I’m continuing to paint on paper with tempera and big brushes. It occurred to me that I was going back in a way, back before filling my head with images and ideas and ways of looking at the world. Painting is thinking, that’s the ticket.
It’s funny the things we remember. Hop in my time machine for a moment. We’re going back to the kindergarten at the front end of what was then Green Meadows Public School in Etobicoke Ontario Canada. That was before the Catholics took over. Painting was the best part of the day. We had powdered tempera paints back then. I remember dipping my brush in the bucket of water then into the powder, which would gather in dry clumps over the wet brush. I loved the effect of the water and the powder partially mixing on the paper, which was taped up on a big, clunky wooden easel.
The kids in class were mostly painting the same things, their square houses with pointy roofs and chimneys with smoke curling out the top, even though none of us had fireplaces or wood-stoves. They painted the nuclear family out in front, with Mommy and Daddy and the dog. I know this because the teacher would ask each of us, one at a time, and that’s what the other kids said.
Me, I had a big squiggly colourful mess going on. I was having a great old time attacking the paper with layers and layers of paint. “My goodness Eugene, this is different”. She seemed alarmed. “What are you painting?” Now I just didn’t have the vocabulary back in the day to explain to her how I was engaging the picture plane with expressionist vigor. I looked at all the other paintings and I looked at mine and I felt like an outcast. I reached into my little mind for some words to justify what I was up to. To this day I remember my response. “It’s just a design”, I said. I knew I couldn’t explain it. Back then what I didn’t know was that painting was beyond explanation.
Years later, while watching the delightful short documentary The Reality of Karel Appel (now, like everything else, available on YouTube), I remembered that moment. “Painting is a concrete and sensual experience” said Appel (or at least said the translator), “Being intensely moved by the joys and tragedies of man.”….and “I paint like a barbarian in a barbaric age.” I wish I was armed with that kind of vocabulary back in kindergarten so I could have offered the teacher some insight. I wish I could have at least repeated what Francis Bacon said, “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”