OPENING LOCKED DOORS


Would I have stopped painting six years ago if I had known that one day the pleasure I had known all of my life would hide behind a locked door? It seemed as if I were blindsided that year; a year during which I not only received a new shoulder, but they also removed all my teeth, and a broken tendon assured that I could no longer enjoy even a walk around the house. I’ll admit that I did feel a bit sorry for myself, but using my father’s approach to life in general, which was “get over yourself”, I decided to find something else to fill in the gaps.

I had always written; through my early years I became well acquainted with the publishing community, who delighted in enclosing polite regrets as they returned my manuscripts. But I had never considered blogging. Actually I wasn’t sure what it was, until Cheri suggested trying it.

My blog, and all the wonderful places it has taken me to meet so many wonderful friends, has been the spice of life so to speak.

Suddenly a few weeks ago, for no apparent reason, I decided to paint again. My eyesight has been steadily “heading west”, but I thought I would give it a shot.

I have discovered a trait that many children raised in the military acquire early in life; when you are transferred to another post, you rarely look back. As my sculpture studio emptied out with kilns, wheels, slab rollers etc. sent off to their new homes, I knew I would never work with clay again. I paint in a room in my house, which I felt heeded to be emptied of all things painterly, as I probably wouldn’t paint again either.

Once I had made up my mind to paint again I needed to replenish my supply of everything. The internet is a wonderful shopping venue, and I bought new brushes and paint, saving me the trouble of trying to find what I wanted in the local art store.

After a day cleaning out the studio and arranging paint in the old pallet, I confidently set out to do a very simple painting.

Whoa. In trying to do a very simple sketch, I found that the lines completely disappeared into the paper. Suddenly there was a locked door. Certainly a disappointment. As some of you may know, a great deal of my work has been in portraiture of some detail. All of which entails a preliminary sketch. I should have know it might happen, because I find myself writing over a previous item on a grocery list, so that when I get to the store, I have no idea what I had intended. Dr. A is a wonderful shopper who follows me around and read the labels.

Anyway, I look forward to learning a new way to paint after 80 years. No identifiable subjects, just apply paint on paper. My first teacher in the second grade said: “first wet your papers children”, and that is the way I advised beginning students of watercolor during my 25 years of teaching art. Bear in mind that art is in the eye of the beholder, so bear with me my friends.

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TOBERMORY REVISITED


cat

The cat is the perfect subject for a Saki story. There is something catlike about many of his young protagonists; urbane, poised, a bit smug, and yet underneath it all, a feral streak. So it comes as no surprise that Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), better known by his pen name “Saki”, wrote a wonderful cat story. “Tobermory” (1911). Even better, it’s about a cat who was taught to talk.

Talking cats go back a long time in English literary curiosities. But Saki puts his own stamp on this small but rewarding genre of animal tales. A man named Cornelius Appin has managed to teach a cat, Tobermory,to talk. The cat belongs to his friends, the Blemleys, and it is at Mrs. Blemley’s house party that Appin reveals that he has managed to teach Tobermory the power of speech. At first, the party guests are naturally incredulous, but when Sir Wilfred Blemley fetches Tobermory in from a neighboring room, it soon becomes clear to everyone present that Tobermory has indeed learned to talk.

The guests begin asking Tobermory questions; whether he’d like some milk (yes) was it difficult learning human language (he doesn’t deign to answer that one) , and what he thinks of human intelligence. The woman who asks this last question, Mavis, gets more than she bargained for, with Tobermory replying that he overheard the Blemleys discussing Mavis, and Sir Wilfrid described Mavis a a ‘brainless woman’, (his wife agreed, adding that Mavis was so idiotic that she’d agreed to buy a useless old car off Lady Blemley.)

Seeking to change the subject, another guest, Major Barfield, asks Tobermory about his ‘affairs’ with the ‘stable cat’. Tobermory turns the question around, asking the Major how he would like it if Tobermory told everyone about his affairs, implying that Tobermory knows all about the Major’s extramarital dalliances.) Fearing that Tobermory knows all about their lives, and will expose all their darkest secrets, the guests begin to grow nervous. Tobermory goes on to reveal that one of the guests had admitted that she had only come to the Blemleys party for the food, and she found them dull company. Before he can cause any more embarrassment among the guests, Tobermory spies an old adversary of his, the tomcat from the nearby Rectory, outside, and in a flash he vanishes through the open French window.’

black cat

After he’s gone, the Blemleys discuss what to do about Tobermory, that he cannot be kept alive now he’s acquired this new gift of speech – as he’ll reveal everyone’s secret – they resolve to have him destroyed by lacing the food scraps Tobermory eats with some strychnine. However, although Tobermory dies, he meets his end not by ingesting the poison but by being mortally wounded in a fight with his deadly enemy, the big Tom from the Rectory. Cornelius Appin, the man who had taught Tobermory to speak, tries to impart his teachings to an elephant in the Dresden Zoo, but the elephant. evidently not in a hurry to learn about verbs and nouns, lashed out and killed him.

