I already got the best present

I got my present the other day, shipped to me by my niece, Rachael.

Are you dazzled? I know, let’s get real: if I tried to sell that at a garage sale, I might get $5 for it, and that would be entirely for the frame (it is a nice frame). It’s worth a lot more to me, though, and it’s entirely because of its history. It was passed on to me after my brother’s death, and he had in turn inherited it after my father’s death, and he had rescued it from my grandmother’s house after her death. Grandma had several paintings by this artist hanging in her home, proudly displayed in good frames, and I remember them from my childhood. They were the most prominent pieces of art in her home.

The artist was my father.

He had painted these watercolors when he was a teenager, which would date them to the mid-1950s, when he was pretty much a stereotype of the classic 50s teenage troublemaker — hair slicked back with Brylcreem, on the football team, letterman’s jacket, tinkering with cars or playing hooky to go fishing, all of that. But also…he wanted to be an artist. That was the dream. He painted, he sketched, he had standards. Unfortunately, his family was dirt poor — his father had died when he was very young, and he and his 5 siblings were raised by their widowed mother, who worked picking fruit in season, and at a cannery in town out of season. They lived in a shambles of a house (but I loved that house!) right next to the railroad tracks, and apparently on the wrong side of those tracks.

I don’t think he ever even considered the possibility of art training. Once he graduated from high school, he went straight into the work force. He worked on the railroad, as a logger, as a mechanic and gas station attendant, as a water meter reader, as a custodian, as anything he could do between stints at Boeing — Boeing was, of course, the big kahuna in Seattle, with the best pay and benefits, but they were also a fickle lord, with regular waves of layoffs. It was a tough struggle to raise a family as a blue collar worker in an unpredictable economy, and he was sometimes reduced to working two jobs to make ends meet. Art? It doesn’t pay the bills. There was little free time, either. He’d get home at some odd hour and flop his aching back down in bed, to try and get a little rest before going off for another shift of hard labor.

Sometimes he’d ask me to read the comics to him while he rested, but he was picky. Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant or Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan, that was the good stuff, although he also liked Turok, Son of Stone. It had to have good art, none of that talking animal stuff. Some evenings the whole family would just sit at the table and draw, while he showed us how to sketch people and do perspective. My brother continued that practice for years after he moved out and started his own family.

He never did get any professional training in art, and had little opportunity to practice it, but I think it made a difference to his family. We grew up with a working class appreciation of the arts and an aspiration to do more than just work for a living, since we could see how the demands of labor had deprived our father of his dream. We never fell into the trap of anti-intellectualism or turned into Fox News zombies — I’ve got a remarkably progressive and open-minded family, and never had those uncomfortable holiday get-togethers I’ve read about. I credit that to a father and mother who were reasonable people who never fell victim to the irrational fears and paranoia that has poisoned so many American minds. We could just look at the walls in Grandma’s house and see that there were greater depths, depths that they were deprived of exploring, in our family of poors and manual laborers and struggling lower class workers.

That’s what the painting means to me. Don’t saddle people with your biases about what their class should be like, because they’re human beings who might surprise you with their hopes and ambitions. Also, damn, but the demands we impose on working people and our own biases have deprived the world of great potential.

Have a good Christmas this weekend, and remember that the best gifts you can give are mostly intangible.


  1. hemidactylus says

    Nice painting and your post was a nice perspective on the framing of your own running narrative. Is that a reflection of you I think I’m seeing in the glass?

  2. says

    Truly priceless.
    I’m no expert on the visual arts, but it looks good to me. I never could do shit with watercolors–I gave up on painting & drawing pretty early and pursued music, which paid the bills sometimes. Really more of a lifestyle than a living, I suppose.
    My tastes in painting tend toward Bob Ross and Norman Rockwell, so I tend to prefer art that depicts real things, real places. And I must say, your father’s buildings are much better than those cheesy little shacks that Bob Ross was forever ruining his paintings with.
    I suppose the trees could be happier, but other than that…
    Also, your father had excellent taste in comics. Turok, Son of Stone absolutely rules. Andar, look out! Flying honkers!
    Anyway, happy Xmas. And take care of that masterpiece.

  3. says

    At times when I have gotten into the “what is art?” debate my standard answer is that it’s short for artifact, and art is just something someone made with intent to create the thing. This is a perfect example of the meaning of art. Its meaning is that it has meaning.

  4. woozy says

    That’s a pretty damned nice painting.

    It had to have good art, none of that talking animal stuff.

    What? Are you claiming this isn’t good art https://image.invaluable.com/housePhotos/soulis/69/616069/H1081-L131129207.jpg ?

