Secret Paintings

The first thing you saw when you walked into the art room was a life sized papier-mâché Buddy Holly. The walls were a sprawling quilt of patchwork murals of animals, skulls, or cars, painted thick and daring on the masonry and signed by their respective artists as far back as the ‘60s. Like relics of high school students’ past, the room was a colourful menagerie of wire sculpture, clumsily glazed pottery, and stacks of paintings. Squeezed tubes of paint, discarded bits of electronics, and brushes stained blue, red, and yellow completed the artscape. At the front of the room, a stout man with a pleasant round face and black apron introduced himself as Mr. Nadurak, the art teacher. His smile was mischievous. He sat in a creaky chair, feet up on his desk which was piled high with neglected paperwork. Behind him stood a green chalkboard with the ghost of the previous year still chalked onto its surface. It was 1999 in Regina, Saskatchewan. It was the year I discovered art. 

Having touched some tender part of my teenage soul, a recreation of Van Gogh’s ‘Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate)’ was the first thing I painted. I used bold strokes, dipping into cobalt blue, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and black, my hands seeming to work of their own accord. Mr. Nadurak was the first person to tell me I was talented in art and he lent me a book about Vincent Van Gogh’s life.  A new world, comfortable and lush and green, had awoken inside me.

The following year I painted a recreation of ‘Starry Night’, with all its mysterious swirls of movement and colour. I left it on a stand in the corner of the art room to dry. It was from that stand that someone stole it during the lunch hour one sorrowful Friday. I was equal parts devastated and flattered. I mourned the way only a 15 year old can mourn, but in the back of my mind was a spark: something I made was worth breaking the rules for. I grew wary of painting at school after that, so Mr. Nadurak agreed to let me paint at home, bringing the finished paintings in only for grading.

I brought it up at supper time, sitting across from my mother at our kitchen table, which barely held itself together with glue. A floral plastic tablecloth hid cigarette burns and its skirt swished as my two younger sisters kicked at each other under the table. It was there that I asked the question I already knew the answer to, but asked anyway. I asked my mother for a set of oil paints and a few canvases to paint. I told her it was for school. The answer came through a blue cloud of cigarette smoke intermingling with the scent of beer. We couldn’t afford it. 

When he asked me how painting at home was going, I told Mr. Nadurak it wasn’t working out, and despite the shame that comes hand in hand with poverty I told him why. He nodded without judgement and motioned for me to follow him. His eyes twinkled as he opened the storage room door to a tiny room with metal shelving that went all the way up to the ceiling. Each level overflowed with tubes and bottles and pans of colour. Brushes stood out of tin cans, tall and proud like soldiers. Pencils, sticks of charcoal, pastel blocks and wax crayons stuck out of cardboard boxes like technicolour porcupines. My heart swelled to fill the room as Mr. Nadurak filled my backpack with crinkled metal tubes in every shade. He threw in a smattering of brushes and a small jar of turpentine. He invited me to drop by the room at the end of the day to pick up some primed Masonite panels to paint on. I thanked him through tears. “No problem,” he said, “just remember me when you’re a world famous artist”. I walked around for the rest of the day as if floating through a dream, with the weight of priceless treasure in my bag. The weight of a future.

My bedroom was an unfinished concrete basement without windows. A crinkly blue tarp was nailed up as an improvised door. The walls and floor were parking lot grey interrupted by small cracks and song lyrics I’d written in bold black strokes. Strings of lights criss-crossed overhead like a web of stars blotting out the metal ducts and spiderwebs. It was there that I painted. I covered every masonite panel with monsters from my dreams and the thoughts in my head. Oil paint takes forever to dry. 

Finished wet panels leaned around my room drying but my mind hadn’t quieted. My fingers burned, needing to create. My dresser was heavy and old with two broken drawers but with some effort I was able to pull it away from the wall. My eyes scanned the smooth surface of the dresser’s back. Look at all that empty space, I thought, just begging to be painted. I crouched there with the glass I’d popped out of a photo frame to use as a palette, and I spread colour into the night. When I finished, I pushed the dresser gently, not completely, back against the wall, hoping my mother would never find what I’d defaced but also hoping she would.

Still, my fingers itched, so I moved furniture. Nothing was safe. The back of my headboard became a sprawling expanse of prairie covered in monsters with a stormy sky blazing overhead. A bedside table now housed a cluster of emotional faces between it and the wall. Soon, there wasn’t a single stick of furniture down in my basement room that wasn’t host to a hidden image that was perfectly, privately mine.

Highschool graduation came and went. I was presented with the Class of 2003 Art Award of Distinction. One of my paintings was purchased by the school to hang forever among those that inspired me when I first walked those hallowed halls. My mother moved out of our family home with my sisters during the second week of july to live with her boyfriend in Lloydminster. I had until the end of July to have my own things moved out. I had a job. I had an apartment lined up that would be ready August 1st. I was an adult now. I was free.

I was at work a week later when I got the phone call that my childhood home was on fire. An investigation later showed that the wiring was faulty in one of the electrical outlets. The fire chief said it wasn’t uncommon in these low income housing units, and that despite their best efforts, all of my belongings and the house I grew up in were reduced to a pile of rubble and a puff of smoke.

The lot was sectioned off with yellow tape and remained that way for years. I never went back, but I’ve often wondered if, when they finally got someone to clean up the mess, they found anything interesting buried in the rubble. Perhaps within a concrete basement room they found a melted string of lights, and under those charred and exploded bulbs they found burned furniture, and maybe as they pulled that furniture up they discovered layers of colour, images they weren’t expecting to find hidden on the back. I wondered if they would care to know that a young woman found confidence and purpose in those brush strokes because of the generosity of a high school art teacher, and that she found herself in the space between those concrete walls and secret paintings.

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