My father is a fine artist, an oil painter and sculptor. He dabbled in almost every medium. “Never stop learning,” he’d say. “The day you stop learning is the day you stop living.”
I never knew a life without artistic pursuits, or sage advice relating thereto. When I think about my dad, I think about brushes soaking in turpentine or his thoughtful face while his hand twitches over a sketchbook propped on his knee. Drawing us as kids was probably half getting us to settle down, half something to do together. I imagined myself the most-drawn person on earth. It wasn’t always easy to sit still.
He’d sometimes lay his sketchbook flat between Grace and me and say “draw something,” and we would draw. Quietly. So there’s a tip to all the parents out there.
Gracie quickly outstripped me in drawing. I bemoaned not having enough talent.
Dad said, “There’s no such thing as talent. There’s practice. What we call talent is when we don’t notice the practice, because it was play. The more you play at art as a kid, the more ‘talented’ they say you are.”
“I can never catch up! My life is over!”
“There’s always somebody better,” he said. “There’s always somebody worse. Art is subjective.”
My dad was a laborer. I also think of him with hammers and nails and tool belts, coming home from work covered in sawdust or plaster or soot, stripping out of his coveralls in the laundry room so he wouldn’t track the dirt into the bathroom shower.
“A job is how you live,” my dad said, “art is WHY you live.”
I was afraid to tell my dad I wanted to major in English and be a writer. He had made it clear that I needed a career. Anything that made money. He had no idea what to suggest, and I had no idea, either. I wanted to be a scientist. All the heroes in the books I read were scientists, and I got good grades in science, so I enrolled at Case Western Reserve University as an undeclared something-science major. I hoped to fall in love with some science. I took Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Sociology, and it was the Geology class that won me over. I declared a Geology major and ended up taking so many English classes as electives I got a BA in English sort of accidentally.
This is all beside the point. The point is, four years later, I was near to a bachelor’s degree in Geology and had no idea how to turn that into a job, much less a career.
“I think I really do just want to write,” I told my dad, feeling anxious and afraid of his reaction.
He frowned, then nodded slowly. “That’s okay, as long as you write something true. Truth lasts.”
I felt loved in those words, and I promised I’d try my best to look for truth in my writing.
He added, “As long as you have a day job. Art is no way to pay the bills.”
He wasn’t wrong. I still can’t live off my writing, but the things I’ve learned as a computer programmer and sysadmin have enriched my life.