My sister, Cath, and I are both painters. She’s also a sculptor and I make collages, mostly when I can’t figure out what to paint. I’m three years older than she is, (“three and a half,” she’d be quick to tell you,) and it was probably the best thing in my young life when I realized we both could draw. I was seven or so, and there we were with the crayons when we began our journey. Life changed and opened, and making art became as much a part of our lives as fighting with our siblings, avoiding chores, and listening to Rock & Roll.
The two of us were the reigning art stars at school and were always called upon to create the bulletin boards and paint the sets for the plays. Cath always likes to tell the story of the cornucopia she drew for the Thanksgiving display when she was in first grade. She dazzled the teacher, who had to bring the drawing around to the other teachers to show off her prodigy. In high school I had a going business, drawing pictures of the Beatles and forging their signatures. I sold them for about a dollar each to fund my record collection as well as my art supplies. By the time Cath took over, she was painting Roger Daltry and Jim Morrison.
Miss Ackers was my art teacher in high school, and she started us off with art history, so we were all drawing cave paintings and the Venus of Willendorf when we weren’t dreaming over Ringo. Each art history lesson was followed by our own attempts to emulate what we had just learned. When Miss Akers went to Italy over the summer between junior and senior year, and came back glamorous with a new chic hairdo and hip clothing, we were infused with the desire to be so very arty. Miss Akers wasn’t just the teacher anymore. She was an artist, showing us her portfolio, being fabulous, and we wanted to be that, too.
And there was that moment, that sudden jolt of electricity. For me it was when I stood in front of one of the magnificent Gauguin’s at the Art Institute of Chicago, when I was drawn into the very brush strokes on the canvas: I knew that I could do that, too, that I was in that tribe. It happened to Cath in front of the Bouguereau. These days, it’s the Rothko that gets me every time.
Cath and I both studied art in college, and she worked as an illustrator for a big agency. I married young, but kept up with my classes whenever I could. I had my first one-woman painting exhibition when I was in my early 50s, and I still take classes when I can. My back room is my studio now. Cath found sculpture only a few years ago and is an avid student, in awe of what she can do. We didn’t strike out on our own to the Hotel Chelsea in New York, or the Left Bank in Paris, but we kept at it. We still keep at it.
And we are the lucky ones. We had one another. We had parents who kept us well supplied with crayons and paper, who sent us to schools with art teachers, who took us to world class museums in a world class city. It was always all around us and while we had to find our own way, nobody told us being an artist was beyond our reach. We grew in an atmosphere of learning, of curiosity, of desires fulfilled.
Everybody should have that.