The Artist’s Mother: Perfect Arrangements

I can’t really remember when I first realized the concept of color. Presumably it was before or during kindergarten at Chapel Hill’s Little Red School. The nuances, hues, and complexities of colors followed.

The following year, we learned the color charts and became experts on primary colors.To my excitement, my mother bought me a bigger and better box of Crayolas. Perhaps, it held 18 crayons, maybe not. My memories of those years are safely locked away in a desk drawer, keeping at bay the more curious pusses. Naturally, I misplaced the key.

My point is that I had moved up some unspoken notch, improved a skill, or experienced a minor rite of passage. In Mrs Sawyer’s first grade class, I kept a cigar box in which I hid “whatever size or how many ever” of crayons.

One spring day, my mother was preparing to take me to school, a newly built Catholic school, with actual nuns, and potential uniforms. As she grabbed her keys, I studied her eye-catching blouse.

The color was odd and one of which I was unfamiliar. As she turned the ignition, I blurted my query and quickly paused. I never, ever blurted as a child. It was unmannerly, rude, and unaccepted in a parochial school such as St Thomas More. My parents expected that also. That, my friends, is an entirely different tale, one of familial dysfunction and oppression.

My mother never noticed my unseemly enthusiasm. She just started talking and talking about nuances, hues, prisms, and the infinite number of colors in the spectrum. Of course, she worded it differently as I am prone to embellish. We soon came upon the red brick structure. I finally had to ask: “But what color is your shirt?”

She quickly corrected my use of shirt and replied a reserved, yet warm: “chartreuse”. Finally. It took almost fifteen minutes to get an answer.

“Chartreuse, hmmm” I thought. It quickly became my favorite color, although I couldn’t pronounce the word for at least a year. That yellowish green color was wonderful and exotic and special. And it was at once my color.

I soon (if soon can describe two years later) graduated to a bigger box, the overwhelming but altogether satisfying “64” count one. I searched for chartreuse but never found it. I did, however, find “Cornflower Blue” and “Burnt Sienna”. My look of puzzlement faded away in a quick blush. It had a pencil sharpener.

I am now more than a half century older. Those days are long gone. Chartreuse, though, is still my favorite color. I always notice it first, if it was indeed on the fabric wall, home furnishings, liqueur bottles, or paintings. The last I use as a “catch all”! I detest the word “artwork”. It’s bland, unemotional, and wholly without direction or purpose.

Please. Gentle Reader, forgive me for squeezing illustration, sculpture, watercolors, oils, and the like into one tiny, limited, and now teeming word. I will say three Holy Marys. And I will surely recall Sr Jane Raphael’s serious and intimidating glances during our studies for First Holy Communion.

Sr Jane married the parish priest two years later, by which time Hal, Margy, Polly, and I had moved to Greensboro. There, it would be Srs Mary Joseph and Mary Fitzpatrick that would show me the greater range of modern “nunnery” and the like.

Go ahead and ask me.

Truthfully? Yes, I still always smile and look for chartreuse and cornflower blue. The temptation then wakes up and I lull it back into blissful oblivion.

Alas. I have not purchased crayons, in any size package, since the mid-70’s. That would’ve been for my sister.

(Images: “Arrangement in Green and Black, Portraits of the Photographer’s Mother” by Aline Smithson.)

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