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The Artist’s Lane: El Milagros

Don’t judge a book by its cover, isn’t that what we’ve been told?

The cover is used to get the book from the shelf into our hands. Until we read the book, we do not know what it’s all about.

So, here is my story — or maybe it is his story.

“Can you paint a nude from a photo?” a young gentleman asked on the other end of the phone line.

“Of course I can, just bring it by I’ll look at it and give you a price.”

We met, he handed me a black and white three by four inch photograph of a nude from the back, not an ounce of fat, a beautiful body with narrow hips, the right arm showed off a black bracelet and the hand meshed in thick black hair cropped at the back of the neck. A chain was obvious from the end dangling down the back. On the left ear was a hoop earring. The face was profiled in shadow. The body wore nothing except three pieces of jewelry.

The bracelet was a gift and the gentleman gave me explicit instructions that it was very important that I capture it just as it was. He began his story, it was a holiday on a Caribbean Island on the beach and he wondered if I could incorporate the impression of a seashell into the painting. Yes, I was on the right page; I felt that I had opened the book and was reading the story.

“I will not disappoint you, the deadline is not a problem,” I assured him. We agreed on a price.

I asked him if he had a title. He wrote a name on the paper, “El Milagros.” I carefully wrapped the photograph in the paper, knowing this was a treasure and I wanted to return it in the same condition.

Immediately I went into my studio and began to work on the drawing making sure that every detail was measured perfectly. I understood the importance.

I had previously made arrangement for friends to come and stay in the guest house for the weekend. Ten of us were having a painter’s weekend. We would paint and critique each other’s work.

As one of the women looked at the painting she said, “Betty, I think it is a little masculine. The hand seems a little big for a woman’s hand,” and another said, “I thought so too.”

I contended that I had measured exactly. Then I told the story about the Caribbean experience and the seashell and passion this gentleman had. I was feeling embarrassed that maybe I was a little naive. I couldn’t believe that I had just painted a nude man and thought it was a woman.

Then another person entered into the conversation. He thought that the neck was a little stout to be a woman and the way the nude was standing looked like a man.

Then Al came into the studio and under a lit magnifying glass examined it and examined it and examined it and said that he didn’t know. It must have been on his mind all night because the next morning the first thing out of his mouth was, “Do you think it is a man?” He reminded me that when he first saw the photo, he told me to make the waist a little smaller and I told him no I was going to do it just like the photo.

Another guest poised from the back and cocked her hip and said, “This is the way a woman would stand and this nude is standing like a man.” One of the male guests piped in and showed how a man would stand. Another woman said, “Look at my butt; it’s flat. It’s just like mine; it’s a woman.” The others disagreed.

I finished the painting, framed it, called the gentleman and we met at a coffee shop in town. I shuffled around, stammering and said that I was sure his friend would enjoy it. He noticed how I was trying to avoid the gender and he quickly said, “She will love it.” It was a quick response, I thought.

I still don’t know if I painted a woman or a man. I painted a beautiful piece of art with an impression of a turquoise seashell and titled it “El Milagros” (The Miracle). I also captured the gift on the arm.

A miracle is a God thing, when He interrupts earth and touches us with His love. I will never know who I painted. The photo was returned and the painting is hanging in someone’s home who hopefully loves it. I don’t know the end of story. I thought later I should have taken a photo of the painting, but I didn’t.

I painted something beautiful that holds a memory for two people. The miracle for me is this, I didn’t judge the book by its cover. I read enough to know the passion of the author, and hopefully I painted it into the painting.

The final brushstroke: Allow yourself to become vulnerable to someone else’s story. It might bring a few anxious moments, a little embarrassment, but it will always bring new understanding about yourself and maybe a little enlightenment.

Readers’ comments

Thanks for all your comments. I am passing them on to the other readers. E-mail bettyslade@centurytel.net.

Dear Betty:

“Oh, to be young again” — for my husband and I, it was a 1969 Ford Mustang, 428 Cobra Jet. Sold it to pay some credit card debt.

Missing a Mustang in Minn.

Julie

Dear Betty:

Art comes from the heart and is developed in the character of a man.  It might have come too soon in life. Count on a second chance. Oh, Betty, I can only hope!

I feel some days I have squandered my artistic talents, left behind some of my best work, and I too mourn for letting it go in my youth, as Al does.

As I have mentioned before, the stuff of my art is in my fingertips, poised over the paper, pounding in my heart, striving forth to strike the clean white paper.  My pencils wait patiently, for they will never spoil.  Will I pick up where I left off?  I wish I could, as that technique I had perfected in my youth.

I would have to find it again; but no, it no longer exists, nor does that young woman with all that fine time on her hands, spending hours at the university studio, gaining class hours and A’s and creating scores of fine line drawings no one has seen but me these past thirty-five years.

But, I can look around me and know that the years I spent, the thirty I have since my first child was born, have produced immeasurable fruit, in my two lovely daughters and two grandsons.  In my work, in my past costume creating, in my various gardens.  And I know my artistic second chance is still waiting. 

It aches within me.  It whimpers to be let free.  And sometimes it crushes me beneath its weight, forceful in its encouragement, “Don’t wait any longer; now your time is shorter than ever before on this earth.” 

I challenge myself to not return to the pattern of work and life and wasting hours, in my fatigue and lost sense of expression.  Do I listen?  Sometimes.  Often enough?  No.  I could only hope it all is comprised in both new art and in my book.

I found this quote and it will be in my book:  “Be like the bird that, halting on its flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, and yet sings, knowing that she hath wings.” — Victor Hugo.

Kathy Gibson

Michigan