Tuesday, April 10, 2018

18. Pink

Painting by Renny Spencer

I WAS PINK. That was the color my parents assigned to me. When I was born, I was given a name, Nadina Maria, and a color––pink. My older sister Lori was blue; my older brother Al was yellow. After me came green (Ron), brown (Leonard) and black (Richard). By the time Ray came along eight years later, colors were no longer dispensed, or else no one cared to remember his. The problem with the colors was that they labeled us incorrectly.

AT LEAST IN my case:pink. Pink––to my parents––meant feminine, soft and delicate. I was a tomboy! I hated dolls; I hated dresses; I hated waves in my hair tied up in ribbons. So many times I sobbed as Mom styled my hair with pinned-up curls. Dad would poke his head in the doorway. Oh, you shouldn't cry, it makes your face all puffy. Don't you want to look pretty?

NO I DID NOT. I wanted to wear jeans and play ball with my brothers. I wanted to wear football shoulder pads so I could show I was capable of taking hard hits. I wanted to wear fishing boots so I could catch tadpoles in the ditch. I wanted to wear a mitt. I wanted to run through the hot summers without wearing a shirt.

TO ADD SALT to the wound, every birthday and Christmas, for maybe my first six years, and regardless of how much I complained, no matter how much I begged for a puppy, I received a doll in a pink dress. Most of them were thrown out the back door, some were buried in the yard. The only one I kept long enough to remember her name––Rosie, sister to Lori's blonde, blue-clad doll Dodie––I kept buried in the third drawer down in my dresser. I never played with her, but I didn't hate her; it was not her fault that she landed in the wretched lap of a heartless, callous child. A sad life for a lovely doll.

ONE DAY, when I was three or four, I got a splinter in my finger. Dad said he would get it out. Oh no! That will hurt, I said as I locked myself in the hall bathroom. It won't hurt, said Dad. I promise. It will be over in a second; you will feel much better when it is out. Would I lie to you? If you let me take it out you can open one of your presents under the tree. Oh, no, no, I cried. I don't trust you; it will hurt; I won't feel better.

BUT STILL–– a present. Hmmm, maybe. I really liked presents. And how long could I stay locked in the bathroom anyway? I finally agreed. Dad dug out the tiny piece of wood with a needle that he heated over a flame on the stove; I screamed. I was then told I could pick any box with my name on it, which I did, a long skinny box, medium sized. Inside was––and how did I even think it would be something else––a doll. How could life be so cruel? I ran to the kitchen, really wailing now, and threw her in the trash bin. Seduced, deceived, betrayed––sold down the river.

I STARTED TO lose faith, began to think life would always be disappointing. Why even make a wish list if nobody read it. And then, the following Christmas, when I was just about to give up hope–– praying wasn't working, crying and begging weren't working, someone––God, my parents, Santa?–– took pity on me, and sent me a frog––a croaking, wooden pull-toy frog, a frog that I pulled around the house for months, inch-inching behind me, a frog that I loved with all my heart, a frog in beautiful green.

IT'S BEEN SIX decades since I first waged war on the color pink, and one decade since I have made peace with it. I never wore it, in clothing or nail polish or lipstick; I never adorned my house with it, in furniture or wall paint; pink flowers had no place in my studio garden. Other than to bring life to a dog's tongue, or to add accent to a sunset, and recently into my portraits, I have never used pink in my paintings.

MY MOTHER PICKED out all of my clothes until I left home at eighteen; she did, however, eventually, let me pick the colors. I recall, with utter joy, one special day shopping when she said I could pick out any color dress. I chose a metallic striped dress that contained every color in existence; my mother was horrified; I was crazy happy. She kept her word and I wore it until it fell apart.

I THINK MOM tried to understand that I was mismarked at birth, but she could never really relinquish the identity she had constructed for me. It was necessary to her well-being that her categorization of the important pieces of her life, and that included her children, were kept intact. I understood this from an early age and, even though I would have relished venturing across an honest childhood, it was never necessary to me that she know the bona-fide me. At some point in my adolescence I stopped having an opinion about most things discussed at the table; I stopped thinking my parents wanted to know what I was about.

BUT IT CAME up one last time. Mom was over eighty; she died soon after; the times we spent together had become comfortable, if not easy. Whatever remnants of resentment still lingered inside me quietly leaked out like air escaping through a tiny hole in a balloon. No anger, no regrets, I had long ago donned my true colors; pink no longer carried any meaning. The previous year, as a Christmas gift, I gave each of my grown children an artist's sketchbook, scissors and a glue stick, with instructions for creating an "I LOVE" scrapbook, for which there is only one rule: you must love anything you paste in the book. This would be my fourth book, and what I learned was that they create an intimate and revealing glimpse into one's life, a diary in pictures. I decided to share mine with Mom.

