Sunday, April 20, 2014

In which the Springs are Cleaned!

In an an ideal world, I’d have had not one but two kids. And we’d live in a house by the sea, with a dog, and I’d be writing picture books and teaching college kids for a living. And I’d cook like a dream, be clear-skinned and willowy, with a musical laugh. But the genie from the magic lamp just called, and he’d rather stay indoors and work on world peace.

Why do I miss having more kids? I grew up an only child till I was 10, and there’s a small shard of loneliness in my heart that just won’t go away. I blame it on being sibling-less for a large part of my childood. Besides, once you figure out that you can make your own human beings, why stop at just one? Having one kid means that there is no learning curve – there are just big, giant learning potholes, where you, spouse and kid all come away feeling quite jarred. Every challenge, every idiosyncrasy of every age is new to us parents-of-only-kids. No wonder second-borns are chilled-out. Their parents are past this overweening curiosity. First-borns and only kids probably feel like they live in a fish bowl, with bloated parental fingers pointing at them all the time.

One such puzzle was that we could never, ever, ever start a project without N jumping in to ‘help’. But ask her to do the same thing on her own, and she’ll baulk. For example, N is learning to play the guitar. Tell her to practice and the moan is so loud and long that you’d think the siren in the nuclear reactor nearby had gone off. But if Amit were to pick up the guitar and attempt to play it, whoosh, she’ll be there like the Road Runner, whisking it out of his hands and hitting those chords.

Want to entice her to paint? All I have to do is pick up a brush, and shell abandon her book and charge right up. I guess something deep inside children’s reptilian brains responds to the sight of their parents attempting to enjoy themselves with a rousing cry of ‘How DARE they!?’ 

Our vacations and holidays are usually spent in a morass of waking up late, eating too much, reading all day, heading out for an evening of play, and then coming home to read some more. This year though, weve had to rethink our non-plans. Recent eye issues had the doc telling me that N ought to do fewer tasks that involve potential eye strain – less of reading, sewing, braiding scoobies, iPad-ing, etc., and more of what, I dont know! Since there are no sibs and no ‘building kids’ this translates into howls of ‘WHAT should I do?’

Painting and art are big talking points in our house. Amit is an obsessive doodler and N loves to paint  if you dontell her to. I love looking at art, but its been about 20 years since I last messed with paints. I decided on a summer project that would involve less reading, more doing: I’d do one piece of art every day for the next 30 days. Interestingly, N refuses to stand for any teaching from Amit, the trained artist, because seriously? Isnt she already better than him? I suspect she feels annoyance at his expert status with all his published books and whatnot, and no soft-peddling of his skills helps. So hopefully, watching me  the clumsy, non-artist – take a risk and attemot to paint, she would be nudged to do so too.

And its not just my usual Evil Parental Outreach Program. Ive been toying with this idea for a while now, and an inspirational prod came from this article sent to me by my friend Alka Hingorani, an art historian, lover of learning, art and potatoes, a teacher and scholar. Unlike Clark Kellogg, though, I cant imagine committing myself for 365 days. I’m all for low-hanging fruit, thank you, and think Ill aim for 30 days – sounds more like something Ill manage to do by the skin of my teeth.

I’m hoping this will sweep away some of my mental cobwebs. I love the internet  it is, quite frankly, the reason why I stay sane. But there are days when I feel like a consumer of words and visuals, and not a maker of them, which is what I really want to be. The discipline of clearing my head to paint every day might help me steer myself back to writing amid the white noise of life  I hope!

