In 2016, I had the privilege to see Van Gogh’s iconic work first-hand at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, an experience I chronicled in one of my first blog posts. I was emotionally moved by the haunting beauty of the painting Irises. I was drawn toward the energy of its vivid colors and the angelic aura of a single white iris on the left side of the painting.
Throughout my time at the Getty, I was mesmerized and focused on the beautiful paintings, amazed by the colors and creativity of all the artists. But it was Van Gogh’s work that brought me back to a time as a child while visiting my grandmother Nennie.
I stayed with Nennie and my grandfather PaPa whom I was named after. PaPa spelled his name Tira and I spelled mine Tyra. As a youngster, I was sure being named after PaPa made me extra special. I remembered staying with my grandparents while in second grade while mother and daddy traveled to see different doctors looking for a cure for Daddy’s heart disease.
I particularly remember one day when I stayed after school waiting for the school bus. I was staying at the Scotts’ while my parents were in Galveston seeing another doctor. Miss Talbert, my second-grade teacher, had found me crying on the playground one day after school and invited me to finger paint in her classroom while I waited for the bus. Miss Talbert encouraged me to choose from all the colors, though she often used black when she showed us how to use our fingers and forearms to create paintings.
She poured two large capfuls of buttermilk onto the paper.
“Buttermilk causes the paint to spread smoothly on the page and keeps it from cracking so much as it dries,” she explained, as I smeared the liquid with my forearm from the wrist all the way up to my elbow. It felt better than making mud pies.
I painted endless pictures of irises, all of them black. My grandmother Nennie, a self-taught interior decorator, was always appreciative of anything I made with my own hands. One of the irises I painted stood out among the rest, so I decided to give it to her for Mother’s Day. Miss Talbert suggested I make a construction paper mat for it. I chose lime green, a surprise on special paper purchased from the Ben Franklin, I counted the days until I could give it to her.
On Mother’s Day morning, Daddy, Mother, Rodney, and I drove to Nennie’s and PaPa’s farm. Nennie loved it when we all gathered at their house. Including all the aunts, uncles, and cousins, there were at least fifteen of us. After dinner, while Nennie was opening gifts, I squeezed in between her and the sofa arm, snuggling close. As she bent down to hug me, I whispered, “I have my own gift for you. It’s a secret.”
Nennie finished unwrapping her gifts, then she announced that she and I had some private business. I retrieved my surprise from the car, and we went into her bedroom. Nennie scooted down to one end of the bed and patted the space beside her. I handed her the wrapped painting as she helped me onto the four-poster bed. I thought I would lose my mind with anticipation. I was elated with my iris and knew Nennie would be, too. I scooted closer to her as she painstakingly removed the wrapping.
“Oh my!” Nennie looked down at my gift. A broad-leafed, tall-stemmed iris completely covered the page. Nennie carefully leaned it against the headboard then pulled me onto her lap. “Tyra, what a wonderful flower! So tall and straight.”
“Nennie, it’s an iris. Can you see the tiny lines in the leaves? I made them by putting my whole arm in the paint!” I rushed on, eager to tell her about it. “The little hairs on my arms made the tiny lines, like veins in the leaves.”
“I do see them, of course. I love it, and I love you.” Nennie beamed. “Thank you for making me a gift with your own two hands. This painting is beautiful and will hang in the hallway for everyone to see. When the irises aren’t in bloom, I’ll have yours to enjoy and think of all the colors it could be.”
Nennie paused, and then said, “Tyra, my prayer for you is that someday you will see irises in all the colors of the rainbow. Someday you’ll paint irises in greens, purples, reds, and yellows. I love this iris you made for me with black strong leaves and tiny lines etched by the hairs in your arms with a light-gray background. One day, this tiny red flower in the center will grow larger than this whole painting. Until then, this is the best iris I have ever gotten.”
As I pounded, stretched, and beat the clay in art class at Menninger, I remembered how Nennie had always been there for me. She had a way of making me feel as if I were just right and not a problem. I’d stayed with her and PaPa during the summers when Mother and Daddy left home, looking for a cure. She was the first one in my family to embrace Larry and our plans to marry. She told me stories about growing up as a little girl on the prairie when times were hard, and she took me shopping at elegant stores for new clothes. Nennie couldn’t make up for the homesickness I felt when Mother and Daddy were gone, or my grief when Daddy died, but she helped me believe we would be all right. As I grew older, I lost the ability to believe her, though I still loved the fact that she tried to make me hopeful.
The evocative power of art can often stir up buried or undiscovered emotions, and it can awaken memories so strongly that you feel as though you are reliving them. What are some artists or works of art that bring you deeper into your feelings and memories?
© Tyra Manning 2020