this portrait and go and see her.” Two weeks later I was standing at the front door of master portrait artist, Wanda Kemper, my old portraits in tow. We shared and talked and I cried about my mother. Wanda put her hands on my shoulders and said to me, “Jean-Marie, I am going to mentor you. I am going to teach you all that I know and we are going to become great friends.” And she did. Once a month for a year we painted side my side in her studio. Inevitably, one of us would say, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” Within a month of being under her tutelage I had my first commission. Within two months I’d won my first ribbon. Within that year one of my paintings was awarded Best of Show, and more commissions and awards followed. I joined the Portrait Society of America and was appointed their Ambassador for Oregon. Wanda moved to California almost a year to the day of meeting her, and we talk and share about our paintings and art several times a week. She says to me, “You know, your mother is with you, and it is she who brought us together. She is so involved in your life.”
Yesterday I posed my 91-year-old father for his portrait. I took photos of him in several different shirts with and without his jacket smiling and serious. He snoozed peacefully in the chair as I sketched his likeness onto the canvas, popping his head up now and then with an embarrassed smile. Dad and I spoke quietly about whether or not Mother was with us at that moment, watching us. I wiped away a few tears as I painted Dad, thinking of how I wished Mother was alive to see this. To be a part of it. How I wished I’d opened that box of paints many years ago to capture her beauty and spirit on canvas.
As I continue in my new, life-affirming adventure as a portrait artist, I am in awe of how I was lead back to my first love. I cannot live happily without my art. My box of paints has grown into an entire studio filled with everything I need to create my portraits and feed my soul as an artist. I am so very grateful. I am so very happy that I opened that box of paints again.
oil painting by Suzanne Partridge, Street, Somerset, UK
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Janet Bowser of Ulysses, PA, USA who wrote, “I am 42 with six kids, three in the nest and three on their own. I never picked up a brush until January of this year. Now I am painting every day in oils, watercolors, acrylics and even enamels on glass. What a wonderful outlet this is. Even if I am not to become the next Michelangelo, I am happier, more rested, and I feel fulfilled.”
And also Rhonda Kruith of Hamburg, Germany who wrote, “I’m wondering how many artists are relating to your story about Kelly. Sometimes I think it’s only me. I know how she felt with the screaming inside. I haven’t painted steadily for a few years now and keep on trying to distract myself with unsuitable jobs and/or life ‘challenges.’ ”
And also Monica Olsen who wrote, “I think often about opening the box of opportunity and I know what stops me — fears of failure, inner critic that nothing is ever good enough. In my working life as a therapist I know what I would encourage my clients to do. Is it time for me to take my own advice.”
And also Ron Rumak of North Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “Yesterday, I completed a two month project whereby I wrote and illustrated a children’s picture book under the guidance and mentorship of Stefan Czernecki, a well known writer and illustrator of over forty published books many of which have been translated into several languages and sold all over the world. I was ‘shocked’ onto taking a creative path with the blessings and support that only a great mentor can offer. He encouraged me to keep my ‘box’ open.”
And also Colleen Kindt of Nanton, AB, Canada who wrote, “I do amazing stuff when the stars are lined up right. I hate to think it is just a case of self-discipline. Maybe it is. Two accomplished and well respected artists I know say it is. You show up at the canvas whether you feel like it or not.”
And also Paul V. Azzopardi who wrote, “Perhaps part of the joy of doing art comes from being unable to do it at times — either by force of circumstance or because of a sense of duty.”
And also Lance Regan of Penticton B.C., Canada who wrote, “I have been saving this material in a box and making a book for three years. I sit outside and read when the days are warm by a small cabin I have built. It’s like taking a small vacation. There’s a small pool with a waterfall and rocks I collected from streams when painting on location. Someday I will give your letters to a child who shows promise so that they too may share in the wealth of knowledge that you have so kindly shared.”
Enjoy the past comments below for A box of paint…