In the basement of our old townhouse in Germantown, Maryland, there was a big, unfinished laudry room my mother let me turn into my first art studio. The floor was cold, paint-spotted concrete, and next to the washer and dryer was a deep plastic sink. Along two walls were wooden, table-like shelves, and along the third, two windows looked out onto the backyard, with its thick grass and the tawny-colored tool shed my father built.
My paints, markers, and crayons shared the cluttered space with my dad’s tools. I liked to tear sheets of the textured, cloth paper towels he packed along with his tools and replicate with watercolors two landscape paintings that hung in our living room. They were two framed paintings that, if memory serves me correctly, we found at an outdoor bazaar held in front of the public library. I liked the way the shades of green protruded from the canvas, the acrylic paint layered atop itself, and the blue skies made me feel as though I was caught in a summer breeze. The deep nooks and crannies of my dad’s paper towels did more justice to how these two paintings looked and felt than any normal paper could.
I painted the most when we first moved into the house, in the middle of third grade. Alone, I’d muddle my way through half the supplies in my RoseArt Super Art Set, all the while pretending to be a famous painter sharing her work on national talk shows. Nothing I ever made was all that worthy of a career in art, but you’d never know that from the praise and encouragement I got from my mother. And after I shared my work, it’d go into a red plastic binder, never to be shared or seen again. Within a few months, I made new friends at my new school, and the RoseArt set collected dust.
Over the years I’ve returned to making, to painting, in times of aloneness. There was the month after the Boston Marathon bombing when I holed myself up in my dorm room that faced Boylston Street and the Boston Common, just two blocks down from the marathon finish line, and painted crappy replicas of Renoir’s seascapes. There were the three months of unemployment after graduation I painted bookmarks and underwear patterns. And there was this past summer after a particularly unexpected heartbreak that I started making tiny prints and greeting cards, adding typography to my creative pursuits. Each time I sat down at a table or rested a breakfast tray of paper and a paint palette on my lap, I went elsewhere from my aloneness.
Instagram has since replaced my mother’s praise. I snap and share filtered pictures of the products of my isolation and imagine one day having a place to sell them. Sometimes friends and acquaintances ask me for my work to give to others or to frame for themselves, and I find myself cornered into creating isolation for the sake of creation. And then it becomes this dance between the untouchably personal and the reassuring validation of sharing.
I’m only marginally better at painting than I was as a third grader in that basement on Kitchen House Way, but my embrace of isolation is wholehearted now, and the reward of it more complex than an encouraging word from my mother.