Like Hilarious

While visiting my daughter recently, I thumbed through her bathroom literature. (Yes, I know, but things take time, especially after hours on a train, and I am easily bored.)

A New Yorker cover caught my eye. I had the same issue at home but hadn’t read it all the way through. The colorful illustration seemed to represent flowers but was actually inspired by sea creatures. (Of course, I later told my offspring about the flowers and she rolled her eyes, but both of us are used to that.)

In the art news section of the magazine, an announcement seemed placed just for me. (Come on, I know it wasn’t. I’m not that nuts, but there is such a thing as serendipity.) A show was opening later in September featuring the work of Latvian artist Vija Celmins.

Memory yanked me from the tiny cosmetic-cluttered bathroom in a Denver apartment to an easel-forested art classroom in Los Angeles. A striking young woman with cropped dark hair, a trendy skirt and 4-inch French heels (the kind with ankle straps) leaned against the doorframe.

She said samething like, “Hi, if this is Painting 101 (my memory is fuzzy), I’m your instructor. I’m Verna. On second thought, you’d better call me Miss Celmins.”

It only took a minute. I wanted to be her. That afternoon, before my shift at Ontra (a Hollywood cafeteria), I went to the beauty school and had my shoulder-length hair lopped off. (I tried on some shoes like hers too, but the straps cut into my ankles every time I took a step.)

Over the course of that semester, we learned about her local adventures. Her Los
Angeles was so different from mine. Once, for example, she dressed up as a boy and hung out at a waterfront bar with the sailors, fishermen, and dock workers.

So much for being her. I could never do anything like that. I felt brave walking three blocks in downtown to change buses. Still…I wanted to be her.

She gave us the best assignments. They were challenging and practical. From her, I learned to put together bars, stretch a canvas, and prime it. (She had us use unflavored gelatin and three layers of white acrylic house paint. It was cheap and produced a gorgeous surface.)

The best assignment, though, seemed absurdly simple. It was to paint an object. Most students in the class arrived at school in cars. (It was Los Angeles, and ours was a commuter school. No dorms.)

I had no such advantage. My trip involved three or four buses (depending on how far I was willing to walk.). My object had to be small. Very small.

My dad (Charles F. Keck, for the curious) was a high school art teacher. I had always been a disappointment to him art-talent-wise, but when I asked for advice, I became just another student and he was happy to oblige.

He suggested a walnut. We had some in the kitchen, probably leftover from Christmas. I cracked one open. It was very small and handy. Unfortunately, as I later discovered, it was very complicated.

One day in class I was struggling with my ghastly greyish brownish tan-ish oil painting of a gigantic walnut half when I felt a presence behind me. It was Celmins.

That was fifty years ago, but I remember exactly what she said. “Like, that’s hilarious.”

At the time, I didn’t know how to take it. I was embarrassed and feared for my grade. But now, thinking about her wonderful, meditative masterpieces of stillness in that Manhattan retrospective and my own scattershot life, I know what she meant.

It was a walnut. It was a brain. And it was, “like hilarious.”

I will never be her, and that’s okay.