The summer I was thirteen my mother signed me up for oil painting lessons. I’d always loved drawing and had dozens of sketchbooks full of pictures but this was my first adventure into painting and my first formal training. For our working class family, art lesson were a bit of an extravagance. My parents were usually just making ends meet but since my brother and sisters had left the nest and mom had started working part time we had some extra money. When my mom’s friend Tillie mentioned a neighbor of her’s who ran painting classes out of her home, my mother thought it would be a good experience for me.
My art teacher’s name was Mrs Bott. To my 13 year old self she seemed very old but in retrospect she was probably no more than 50. She and her husband lived in a neighborhood of large stately homes and her husband, knowing how much his wife enjoyed painting had turned their old carriage house into a studio for her.
As you entered the studio, the smell of turpentine and linseed oil engulfed you. This was probably another reason her husband built the studio in a building away from the main house! There were about 10 or 15 other students but as it turned out I was, by far, the youngest. The rest of the ladies were older housewives who just enjoyed getting out and doing something creative, kind of like a garden club. I became the resident granddaughter. They all enjoyed offering tips and suggestions and I quite enjoyed being fussed over and spoiled!
Every Tuesday, for the duration of the summer, mom would drop me off at Mrs Bott’s and then head over to Tillie’s for some coffee and gossip. While she was gone I learned how to mix paint and about different kinds of canvas. I learned how to draw in my sketch with charcoal before I started blocking in the colors. I learned about shading and perspective and how to make water look like it was reflecting the sky. Most of all, I learned about myself, that this was something I actually did well and that brought me great joy.
Later in high school and college, I had many other art classes and lots of other teachers. There were still many medium and styles to explore and I loved all of it, but even today I still think of Mrs Bott every time I start a new painting. She gave me the foundation and taught me the basics. Most important, she encouraged me. She showed me what I was capable of and taught me how to develop my talents. When you’re a shy, gawky 13 year old that’s a great gift.