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.


Valentine’s Day is Coming: Some Thoughts About Love

I have been married since 1966. My husband and I met in a college art class taught by a painter who is now internationally famous, Vija Celmins. She would never admit that she taught at our school–Cal State Los Angeles. It wasn’t even a university, then, and it had a great reputation for producing capable elementary school teachers.

Most internationally famous artists don’t put such a place on their resumes, but my husband and I are very grateful for all that she taught us, and for the assignment that brought us together. You see, I didn’t have a car at the time. I rode the bus to school. I should say I rode four buses to school. I had to transfer a lot and walk quite a bit. My husband had a red ’58 classic Corvette. Celmins, as we affectionately called her, said we had to visit some art galleries and review them. My husband asked me to come with him one Saturday; the rest is history.

A friend and I were talking about marriage the other day at lunch. We decided that many people have the wrong idea about it. Many believe that if they do not get along with their partner perfectly every minute of every day, or if they are not mush-pot lovey dovey after a few years that it means they are with the wrong person. Those people are wrong.

The most important factor in any marriage is not appearance, intelligence, achievement, material goods, or even passion. All of those things change. The most important thing is friendship. It is priceless to be able to take a drive with someone who likes to take walks in the same places you do and to eat in the same funny little cafes. It’s comforting to share a familiar repertoir of simple meals that have associations back to early days of student poverty. It’s fun to look at pictures together and remember the time the half-blind terrier scurried all the way down to the bottom of the sleeping bag on a cold winter night in the desert. It’s wonderful to share newly published books, pictures, or articles with someone who appreciates how many long days and nights went into their creation, and how many years of frustration and disappointment preceded the opportunity to sell them. It’s best, in the middle of a tense night, to roll over, lie close, and feel all worries fall away.

So thanks, Vija Celmins, and my dear Alden for the best friendship in the world.

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