If anyone asked me when I was younger what my father did, I knew to say, “He works for a billboard company.”
I knew he left for work every day in a tie. I knew his title was “manager”. I found out he had a secretary, which validated his importance as nothing else had so far. And I knew he brought home reams of letterhead for me to write on, which corporate theft I appreciated greatly.
One day I went to work with him.
I was little; my memories, therefore, are tinged more with impressions than details. We got to his office through that of his secretary. It was a close little room, made closer still by the filing cabinets against the walls. The flyaway papers that lined the room in stacks and racks were white, like everything else under the fluorescent glare, and gave the general sensation that the room was peeling, a symptom of a slow, weary degeneration. I remember my father’s tie and his brown hair the only color floating in the room.
And then there was a subtle lift in mood. He took hold of a small door in the wall behind his desk and gave me a sort of anticipatory smile. I approached with much the same motivations as Alice at the looking-glass and followed him through.
We stepped out of the bright and into the soothing dim of an industrial warehouse. It had the cool feeling of old concrete and held a popping bombardment of color. Behold, what magic! It was as if some merry giant had plucked up every billboard in the county and hidden them away here in his cave. And an army of little men on mechanical lifts had been left to work on them with their brushes. How startling to realize that the signs I saw every day were not photographs at all, but paintings.
Billboards are huge enough, but even more so to a little girl looking up from the ground. These men painting silver cars and womens’ slick lips eating yogurt seemed like so many commercial Michelangelos suspended in front of their individual Sistine Chapels. It was awesome to me. And my Dad knew all of them. And they all knew my Dad.
This was to be the day I learned that artists were ordinary people and that genius had names like Mark and Jerry. They were balding, overweight, wearing splattered sweats, and jonesing for cigarettes. Yet they were painting that great thing, from only a tiny photograph.
My Dad then took me to the paint mixing room, which was equally industrial and unromantic. Quarts of oil paint in hues like jewels being mixed to stern exactness were then slopped into whichever old tin cans or plastic tubs were available.
Dad could talk in detail about the process of mixing paints. Driving around town he could point out who had done which boards by the way the eye highlights were done. What I did understand of his job was enough for me to doubt his need to be so well acquainted with these artists. I just thought he liked it there. Who wouldn’t, in the cavern, outside the white box?
Now, let me say, I never saw my Dad draw. I never saw him sketch. He didn’t have an unusual attraction to museums or galleries. In my mind his identity was firm and unchanging.
But one day, years later, he came home with an air of victory. Under one arm he carried a plastic wrapped canvas and under the other he carried a small cardboard box. The box was filled with some of those old tin cans and plastic tubs half filled and crusted over with dried paint.
I remember watching my Dad sit down in the garage and prop the canvas up on a box, the plastic wrap thrown to the ground. I remember him cutting through the crust of dried paint to get at the wet underneath.
He painted a tree against a blue sky. I remember being surprised that he knew how to do this. He was absorbed. He was dissatisfied with his attempt. He was glorious. He got impatient at how long it was taking to fill the canvas and took a narrow paint scraper and began scraping black like an obsidian cliff below his tree. He used the paint recklessly.
No one cuts black paint over a canvas like that on a whim. One cuts black paint over a canvas like that to memorialize a fight. There was something there all these years, underneath, like his crusted tubs. He just had to decide to dig, to cut through and get at that malleable inside.
I was in junior high when he started to paint. I hold that up as a reminder to myself that there is time; that it’s never too late to knife through resistance. He worked through the remnant cans of used paint until the industry switched to digital printing. Then he started to buy it, but he never stopped using it recklessly. His canvases got bigger and bigger so I think he would’ve loved the chance to paint on one of those huge billboards. He sketched on slips of paper and while watching TV. He was prolific. He was a painter.
It was so much of who he was. How could anyone have missed it?