A little over a century ago, Native American Indian tribes and specifically those of the Pacific Northwest, were reluctant to have their picture taken or a portrait painted. They believed that such “photographs” would steal one’s soul. I believe they were partially correct. Artwork, of any type, takes with it a piece of the artist’s soul. Not in the form of reduction but in a manner of addition. Art is a legacy. We place a part of ourselves into that work and that part is recorded in the material and in the memory forever more.
A few decades ago I met a young girl named Danielle. She was seventeen and in high school. I, twenty four and out of college. We worked together for a couple of years and became friends the way that work associates often become friends in a temporal, geographic way. Danielle and I were from different worlds. She a young, black teenager living in a rough city and me, Caucasian young man, married and commuting from suburbia. We shared one thing in common, however, and that was art. Danielle told me that after high school she planned to attend art school. I had a picture that I had drawn in pencil. I had drawn the same picture repeatedly since I was a kid. I didn’t know why the vision captivated me and today, at forty-seven, I still have no answer to that question.
I asked Danielle if she would turn my pencil sketch into a painting and she agreed. She did a wonderful job. She captured exactly the thing I wanted captured. I only drew that picture on one more occasion, it seemed that Danielle’s painting had finally released me from my obsession.I no longer needed to work at it, she had captured the thing I needed to see. The painting brought with it joy and hardship. The joy in my ability to visit that scene whenever I wished to make the journey. The inspiration it served in my horror writing. The way it went so well with my stacks of horror books. The hardship came in a different form. The painting traveled with me throughout my life. My first wife observed the portrait with suspicion. She never understood art and I believe she looked at the painting as if a young woman had presented me with a pair of satin boxers. After our divorce the painting came with me.
Throughout the years the painting stood witness over many other relationships. It garnered various reactions, the common one was a feeling of distrust.
“That’s kind of a spooky picture.”
“Yes, I drew the idea so many times I wanted it as a painting.”
“Oh you painted that?”
“No, not me, a girl I used to work with painted it.”
“No, not at all. We were just work friends.”
“Hmm.” Suspicious glance.
Shortly after Danielle painted the picture I moved on to a different role in the company and we lost touch. Several years later, I returned to the location and of course, Danielle had also moved on by then. Her mother still worked there and I inquired about the young, budding artist. I asked if Danielle had gone to art school. Her mother made an odd expression, not suspicion, but confusion. Then, somewhere a memory illuminated and she smiled. “Oh yes, I had forgotten that she enjoyed painting. No, no art school, she’s a nurse.”
I was happy for Danielle. Nursing was an noble career and an opportunity in a city with few opportunities. I also felt disappointment. Art is also a noble pursuit and too often talent trades in for a paycheck. I wondered if that bright and creative teen, who had spent weeks on my painting, experienced the same passion for nursing. I hoped that she did. Another thought occurred to me, this one decades after the conversation with Danielle’s mother. The Native Americans were correct, art does take some part of us, but it gives back too. Painters, Sculptors, Musicians, and Writers, we all place a piece of ourselves within the work. If the material endures than one hundred years from now my great-great grandchildren will find a part of me in the words that I leave behind. Each book, like the ring of a tree, speaks about who I was at the time that I wrote it.
I love art for the same reasons that I love antiques. There is something of the past within those objects. They hold the secrets of the things they witnessed. They are a part of some unique set of memories of those who created them and of those stood and enjoyed them for a brief moment in time. Danielle’s picture still hangs on the wall. It reminds me of many things of my past. It reminds me of who I was on that day that I asked her to paint it. I don’t know who Danielle is today or the story of a seventeen year old girl who is now almost forty. I do however have a piece of the girl she was, and perhaps one possible piece of who she might have become. It’s in her artwork, the painting a young artist created with every color choice and with every brush stroke. There on my wall is at least one moment of her creative energy, of her pride and of her happiness, in what I hope was a lifetime filled with such moments.
The legacy of art is not fame nor fortune. It is not the Pulitzer or the Grammys or an expensive art gallery. The legacy are those pieces of ourselves that we place within the work. It is our willingness to treat it with care and measured strokes of the brush, pen, or strings. A beautiful thing that came from within us, that we created as a way to express the world. The legacy of art doesn’t require popularity because art is not defined by fame nor fortune. Art is defined by sharing our expressions with others. Danielle’s destiny lay somewhere beyond her painting, but for so long as I remember it and for as long as it hangs upon my wall, her legacy as an artist continues forward.