Melancholy, My Dad, and the Charcoal Tree
He did, however, one afternoon in our smoky, cluttered 80s living room, teach me how to draw a tree.
My dad was a charcoal artist who never pursued honing his gift outside of high school. Probably not a lot of opportunities to draw still life or models while drill instructing on Parris Island, I'm assuming. But I can't count the number of times he sat in his kind-of-gross recliner and told me how he drew a series of beautiful nudes during art lessons as a teen that mysteriously disappeared. (I think his running suspicion was that his instructor made off with them. Oddly, I lost one of my favorite drawings in high school the same way, but it was a cat.) Art clearly remained in his bones, even if life had pushed it aside.
Anyway, my dad gave me this impromptu lesson with a number 2 pencil and a scrap of whatever paper was sitting atop the clutter. He flicked the pencil over the paper, using the side of the lead, and said, "Trees, grow from the ground up, so draw them that way." I think he was trying to break my of the childhood habit of making a bumpy lump and sticking a trunk under it.
But I watched, fascinated by the way his seeming haphazard flicks of that pencil slowly fused together to form branches, reaching twigs, and a sturdy trunk. And how mere scribbles overtop approximated leaves so generally, yet perfectly.
There's a sort of pall hanging over me this month--call it a collection of political frustration, lingering burnout after finishing a large client project, and gray weather malaise, but I've found my mind lingering in melancholy, and for the past few days, art has been . . . awful. Stilted, graceless, and frustrating. A friend recommended I try something to free up my mind, and in that mix of gloom and a need to shake out the tight lines, my dad's tree technique tapped on my shoulder.
The image above is a digital version of my application of my father's instruction from so long ago. Just a little 20 minute gesture, but an opportunity to reflect on the fact that I do have this one little piece of legacy to hang onto. No matter what life thrust upon or took away from him, he took that moment in my childhood to grab a pencil, and that moment has stayed with me 30 years or more. For all of us, those who are reeling with hurt, or frustrated, or fearful for the future, I hope we all remember today--and everyday--that little investments into single lives matter. More than we may ever live to see or understand.