The other day I was rummaging through some old schooldays papers — report cards, notes from girls, etc, and I came across a blue card for First Prize in Junior Watercolour. Scratching my brain and reading the material on the card,
I realized this was my first recognition beyond my family and school that I was an artist. The year was 1950, I was 14, and the painting was of hummingbirds.
I’d been cycling on a quiet pathway in Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, B.C., when I happened on the nest of a Rufous hummingbird. I sketched the nest while the two birds hovered nearby, scolding me, even buzzing the red binder of my notebook. When I got home, I copied my drawing to a piece of rough Whatman’s and painted the nest, birds and all. I erased the pencil lines with an art-gum that left what I figured was a fresh watery watercolour. My dad found an old frame and I cycled my effort to the fair.
The day the fair opened, a woman phoned to say she and her husband had bought it. Birders from Portland, Oregon, they “just couldn’t resist the hummers.” I was amazed. Not only had I enjoyed painting it, now I was a winner and was to be paid $15.00. My “charmed life” syndrome kicked in and I offered to meet them and take them to see the “actual birds.” We met at the park and I led them quietly along the path only to find the hummers had checked out.
I’m sure we all have such pivotal events. The kid suddenly becomes a footballer, a veterinarian or a politician. That day I became a painter. I now knew what I needed–freedom of the pathways, freedom to do as I wished with what I saw, freedom to catch wonder before it disappeared, freedom to become proficient and the freedom to sign my own name to whatever at will.
My hummingbird painting has of course disappeared into the Diaspora. I’m sure the painting is not as good as I thought it was at the time. But my dream has become my story. Perhaps it’s your dream, too. If it is, stick with it, it’s a good dream.
PS: “Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become. Your vision is the promise of what you shall one day be; your ideal is the prophecy of what you shall unveil.” (James Allen)
Esoterica: This may seem peculiar, but I’m not aware of having entered another contest since. It seems that a tiny bit of recognition was all that was needed. Perhaps it was the cash flow. Modest as it was, it beat mowing lawns for a living. I saw that cash flow made it possible to stay on the path. Cash flow from collectors who actually liked my work seemed superior to begging for grants. This decision has been born out in my lifetime–most of my contemporary grant-getters are now doing something other than painting.
Show us the birds
by Ben Novak, Edmonton, AB and Ottawa, ON, Canada
OK, we see the prize certificate, but I expected to see the painting. I, too, painted at 10, 11, 12, and my dad kept a few of my works. They are of interest to me now. Come Robert, show us the birds…
(RG note) Thanks, Ben. And thanks to everyone who got after me for the same thing. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the painting is somewhere out there in the Diaspora. If someone finds it, or thinks they know of it, somewhere near Portland, Oregon, perhaps, please let me know. I’d love to see it again, faults and all. One of my greatest regrets is that I never kept decent records, particularly of work done in those early years. I should have named that one “Painting #1,” and gone from there.
by Judy Stead, Charlotte NC, USA
Today’s post recalled for me the art prize I didn’t win when I was 12 or 13 years old. It was at Rainbow Camp and I knew my painting was the best-in-show at the end of summer awards. When I didn’t win the blue ribbon, a counselor told me they gave first prize to the other kid because I knew I was good, but she didn’t, so they gave it to her to boost her confidence. Fast forward nearly half a century and two art-related careers later (design and illustration) and I’m starting a late blooming love affair with painting. This particular letter speaks to me about putting the work first, loving the work, doing the work, and letting what may come of it.
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Benefits other than sales
by Herb Kelly, Huntley, IL, USA
I sold my first painting about a year ago. When I started painting at age 60 I only knew I wanted to give it a try. The idea of anyone wanting to give me money for art that I created was not even a glint in the eye of a dreamer. While I can say that the sale gave me satisfaction I have no plans to make painting a livelihood because I paint only what pleases me. If folks like it enough to part with cash that is fine but it isn’t a goal. My favorite part about art is that it constantly presents new problems that are fun to solve and because of that I will continue to mix paint and water on my 300 lb. Arches paper.
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The joy of splattered paint
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
I knew I wanted to be an artist the summer I was twelve when my Mother signed me up for painting lessons at a nearby art studio. I walked there for my classes carrying my paints and paper. The artist/teacher was an interesting looking man with a white goatee and paint-splattered clothing. The studio was filled from top to bottom with paintings and supplies. It was heaven. I couldn’t imagine a better life than spending my days making art in a place like that splattered with paint. I don’t remember anything I painted there; it was the experience that has stuck in my memory.
