The vision lay deep within my head for as long as I could remember. I don’t know where it came from. I only know it originated from a distant place – a distant past – and that it had an almost spiritual importance. I couldn’t explain the nature of that importance, but I knew I must follow it where ever it would take me.
So began my thoughts upon entering my first and only art class in sixth grade. This was only my second year at Florence Brasser Elementary School in Chili. By then, I had so divorced myself from caring what my peer thought of me that I had no fear of failing. So, with this picture in my head driving me, I gladly entered the contest, fully expecting to win.
Oh, did I tell you? I’m not the artist in my family. Never was. That would be my brother. Artists create something from nothing and see the wholeness of their creation. My brother was (and remains) very good at that. I, on the other hand, can never separate the individual pieces of something I create. Once, in second grade, we had to make a macaroni animal by gluing pieces of pasta to construction paper to create stick figure creatures. When complete, I could plainly see the dogs and cats and various farm animals my friends fashioned. I looked at what I did and all I could see was rigatoni.
Nothing had occurred in the intervening years to cause me to suspect my talent for art improved in any way. Still, this image in my head told me it could flow through my fingertips through the brush and onto a makeshift canvass. It further informed me, when complete, I would not see the individual splotches of color that became the inevitable end product of all my attempts to paint by number. No, I would see “The Picture” – the solitary full bloom leafy tree in the lower left corner, the rolling hills cascading down to the feet of the three distant mountains, the glimpse of the barely visible horizon, and the perfect yellow sun blazing through an azure sky.
I never painted before. Strike that. Painting my bedroom walls was one thing. Painting a picture was, to use an appropriate metaphor, a mountain too steep for me to climb. But climb I did, so compelling was this vision yearning to escape from my imagination. And, when it was done, I knew it was the best. How can I describe it? Have you ever had the feeling you were being guided by eternal destiny? That you could simply not fail? That your legs weren’t moving forward but you were moving forward nonetheless, as if you were on a conveyor belt?
That’s how I felt. Even when I discovered I could not paint the overlapping mountains the same shade of brown because then you couldn’t tell where one mountain ended and another mountain began. (I eventually picked, rather randomly I must admit, a darker shade of brown for the furthest mountain.) The rest was easy. Almost too easy. Especially for someone as artistically inept as me. Not like my brother. He has the talent.
He could whip things out that would make an art teacher’s head spin. I remember one time our parents enrolled us in an art class at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. We were told to paint our hand. In the best rendition of Norman Rockwell, I drew a picture of my hand that might have looked as if it was taken by a Kodak camera. I used all the proper flesh tones, with a slight variant for the finger nails. I even got the creases and folds right. I was proud of that hand. And when I looked at my brother’s work, an out-of-focus montage of purples and blues that just vaguely resembled a hand, I felt sorry for him.
But when the teacher came to look at our drawings, he was not merely kind and charitable to my brother, but gave the impression he was genuinely impressed. I figured, if he liked my brother’s less than realistic attempt, he would be super-impressed with my exacting image. His only comment: “Try again.” I wouldn’t let him leave without getting an explanation. “But I used all the real colors,” I plead.
“Precisely,” replied the teacher. “Look at your brother’s work. That’s true art. That’s imagination. Your piece is just a dull copy of something we see every day.”
And so was my introduction to this thing called “modern” art.
I wasn’t’ remembering this sad experience when I gleefully submitted my painting to the art teacher well in advance of the deadline. “You realize you can enter more than once,” said the teacher. I ignored the suggestion. After all, this was not just “The Picture,” it was “The Vision.” How could I possibly improve on that.
Oh, did I tell you my brother also entered the contest.
So, there I sat one day in the library, all my friends working on their art contest pictures. I had nothing to do. My masterpiece was complete. Fearing idleness might lead to, well, not idleness, and knowing I had already read all the good books, the librarian suggested I draw a picture to enter into the art contest like everyone else was doing. I told her I already did that. She said, “You realize you can enter more than once” as she handed me a bucket of colored pencils and a blank piece of paper. It was more a demand than a suggestion.
But I had no more ideas in my head. I looked around the library, thinking I could find something to draw. I saw a poster of classic cars. My father liked classic cars. I decided to draw something for him. I liked old gangster movies, so I picked a car that I might have seen in an old gangster movie. I picked the picture of the 1927 Duesenberg Model X. I didn’t know if my father liked those kinds of cars. I know I liked gangster cars and that was a gangster car.
The poster was a collection of colored cartoon drawings of the cars themselves. There was no background, so I had to make one up. I even gave it a brick road. When the bell rang, I put the picture in my book to bring home to my father. The librarian stopped me before I could leave. “Aren’t you going to enter your picture in the art contest?” she asked. I told her I already entered. She said, “You realize you can enter more than once” as she held out her hand. It was more a demand than a suggestion.
I figured my father wasn’t expecting the surprise picture so he could wait a few more days to get it. I reluctantly turned in my father’s gift.
A few days later, they announced the prize winners in homeroom. We waited anxiously to find out whose names were to be called. They announced third place first “Three Mountains, by Chris Carosa” squeaked the tinny load speaker. You’d think I would have been happy. I was crestfallen. “But, what about destiny….” kept repeating in my head.
Then they announced second place “…by Ken Carosa.” You’d think I would have been happy. I was distraught, as if I was instantly transported into that studio room at Albright-Knox Gallery.
Then they announced first place… “1927 Duesenberg Model X…” instantly I thought “someone else drew the same car? What a coincidence!” until that amplifier finished, “…by Chris Carosa.” You’d think I would have been happy. I was confused. The first thing I did upon picking up my entries was ask the art teacher why the mountain picture didn’t win. I explained how hard I worked on it, how it was this vision, and how passionate I was about it. I even admitted the Duesenberg was an afterthought meant to be a gift for my father.
Ever the art teacher, he bluntly explained the shading of the mountains was all off. He explained it as a master would explain art to his protégé. I was not a protégé. The only thing I remember him saying was that the mountains should have been shaded lighter as the altitude increased. He did credit me with making the more distant mountain darker.
In contrast, he lauded the shading of my second entry, claiming I had obviously learned from the mistakes of my initial effort. The only thing I had done wrong in the Duesenberg drawing was to fail to add perspective in the mortar lines between the bricks in the road. He particularly enjoyed the shading of the foreground grass and even the sky.
I had no idea I did that.
I didn’t tell the art teacher, though.
As I walked away from the art room, I laughed to myself. After all the work I put into my first effort and thinking it was as important as I thought it was, it turned out my second effort was really the best.
It’s been said life rarely gives you second chances. I’m inclined to think life has nothing to do with it. You make your own second chance. Even the picture of the three mountains got a second chance (but that’s another story).