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Grandma’s Painting

A reflection on art, memory and meaning, found through the discovery of a beautiful Harriet Harding painting of a deer in an autumn wood.

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By Craig Axford | Canada

In spite of the fact I had been planning on returning with nothing more than a small backpack, the framed oil painting wasn’t a burden. Hidden behind the bubble wrap and the plastic bag protecting it from the vicissitudes of airline travel was the likeness of a deer that had already made a far more mysterious journey from my grandmother’s mind onto the canvass.

My grandmother — or grammy as I called her from about 18 months or so onward — has been gone for more than two decades. The painting will, hopefully, survive for far longer than either of us put together. Regardless, the deer browsing autumn leaves in the depths of some dark New England wood is destined to be a part of the scenery wherever I go. Friends that visit our home will perhaps notice and admire the work. Some subset of these might even comment on it, giving me a chance to say something about the painter.

Though I can’t say for sure, I don’t think my grandmother ever took any art classes. I remember seeing her easel set up in the living room from time to time during some of my visits as a small child, but I never actually saw her paint. If anyone else in the family saw her at work they have kept it to themselves. In my mind grammy as an artist remains a solitary figure engrossed in the act of creation next to the front windows of the home that my grandfather had constructed for them in the woods of Manomet, Massachusetts.

When she had finished a painting grammy would leave it on her easel with strict instructions not to touch it because the oil paint was still drying. It was her way of saying she had only just finished it and of showing it off. There was, after all, a room behind the kitchen where the painting could have dried without danger of being molested by an overly curious and underly cautious young boy.

Once, I arrived to find she had painted a pond we passed each Sunday on the way to church. She drew my attention to the rock in the middle of the pond. She had crowned it with a turtle. She told me it was the very same turtle that once caught my eye during one of those Sunday drives and which was the source of perpetual disappointment each Sunday thereafter when I failed to see it again. At last that elusive turtle wouldn’t be going anywhere. More than two decades after her death, I’m not sure where that painting currently hangs.

That she had thought to add that small creature to the rock made me feel loved. I don’t think I ever really appreciated her brushwork so much as I did at that moment. She had succeeded at doing what grandparents the world over aspire to do: confirm their grandchild’s belief that they rest at the center of the universe.

The story of the deer may be similar to that of the turtle. I can easily imagine us seeing it on one of our many walks through the woods on our way to Manomet Beach. Whether that was the case or not, a memory that fits the mold of that narrative has already begun to form without my having to will it into existence. Since the tale that explains my grammy’s inspiration has passed from knowable to unknowable, what really happened seems of little consequence at this point.

The Stone Age residents around Lascaux, France would have been a tighter knit community than our own modern counterparts. Then there were no jet airplanes or cars to move people across the country or around the world far from their birthplaces. There were no means of developing a friendship, let alone a romance, with someone on the other side of the planet using the camera on your laptop for a virtual get-together. The art adorning the cave walls of southern France wasn’t something a small child just happened to see during a short visit with grandma. It was the product of generations of education and effort; a vehicle for initiation as well as a work of art.

17,000-year-old cave drawing in Lascaux, France. Source: http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/caveart.htm

Seventeen thousand years ago in places such as southern France, the narratives like the one that I can’t resist building around my grandmother’s painting would have developed into the stuff of legend and myth. In such communities, the storytellers and artists would have been as essential as the hunters, gatherers, and warriors whose tales they embellished or manufactured. Art was not a passive presence to be glanced at casually now and then while hanging on the wall of a home or museum, but an active force in the lives of every individual. Meaning and memory would have been inseparable in such a setting.

Millennia ago, before writing, there weren’t any means of comparing notes to confirm the stories that both inspired and were inspired by the magical images dancing on the walls of torchlit caves were the same ones your parents and grandparents had heard. There were no fact checkers to ensure accuracy and consistency. Reality would have been embedded in the experience as opposed to something to be objectively observed from outside of it. The encyclopedic knowledge of the shaman, the hunter, and the healer that everyone so admired and counted on was all contained between the ears; the stories built around the curative powers of a particular plant or the habits of prey were the scaffolding that supported an important truth rather than the truth itself.

Now, in an age of words that survive on the page for centuries and of recordings that digitally record every verbal or bodily tic with fidelity it is consistency that we prize. Our societies are too complex and the decisions we must make too important for it to be otherwise.

Still, there is something to be said for having works of art in our life that enable us to reflect, imagine, and allow our memory to evolve without fear of contradiction. These are objects meant for interpretation and the exploration of meaning, not uncovering scientific or historic truths. Having something that empowers us to occasionally suspend disbelief is still an essential means of maintaining sanity in a world that, for the most part, requires us to remain grounded in reality.

Now that I’m older I regret not having the chance to talk to grammy about why she painted, where she found her inspiration, or what it was like to lose herself in the effort. Then again, perhaps her greatest gift to me is allowing her work to speak for itself so that a mystery at least as old as Lascaux could live on in some small measure. That’s the gift all artists strive to impart.

Like so many before her, my grandmother must have lost herself in the flow that comes naturally to those who regularly immerse themselves in a physical or creative activity. Time and the sense of self melt away and before we know it whole hours have gone as if they had been a blink of an eye. There is something mystical about these experiences that will forever remain ineffable. Athletes and nature lovers are also familiar with them. In these moments we become so much a part of the scene that only in retrospect do we even realize there was a scene at all. Art might only provide a glimpse of these transcendent spells, but in so doing it prepares us for the more direct encounters with them to come.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on 71Republic.com

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