What I Learned on My Summer Vacation / by Vanessa Longacre-Wilcox

Figure   1  : My father's studio

Figure 1: My father's studio

I have been having a bit of trouble getting this post done.  There are many things in my mind and what I think I want to convey keeps shifting.  A long time ago a friend of mine, after reading a 50 page short story I had written, said, “You know, you don’t have to get it all in there.”  I’m having the same trouble here but I’ve tried to whittle it down. 

I started working on this post before I left for vacation but once I was away, and actually working on the art, I ran out of steam about writing about it.  It wasn’t, as you might imagine, that it was hard to focus on vacation.  It was that the original content stemmed out of my everyday life.  More specifically, it stemmed out of the grind of everyday life.  And on vacation, that was hard to relate to.  So this post has morphed as I thought about unexpected things and enjoyed my time with family.

I’ve often said that when my father is visiting Seattle, I live a charmed life.  He does a substantial amount of cooking, grocery shopping, takes turns entertaining kids which allows me to take naps, get exercise, and create art.  He is one of the people I admire most in the world, he is smart, funny, compassionate, and generous.  He provides a daily dose of emotional and intellectual support and a few days into his visits I start to feel like a whole complete person again, not just the two dimensional mommy version of me that I sometimes feel is the only thing that people see.  

So going to visit him, at his house, is truly a vacation.  For all the same reasons as above plus a pool and an art studio that he let me crash.  Life is good when I am around my dad and the kids have their Pop Pop.

Early in the trip, I went to talk to my dad while he was in his studio.  While we talked, he was working on a sketch for a painting.  Seeing his outline on the canvas, I was struck by how precise his drawing was.  When I sketch for a painting I leave a lot to figure out on the canvas.  As I mentioned in the sketching post, I don’t love to do it.  So I want to get to the fun part, which for me, is the painting.   I don’t think this is always a bad thing but it has its limitations.

           Figure 2: Chicken painting. Age 6.

           Figure 2: Chicken painting. Age 6.

As I thought about this watching my dad sketch, I had a small sense of déjà vu going.  Like I was receiving a lesson about art from my father that I had before. 

When I was about six, our class hatched a batch of chicks from eggs (this was all the rage in the 80s.  Do they still do that? Or is it, like, a horrible inhumane thing that we did back then?  Anyway…) and we were making paintings of them.  I wanted mine to really look like the chick so I asked my father, a professional illustrator, painter, my idol, and all around best dad ever, for advice.  How do you make something look realistic?  He told me that you look very carefully at what you are trying to paint and you paint what you see.

In my dad’s version of the story, after he told me that, I said, “When I look at the chicken from the side, I only see one eye.  So I’m only going to paint one eye.  Is that right?”  My dad still has this painting hanging on the wall at his house.

My art is so emotion driven, I sometimes forget to think.  What does the chicken look like?  Drawing what I see can be hard to do. Heck, seeing what I see can be hard to do.  My brain works hard to try to get me to take short cuts.  Things I see all the time my brain is like “Got this one, thanks!”  My brain is completely irritated that I would take the time to want to look and think about what I am drawing.  “It’s a tree, we’ve been drawing these for 30 years.  Come on now.”  And if I let it, I get the same tree every time.  Because my brain thinks that all branches have the exact same curve.  It is really hard to convince it otherwise. 

Remembering this early art lesson, seeing my dad work on his painting, had me evaluating my plan, my progress, how I work and why.  It had me thinking about discipline and methodology (again.) 

Figure 3: Beautiful Dead End.

Figure 3: Beautiful Dead End.

This was a well-timed artistic intervention. The project I had lined up for vacation was a small detailed painting I’ve been calling “Stop. Dead End.” and I had already begun on it.

From an employment perspective, I’m in a dead end job. As an at-home parent, I’ve got no room for advancement, no bonuses, no rewards for a job well done, no time-off, and unless something drastic happens, not even a sick day.  I’m not going to get a promotion to VP of Mothering or Regional Director of Laundering Services (although I’m totally going to be calling myself that now.)  This job that I have, is what it is.  In all its glory and with all the minutia.

For a decade before being home with the kids I worked for a company that was always ranked in the top 100 best places to work by Forbes Magazine.  My managers thought about my job satisfaction, we had perks, and things called morale events.  Someone was looking over the team and had the good sense to think, “Hey, these people have been working hard, let’s do something nice for them.”

