Art Saves • by Ray Hemachandra
Learning to Value Art
Art was a constant value in my home growing up. My family lived in the suburbs of New York. We'd go into Manhattan - "the City" - constantly and to the seemingly countless museums and exhibits. Long Island, where we lived, had its own share of little museums and sculpture lawns, too, and other forms of beauty: the Clark Botanic Garden and the Old Westbury Gardens were favorite spots, as well as the beach and the Atlantic Ocean itself.
The culture-fied activity reflected my mother's value system. As a boy I was pulled along, for the most part; I'd rather have been playing ball in the backyards and the street, reading comic books, and watching the Yankees, Knicks, Islanders, and Jets on TV.
But that immersion in culture as a value stuck, perfectly reflecting my mother's best hopes, intentions, and manipulations. Somehow those competing value systems became complementary in my adult life. And now I impress it all on my own son.
My mother was Rita Hemachandra. Toward the beginning and end of her life - when she was a little girl and then in remission after and before breast cancer (after her first bout and before the cancer recurred and overwhelmed), as she neared her death - she preferred to be called Hope. She was an artist, as well as a kindergarten teacher.
She especially loved to paint and to draw. She tried different mediums, because she enjoyed experimenting. Watercolors were her favorite, though. She'd take class after class, year after year, and paint portraits and flowers, birds and the beach, Central Park and eggs.
She had artist friends, too. I remember posing for days for one of those friends painting an oil portrait of me, standing obediently in place when all I wanted to be doing was running outside.
I did this in exchange for candy bars.
It wasn't actually optional, but in fact I always have been willing to work for candy bars.
The Hope Hemachandra reference and refreshed remembrance come from recently seeing a painting by my mother - one I'd never seen before - at an elderly family friend's home. The friend, my Aunt Mary, lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. My son Nicholas and I live in Asheville, N.C., and we visited her last month. I was completely surprised to see art I recognized as by my mother's hand.
I observed more closely: The painting of sunflowers was dated 1996, two years before her death, and she signed it "Hope." And I then remembered: she and her sister, my Aunt Hattie - Hattie and Rita Warmbrand - had renamed one another Faith and Hope as children growing up in Manhattan in the 1930s. And my mother clung fervently to hope - to the name of it and to the idea of it, to art and her guitar and the beach and the garden and to life itself - in her final years.
An Eye & A Talent for Art
Alas, I inherited my mother's love of art but not her talent for it. In my defense, I draw most excellent stick figures. But that's about the extent of it.
Occasionally, though, I'll exhibit greater ambition and play. I'll take a drawing- on-the-right-side-of-the-brain-type class and enjoy making a fool of myself - not entirely dissimilarly to the time I took a swing-dancing class with a friend and enjoyed stumbling along and occasionally falling over. I've taken a stained-glass class and was actually very pleased with the pretty sunset I created - curves were particularly hard to cut well - and equally pleased that after a few months of class, against even greater odds, I had all my fingers.
Lacking a hand for such things, even with fingers still intact, I nonetheless developed an eye for them. And so I've partnered with incredible artist-authors and graphic designers in my work life, as I've published magazines and art and craft how-to and gallery books, and in my personal life, as all of the most important women I've been with in my life have been artists.
Finding Art Where I Can
Right now I lack that both professionally and personally, so I find art where I can: in the nature surrounding my son and me in the Blue Ridge Mountains where we live in Asheville, North Carolina, which happens to be an area rich in artistic personalities; in photography, its own important art form and one to which I bring a little more talent, perhaps; and in my son, my most precious expression of always evolving artistic vision, albeit mostly his.
It's silly to make such generalizations, but I'll go ahead and be silly talking about the artists I worked with during my six years at Lark Books and three leading the Lark Jewelry & Beading imprint: They are simply awesome. They are kind and loyal, and I'm honored to have so many friendships that continue now that I've moved on professionally. I learned so much in creating books with them, books designed to teach and inspire.
Artists form passionate communities, as well, and I'm truly enriched by continuing to participate in several of them. The Internet connects people in transformative ways; I'm literate in the concerns about it but let's acknowledge, too, that some of these ways are wonderful.
So, at the end of the day, all these phases of my life come together. My son goes to bed, and I glance at the artwork on the walls and shelves around me. There are paintings and drawings by my mother (flowers and portraits), my ex-wife (angels, buddhas, and roses) and her uncle (mountains) and her late mother (an orange), my Uncle Bill (dogs), a close friend (hard to describe what she paints and creates, really), and, yes, even Nicholas (by and of his own hand) on the wall right now. There's additional fine art, too, and prints and posters representing stages and aspects of what I treasure and keep with me, the things and people and places I've loved: a publicity poster for a book by my grandfather, Max Warmbrand, a well-known naturopath; a Tami Boyce print from a friend's gallery in which the giant robot and the dinosaur take a break from their battle to sit on the hill and look for shapes in the clouds - a duck, a heart - as the city burns; a Meg Smith landscape collage; a William Welsh poster for the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago from the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago. Oh, and there are photos, too: some of my own of people, nature, and events, and even more of those sports figures I grew up watching and their fellows who came before and after: photos signed by baseball players from Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, and Derek Jeter; a hockey puck signed by Mike Bossy; a jersey signed by Willis Reed. And there's a bird flameworked by Shane Fero for his chapter in my book The Penland Book of Glass; there, original calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh; and there, a beautiful mask crafted for me by a former colleague and friend at a magazine.
And the top shelf on my living-room bookcase is filled with many of the books I published, signed by the artists who made them happen.
The stuff of my life is the art of my life.
Art saves, yes: art and children at play and love and joy and family and friendship. These are all the reasons why we're here.
To learn more about Ray Hemachandra, visit rayhemachandra.com.