“Mrs. Campbell, is it alright if I go out for a bite to eat before everyone starts to arrive?” I smile at my assistant’s formality and then, once again remind myself of the three decades in our age difference.
“Go ahead, Kristen … I’m sorry, not only have I been working you to the bone but I’ve also been starving you to death!”
Once alone, I enjoy the complete silence in the gallery, knowing that within an hour it will be bustling with art patrons as well as the media for the opening of my retrospective. I am exhausted by the weeks of preparation for tonight but at the same time, I am giddy with anticipation. I kick off my high heels and recline on a buttery leather sofa. When I look around the expansive room and see all of my paintings and sculptures, I am filled with a sense of wonderment in all that I have accomplished. Thick rich oil on canvas is juxtaposed with sleek cold bronze forms. Reflecting on my life’s passion, I can’t help but think of Mr. Kendall, my middle school art teacher.
I began drawing as a small child, probably just so that I could spend time with my father. He set up a little desk for me in the corner of his studio, over our garage, where he worked on his illustrations for Canadian Life Magazine. Our days were filled with each one of us creating pieces of art to the sound of a scratchy well -worn record of Madame Butterfly. He would proudly thumb tack my “ best of show” drawings onto the walls.
I was eight years old when my world shifted … my dad was hit by a car while crossing a busy street. His sudden death was devastating. Without adequate life insurance, my mom was forced to sell our lovely house in the suburbs and we moved into a cramped two- bedroom apartment in the city core. After months of searching for work, she was finally hired as a waitress in a dingy coffee shop. Alone after school, my drawings kept me company but by the time my mom got home, she was either too tired or too miserable to take any notice. Dinner usually consisted of something out of a can or a frozen aluminum tray. Afterwards, she would retreat to her bedroom with a glass of ice to be united with the bottle of vodka that she kept on her night- stand.
I remember being excited to start seventh grade, especially when I learned that there was an actual subject called Art. The art teacher’s name was Mr. Kendall. He was a portly man with a shiny bald- head and gentle green eyes that crinkled when he smiled. He took a keen interest in me from the very first day as he watched me draw. Mr. Kendall felt very strongly that good drawing was “the bones” of fine paintings so the first year, drawing vellum and Conte crayons were the only materials that I was allowed to use. I learned the importance of perspective, negative space and tonal values. In eighth grade he introduced me to the wonder of color through paint. I remember loving the vibrancy of acrylics but also the frustration of how quickly they dried. Oil paints on the other hand, had a deep richness of hue and a wonderful malleability that allowed me to rework certain areas several days after painting them. He used phrases like “ a natural talent” and a “gift from God” when discussing my artistic ability. By ninth grade, Mr. Kendall introduced me to the experience of translating my talents from two to three dimensions. The school that I attended was not particularly well funded so Mr. Kendall bought boxes of clay out of his own money and arranged for us to have use of the school’s art room on Saturday mornings. Sculpting came easily to me and I particularly enjoyed the tactile joy of the cold wet clay in my hands.
One day Mr. Kendall asked if my mom would give him permission to take me to The Ontario Art Gallery. Her ambivalence to my life was apparent by the fact that it was one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon when he came to pick me up and she was still in her housecoat and pajamas.
I remember being amazed by the art gallery. We spent hours standing in front of the paintings, discussing the focal points and sources of light. Mr. Kendall gave me a condensed course in art history. He explained the importance of the different eras of art from the birth of Renaissance all the way to Abstraction. My head was swimming with knowledge by the end of the day.
By late spring of ninth grade, I had produced quite an array of what Mr. Kendall said were very strong paintings. At this point, he felt that I was ready to enter the annual neighborhood art show. We were both equally ecstatic when I received the notice that the painting we had submitted was chosen by the jury to be in the show.
On the night of the opening, my mom had to work a double shift so Mr. Kendall took me in his car. I’ll never forget the thrill of meeting other “real” artists and having the opportunity to view their work. There was a small cheer in the crowd when they announced that my painting had taken second place, as I was the youngest artist to ever enter the competition. Many people approached me in order to offer their congratulations and I couldn’t help but notice the beaming smile of pride on Mr. Kendall’s face.
Later that evening when Mr. Kendall pulled up in front of my building, I felt a wave of sadness. I would be starting high school in the fall and I knew that I wouldn’t have as much time to share with him. When he leaned over, I thought that he was about to open the car door from the inside until I felt his lips pressing firmly against mine. The sensation of his slimy tongue filling my mouth caused my teeth to clamp down involuntarily. I grabbed my purse and fled up the stairs to the apartment. Even after rinsing several times, I still had the metallic taste of his blood in my mouth. I saw Mr. Kendall only once after that evening. He didn’t speak to me and kept his eyes cast down to the floor.
“Mrs. Campbell! They’re coming! I’m SO excited! There’s just TONS of people lining up outside and I even saw a reporter from The Toronto Star! Quick! Get your shoes on and I’ll go unlock the front door!”
The turnout for the show is even better than I had dared to dream! I wander through the crowd, a glass of Chardonnay in hand, receiving warm praise and heartfelt words of acclaim. I love having the opportunity to be able to see the reaction on peoples’ faces as they view my work. Over by one of my larger pieces, I notice a frail elderly man leaning on his cane, his face filled with admiration. It takes me a minute to find my voice, but when I do, I say:
“Welcome to my show, Mr. Kendall.”