May 9, 2017

Personal Essay by Lois Greene Stone: "Cardboard and Canvas"

Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies.  Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.









CARDBOARD AND CANVAS                  


"Hey, mom.  I thought you did nudes." My 23 year old son called from the basement.  I dried my hands on my terry-cloth apron as I descended the stairs.
Alan was leaning over a carton of oil paintings. My eyes caught the word basement spelled `bastment' by the van packers.  I smiled with remembrance of my desire, at the time, to fix the word.  The yellowed cloth that had covered the old carton was carelessly pushed on the concrete.  The box bottom was moist and showed mildew.
"Didn't you do nudes once?" I nodded my head and mentioned I'd left them at the Milwaukee airport.  My son, in medical school, had squeezed in oil painting classes while maintaining pre-med courses and grades.  How could I save these...he pulled out two landscapes...and not nudes!
I turned 20 one April; my father died in May. As I was already signed to attend a summer session at the University of Wisconsin, my mother insisted I go.  My junior year at the University of Connecticut had been completed, and I'd been given an opportunity to take Shakespeare part II, American Literature part II, plus Oil Painting.  I had to get permission to carry the third course, as two per summer was considered maximum.
Except for summer camp experiences in the Berkshire Mountains, I'd been in New York during that season.  But six weeks after seeing my father's smooth pine box settled in open earth, I boarded a train to Chicago.  I had a roomette, for that part of the journey, but remember isolation rather than sleep.
Some Jeanne Craine movie captured my thoughts when I rode through parts of Indiana.  Did scenery seem different because of a film, or was it really so?
Madison was hot.  I'd only thought New York could be.  McCarthy had made people frightened; I began to consider my signature sacred.  Water fountains were on the streets and had a different name:  I think they were called bubblers.
I moved into a dorm titled Lakelawn.  It had a winding staircase, and also a wide back porch that faced Lake Mendota.  Real bats appeared on that porch at night; I'd never before seen them, even in zoos.
Giggling girls from high school getting college experience lived on the same floor.  I'd lost, at the graveyard, an innocence about living.  Sometimes at night I felt envy, then anger.  Mostly, I felt guilty that I was not helping with the burden of bringing order from chaos that my mother and sisters shared.  They sorted papers, thanked mourners, sat on the same couch that carried my father's body from life to unmoving heart.  I saw sailboats.
A fraternity used a hearse to pick up dates for a party.  Would I have joined them with remarks about `clever idea' if just weeks before I'd not known a hearse had a loved-one's coffin?  I went to the library.  Some men's club-order ran through streaming toilet paper; the tassels on their cylinder hats bounced.
Bats...men behaving like freshman schoolboys...I spent more time in my room.
The facilities for art students amazed me.  At UCONN, classes for that course were held in old army barracks.  Real easels, a demand to learn to stretch canvas rather than use masonite board, a competent instructor were all available.  I wore clothes my father had bought for me; I got oil paint on a lovely skirt.  To this day, I recall my self-anger as carelessness dropped permanent hue on a white dirndl patterned with black and yellow ribbons.  I continued wearing inappropriate attire.
A Negro woman (Black was not a word used in that time period) lay nude while I set my largest canvas on the erect easel.  Her skin really had so many colors, I was privileged to paint her.  Only when she got up to take a break did I notice my male students.  I felt embarrassed, each time, for she became a naked lady until she blanketed her body beneath a robe.  Did every boy in the room understand that all girls were similar?
My son, with four years in co-ed dorms and shared bathrooms, couldn't relate to this.  I felt exposed when she changed from model to person.  He wondered why.  Wonder isn't new to any generation.  He didn’t even understand that when I commuted, for my master’s degree, to Teacher’s College Columbia University that only the grad school of Columbia was co-ed.
Pulled from the basement box were the landscapes. Captured on canvas was the porch of Lakelawn House.  The dead tree contrasted the water where life moved in one form below and a sailboat with people could be seen.  The smaller canvas caught a view from a building's window; I'd even painted the panes.  
With my belongings, I took the bus to Milwaukee. My return to New York was by air.  I will never know my real reasons for leaving the lovely painted Negro lady in the Milwaukee airport.  At the time, I felt frustrated from trying to maneuver manually what couldn't fit into luggage. Perhaps that was true.  Perhaps morality of the times sent me a sub-conscious message:  this glowing naked body was inappropriate to bring back to a place where death had so recently visited.
"Didn't you do nudes once?"  Once, before topless bars, x-rated movies, women burning their bras as social protest... before man walked on the moon, AIDS, condom ads, acrylic paint, disposable diapers, instant coffee, microwave ovens, cars that go from zero to sixty in under nine seconds...once, before germ warfare, Viet Nam, Agent Orange, microchips, supersonic airplanes, SAT's, G-string swimsuits, Playgirl and its famous phallus of the month...once, before expensive malpractice insurance, injecting heroin, snorting cocaine, abortion clinics, VCR's. stereo tv, camcorders, disposable cameras...once, before American clothes were made in Sri Lanka, digital watches making us ‘see' time rather than be circled by it, plastic holiday trees, plastic piano keys, saturated fat knowledge...once, before technology transformed living into a fast, expendable, sophisticated life.
My oldest child, carrying my father's name, had caused me to think of these things I'd repressed just because he'd found a damp cardboard square marked BASTMENT.


First Published March 1988 "Wisconsin", The Milwaukee Journal Sunday Magazine©

© Lois Greene Stone

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