I grew up on Lamp Post Court in Decatur, Georgia. We lived at the end of a cul-de-sac, between the Mogans and the Van Dykes. The Mogans had three boys, pretty much the same ages as my brothers and me. They were our closest friends in those days, although they were always a pretty strange family. I'll have to tell you more about the Mogans later- they deserve space to themselves! In this entry, I want to tell you about the Van Dykes. Phillip and Gina Van Dyke were an older couple. They had 6 children, and they were all a good bit older than me. By the time I was 8 years old, all of their children had moved away from home and Gina found herself alone much of the time. She would turn to her art to keep her busy. She was an incredible artist, too!
One day I was in the yard playing and Ms. Van Dyke spotted me. She asked if I wanted to come in for a cookie and of course I did! Once inside, she decided to show me her artwork. We went down to the basement where she had a gallery of all of her work. I was so impressed. The people in her paintings were so life-like and realistic. There were portraits of her children and grandchildren- I had to look closely to verify that they weren't photos because they were that good! She asked if I'd like to have my portrait done some time. I told her that it sounded like fun. She said that I'd have to check with my Mom, because it would be a long process and committment. I ran home and asked Mom and she said that it would be fine. Cool! I was going to be a model!!!
I immediatley went to my closet to look for a good modeling outfit for my first job. I selected a light blue silk shirt with clouds on it. I loved that shirt and thought it would be perfect for my first modeling job. After breakfast the next morning, I ran next door and Mrs. Van Dyke was waiting for me. I was a little disappointed that she wasn't wearing a beret and holding a paintboard in one hand and standing next to an easel. Instead, she was sitting at the breakfast table with a sketch pad and a charcoal pencil. Intstead of a beret, she wore her long gray hair up in a tight bun. She said that she wanted to start off by doing sketches, and when she had them down pat, she'd start the portrait in oil paint. I asked her how she would like me to pose. I had practiced a pose in the bathroom mirror the night before-- a backwards glance over my left shoulder, kind of a come-hither look that I'd seen on a Farrah Fawcett poster. I showed the pose to Mrs. Van Dyke and she said she'd like it better if I'd just sit in a chair and face her. I thought that sounded pretty boring, but she was the artist so she knew best. Maybe she didn't think it was appropriate for an 8 year old boy to pose that way, but I thought it would be perfect! I even thought about unbuttoning my silk shirt enough so that I could slide it down over one shoulder and then make a pouty face for the portrait. I had lots of ideas in my head of how I wanted my first portrait to look, but she insisted on me sitting in a chair and looking forward.
I sat there as still as I could as she began to draw on her pad. I expected her to say things like: "Make love to the camera" or some other corney line that I'd heard photographers say to the models during photo shoots. Instead, she said things like: "What grade will you be going into this Fall?", or "Your father's rosebushes are looking so nice this year". This wasn't how I had imagined modeling to be at all.
By the end of the day, she had finished drawing my eyes. I was beginning to wish that I had found a younger painter to do my first portrait. She was old and slow! But, she had captured my eyes! When I looked at her sketch pad, I saw my eyes looking back! She was right when she warned me that this would be a long process.
I sat for her just about every day for the rest of the Summer. We'd take breaks and have hot tea, or she'd play her piano for me. Sometimes I got to play with her cat, Smokey, when I wasn't busy modeling. We'd talk while she drew and we were becoming close friends. By the end of the Summer, she had finished several pencil drawings of me and she said that we were ready to move on to the painting (at last!). She got a good start on the painting, but then school started and the holidays began and we were too busy to get together every day. It was the next Summer before we could resume the painting. By then, I had gotten braces on my teeth and my hair was longer, so she had to re-do some of the work that she'd previously done. She couldn't get together with me every day as she had the previous year, because she was busy taking care of one of her grandbabies, but she did take the time to work on my portrait with me a couple of times a week during that Summer.
I had noticed another painting that she was working on - it was of an African Tribal woman holding a pot. My first thought was "Why did she get to hold a pot? I was told just to sit still and look forward". My second thought was "Who is this African woman? Is she sneaking her in here on my days off and working on her portrait instead of mine?". The truth was that Mrs. Van Dyke was painting an image that was in her mind, there were no other models. But I was a little jealous that the African woman's painting seemed to be progressing faster than mine.
The Summer ended and my portrait wasn't complete yet. I looked forward to the next Summer when we could buckle down and get it done. Unfortunately, nothing happened the next Summer. Mrs. Van Dyke had some kind of illness that caused her to go blind in one eye. She had to wear a patch over her eye and couldn't draw or paint. I would still visit her often and she introduced me to her poetry. She had those books that were full of blank pages and in the books were her poems. I didn't understand most of them, but she'd read them to me while I sipped her hot tea and played with Smokey. I still remember one of her poems:
People walk their dogs,
So they can defecate in other people's yards
I'm sure she had some great poems in those books, but that two-liner stands out in my memory.
I think that she enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed hers. While my brothers were out playing- getting broken bones and skinned knees, I was sitting in an air conditioned house drinking hot tea with my friend, the artist.
The next Summer, my parents put the house up for sale. We were building a new house in Stone Mountain, and Mrs. Van Dyke knew that it was now or never. We really buckled down and worked on the portrait. It had been four years since we had began it, and I had grown and changed a lot. My braces were now off and my teeth and face were totally different from when we had begun the painting. She painted and painted, even though she was half blind. Unfortunately, we didn't finish it before I moved. It was pretty close to being finished and it looked pretty good though.
The next time that I saw Mrs. Van Dyke was a couple of years later, and she was in a casket. As I looked at her, I wondered if she had worked on the painting after I moved away. Was she ever able to put the finishing touches on it, or did her lack of a live model or her blindness prevent her from finishing it? I wonder if that portrait was ever hung in her gallery, amongst her family and the African woman with the pot.
What a cool lady- a real artist! I'm so glad that I knew her. Good night Mrs. Van Dyke, wherever you are!