On Friday a man phoned to say he had an old painting of mine. He thought it might be “something personal” and he offered to give it back to me. Two days later Frank and Fiona Evans, both of them cane-carrying seniors, came by. Frank was gripping a small package folded into a blanket. “We’ve lived with it for years,” said Frank. “We bought it in a junk store in Victoria. It had a terrible frame on it. We’re getting rid of things now and we thought it should go back to its rightful owner. We’d be interested in knowing the story.”
Frank slowly unfolded the blanket. The mystery painting appeared. It was an oil sketch of an attractive woman. There was a Whistler-like butterfly in the upper right hand corner. It was on canvas-board, unframed and with the title “Orange Tip” on the back.
“Who is she?” asked Mrs. Evans. “We paid five dollars for her,” as if the price would clear up some of the mystery.
Gradually the circumstances came back to me. It must have been in the early sixties. I was bird watching with acquaintances on Little Saanich Mountain near Victoria, B.C. At the summit, near the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, there were lots of orange tip butterflies. One of the young women in the party, who I hadn’t met before, was quite taken by the butterflies. Later that afternoon, we visited someone’s home in a place called Ardmore and I painted this sketch and gave it to her. I never saw her again, nor do I remember her name.
Yes, it was I who carried the sentiment for this unnamed butterfly-girl. And now the painting had come full circle. We wondered at the circumstances of her letting the painting go. Had she passed on, or perhaps just given it away?
“Santa bringeth but doesn’t taketh,” said Frank. Stuff has to be disposed of by us, the blessed recipients. But what of this one-day connection, this passing caress now brought out like a dried and dusty butterfly pinned in a glass case? And where will this transience go from here?
PS: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” (Cicero)
Esoterica: All art is a gift. It is first of all a gift that the maker can do it. It is then a gift to someone else, whether they pay for it or not. The wonder of it is that we cannot get the production of these gifts stopped. Art is life seeking itself. It is our intractable expressions of love for the beauties, ideas and epiphanies we regularly find. I framed the painting. It’s now hanging in our den. “I have walked this earth for 30 years, and, out of gratitude, want to leave some souvenir.” (Vincent van Gogh)
Preservation of life’s connections
by Henry Stone, UK
Our brief lives are made of fleeting passages of meetings, greetings and minor encounters that prove up the gregarious and flocking tendencies of mankind. We can preserve these encounters through phone calls, greeting cards, emails and the bundles of photos we all keep. But nothing preserves like a painting. It’s an attempt, however inadequate, to capture, to freeze, as if we could, the connection that makes us all one humanity. Some of these captures, like the Mona Lisa or Dr Gachet, have a life beyond the ones they depicted, and like the Shakespeare portrait, we recognize their presence and their being only by the art that now depicts them.
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
A “Picker,” is a person who culls through the art bins at second-hand shops in the hope of finding something special or valuable. Such a fellow stopped by my office and handed me a painting, while asking if it was one of mine. It was, and had been a gift. The Picker had found the painting at a thrift shop and had paid 50 cents for it. A few weeks later I got a letter. My little painting had been resold for $500, and the Picker had kindly sent me a check for $50 as something of a consolation prize. It was a kind gesture on his part and a lesson for me. In the years since, whenever I have gifted a piece of my work, I include a little note which says that the gift is exchangeable. A few people have taken me up on that offer. This seems much better than having a painting in somebody’s closet, or ending up in a thrift shop art bin.
Completing the creative cycle
by Loraine Wellman, Richmond, BC, Canada
Your comments that being able to make art is a gift and that then it becomes a gift to others is so true. When I know who has bought one of my paintings, I like to send them a note telling them a little more about the painting and also saying that, for me, the creative circle is completed when a painting goes out to a good home. I also think it is good to be able to give paintings to good causes and public places.
Electricity between artist and model
by Bill Westerman, Worthington, OH, USA
The look that a model passes back to the artists is very telling. What you recorded in your painting of the Butterfly woman was that which I perceive as a look of high interest in the artist. Sometimes the model has a look of a mask or of amusement. Other times the model falls in love with the painter. There is frequently an aura of electricity that passes back and forth from model to artist and vice versa. Those instances produce a painting that is generally unique and the future audience can perceive this if they are observant. Too bad you don’t remember this model’s name. I would venture that she still remembers yours and her thoughts about you.
