Even when finances were tight, Mom always saved enough for art lessons for her children. Each Saturday at 10 a.m., she stopped vacuuming, folding laundry or putting away groceries to hand $1 bills to each of us—her seven budding artists, ages 6 to 16—to pay Mr. S for painting lessons.

Weekly, we created masterpieces in Mr. S’s basement art studio down the alley. They truly were stunning works of art. Simply glorious. Unfortunately, we often did not actually paint them.

One Saturday in particular was memorable. We all grabbed our paint-spotted smocks on the hooks as we entered his back door. I headed to the corner of the basement where Mr. S stacked magazines. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I waded through the glossy journals before ripping out a picture of a blue jay.

I usually came home with paintings of a single flower awash in a background of blue. But no longer! At 8, I was ready to take on a challenge like my older siblings. Thrusting the magazine picture at Mr. S, I said, “I want to paint this one.”

Voigt drawing
A self-portrait of the writer, created in Mr. S’s basement studio.

He raised his dark, bushy eyebrows, straightened his brown plaid painting shirt and smiled. “It’s pretty intricate.”

I stood my ground.

“Are you sure you don’t want to try something simpler? An apple, or even an entire bowl of fruit, perhaps?” He raised his eyebrows at me again.

 

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I shook my head and held his gaze.

“OK, then. A blue jay it is.” He clapped his thick hands together.

I pulled tubes from the paint rack and squirted a dime-sized blob onto my wooden pallet. I soon felt Mr. S looking over my shoulder.

“Nice selection of blues to create just the right shades and add depth and texture,” he said.

I beamed at him, smooshed three shades of blue together and added another brushstroke to my canvas.

He put his hand over mine, guiding the paint brush for a few more strokes. “Here, let me show you a technique the masters use,” he said, and gently took the paintbrush from my hand.

He put his hand over mine, guiding the paint brush for a few more strokes. “Here, let me show you a technique the masters use,” he said, and gently took the paintbrush from my hand.

I moved to the side and watched as his hand moved swiftly back and forth from canvas to pallet and back again. “Get me another brush—fine-tipped—would you please?”

I found one and stood behind him, holding out the brush. Soon, I was leaning over his shoulder and handing him paints, cleaning his brushes and giving him paint rags. I watched in awe as he not only recreated the blue jay from the magazine but improved on it. He got every color, every detail right. The result was exquisite. He let me add the beak and feet to finish it off.

“It’s beautiful,” I gushed. “Can I bring it home?”

He stood back and smiled. “It is nice, isn’t it? You made a fine selection with that magazine picture. But your painting is a bit wet still. How about bringing it home next week?”

“I really want to show it to my mom today,” I said, my hands in a praying position. “Please. I’ll carry it carefully by the edges.”

He mussed my hair and said, “Be careful.”

As class ended and we cleaned up, I added B-E-T-H in black block letters to the bottom of the painting. Ahead of my siblings on the way home, I gingerly held the canvas by the edges and burst through the door and presented my painting to Mom. She smiled and delivered her usual positive but succinct comments on each of our paintings: “Very nice. Another beauty. Marvelous.” Then she took one more sip of coffee and picked up a dish towel.

“Set them on the buffet for Dad to admire later,” she said. And there we lined up our stunning works of art: sailboats in the harbor, a stormy sea, a clown, a horse, a bowl of fruit, a vase of flowers and my blue jay.

Mom always seemed happy when we left for and came home from our art lessons—not, I later learned, because her children were growing up to be Vincent van Goghs or Georgia O’Keefes. She was well aware that Mr. S was the only artist in the neighborhood and we were not creating our signed masterpieces alone.

Her wise investment in art lessons gave her happy children, a clean home and a few quiet minutes for a cup of coffee. And at $1 per child per hour, Mr. S was the cheapest babysitter in town.

— Beth L. Voigt

Beth L. Voigt grew up in Highland Park and now lives in Summit Hill.

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