Finding My Father, Preserved on Canvas

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My father was an art collector, but he was anything but pretentious.

Art moved him, evoking emotions or even childhood memories, as with a piece by Stephen Scott Young that he particularly adored, of two Bahamian boys playing marbles like he used to, their focus on the circle of play steely.

Over a lifetime, slowly but surely and with a similar focus, buying one new painting every few years (and never for huge sums of money), he acquired a number of canvases. He applied great deliberateness in securing each piece, far outpacing his interest in buying other material items. He had no interest in spending money on things most people seemed to care about, like cars — the sole purpose of which, he often reminded me, was to get a person from point A to point B. It’s as if he followed Gertrude Stein’s guidance to Ernest Hemingway to the letter, when she advised him, “buy your clothes for comfort and durability, and you will have the clothes and money to buy pictures.”

When we were kids, my brother and I were dragged along on his excursions, to the Wickford Art Festival in our native Rhode Island, to small galleries down narrow side streets the rare times we traveled outside the state, even to artists’ studios to view their work in the space in which it was created, the canvases often propped against a paint-splattered wall. My dad was both a journalist, meaning he ignored many conventional boundaries and would call artists directly to arrange a visit, and a spendthrift, in that he would just as soon avoid paying the middleman gallery its tithe.

These regular jaunts bored us out of the small confines of our skulls. For want of anything of substance to occupy us as my dad, in his threadbare shirts, spent long periods of time moving closer and farther away from a piece he was considering, my brother and I would torment each other until these trips deteriorated into shouting matches that eventually penetrated his absorption in the art. We were then relegated to the back seat of the rusted, harvest gold Chevy station wagon in the parking lot, in an effort to contain our animus and give my dad some peace, sometimes with the windows cracked for air, sometimes not.

Over the years, our house became adorned with his acquisitions, large pieces by Lester Johnson, of black military men, their features hazy, marching with purpose, or of the portrait of a man in brown, his forehead thickly brooding, staring down at us with disdain. The art became our wallpaper, background noise to the frustrations of growing up, or perhaps to the burden of parenting. It jumped to the foreground only when my friends visited. I would shuttle them past the canvases quickly, embarrassed at how the paintings suddenly seemed to dominate the rooms, and to regard our playtime activities disapprovingly. My friends found them creepy.

As we all got older, and around the time I started medical school, my father’s taste in art changed, from subjects that were at least vaguely figurative to pure abstract expressionism. I wondered, as my brother and I left home to pursue higher education, and my dad neared retirement age, if the truths in his life were becoming less concrete, as well, and his preference in art morphed reflexively.

He was always eager to share his delight in a new acquisition, and when I returned home on breaks from school, often before I even had a chance to drop my luggage to the ground, he would drag me over to see his latest purchase.

“Waddaya think?” he’d ask, grinning ear to ear as he looked over to me expectantly. I would stare at the bold, swirling primary colors, the oil heaped in some places, splattered elsewhere.

“It’s nice,” I’d say, not wanting to disappoint him. My dad and I connected through our shared love of words and of a well-crafted story. When it came to art, though, what transported him often left me befuddled.

“It’s by Sam Francis. He’s a famous West Coast artist. Don’t you just love how he uses space on the canvas?”

“Oh, yeah,” I answered hesitantly, but by that point he had moved on to become absorbed yet again in his art, not noticing my uncertainty.

Or so I thought. In the last year of his life, sensing the inevitability of his own body’s deterioration, as it became an increasingly abstract representation of the young man he once was, my dad talked about the future of his paintings.

“I know that a lot of the art doesn’t resonate with you, so when I’m gone, make sure you work with the owner of a gallery in New York I trust to sell them.” He said this pragmatically, without emotion, as he gave me the owner’s name and number. I tried to protest that I did like some of the pieces, and that this was a task I wouldn’t have to fulfill for years, but we both knew better.

Following our conversation, he rose carefully from his chair, grabbed the cane he now depended on, and shuffled out of the room. He could barely get into a car anymore, and rarely left the house. As he moved past a work by Hans Hofmann, from which the colors almost leapt off the piece, I finally understood his passion. This art, with its movement and irreverence for boundaries, took him places he could no longer travel, both physically and mentally, and maybe had his whole life. It represented the man he once was, or could have been.

After he died, my mother decided it was time to sell some of his art. She was a reluctant accomplice to his lifelong hobby, and only a couple of the pieces were ones she had liked independently from him.

Yet when the fine art movers came to box up the first canvas, a vibrant oil by Paul Jenkins, its paint seemingly carved in some places, billowy in others, and whisk it away into their unmarked truck, it was as if they removed a part of him. She felt his loss again acutely when the next two pieces were taken, and decided that she had had enough, and would keep the rest.

Except for the couple of paintings I asked for, to hang in my own house. So I could still hold on to a bit of him, of his dreams, too.