    Okay…. not the point and not the place…. but sheesh. In the fifties “talking animal stuff” would only have meant one of the most talented and experienced artistic talents. … Okay, not the time and place… and oddly enough, Clifford Simak, was a critic of that comic had only disparaging things to say about it in the novel “Out of their Minds”.

    … still not the place….(but it’s my favorite comic….)

    Great painting.

  5. billseymour says

    I have a sampler that my maternal grandmother had herself inherited. She stated specifically that I would inherit it from her because I was the only one of the kids who would stand on a chair and point to each of the letters while saying what it was.  (I guess I was a geek long before that was cool.)

    About 30 or 40 years ago, I took it to the St. Louis Art Museum to ask if it could be restored in any way.  It turns out that it’s not really worth very much…nowhere near the $200 or so that I paid to have it cleaned and mounted on an acid-free backing, but it means a great deal to me.

    … remember that the best gifts you can give are mostly intangible.

    I agree wholeheartedly.

  6. Tethys says

    Your father had a great eye and was quite skilled. The painting is lovely, and IMO, having meaningful mementos of loved ones is priceless.

    I treasure the cheap, mass produced bit of art from my Grandparents. I have many memories of it on the dining room wall behind my Grandfathers chair, and it now lives in my home where my grandchildren come to see their Grummy. Circle of life.

  7. antaresrichard says

    My father, a blue collar worker, was an artist as well, though he seldom had time to produce any art. Anyway, to unwind he would go out every Friday evening and sometimes bring back a little treat for my twin sister and I. I especially looked forward to those Fridays he would return with the latest monthly issue of ‘Turok, Son of Stone’.


  8. gijoel says

    I wish I had your father, PZ. Mine was a man too selfish to share his emotions. I grieved for him when he died, but I still despise him to this day. Christmas is hard as I don’t have a family.

  9. lb says

    Art conservator, here. Just a bit of unsolicited advice and I hope you don’t mind. We work primarily with oils, but we do see watercolors in bad condition brought into our studio by clients. The best thing you can do to protect your father’s piece is to make sure the materials surrounding the paper are acid free and that there is some UV protection in the glass. Your local frame shop should have those materials available. (do not go to Hobby Lobby or Michaels–their people have no real training whatsoever) Also, be sure to hang the painting in a room that doesn’t get any sun if at all possible. UV light is very damaging to watercolors (textiles and pastels also) and the damage is cumulative over time. Oils can take more light, but they are also damaged by too much sunlight.

    It’s a lovely piece and quite good for such a young person! We see a large number of paintings done by very young women in the late 19th –early 20th century. They are often called “lady paintings” and were done as part of the young person’s training to make them more “marriageable”. IMO, many of them are really good and those that are still around are now greatly cherished by their families. I’m very glad you got your dad’s painting and I hope it stays in the family for many generations. Best wishes and happy holidays to you and your family!

  10. billseymour says

    lb @12: ah, yes, I forgot about the UV.  Keeping the sampler I mentioned @8 out of sunlight was advice I got from the person who cleaned and remounted it.

    Like I said, it’s not worth any money…it’s unfinished and, IIRC, in a style that was fairly common among German immigrants in the late 18th century; but it means a lot to me because it’s something that I remember from Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

  11. redwood says

    I like that painting. Your father had a good sense of shading and didn’t try to overwork anything. Considering his age, it’s really well done.

    I’ve always liked looking at paintings and around ten years ago decided to give creating them a try when a neighbor who is an artist started classes. It’s been a lot of fun and my poor house is covered inside with my works, including the one next to my name now, though it’s a colored pencil drawing rather than a painting.

  12. KG says

    Nice picture – the level of detail is impressive for a watercolour. One of my most valued possessions is hanging on the wall in front of me – an embroidery by my mother, showing three cranes (birds, not machines) among palm trees, with a suggestion of mountains in the background. She took this art up in her 60s; my elder brother has the very best one (which I don’t begrudge him – I have plenty from her), a view from the back of my parents’ house, showing a sunset over the houses in the next street. Like PZ’s father, her family background (as a girl from a working-class family, born in 1921 – my grandfather was a steelworker) limited her opportunities; I think she could have been either a professional singer or a professional historian (I have some articles she wrote for a local history magazine during and after her late-life degree with the Open University). Her younger brother got to go to university from school, which was never on the cards for her.

  13. rietpluim says

    As a professional artist and art educator, I can see that it is a very fine painting. Your father was definitely a gifted man. I am sorry to think how much talent is lost by economic equality. Nice Christmas to you too.

  14. maireaine46 says

    This is a beautiful tribute to your father. Thanks for writing it, and letting us see the painting. Your Dad had a lot of talent, and it seems you have inherited his compassionate feelings for oppressed people of all kinds. I also come from a working class background of people who would never have liked Fox news or anything Republican.