“Don’t Make it. Let it!”

Detail from a t-shirt designed by children at summer camp

Detail from a t-shirt designed by children at summer camp

It was Oct 2011 when I was walking down the main hallway of the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria, VA. I had organized a seminar there the previous Friday and somebody had lost their computer cable. I was there looking for it and asking around but nobody had found the cable. What I did find though, was the Day of the Dead exhibit put up by students of The Art League.

Unbelievable skulls, fantastic colors, altars I couldn’t even imagine, and… “Sush?”

Someone knew my name but I couldn’t place her at all. “You probably don’t remember me…” the lady began.

It was Cecilia. She had volunteered at the Del Ray Artisans Summer Camp for children some months ago when I was teaching my Explore Arts of India camp there. She remembered me taking Indian sarees for children to look at, try to wear, and find paisleys in their intricate designs. She remembered me telling the children that paisley designs were inspired by the pine cone but was also called the mango design.

Anyway, she said all this to the other lady she was with, who was her Art League art teacher, Marsha Staiger. They were there to take down the Day of the Dead show.

They talked, we chatted, laughed, looked at art, and all the while I really loved the thing they had. “You should come check out our class. You might like it!” Cecilia said.

“Yes, come on the critique day,” Marsha gave me a November date. “There will be food and drink and we’ll look at what students have created over the duration of the class and give feedback.”

I hadn’t had an “art teacher” since I was 18 and even then can hardly remember having so much fun with any of my art school professors. The last time I had actually painted was when I was 18. After that it had been typography and photography and then work in advertising. I had enjoyed creating ad campaigns, designing layouts, packaging design, logos, newspaper ads… Since I gave all that up I have mostly been working alone. Writing, researching, learning book arts, designing books, printing and binding them myself in my basement or in my small, shared, studio space.

Then another voice—“Is that Sush?”—it came from the other side of the art panels and was my dear friend Kathlyn, also an Art League teacher. When I told her later that I wanted to take the class Cecilia takes she told me I would love it as Marsha was an amazing teacher and so I committed myself. All day every Monday for 9 sessions.

And just like that, thanks to Cecilia, my life changed. I loved painting Marsha-Style! The class was fun and there were amazing things I could learn from every single person in the class. I was starting from scratch but it was amazing to realize there was a lot I knew already—even before I put the brush on the paper—and it showed by the time I was done. 20 years in advertising wasn’t so bad after all! I painted, I played with color, I danced with text and songs and included them in my work. Painting freed me from the small sizes of my books, which were smaller than half-page newspaper ads. Marsha made us frame things and enter them in shows. By the end of 2012 I had had my paintings in various shows, sold a few of them, and also won Best in Show once.

Meanwhile, everyday, I drove past this For Lease sign in a shop window near my house. 400 sq. ft. How lovely it would be if it could be my studio. But how would I make rent? I told Cecilia. She got excited. We drove past one day, then stopped, parked, and peeked in the blinded window. “Looks good!”

She took me to the guitar studio few doors down. “Let’s go in and ask him,” and before I could stop her, we were inside, settling down on a couch, laughing and asking questions.

Then came Cecilia’s worries about her ankle replacement surgery. “What if I stop going out because it hurts? What if I stop painting? How will I do Marsha’s all-day class? It would be a long recovery and painting at home was ok but my basement studio needs to be fixed.”

Thai food with Cecilia

Thai food with Cecilia

Meanwhile, I decided to take on the space. The landlord seemed nice and the sunlight in the space was awesome. I had taken a photo of Cecilia’s manicure and the plate of dessert at a Thai restaurant we had eaten in one afternoon. That would inspire the colors of my logo for Studio PAUSE, a space where you make time for creativity and celebrate the creativity of others in the community.

But I couldn’t afford Marsha’s class anymore and I knew I would miss painting and the camaraderie. It was the first time that I would be alone in my art studio and I worried—what if I produced nothing?

But Cecilia had an idea. “Can I come in and paint with you for a few hours every Monday?” She could sit and work on small pieces instead of standing and working at an easel. We could go visit Marsha’s class sometimes too. We would still enter our work in the Art league shows. She would come in after her water aerobics class.

“Yes!” was my answer, and ever since I opened Studio PAUSE in Sept. 2013, Cecilia has come in on Mondays and painted. We laugh, we worry, we eat, we paint and play, talk about the kids, and explore ideas. We share stories of travel and movies, get angry on current issues, and share earrings even. Cecilia donated her surplus art supplies to the Studio and left her art there as well so she didn’t have to lug it in and out every time. As her ankle healed, other visitors saw her work and got intrigued. They wanted to try it. They wanted to buy it. How much did it cost?

How much does art cost? Why does art cost what it does? What if you didn’t frame it or put wire on the back? What if you could pay some now some later when you had the money? We ask all kinds of questions at Studio PAUSE and then tried it all at Candy Shop, a sale of art by Cecilia in December 2013 where everything was from $10 to $40. Artwork that was small, yummy, zero calories, and inexpensive. We downloaded songs to go with the theme—Nostalgia: The Candy Shop. Facebook friends contributed their favorite songs too. It snowed that day and Cecilia couldn’t make it, but others did and Candy Shop was a hit!

So I asked Cecilia if she’d like to have a show. Of course she didn’t! Her work all over a full wall? No way!

Meanwhile, others started coming to the Studio on Monday for Art PAUSE and painting alongside Cecilia and me—many who had never painted before. We worked on paper, tiles, cardboard. We worked with brushes, brayers, and “kabob sticks.”  Making art is not just about you and your ideas. It is about learning, exploring, playing, and feedback too. How many everyday people have watched an artist work? Questioning, failing, changing, collaborating, celebrating—all of these are part of the artist’s process.

Then one day I get an email from Cecilia. “Yes, I will do the show. I think I am ready!” Her basement studio had been renovated. It had great light and a well organized space. Her art was flowing.

Cecilia looking at her work on the wall at Studio PAUSE

Cecilia looking at her work on the wall at Studio PAUSE

The next opening was in March, and so we were set. When I told another friend about Cecilia’s upcoming show she remembered something else. “Wow, in time for the 6-month anniversary of Studio PAUSE!”

I hadn’t even thought of that. But how absolutely fitting! Thanks, Cecilia! None of this would have happened without you.

(The reception for Hidden!—Found & Lost and Lost & Found, Abstract Paintings by Cecilia Kalish, is on Sat., March 15, 6-8 pm. More…)


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