This last week, I hung a painting in my kitchen. She’s not new. I started her years ago, inspired by some stylized image of a sprite. Back then, I went and bought the canvas – I’ve painted and sketched on and off since college – and roughed her in with best intentions. Then I painted her, some of her, enjoying in particular how expressive her eyes seemed, how my practice applying my own lipstick make shadowing hers easier.
Her background was inspired by some long-forgotten Italian church I found on the internet. She was supposed to be in the foreground, her background hazy and dreamy. But when I started to fill in the green hill on which the old Italian church stood – transformed into some sprite temple for my purposes – I realized I didn’t know how to make it recede in the background. There it was, green and in-your-face, competing for prime time with my haunting fairy’s face. I turned to other things – how to make her hair seem wind-swept, how to cast a shadow on her neck. I found my painting education rusty and insufficient. I tinkered with her a few more days and then abandoned her.
I am not a talented painter, but one that is competent enough. I’ve only taken a couple of classes, so there are technical things I don’t know: what shades make shadow, for example, or how to make a hill recede in the background. Uncomfortable with process and mistakes, I haven’t painted enough to get past the awkward phase. When I first had my children, in a fit of fears of broken dreams, I stepped up my interest in painting, watching videos, even hiring an art teacher to come to my home. She left after one chaotic class during which my toddlers ran away from the babysitter in the other room and pounded on the door of the den I’d locked us in. Every once in a while I start a new painting. I think about canvases I’ll make all the time – I also have an interest in collage, and an idea for one just occurred to me yesterday – but, like my sprite, my painting career is incomplete. So it sits dusty in a closet along with all the expensive paints I bought when I thought I might make up for my lack of training with a plethora of professional-grade materials.
Because she is unfinished, I haven’t quite had the heart to hang my sprite. I’ve left her propped up in different places, the dining room, behind some stuff in the kitchen. I love her face so I couldn’t quite put her away. But I hate the other things she represents so I haven’t been able to commit to her. I have always been afraid I’m the kind of person that doesn’t finish things, so an unfinished painting seemed like some bad juju. I remember one of the most bruising moments early in my marriage – the sweet, googoo phase when you want your partner to love everything about you completely – was when my new husband made an offhand remark that I might as well put away the mosaic project cluttering up the guest room, since we both knew I wasn’t going to finish it.
I was hanging up a new pot rack the other day and started to move some things around in the kitchen. I saw the sprite propped on the windowsill. She seemed to be staring into my soul. She was the spirit of expression, elusive, murky in spots, both dream realized and maddeningly incomplete, aspirations always outpacing ability. It suddenly occurred to me that that’s how it always will be, because that’s how it is. Art, and life, really, are always about seeing the world and struggling to grasp it and say things about it, sometimes achieving it sublimely, other times failing miserably. The value is not in the product but in the process, in embracing imperfection. As such, my Unpainted Lady was absolutely perfect.
Truth be told, in the moment my gaze lit upon her, I was looking around for something to hang because I’d made a hole for a wine rack in the wall (to match the pot rack I’d just put up), but the anchor hadn’t held but wouldn’t come out either. How perfect would that be, I thought – to cover my weakness in carpentry with what I perceived to be my weakness in painting? Except, when I put her there, she didn’t seem like a weakness at all. She seemed a pretty way to solve a problem, to display my aspirations proudly, matched or not by ability. I don’t know if it was a trick of the light or the angle, or the fact that the rest of my kitchen seemed so put together, but she looked like she was exactly as she was intended to be.
Finally, she seemed at home.