by Beth Whitman
Dad had been attending an art class for almost ten years at the Methodist church in the town where he and my mom lived. So when they moved in with me, I set out to find someone who could teach an art class out at our home, as it was getting harder and harder for Mom and Dad to get around.
I found an extraordinary teacher and artist named Barbara McCarthy through the happenstance of casual conversation at coffee hour after church. Barbara began to come to our house every Tuesday at 1pm. At times there have been others in the community who joined our class, but mostly it’s just been family.
When we began, Dad was identified as the artist in the family, but all three of us participated in the class, and I was delighted to discover that Mom and I both had a talent for drawing that I had never known about. But Mom, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, never consciously “attended” art class — she just enjoyed being around activity. So I always made sure there was a seat for her at the table. After I set Dad up with his easel and oil paints, I would set out a drawing pad and colored pencils for Mom, and arrange a couple of things that might catch her interest as subjects. Then I would look around for a subject of my own. Generally, I had no idea what to expect — from the class, from Mom, or from myself.
Ever the watcher of people, Mom began to draw whimsical, light-handed portrait sketches of the various people in the class. My eye lit upon Pippin lying on the floor in the middle of the room, so I began to paint a series of portraits of my dog.
Mom was utterly absorbed. Her drawings reflected the unnoticed detail that only a close observer of people and things would pick up. The yin-yang reflection in the pupil of an eye, the hatch mark on the side of an apple, the attentive tilt of the head of the ewe lamb we call Bo, and my personal favorite: the portrait of my father as he sat across the table from Mom, sun streaming in the window from behind, lighting up his Whitman ears (all the Whitman brothers had ears like that, sticking way out).
But it was the portrait of the sheep that caught the imagination of the class as a whole. It was so delicate, so colorful, and so captured the essence of Bo, my favorite lamb. We were amazed. And we were inspired. We decided that we would all try to do a portrait of Bo in the medium that we were each working in.
It was the outcome of those individual efforts that inspired the “Whitman Family Winter Art Exhibit” at the local store down the road in January of 2012. Barbara and I had fun hanging the show, along with her work and the work of another one of her students who lived in town. Dad unfortunately took sick that day, and I had to take him into the hospital in the afternoon after we finished hanging the show. He was in the hospital for a week and only once got to see the show just before we took it down. Mom never saw it. By January she had ceased to pick up the colored pencils any more, and she wasn’t recognizing the work as her own. (In fact, I often had to sneak her drawings away from her before she would either tear them up or cross them out to start on another one.)
It was Mom’s work that stole the show. Her delicate pieces were set apart on a panel of their own, the centerpiece of which was an eye — the window of the soul — and the last drawing she ever did.
The art class is one of those amazing things that has resulted from having my parents living with me. I will treasure those Tuesday afternoons, the deepening feeling in my father’s artwork, the surprising and amazing works that my mom produced, and the discovery of myself as an artist, all under the tutelage of our wonderful instructor, Barbara McCarthy.
Beth Whitman lives in Maine and is a member of Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage, a developing community on the coast of Maine focused on multigenerational living and sustainability.