Dale flicked on the lights to his studio, a commandeered corner of his too-small dining room. For the hundredth time, he grimaced at the incandescent glow. Real artists insist on natural lighting. He adjusted his easel and carefully aligned his paint tubes, arranged in a chromatic pattern behind his graduated row of brushes. Successful artists have messy studios, he chided himself. They are ruled by passion and vision, not order and control. Shaking his head, he continued with his ritual of mixing colors and contemplating his sketches until he was ready to dip the brush into the paint and touch it to the canvas. No turning back now.
Rows of canvases crowded Dale’s dining room, all stacked facing the wall. As he worked through the early morning hours, his scowl deepened. At last he wiped the paint off his brush and stepped back to examine his work. I’m not improving. There are still too many of the same mistakes. He lifted the painting from the easel and turned it around, leaning it against a tower of its rejected brothers.
As Dale drove to work, he seemed to hit every red light. Of course. All I need is more time to contemplate my failure. Passing through a school zone at a pace that would put a sloth to shame, he released a sigh when the crossing guard lowered her stop sign in front of him. Dale tapped the steering wheel impatiently. Come on! I’m going to be late for work. Won’t that just make this day even better? A gaggle of kindergarteners skipped across the street, dwarfed by their bouncing backpacks. Two tiny girls lagged behind, oblivious to the waiting traffic as they chattered behind a piece of paper while crossing. Dale cast a dark look at the girls, just three feet in front of his car. He glanced at the paper that held them captivated; it was a crayon drawing he supposed might be a dog. He snorted as they finally reached the sidewalk and the guard lifted her sign. He pulled into the office three minutes late.
Dale was grouchy all morning, even a little rude to his coworkers. When Evelyn, who sat in the cube next to him, asked to borrow his stapler, he snapped at her. “You’re always borrowing my stapler. Why don’t you get your own?”
Throughout the day Dale’s thoughts kept returning to the two girls with the drawing of the dog. Why? Why couldn’t he get those silly girls out of his head? And why had they been so fascinated by that scribble? Obviously one of them had drawn the picture, probably of her own dog, and shared it with her friend. So? Why did he care? Why was this bothering him so much? The more Dale thought about it, the shorter he got with his coworkers, until everyone was relieved to get away at the end of the work day.
Instead of heading straight home, Dale stopped at a park to walk around. The air was cool and the sound of the wind in the leaves calmed some of his tension. He sat down on a bench and took several deep breaths. God, what is behind this? Why am I so upset about those two little girls and their dog picture?
As he watched the sun droop, Dale began to understand. There is no joy in my painting. He had never shared his paintings with anyone; he had never even enjoyed them himself. He was striving to “succeed,” whatever that meant, rather than to enjoy painting.
The next day, Dale took two of his smaller paintings with him to work. He kept them wrapped in paper all morning, and his heart rate shot up alarmingly when everyone began to leave for lunch. He tucked the paintings under his arm and approached Evelyn. “Evelyn? I’m, uh, sorry I was rude about the stapler yesterday. I brought you something.” He clumsily thrust the wrapped paintings at her before he could change his mind, wishing he was a thousand miles away.
Evelyn raised one eyebrow and unwrapped the first painting, a slightly lopsided bluebird sitting in an oak tree. She smiled and glanced at Dale out of the corner of her eye as she opened the second painting. It was a matching bluebird (perhaps its head was just a little too large) flying over a wheat field. Her smile grew as she turned to Dale. “These are lovely, Dale. Thank you! Where did you get them?”
Dale’s face grew quite hot; he was sure it was flaming red, and not at all sure his voice would obey him. He whispered, “I painted them.”
Evelyn did not try to hide her shock. “You? They’re beautiful. Did you know my mother loved bluebirds?”
Dale was pleased and embarrassed when Evelyn hung the paintings in her cubicle, where many coworkers commented on them.
He began to find himself eager to get up early in the morning to paint, and even more eager to share his work with his growing circle of friends. The piles in his dining room studio diminished, as more and more people began to proudly display their “Dales.”
He never stopped arranging his supplies in neatly organized rows, and he never got around to changing the lighting in his studio. But he did begin to smile at each completed painting, thinking of the person who would receive it with joy.
Featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
Athena Williams is honored to serve as the Director of Online Publication for Cultivating Magazine. She is currently working towards a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling through Liberty University online. Athena considers writing a privilege and a wonder, and hopes her work will encourage each reader to lean in to the shaping work of God. athenawrites.com
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