I know that I am valued in my current role, but it is different.  I know that my husband, in particular, values the financial, social, and career trade-offs I made when we agreed that I would stay home with the kids.  But it’s tough, there is always a lot going on, and always something to get done.  There is not a lot of time to be congratulated and to be honest, there is a lot that I wish I could do better.  (For example, I just got the kids down for a nap and while cleaning up their lunch I realized everything they ate was orange.  Grilled Cheese, goldfish, carrots.  Even the damn plate was orange. That can’t be a good thing.)

Maybe that’s why the “Dead End” signs first started popping into my awareness.  At the end of the block that my favorite tree is on, there is a stop sign.  I come to this stop sign every day.  Across the street is a tiny road that ends with a cliff.  The houses end, the trees part, the sudden drop-off creates vast openness to a picture perfect view of the Northwest.  Puget Sound, Vashon Island and a sky so big it hurts. An expansive view that is a reminder of how large the world is.  Any day of the year, any weather, the view is breathtaking. 

Figure 4: First sketch on the right, updated with detail on the left.

Figure 4: First sketch on the right, updated with detail on the left.

At the forefront of this view is a sign that reads, “DEAD END”.  Sometime back, this sign began to make me giggle. “DEAD END” seemed like the absolute worst descriptor for this street. I began to see it as a metaphor for how a stay at-home parent sees the importance of his or her work versus how the rest of the world views that time period.  I had fantasies of vandalism, spray painting the sign, “The tip of the world.” Or “The Beginning.”  Or simply, “The most perfect spot.”

This dead end street became an inside joke between me and me, a visual metaphor, a reminder of the greatness in staying exactly where you are.  Instead of vandalism, I decided I wanted to paint it.  A visual cue of the ridiculous labels we put on things.  This is what I was working on when I went on vacation. 

I had already created a version of the sketch for the painting when I came across my dad at work in his studio and had my déjà vu.  When I went back to look at the drawing, I realized I had yadda yadda yadda’d a considerable amount of the outline for the painting.  Instead of charging forward, I redid the sketch.

As I worked on it, I thought about a painting I did in high school that has always annoyed me.  I was 14 when I painted it and that was the last time I painted a street scene before tackling "Stop. Dead End."

Figure 5: Christopher Street.  Watercolor on paper.  Age 14.

Figure 5: Christopher Street.  Watercolor on paper.  Age 14.

It is a painting from a photo I took of Christopher Street in New York City, right near where my mother and I lived when I was a kid.  My mother loved this painting and she had it framed and hanging in her apartment until she died.  The painting is special to me now because of how much she liked it.  It reminds me of how, like my father is, she was infinitely supportive of my art.  She believed in me, she saw beauty in the things that I did, even when I didn't.  And this painting brought together two things she loved very much, New York City and me.  I’m sentimental about that now.

But I used to only see all the mistakes when I looked at this painting.  Thinking about it in the context of this discussion, I understand the mistakes that I made.  It wasn’t about a lack of talent, it was about a lack of a plan.  I wasn’t methodical. The spots in the painting that are troublesome, I remember very clearly winging.  And you can’t wing things like the perspective of a building on an angled street.  I rushed it, I was panicked, I really needed a ruler. 

Looking at the “Stop. Dead End.” sketch I didn’t want to make the same mistakes.  There are things that you can gloss over and no one will notice but the country’s most common road sign is not one of them.  You don’t realize this about yourself, but you know the font of a stop sign, you know its exact red too.  I know this because when I first painted the sign it looked nothing like a stop sign.  Sure it was a red octagon with the letters “S. T. O. P.” on it but it was no stop sign.  Winging it was not the way to go on this one so I reworked it again, and again, until it was as the end of the trip.

Sadly the vacation came to a close and on the last night I stayed up late packing and didn’t get to finish the painting.  I can’t decide if I will take the time to finish it now that I am home or not.  I think it’s an adequate painting, cute even, but it doesn’t emotionally convey what I was looking for.  I was looking for the same connection that I feel when I look at the Underwater Dome painting. But I don’t.

Figure 6: Stop. Dead End. Acrylic on paper 8x10.

Figure 6: Stop. Dead End. Acrylic on paper 8x10.

After all my focus on being methodical, the painting lacks what I wanted most for it, freedom.  It’s neither precise nor free.  I’ve been thinking about doing other renditions of it.  Maybe a 2 foot by 3 foot oil painting that is just color blocks.  Or I could really see it as a loosely painted watercolor. 

Looking at this “Stop. Dead End.” painting, I can connect to what my mother liked about my Christopher Street painting.  The Christopher Street painting gives you a feeling of being there (even if you’d be worried to walk under that white building because it might fall over on you.)  That's what's missing from "Stop. Dead End."

Despite all this, I’m not disappointed.  This was good practice and it gave me a lot to think about.  I’m learning, which feels like the point to all of this anyway.