Growing up, few things made me feel cooler than telling people, “My Grandma is an artist.”
Her framed paintings still hang on the walls of my childhood home like windows that only open onto stormy seas and quiet pastures, telling stories of tall ships and old barns, and of meadows, and deserts, and ponds, and all the things they contain. There is no theme that binds one image to another, beyond their creator and the fact that they are beautiful, but, combined, my Grandma’s art became part of the landscape of my youth. Her paintings are as familiar to me as my siblings faces, as nostalgic as Hamburger Helper on a Thursday, as indelible as the zigzag path we devised as teenagers to descend a creaky stairwell silently in the dark. I have looked at them so many times, I can recall specific details in the sweeping texture of her oils on canvas and the way she coaxed watercolors to bleed together across a sheet of thick, rough paper to become something more.
We visited my grandparents in lovely Anaheim, California, once or twice a year when I was a kid and I loved going to their house because, 1) They lived so close to Disney Land we could stand in the yard and watch Tinker Bell fly off the top of the Matterhorn every night, and 2) At some point, my Grandma would take me into her “studio” (which was really just a corner of the detached garage full of easels, paints, brushes, and tin cans of water) and let me see her works in progress. There might be a pencil sketch or a charcoal relief and a freshly prepped canvas awaiting her next idea, or a table full of wooden crafts hand painted in charming bright Rosemaling. Still life or panorama, realistic or folksy, looking around that space I was pretty sure my Grandma could paint anything.
Then one year, when I was like 6, she painted me.
Working from a recent school photo, she’d painted an impressive portrait of a freckle faced little girl in a red smock dress and pigtails. I immediately recognized myself and felt both flattered and embarrassed to have become the artist’s subject. We stood and looked at it for a moment and finally my Grandma sighed and said, “I just can’t get your mouth right.”
In the space below my nose where a mouth should have been there was a big, dark smudge where she had already tried several times to recreate the smirky half-smile people have come to expect from this face. See? Even as a very young child, the barely upturned corners of my mouth felt like an actual full-blown smile. Basically, I’ve had Bitchy Resting Face since I was a toddler and I guess that’s hard to capture just right with a brush. As far as I know, my Grandma never finished that painting and I’m sure it eventually got a fresh coat of white and became the base for something else entirely. Which is fine by me.
I didn’t need to be painted by my Grandma to know that I was loved by her. And I didn’t need to grow up living next door, to have learned a lot from her, because my Grandma was an artist.
When she painted, she showed me what it meant to create; that we can give life to thoughts or ideas or images that once resided only our minds. When she sent her paintings home with others, she showed me we can generously part with our creations and not worry too much about where they end up. When she didn’t finish a painting, even a perfect portrait lacking only a mouth, she showed me that it doesn’t really matter how long you spent trying, if something isn’t working, then sometimes it’s ok to quit and go in a new direction entirely. And when she kept a painting for herself, she showed me that not every story an artist tells belongs to everyone, and we don’t even have explain ourselves. But I think the most valuable lesson I learned in watching my Grandma was that she bravely and regularly submitted her work to be evaluated and displayed at fairs, on calendars, and in art shows, and in doing this, she showed me how to receive judgement, take criticism, and accept praise with grace, dignity, humility, and, of course, a grain of salt.
Mary Elizabeth Sault passed away Sunday morning after a long life, in which she filled the world around her with beautiful things. My grandma was an artist, and I am forever grateful for her influence. For, even from a distance, with her colors and her courage, she showed a little girl without a mouth how to speak.
May she rest in peace.