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Dad next door: Portrait of an artist

Dad artist next door

Dr. Jeff Less, the dad next door, artistically rendered.

My father was a practical man. He didn’t have much of a choice. He was a child of the Great Depression, in a family trying to make do in a foreign land. If he wanted to escape the unexciting future that awaited him in their Chinese laundry, he needed a solid and workable plan.

At 16, towards the end of World War II, he lied about his age and joined the United States Navy in the Pacific Fleet. After two shifts (and a case of tuberculosis), he went to Franklin and Marshall College with the GI Bill. A career counselor put him through some tests and stated that he should find a job where he could work with his hands, so he enrolled in Tufts Dental School. Immediately upon graduation, he started a dental practice in Amherst, Massachusetts, had four children, and spent the next 40 years working and looking after his family.

A strange thing

In the evenings, when he finally got to his feet, he read dentistry journals or managed his investments. She didn’t really have any hobbies: there were never enough hours a day. From time to time, though, he did something that seemed strangely out of character: he would take out a piece of paper and a pencil and try to draw.

He usually came home with a library book on how to draw pictures or animals. He studied it at the kitchen table, drawing its shapes and lines, trying to reproduce a horse or a dancer on the page. Sometimes I would sit next to him and he too would give me a piece of paper to draw on. He would do it for a week or so, and then he would stop. Maybe a year or two later, he would try again.

I never asked him about these random attempts at artistic expression, but looking back, I have to wonder what was bubbling up inside him, trying to break free. There was nothing in his life, as far as I knew, that told him he could be an artist, yet that thought came back to him over and over. The seeds continued to germinate in his otherwise pragmatic mind, but they never took root deeply enough to survive.

Plant seeds, again

In my life, and especially since my father died, I have felt the need to plant those seeds again, for both of us. Every time I take out my camera or my guitar or a notebook, I think about how he has put aside his creativity to give me this comfortable life, where I have time and resources that he never had. I feel a responsibility to take that gift and do something impractical with it.

My father’s experience was, in part, an immigrant experience, but in our culture, inner artists can wither on almost any vine. If you ask a class of kindergarten students how many of them are artists, almost 100% will raise their hand. On the first average it is 20-30%. In high school, it’s less than 5%. Their definition of art gradually shifts from “something you are forced to create” to “something someone else would like.”

Beat the odds

So far, our 11-year-old, Pippa, has managed to beat those odds. She builds complex worlds and civilizations with sheer imagination and happily draws them with pencil and paper for hours. Sometimes we suggest that she draw on prettier paper or color them so we can preserve them, but she just ignores us. “How come?‘she asks, as if we’d just told her to keep the toenail clippings or navel fuzz so we can frame them and show them off.

The other day he asked if he could paint his room. She had a clear vision and saved enough allowance to purchase the paint supplies herself. We struggled for a while with our shy, grown-up sensitivity, but in the end we agreed. Within hours, she’d covered her wall with a bold, chaotic, spray-painted graffiti mural in black, purple, and fluorescent green. When she unveiled it, we welcomed it with that strange blend of wonder, pride and dismay that only parents can feel.

Within each of us, the seed of an artist lies in wait. What is unique is not the seed: it is the soil, the light and the rain that we give it. Artistic talent is never given. He grew up.

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Read more:

“How to get your children initiated into art: don’t be afraid to get confused”

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