IF YOU CARE to Mom, go through this book sometime, over a cup of coffee. It's nothing important. just a year of clipping pictures that get my juices flowing. You might enjoy it. She said she would and I believed her. I remember wishing she had one of her own to offer in return.

THE FOLLOWING morning she called to apologize. Oh, Nadi, she said. I never knew you.


Sunday, March 25, 2018

17. I Never Did

BUDDY WAS MY person in the world when I was a young girl. Actually, he was a dog, A Samoyed from a long line of family Samoyeds named Buddy. Oh, do you know what it feels like to finally have the dog you wish for? Jeffie helped me through my first grade crush: Sparkle was a good friend: Pal was the first dog that was mine alone, a Doberman Pinscher that Dad brought home from work. But I still wanted a Sammy, and one Christmas Buddy came. I adored him.

WHENEVER A SUPERVISING eye was occupied elsewhere, Buddy and I roamed the countryside near home. Anything and everything held my interest. Blue-bellied lizards, tadpoles in the irrigation ditches, birds on the telephone poles. One spring day, after spending hours counting bird eggs in the grapevines, we wandered farther– so many beautiful sights to see, Buddy happy to tag along. When I grew tired I looked around for a good place to nap and found a tree in a neighbor's orchard. The branches hung low and swayed with the breeze. I sat leaning against the trunk with Buddy's head on my legs, and I fell asleep. When I woke it was darker, later, way too much later to have been gone. Oh no, I am in trouble now.

I RAN HOME and found Mom and Dad pacing the kitchen. Dad, angry, grabs my shoulders. Where have you been? he says loudly. Exploring, I answered. Exploring?! Yes, I fell asleep under a tree. Under a tree? he says. Do you know how dangerous that is? Do you? Anything could have happened; anyone could have taken you! Taken me where? I asked. You're too young to understand, he said. There are bad people in the world. Never, ever, fall asleep under a tree again.


THE NEXT TIME I went roaming, I avoided comfortable trees and headed toward Spruce road, turning left to town. After a mile or two, we came alongside a canal; I walked along the top of the embankment, Buddy weaving back and forth in front of me. Suddenly a bird flew low in front of us and Buddy chased it, getting way too close to the edge, lost his footing and slid right into the canal. I screamed Buddy! Buddy!, running along to keep up with him as the flowing water swept him along. I'm frantic, screaming for help. I search for a ladder on the side of the canal but nothing, and not a person in sight. 

AND THEN THERE he is– a man on a motorcycle, youngish, scraggly beard, tattoos covering his arms and neck, sporting an earring. For one split second the thought occurred to me that he might be one of those dangerous people my parents warned me about. He pulls to a stop and asks if I need help. I'm desperate: I jump on the bike and point ahead at Buddy, who looks tired, but still paddling: the stranger nods.

I HAVE A plan. I can't hold this tall skinny man, but he can hold me. He looks strong. We pass Buddy, and then we jump off the bike while I tell him I will go head-first down the side of the canal while he holds me by my feet. His face freezes with eyes wide, he rubs his chin stubble, hesitates briefly, then yells Go! It's now or never! He grabs my legs while I crawl down the cement wall, reaching into the water. Lower! I yell. I can see Buddy getting close; I grasp his neck fur with both hands, while he kicks frantically, scratching up my arms and face. Pull! I scream; I feel my legs stretch. I am pulled up and back, and then all three of us fall in a pile on the concrete bank. 

OH OH OH, we are safe. Buddy shakes his abundant coat, throwing water in every direction. He whimpers and licks my face. I have never been so happy. We catch our collective breaths, we laugh a bit. I say Thank you from the bottom of my heart. We do not know each other's names. We do not ask.

THEN TATTOO MAN, my hero, looks at me very seriously, but with a smile in his eyes. Promise me one thing, he says. Never, ever, tell your parents what you just did.


Friday, February 17, 2017

16. The Hunter

The Hunter (copied from a painting by Adriaen Beeldemaker 1653)
AFTER TRAVELING across the states for 6 months, the van stopped running and we moved into an apartment in east Visalia – sans transportation. We found jobs within walking distance, and got by with a kitchen table, an art table and a director's chair.  As a newlywed, I was soon to learn that art – the thing that brought us together and the thing I thought we would share forever – was the thing that would break us up.

