by Berlin Pruden
Very rarely is making art not a messy process.
I remember being a toddler, just barely into kindergarten, and being allowed to make huge finger paintings for my parents. It was an unsightly amalgamation of blues, grays, and browns, and there was far more of it on my pants and face than on the paper itself. I somehow managed to tear the edges of the paper as well, frayed and crinkled in my grubby fingers. My mother called me a Smurf until I could get it off my cheeks. My father still has it hanging up in his living room.
In middle school, I was given a charcoal pencil for the first time. Drawing after drawing of murky and smokey blobs erupted onto every canvas and flat surface I could grasp. My hands would be stained black, with marks on my nose and blotches on all of my nice shirts that my mom would force me into. I remember trying to create portraits for my friends back then. They were rough, misshapen proportions that my twelve year old fingers didn’t have a knack for. I wonder if they still have them, after all these years.
When I first wanted to dye my hair, I didn’t know if my mom would let me, so I snuck in a box of bleach and a bottle of the most vibrant blue I could find from the drugstore. I was around thirteen, in the summer before high school, and after moving five times I was restless for some control. I didn’t quite understand the directions presented on the box, and I know I burnt my scalp by leaving the bleach on for far longer than I should, my head tender and blistering, but somehow I ended up with a head of hair that resembled a robin’s egg. However, I had stained about every single surface of the upstairs bathroom in the same shade. The patterned floor tiles, the porcelain sink, the soft white towels, the shower curtain, all looked as if someone had spilled a bucket of paint across it. I used whatever Google told me was the best way to remove the stains, and my mother had caught me on my hands and knees scrubbing at the floor with toilet bowl cleaner and bleach, face pale as a ghost as tears rushed down my cheeks. I was on weed pulling duty for the next four months as punishment.
Back in high school, my art teacher let me pick whatever size canvas I wanted for my assignments. Being an overachiever, I picked the largest canvas I could, a 6 x 3 size, and created a jumbled array of lines, splotches, splatters, and swipes. It was abstract, and full of springtime hues of pink and yellow and blue, and one classmate told me it reminded them of an Easter bunny throwing up. I didn’t have a plan or direction with the piece, but I had feelings, and I wanted something that felt like how making art felt. It didn’t really click for me, however, until news had passed that our art teacher had died during complications with her surgery over one of the breaks. I looked at the canvas in a new light. It had changed in my eyes from something that represented art, to something that represented her. And when the school asked me if they could hang it up in the halls as a memory for her, I agreed, and the same classmate who once complained had looked at it and said, “I get it now.”
Before we all left for college, my friends and I got together for one last hurrah. We had a bonfire going in one of Kollin’s farm fields, the corn husks from harvest billowing around us. We had brought along old t-shirts and tie dye to decorate shirts together, as a way to remember each other by, a goodbye not spoken. It’s interesting what friendship looks like to you and other people. For some it’s a ruffling of hair, a purple spiral towards the heart on their tie dye shirt. For others, it’s a passing of a cold water bottle after a race to the barn, red stripes towards the hems. For me, it was homemade cookies being brought with rushed colorful icing, yellow splotches of dye on the torso of my shirt. When the sun began to set, the brilliant red streaking across the sky, all of us sat warmed around the crackling fire, we shared stories of our high school days. Laughing and smiling, some of us soaked from water guns and tie dye, it felt right, even if I hadn’t seen some of them again after that night.
My boyfriend and I had been dating for about 6 months, and most of it was spent making him little gifts for him to find and keep. Folded paper stars, little doodles I had made in class, silly versions of his favorite movie posters. When it was nearing our 6 month anniversary, I decided to paint him a piece of artwork, a real art piece that he could hang in his apartment. I spent a lot of time focusing on the colors and the expressions, using greens, blues, yellows. Colors I felt reminded me of him, how he made me feel, how love made me feel. It was swirling and whimsical, and it felt a little magical when I looked at it for a bit too long. When I gave it to him, he smiled so softly, like he just knew when he looked at it. He smiled at me like he understood, and I felt seen. He still kissed my cheek, even though I’m pretty sure I had accidentally smeared yellow onto that side of my face and had yet to get it cleaned off. I only wish love could last as long as a painting.
After a particularly rough summer, filled with one too many days unable to get out of bed- let alone take care of myself, my mother suggested I see a therapist. I went in with many reservations, and as nice as the lady seemed with her auburn hair and laughter lines, much of our first few sessions were filled with painful silences. One day she asked me if I had any hobbies. I told her I used to enjoy making art. She then explained to me that sometimes showing our feelings is easier than saying them, and asked me to paint what was going through my head. For the first time since I had been able to pick up a crayon, the canvas was blank. I didn’t know what to do. I had felt like a pipe that someone had plugged up, yet left the water running, and that someday the pipe was going to burst, but I didn’t know if I was prepared for the fallout.
“There’s no right way to express yourself,” she said kindly, after I spent too long staring intently at the canvas.
I was still lost. “Can I work on the painting at home?”
Staring at the canvas in the comfort of my disheveled bedroom didn’t help me either. It wasn’t until I had gotten up to grab my paint supplies, frayed paint brushes and dried acrylic paint, that something changed. When I went to set them down by the easel, a few stray tubes had fallen from my hands, landing in a pile on the floor, the vermillion and cadmium yellow staining the white carpet.
The pipe burst.
I cried, for the first time in far too long—a drought had been persisting behind my eyes, and my mother rushed in when she heard my gasping sobs. When she saw me on the bedroom floor, trying to scrub the stain out of the carpet, she gently touched my hand to stop me, wiping at my salty tears.
“I never liked this carpet anyway,” she whispered with a cheeky grin. “Your grandmother chose it, and I tried to tell her it was hideous.”
She then did something I had never seen her do in my life. She grabbed my tube of sap green paint, and smeared it onto the carpet. I gaped at her, completely and utterly speechless. Still trying to catch my breath from bawling, she then pushed a tube of Prussian blue into my hands and led me to my bedroom wall. I streaked the blue onto the walls with my fingers, leaving little trails down as I went. My mother let out a cackle, a foreign sound to my ears, and I laughed with her, another sound that hadn’t been heard in months. We spent the afternoon coating walls and floors and doors, before ending in a pile, us as stained as the room around us, giggles escaping from our chests every once in a while.
I showed a picture of the room to my therapist the next time I saw her. She told me it was her new favorite painting. I told her it was mine too.
Berlin Pruden is an Art and Psychology double major from Alpha, Illinois. With a love of storytelling, both visually and literary, he wants to one day create his own graphic novel while also becoming an art therapist in the future. His story piece “Chaos in Creativity” won second place in The Vandalia’s 2022 Art & Literature contest.