Written by Karen D. Swim
When I was 10 my mother took me to the art store. I was not exactly artsy; I could not even draw a straight line. Therefore, it never occurred to me that this trip was anything more than another outing with my mom.
We traveled through the aisles and my eyes could not drink in the array of artistic tools fast enough. Paper, easels, brushes and paints seemed to dance and dazzle before my eyes. The blood rushed to my head as I excitedly took in the adventure. We finished shopping and I stood at the checkout counter as the kaleidoscope of images flashed through my mind. When I finally came down from my art candy rush, we were home and I was the proud owner of a paint-by-numbers set.
I stared at the box and read the description. I put it on my desk and stared at the picture of what my final masterpiece would resemble. For several weeks, the box sat unopened, ripe with possibilities. I peered at it sometimes with a mixture of anger as it taunted me to go ahead and mess it up. Some days, I even wore my beret and spoke in French around it to capture the mood of true artiste. Mom patiently encouraged me in her sweet way until I finally mustered the courage to open the box.
I laid out my materials and imagined that I was in a French countryside. I began to follow the numbering system to bring my sailboats alive on the canvass. I dipped my brush in the watercolors, tongue firmly planted to one side of my mouth to steady my hand. I checked my progress against the picture on the box unconvinced that I could pull it off but refusing to give up. After a day of blue paint here, grey paint there I began to drift from the “rules.” The waves had so many colors and I tired of the tedious and constricting process so I painted on my own, swirling paints in my best Monet impression. I went back and forth between the rules and my own way until the painting was completed.
I signed it at the bottom carefully making cursive letters with and showed my mom. There were spots where bits of paint had gathered in a little clump creating bumpy places on the smooth canvas. Mom seemed not to notice and beamed as if I had painted the Sistine Chapel. She framed it and proudly hung it on the wall. Every visitor to our home was taken to my “wall” where mother would proudly point and exclaim, “K painted that.” Each would dutifully smile and mutter an appropriate platitude as I hid from view completely mortified.
I should have known then that I would somehow always have a love-hate relationship with structure. I felt guilty for abandoning the numbering system and cheating the rules. Would the paint-by-numbers people come after me and label me a fraud? Was it really a painting if I didn’t do it their way?
Yet, I also felt constricted by boundaries that seemed only to fit for a little while. I liked order but found myself equally drawn to disorder. Perhaps it was a mirror of my own doubt about my capabilities. Could a girl who could not draw a straight line and frequently bumped into things really possess talent?
I continued to bounce in and out of the lines somehow finding my way. I never broke real rules but frequently used guidelines as a base from which I created my own course. As an adult, I have come to realize that those boundaries may have been like the training wheels on my big girls bike. I only needed them until I did not.
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