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‘You didn’t do that’
by Siobhán Dempsey, Cork, Ireland
My goodness, Robert, talk about comparison — your experience brought me back to Miss Hayes’ class St Catherine’s school, Cork, Ireland. I’ll never forget when I was ten years old and she looked at my piece of work–a copy of St George and the Dragon — “You didn’t do that,” she said. Fearing the slap on the back of the head or the stick across the legs I stood there waiting. “Some adult did this and I’m keeping it, now sit down,” she said. Funny how these experiences leave such a mark on your potential.
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by Tom Bennick
Regarding the validity of juried art shows, it seems that a lot of juried art shows now have only one judge to evaluate many different mediums and styles of work. I have become leery of even attempting to submit knowing that the selection of art work will depend upon one person. I realize many of the judges are qualified and quite knowledgeable in their particular medium, but how can they fairly select work from mediums in which they have little or no experience? I would rather be rejected by five people than just one.
(RG note) Thanks, Tom. This current trend of one juror must be stomped on before it becomes the norm. Jurying of mixed shows should always be done by at least three, and preferably of mixed persuasions.
Dreams into reality
by Valerie Kent, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada
I was in grade 11 and had the good fortune of taking art in school. Today a lot of students do not have this luxury because there is no room for it in the curriculum or the money to run the programs. I loved art and had taken it every year. I painted like a fiend every day in our basement. I loved it. The school let me have a solo show all over the classroom and in the halls. I had 52 pieces up in my first show. I did not sell anything but I was so pleased that people looked at the work and liked it. I became someone special and different.
Today I am in Aix en Provence, France giving a tour called, Painting the Best of Provence, and painting with the participants in this art workshop. Painting is how I still make my living. I am one of the lucky ones. I am still living in Canada but painting many countries. I still feel special.
I hope that school board administrators read this letter and realize the importance of offering art at the High School level to any student who wants to take it. My dream is now to let artists turn their dreams into reality.
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Allowing others to empower us
by Beverly Smith, Rose Valley, PA, USA
It’s interesting how we let other people give us affirmation or discouragement. When I was in school, I was always one of the best artists in the class. I always had my hands in something messy that would ultimately end up as art.
I sculpted a horse’s head out of clay soil. It dried and I liked my sculpture. Sometimes people would steal something I made in art class. That was both maddening and encouraging.
My high school art teacher had us working with acrylics. I remember painting a landscape scene that was in my head from a drive over the mountains that my mother and I took two or three times a week to go to ballet class. The landscape was so beautiful and revealed colors that I couldn’t see in the desert, where I lived. Blues, purples, many greens — a totally different color palette. I worked and worked on this painting until one day my teacher said to me, “Beverly, you’re flogging a dead horse.” I thought in my heart that with each stroke I was getting closer and closer to the vision in my head of those mountains. At any rate, I was enjoying the process and the colors and I liked the way my painting was going.
Because of his careless comment to a sensitive teenager, my paints were put away after I decided that wasn’t my forte. Maybe I was better at clay, or pen and ink.
I painted on and off for the next few decades until I decided to paint full time. I can take criticism and compliments now and know that other people aren’t always right. I know if the work pleases me or if it needs more work, or abandon. Mr. Art Teacher would have served me better by saying, “We have to move on to another project now but you can take this painting home and work on it there if you want to.” I’m glad that I can say that to myself now.
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Enjoy the past comments below for First prize…
Featured Workshop: Donald Jurney
Peace on the Rio Grande
oil painting, 36 x 24 inches
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 Marinus Verhagen of the Netherlands, who wrote, “Wouldn’t the search for the lost painting be a good idea for a TV show? “The Quest for Robert’s First Painting?” Let a TV-show host put some of his hounds on the track!”
And also a half dozen artists who asked, “What is Whatman?”
(RG note) Whatman was the most popular watercolour paper available when I was a kid. James Whatman (1702-1759), the Elder, was the founder of a paper mill near Maidstone, Kent, England that hand-manufactured rag-based art papers for many years. Papers bearing the Whatman watermark first appeared in 1740. These days the company produces mostly medical filters. Curiously, there are still collections of unused vintage Whatman art papers around. You can actually buy them online at The Whimsie Studio. I have a few old sheets in my studio, still as white and as delightful to work on as the day they were made.