My father was an artist in every sense of the word. He sold his paintings from the front lawn of our home in east Tennessee. They didn’t garner much money but what he earned could still be considered income since it was at least steady. When I was a little girl I used to sit on the front porch step to watch him mix his paints on a sheet of windowpane glass, and clean his brushes in cans of strong smelling water that I now know was turpentine. Since we didn’t have much, I thought that he was just doing things the poor people’s way, making do with what he had. And since he could barely read or write, I wondered how he knew what he was doing. How could he be a real artist? I have since come to understand that people do not necessarily have to be able to read or write to learn how to do something they love. Being able to read and write is very good. It is the standard for life in modern society, but there is also much to be gained by sitting at the feet of the wise.
Unfortunately I don’t have any of my father’s paintings to show you. I wasn’t smart enough or appreciative enough to collect and keep them when I had the chance, so now, all I have to help me tell you about them are memories. Daddy painted on cardboard, wood, glass, and occasionally canvas when he could get it. He loved oils and sometimes he would spend hours trying to get a single color right. Many of his paintings were versions of the pictures he saw in his Bible. His work was hardly comparable to that of the great masters, but daddy had a quiet nature, focus, and a steady hand; gifts that gave his creations their own life, vitality and appeal.
Each painting had a story that went with it. When Daddy explained the meanings behind the scenes of Mary and the baby Jesus, the Last Supper, the Garden of Eden, and Satan, whom he referred to as “Lucifer, the original serpent,” he did it with authority and a flair that baffled me to the bone. I learned countless Bible stories sitting at his feet watching and listening. Still, I couldn’t help wondering how he knew what the pictures meant. Had he stared at them so long that the meanings became clear? Or did God tell him what they meant? Now I understand that he too, had once sat at the feet of someone; someone very special, his own father.
Without having fancy words to describe his work, Daddy moved from biblical scenes to cubism. Cubism was the least popular in our community because it was the least understood, and daddy’s first cubist paintings accompanied the early onset of dementia. People just assumed his paintings were proof of his mental descent. I am sad to say I was among them. By the time I saw an original Picasso or anything like it, Daddy was gone.
Looking back I see why people came back again and again. Not always to buy; sometimes to just watch and listen. Whether literal or abstract, Daddy’s painting techniques were spellbinding; especially on glass. He would draw the scene on one side of thick glass, and using flawless strokes, paint on the opposite side. Watching things being painted was like watching things being created; it was magic.
I am modestly educated, and I can definitely read and write, but I will never be the painter or the story teller my father was. My joy is in knowing that each time I pick up a paintbrush or attempt to tell a story I will think of him and try to produce something he would be proud of.
Take a Knee 2017 – By Mary King – inspired by a movement, but peppered with gifts from my father.
Rufus Blair 1924-2001- Left a lasting impression on everyone who knew him, especially me. I am still using everything I learned sitting at his feet.
Mary King (OLLI Member and Writer’s Group Participant)