MY HUSBAND told me the art table was his only and that he was the artist in our family. If I wanted to paint I would have to use the kitchen table.

I DID use the table. I painted this picture, a copy of a painting from the 17th century. It hangs in my living room today.

FIFTEEN years later I would paint my next one.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

15. Crackers Are $2 a Box, But Magic is Free

WHEN I CAME UP with the idea to paint horse ranches, I was 38, recently divorced, mother of 4 girls and flat broke. My cottage industry income had dissolved along with my marriage. Not one to mope, I made a list – 20 things I love most in life. So – dogs, horses, people who like dogs and horses, the river, color, photography, sleeping in, campfires, painting... I wanted to find a way to put as many of these things as I could in a job description, and I came up with "Ranch Portraits."

I BOUGHT booth space at a fancy fine-harness show in Santa Ynez. I loaded some paintings into my car, along with a suit and heels, a Western dress, a box of saltine crackers and a jar of jam. Sometimes all you need is determination.

THE FIRST DAY was terrifying but fun. I talked up my portraits like I'd been doing it forever. I ate crackers when I got hungry and I slept in my car in the parking lot. In the morning, after crackers for breakfast, I headed out to meet the day, one that turned out to be one of the best in my life.

IT WAS LIKE walking into a fairy tale.  My art was a hit; I sold a couple paintings and got a couple commissions for ranch portraits. I was invited to wine and dine at several tail-gate lunches, and then flew kites on the hill in the afternoon with my new best friend, a harness-maker from Wisconsin who had the adjacent booth. I met the singer of the band that would be playing for the dinner/dance that evening in the big tent. I wasn't going ($100 ticket to get in), but he insisted, and snuck me in under the tent flap.

AND THEN SOMETHING MAGICAL happened.  Everyone wanted to dance with ME! I was the belle of the ball! I was new at country dancing, but it didn't matter. I was swept off my feet, literally, until the wee hours.

DRUNK on success and relief (and wine), I finally made it back to my car. I had money in my pocket, commissions to keep me busy, and a good friend that has remained my friend to this day. In the morning I would eat some crackers and go home to real life. My life. My life as an artist.

Friday, December 25, 2015

14. Potpourri

POTPOURI Gift Catalog contacted me and my husband about doing a cover with our wooden carolers. "Of course!" we said (who doesn't want their art on the cover of a major Christmas catalog?) Then the order came- 3000 pieces, to be completed in 3 months! They called to make sure we could complete the order: could we hire more employees if needed? I said I would check the computer. I had no computer (or employees) but assured them that we would get the order done in time, which we did.

We worked every day except Thanksgiving and I swore I'd never paint another caroler again. But then a store in Connecticut called in a panic. Could we please send another set to them ASAP! Apparently, Jim Henson of Muppets fame bought a complete set of 13 and asked the storekeeper to hold 2 weeks until he returned to England. An uninformed clerk then sold them to Ron Howard, the film director, by mistake.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

13. Pumpkins, Pumpkins and More Pumpkins

NADI CO. was a business my husband and I had for 15 years. Back in 1990 Halloween items for the home were called "decorations." We created Halloween "art" - the only booth that year at Beckman's Gift Show in Los Angeles to do so. We were swamped with orders. At a craft show in La Canada, people lined up to purchase and we sold out.

THIS PUMPKIN was our best seller. A big chunk of my life was spent making hundreds of them. I kept the pattern (above). It fills me with joy, partly because they are laughing, but mostly because it was a special time.  I could work at night when the children slept, so I could be with them during the day. It was challenging. And I realized I could make a living painting.

EVENTUALLY,  I gave up working in wood and switched to watercolor paintings. Still, I occasionally create pieces cut from wood. I've been working on a show for 2 years now, called "Cut From the Same Cloth" in my spare time. All the pieces are cut from wood. They are more sophisticated than laughing pumpkins and I have more skill now. But the joy in making them is the same. It just feels too good not to.

Monday, February 23, 2015

12. A Good Start

I'VE BEEN MEANING to frame this for 43 years. It just keeps getting put on the back burner. (Or maybe I should say hot plate?) This was my first ever home. I had met the man I later married and we shared the single bed on the right. Craig, who would be the Best Man, slept on the bed on the floor. Boogie, a hamster I inherited from a previous roommate, slept in the third drawer down.

MEALS were cooked on a hot plate, and an ice chest served as refrigerator. Tye-dyed sheets supplied by Yosemite Park & Curry Co. We had all the necessities – heat, food, music, art and love.

IT WAS a good start.