I sit before a blank sheet of d’Arches watercolor paper. It says, “You’d better be good.” Are you kidding? I haven’t painted in six years. There’s no way I’ll be any good. Brush strokes reveal immediately whether your hand and your brain are cooperating. It’s like playing piano. You can’t sit down after five years and play a respectable Bach.
I don’t have time to “keep up my chops” when it comes to painting. It wouldn’t be a fruitful investment of my time. I’ve done museum and gallery shows, gone to the expense of matting and framing, and sold enough to recoup some of the cost. In the long run, however, painting as fine art has been out of my range. I hung around with great painters long enough to know I’m not one.
Then my friend Stephanie invited me to accompany her to our friend Diana Liebe’s gallery to learn about fabric painting. I was intimidated at first, but I finally painted some gold koi on an old black silk scarf I’d brought. I was hooked. That was months ago. I’ve been painting on tee shirts and tote bags ever since.
What made the difference? It’s wearable art. Fine art says, “Admire me. Desire me. Let me provoke you to purchase because you cannot bear to be without me.” There is value implied, validity ascribed to the creator, investment potential to the collector of such a piece—or the sheer satisfaction of being able to live with that picture on the wall, viewable and enjoyable every day in the privacy of one’s own home. That’s how I feel about my Milford Zornes paintings.
Milford Zornes once told me painting was not fun for him. He didn’t do it for entertainment or relaxation. It was something he was compelled to do. There was always something about the sea he hadn’t yet captured, the convolutions of the banyan tree he hadn’t adequately expressed. Even in his ninety-ninth year, he rose early and painted all day long if other obligations did not force him to be elsewhere.
But wearable art is akin to folk art. It says, “Use me.” The decoration is not self-conscious. It doesn’t have to be brilliant in its execution. The pressure is off. The enjoyment is relaxed.
After Milford Zornes lost most of his sight to macular degeneration, he told me he thought he had become a better painter because he could no longer see details. Now he was forced to simplify to the basics of form, the real truth of the subject matter.
I’ve never felt free in my painting. I’ve been afraid of color. Now that my color perception is greatly reduced and my ability to do fussy things with paint are lost in distortion, I’m finding immense freedom. I’m juxtaposing all kinds of outrageous combinations, and having as much fun as a kid with her first pots of finger paints. It doesn’t have to be good.
I once heard an interview with Harrison Ford. He said he took on the role of Hans Solo in the Star Wars movies, and then Indiana Jones knowing that he would never win an Oscar for those roles. I realized that he didn’t choose to make his aspiration an award for outstanding achievement in acting. He was giving his audiences something else—something that will help them forget their troubles for a little while.
I have given up needing to make fine art. I’m having so much fun. To my delight, out of my heart keep flowing images from more than sixty years of subjects I’ve loved and learned to draw and paint.
In a world too full of pain, I’m hoping my shirts will bring smiles to the wearers and to those who see them coming their way. I no longer have to be good. It’s good just to be painting again. And, surprisingly, I think it’s the best painting I’ve ever done.
My cheerful, inventive models are my friend Stephanie Del Bosco’s children Anna and Nicholas. Luke wasn’t part of the official photo shoot, but I just had to include him in the red shirt that is four sizes too big for him. It was delightful to see my paintings on little humans who moved and gave purpose and meaning to what previously I’d only seen on hangers. Until then, I didn’t realize that fine art can never be more than it is, but wearable art, animated by the person inside, gets to go places and be an expression of the life inside.