I recently saw an exhibition of paintings by a young artist in a bank lobby. There were roughly 30 paintings on view, every one a weak and and superficial copy of a color photograph, magazine illustration, or well-known painting. Every kind of subject and every style of art was represented, but I couldn't for the life of me see the slightest evidence of the living, breathing human being who had painted them.
In a short biographical note, taped above the paintings, I learned that the artist was 16, that she was an honor student at a nearby high school, and that she had won numerous awards for her art. Next to the note hung several expensively framed certificates detailing the prizes she had won --all signed by individuals whose titles had nothing to do with art.
I studied each picture, looking almost desperately for proof that this young artist really existed, for some indication that she had a voice and a spirit of her own and had not totally lost her creative identity on the altar of exploitation. In one corner, overshadowed by a copy of Chagall, I found that proof, It was a poorly drawn but deeply felt study of a Persian cat, obviously well-loving by her.
I was studying it when I was accosted by a woman carrying a bundle of papers. "Hello," she said, "I'm the artists' mother. Would you like to see some literature on her?"
She talked for at least half an hour, all about what a wonderful talent her daughter had, how simply everyonem thought she had a great career ahead of her, and how terriblym proud she and the girl's father were of her.
When she asked me what I thought of her work I pointed to the picture of the cat. "I like that one," I said. "Has she done any more like it?" "Good heavens , no!" was the reply. "You must be joking! I only let her include that one because she insisted."
She talked on and on and on. The girl's life was being planned and nailed down right in front of me. And by a woman who had not the slightest interest in art, knew nothing about it, and was only using it to drown her daughter's creativity for her own purposes.
Listening to the mother, I remembered another occasion when I had seen the work of a very young artist for the first time.
I had gone to the Metropolitan Museum to take a more leisurely look at the paintings in their recently opened Andre Mayer galleries, especially to see if one of their recent acquisitions, Toulouse-Lautrec's youthful study of "Rene Grenier" was really as good as I had thought upon first seeing it.
I found the painting completely blocked by a very large painting pad on an easel, with an intense young girl busily sketching away on the pad. I moved closer and was struck by the superb drawing I saw taking shape. But my young artist was not copying the painting any more Lautrec had originally copied hism model. It was Lautrec's image she was sketching, but she was not dependent upon it. It would, in fact, be fair to say that she was deep in dialogue with it.
I must have made an appreciative comment because she reared back to look at me. I muttered something to the effect that it was a nice drawing and her face broke into a happy grin.
Yes, she said, she liked it. Not as much as the others, but well enough not to have torn it up.
The others? I asked. Oh, yes, she said, the whole pad was full of them.
And so it was. Lovely, exquisite drawings. Each one tackling the mystery of Lautrec's genius from a different angle. And all done by this delightful girl just barely into her teens. There was no doubt about it: she had an absolutely first-rate talent for drawing. I was tremendously excited.
But how to get to know her better so that I could see more of her work? I was certain that if i asked to do so I would have a dozen security guards on my neck in seconds!
I explained my dilemma to her. "Give me your card," she said, "and tell me who you are. I'll tell my father and he can check you out. Then, if he says OK , you can come to my house."
Within the week I found myself in the living room of a modest but comfortable apartment surrounded by two very friendly parents and a half-dozen lively children. The walls were covered with paintings done by various members of the family, and in a corner a boy of seven was splashing away with finger paints.
It was obvious that the parents were proud of their talented daughter but no more so than of their other children. It was the father who hauled out the portfolios crammed full of drawings.
They were beautiful! Not all, of course, but even those that failed had done so nobly. I just couldn't believe that one so young could draw so well.
In the simplest meaning of the word, she was a gifted child. And the wonder of it was that I felt certain she would never lose that gift. Not only because she knew herself remarkably well for someone her age, but also because her family considered her creative identity to be hers and hers alone. They would help and guide her in finding its ultimate fulfillment, but they would never attempt to crush or divert it.
I thanked them as I left, and asked if I could write about their daughter. Certainly, they answered, but please don't use her name. She has good teachers and is progressing at her natural rate. We don't want any publicity to rock the boat.