This is a true story.
I had just entered a treasure-trove. It was a tantalizing world, hidden from view from the rest of the world. My jaw dropped in disbelief
"Take what you like, young man," said the sweet little old lady who stood by my side, garage door clicker in hand. She was a neighbor and had invited me to her home in our sleepy suburban neighborhood because she had, in her words, "a few art-supplies to give away,"
So here I stood, in her garage, which was filled with what appeared to be literally thousands of paintings, stacked tightly in bundles from floor to ceiling.
"These were my husband's paintings", she explained." Maybe you could paint over them and re-use them."
"What? Paint over them?" I asked in horror. "What are you saying? Don't you want your husband's paintings?" The sweet old lady shrugged and shook her head, in a sad, quiet way. "What can I do with these?" She responded. What you don't take today, the trash people will be clearing out tomorrow..."
To me, this was an artist's nightmare: Imagine passing away and your spouse tosses your art out in the garbage. How could she do this? I asked if she had children or other family members who would be interested in saving some of the paintings. " No", she assured me. No children. No family.
I had to see some of these paintings. I began unstacking them right in the driveway, and was overwhelmed by the color and activity of the canvases. They were abstracts, fantastic designs, geometric explosions of a passionate nature.
"My Howard was a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman," she said. "He worked all day, came home to play with the children and enjoy dinner. After that he would spend some quality time with me before heading out here to the garage. He kept his paintings a secret for awhile but he couldn't hide them from me forever." She eyed the contents of the paintings with disinterest. I was listening as I tried counting the canvases in the stacks. There were maybe three thousand of various sizes, and every one thickly painted.
"I can't paint over these," I told her. They are too thick. They would crack. But they are your husband's art. Why don't you at least pick out a few to hang in the house to remember him by?" Again, the sweet lady seemed disinterested. "He was self-taught," she continued. I suppose you could say it was his hobby."
But the canvases were amazing to me. Bold, confident compositions and experiments of every sort passed before my eyes as I carefully flipped past a life-time of creations. This was not just the work of a vacuum-cleaner salesman hobbyist. This man had been a real artist. He had been a dedicated, driven artist who had invested decades of sweat and blood into his work.
The sweet old lady went inside to make me a sandwich as I poured over the paintings. This man had led a double life: Mild-mannered vacuum-cleaner salesman by day and expressive painter by night. I looked and noticed how each artwork had been carefully dated on the back. The earliest seemed to have been made in 1955 and the last were done in 2006, just before he went into hospice care, after his stroke. ...and it was about to be thrown away. Didn't his wife give a damn?
Didn't she care at all?
She came out with a cheese sandwich and some lemonade. "I'm sorry you can't use these to paint over," she said "The trash service will be here tomorrow and-"
"Listen, why don't you please pick one out to save?" I blurted. "He spent over fifty years making these. I think it would be so nice if you saved just one."
The old lady's eyes widened and she chuckled gently. "Young man, you seem to think that I don't understand my husband's joy for making art? Please come inside for a moment."
I followed her into her front door, and expected to be met with fussy old-widow décor.
But what I saw blew me away.
Quilts. Every wall was covered with brilliantly colored, unbelievably cool quilts of every size. All of the quilts appeared to have a bold, vibrant style of design that looked like
her late husband's paintings!
"You see," she said, "My husbands paintings inspired me to become somewhat of an artist myself. That was his greatest gift to me. He helped me to understand color, shape and pattern. It started off as a hobby, but the last forty years, we have been collaborating on these together. Howard created the designs, and I transformed them into quilts."
She took me on a tour of the house, pointing out every quilt, carefully describing the painting of her husband's which had inspired each one. Finally we reached a prominent wall in the study that was entirely empty.
"My favorite Quilt used to hang here, for over twenty years." It was the biggest, the finest quilt we ever collaborated on. I wrapped my Howard in it when he passed away. He was buried with it. I shall leave the wall blank now. I will never fill it."
I finished my sandwich and gave her a kiss on the cheek, thanking her.
That day changed my understanding of art
As she did the dishes, i quietly retrieved from the garage a portrait that i found amongst the stacks... it was a portrait her husband had done of her. it was dated twenty years earlier. i placed it on the mantle.