The other inspiration has been my friend Hansa Thapliyal, filmmaker, sewer of wonky dolls, builder of cardboard houses, and writer of incomprehensible letters. 
Earrings Hansa once made me



Bike-riding girl wends her way
thru the cityscape
Most adults I know would not bother with so much whimsical, hands-on creating for its own sake. But Hansa builds little cityscapes with girls riding bicycles, makes photo boxes with newspaper cuttings of her friends’ favourite artists and attempts small animations where she frickin’ makes every prop and character. 
The great thing is that while she is skilled and imaginative, she isn’t always neat. But the joy in her making is infectious – and best of all, it isn’t intimidating. I’m not as industrious as her – with any luck, I hope never to be :) but a little attempting to draw/paint/collage might, possibly, trigger the writing finger! (Please do click on the thumbnails for better views.)

Shoebox house with driftwood tree
Detail from shoebox house

We’re four days down now in our summer art project, N and I, and I can already sense my internal discomfort, a restless shifting-of-the-feet. I don’t know what to paint. What I want to paint, I dont know how to. The last time I held a brush (and was just as useless) was about 20 years back. Kellogg said he reached the ‘what next’ point at the end of three weeks. Guess who got there on Day 3?

The Fragrant Ant is mine and
the chalk pastel Waterfall is N's
Do I look up the thousands of sites devoted to art projects? Do I think up quick wet-on-wet watercolour projects that are easy and please me (because I somehow imagine that they have a Monet-esque haziness)? Do I try collage? How do I start to draw – something I definitely cant do  and then paint? Do papers speak to amateur artists, and if they do, am I stone deaf? 
Working with N is educative. Kids have this way of demanding a lot out of every experience. They are not cheap dates. Everything they do, eat, hear, watch or play must satisfy them. It may not look great to adult eyes, but at a very deep level they know what works for them and what does not. 
I paint to put something on paper, to fill it up somehow. I struggle with colour and poor brush technique and inhibitions. But Im done surprisingly quickly – mainly because my standards for myself are delightfully low. 
Then I look up and see N at work. Her engagement is complete. At 9, shes still uninhibited compared to me. Shes going through a phase of wanting desperately to draw realistically, and is a hard task master to herself. Her absorption is a lesson to me.
Painting 1.5, wet butterflies
Painting 2, Day 2, a dragon in the making
It may be an uphill task to get her to start, but like all kids, when shes in the zone, she won’t stop at one painting. If something’s ‘not coming out right’, she’ll work herself into a hissy fit of exhaustion and anger. Expeditiously, I suggest short cuts and quick fixes. I get such snappy answers, that I’m reminded of working on books with Amit. He draws delightfully but would rather be unhappy and sulky than accept what he thinks is lesser work from himself. 

Of course there is no issue of artistic ownership where my art is concerned. What is mine is most definitely hers. And I dont have much of a say in the matter. So the owl I was working on today  in my mind a mix of watercolour and collage – got thick grey brush lines on its wing when I walked off to make myself a cup of tea. I smiled at that. The next time I left the painting alone, splashes of green paint filled up portions of the wing. Well, I could live with that, I said to myself.

On my way to dinner, though, I nearly fainted. There was my elegant grey-and-yellow-and-now-also-dull-green owl, with weird puddles of watery red inside its large eyes. Reddish watery streaks had leeched all over the painting, and there was no debating the fact that it was messed up beyond rescue. 

Seeing my crestfallen face, N rushed up and said, I was painting red zigzag angry lines in its eyes... Its an image we once had on her cake – an alien with angry red, thunderbolt type lines in its eyes – and we had loved it. I kind of looked blank for a few seconds, my disappointment evident. She immediately said, Im sorry! Ill make you a painting just like this one tomorrow, ok? Later at night, I told her it was ok for her to paint on my paintings, because it was, well, just ok. She didnt have to feel bad. 

As I write this, four precious days into my ‘project, I can see my poor departed grandmother shaking her head. She wouldnt approve of talking about a task before its all done and dusted. You just do not do that. Not if youre a good, god-fearing, risk-averse South Indian. Already I can see N reaching the point when she loses interest in the proceedings, and I know Ive fallen off more wagons than Id care to count! Ah well, lets see how it all turns out, shall we? If I do get around to completing it, watch this space for an update!