Tobermory is arguably one of the funniest short stories in the English language, partly because it is about exposing the hypocrisy of those upper middle class people whom Saki, in some of his other short stories, deems ‘respectable’ (the adjective is not meant to be taken as a compliment). Everyone is two-faced at the Blemleys’ party, except for Tobermory, who tells the truth. This gives him his power, like the child protagonists in Saki’s other classic stories, The Lumber Room, and Gabriel-Ernest, and Sredni Vashtar. He cuts through the adult world of lies and ‘respectability’ exposing it for the sham it is. For doing so, he has to die, but even here he eludes the deceitful adults’ plan to poison his food. He dies a hero, vanquished but with his dignity and integrity intact.

Critics have analysed ‘Tobermory’ as a satire on various political groups who were active at the time, chiefly the female suffragette movement. But this seems unlikely, or, if it was really his intent, it is barely evident in the story, where male and female guests at the party are exposed for all sorts of social hypocrisies, and political issues are not touched upon. It seems to make more sense to interpret the story as an attack on hypocrisy itself, with Saki firmly siding with the animal, as he always does, (or in some stories with the child character.) First and foremost we shouldn’t forget that the story is delightfully funny, not just because of its fantastical concept of a talking cat, but because it shows ‘civilised’ society (which always uttered with a wry sneer in Saki’s stories) as, fundamentally, something of a sham. It is the still-faintly-feral Tobermory, in his scrap with the Rectory tomcat, who is the real-thing. Even leaning to talk in the manner of the ‘respectable’ adults cannot make him forget this.

IT’S IN THE GENES


a-hat-for-all-seasons “A HAT FOR ALL SEASONS” watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

Is there a different category for each of those tiny gene things we confidently assume make up our personality? Just because Great aunt Hattie was an accomplished oboe player, will that make us a musician? If Uncle Henry cashed it in at the ripe old age of 102, does that mean we will follow suit?

Of course not, what a silly thought. But what about the clothes shopping gene? I can only answer for myself, and I’m sorry to say that because of the women in my family and their example, I have not only spent an inordinate amount of time and money in the rag trade, but have passed that gene on to my female descendants, including a ten year old great granddaughter, to my shame.

Call me shallow, but I even remember the new coat I had at age 11 when we went to see “Gone With the Wind”. The Depression made it difficult for people to indulge themselves, so that pink coat was a one-off experience for me.

I can’t remember a time when shoes have not attracted my attention; either on someone’s feet or in a store display. Perhaps it was the effect of the shiny Mary Jane’s my Grandmother bought me. I spent a lot of time washing their soles at the end of the day. One of my first jobs in dressing window displays was trying to make men’s work boots attractive. This was before I made a business of doing it a few years later.

No one can go into the clothing trade unless you truly love clothes. My grandmother, mother and aunt were accomplished seamstresses who also had a great deal of good taste, and I became comfortable sitting at a sewing machine as well. One of my daughters at age six was annoyed with me for not mending the hem of a dress as soon as she wanted it, so she grabbed a needle and thread and did it herself. I think sewing may be a lost art among the young today.

My mother in law tired of sewing soon after I married and gifted me with her old electric sewing machine. They were not always electrified. As a small child staying with an auntie, I slept in her sewing room, where her old foot pedal Singer machine stood.

My ‘new’ sewing machine was a Damascus Grand. It had copper fittings inside and when it need repair, there was only one old man in town who knew how to fix it. It perked away for years, keeping me and the girls presentable, eventually turning out clothes for the grandchildren. When it finally gave up the ghost, we made a lamp out of the head, which stands now in my studio.

We seldom throw things away, sometimes keeping them long after their usefulness is a memory. It is fortunate to have a friend of the same size and taste as your own, and closet cleaning is a fine time to share. Some years ago a friend called and asked if I could come help her clear out her closet. You can only do that with a close friend. At the end of the afternoon, glass of wine in hand, she decided she could bear to pass along a pair of light green sling back shoes I had admired. A few days later she knocked on my door at 7:30 a.m. to say she really wanted them back. What could I do? Sometimes we become too attached to our belongings.

So saying, I said a sad goodbye to my collection of ‘never-to-be-worn-again shoes by loading them into the trunk of a friend’s car. She is happy.