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A fleeting gift
by Karen Shaw, Laguna Woods, CA, USA
Here is the image of the little girl I painted from life at an outdoor show with Alliance Francais in Costa Mesa, CA. She was 7 years of age, and sat so sweetly for me after asking her father if I could paint her. I painted her portrait in 50 minutes, alla prima, and the painting has been juried into several shows. Her name is Rebecca, and I have never seen her since. I was disappointed that her father did not purchase the painting, but he was not interested. If I could find her today, I would give it to her.
Pure gold in old reveries
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Obviously the ‘butterfly girl’ inspired you to do her portrait at that special moment of her life and your life. I am a butterfly nut myself and if the orange tips were out, it had to be early spring. In your area it was probably May. Butterflies are like beautiful women in that regard. They appear, dazzle us and are gone. If she’ll sit for you, you can take a shot at immortalizing that inspiring beauty. I wish they would have had digital cameras back in my college days, myself. I rarely did well on my sketches, though I certainly tried very hard! The painting process etches it into your memory bank. I remember seeing this beautiful woman at a bank once. Something about her stirred my memory and then it occurred to me. I chatted with her. “Is your name Natalia? I did a portrait of you twenty years ago.” She was very impressed that I had remembered both her name and her image. Once you give these sketches away they drift about like balloons released into the breeze. It’s a blessing to reconnect with one of these old paintings. Like a reunion with an old friend, they stir up wonderful reveries and as we age these reveries are pure gold.
The mystery woman
by Edna Hildebrandt, Toronto, ON, Canada
It is really an amazing story and it is something that challenges the imagination. I am also curious if somehow the lady could be identified and how she would look today. I hope someone knows who she is. It somehow has a bit of a mystery; would she recognize you too if you met again or if she is still alive today? Please publish an update. Thank you.
(RG note) Thanks, Edna. So far no info on the Butterfly Girl. She would be about 68 years old now I’m guessing. Also, I’d like to clarify a small misunderstanding due to my poor letter writing. Several writers picked up on this including, Dwight Williams of Idaho: “What’s really got me is, in 1962 you gave the lady that ring, she put it on THAT finger and you can’t remember her? Do we need to worry about you? I don’t think I would forget a thing like that.” Thanks, Dwight. What I meant to say was that I put that ring on her finger in the painting, not on her actual hand. I would never have proposed to a woman in such short order. I would have had to have at least one martini.
by Keith Cameron, Sierra Madre, CA, USA
I couldn’t help but wonder as the work was revealed to you how you thought about it? Did it evoke a time when perhaps you would swim in a different stream, or perhaps a different current? Did you think about your evolution as an Artist? A human being? Given the time then at the work’s inception did it make you think about the voice you possessed then, and now after that journey? The great Canadian privilege (in my humble opinion) is the time to think before action. I often wonder about the Canada I knew, and what it is now. I wonder about your experience with the work, and the people, and I again appreciate you sharing it.
(RG note) Thanks, Keith. Like many of us, I float along on a gentle river of nostalgia, remembering my first kiss, my first car, my first cigar. When coming across early art, my main concern is how bad it often is. Then there are times when nostalgia overcomes my nagging perceptions of quality.
A Christmas gift
by Sandra Fein, Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA
As I sit this early Christmas morning waiting for everyone to arrive, I had a few moments to spare and began my day with your letter to me. Robert Genn and Saraphina I hope you realize how inspirational your articles are to me as well as to thousands of other artists. I thank you, you were my Christmas present this a.m. that I unwrapped as my computer opened and turned on and there you were giving me hope for a new day. I will begin sketching right after this e-note to you, but I felt I just wanted to let you know how much you mean to me.
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Bluffs, Crimson Flowers
acrylic painting by Coral Barclay, BC, Canada
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 Barbara Noden of Amelia Island, FL, USA, who wrote, “What a touching story for the Christmas season–of all your wonderful letters I loved this one. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.”
And also Paul Valerie of Limoges, France, who wrote, “There is no beauty like the beauty of a passing glance.”
And also Mark Larsen who wrote, “Butterflies are oft-used symbols of the soul in art. Perhaps the answer is in not knowing the answer.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The fine art of giving…