Painting with Henry
Within the old two car garage, Henry created a magical studio. The space was ample, but cars were no longer housed within the wood framed structure. One weekend, Henry lifted the ceiling with several of his neighbors, raising the trusses to create a two story room large enough for his huge canvases. The white clapboard building revealed nothing of the treasures inside. Only the cherry red door hinted that things special were happening behind the house at the end of the cement drive.
The multiple paned window to the left of the studio faced north and allowed the cool light of the day to illuminate the model stage. Displayed on the floor of the stage were all but 12 of Henry’s new robot series. The six inch squares, soon to be one hundred strong, held captive the tiny mechanical figures, each unique and each one seriously unaware of the humor in its existence. Gigantor’s powerful red fists clenched at his side, poised to crush anyone in his way. His large cobalt blue, metallic muscles strained to be released, and his enormous red boots had wheels which were ready to roll. The cadmium yellow coils on his chest revealed the energy source of all his power. But Gigantor was controlled by forces greater than his own. His tiny blue head with small glowing red eyes, showed that what he proudly flaunted by way of physical power was not matched with his brain. Gigantor had no idea that he was merely a pawn, destined to do the bidding of others. A six foot canvas of Gigantor hung as part of a triptych above the stage. One of his companions boasted red lobster claws, a clear glass head, and fat, ribbed, tubular arms. His turquoise metal sparkled as the highlights of cerulean blue and creamy white reflected on his head, biceps, and thighs. With a quick glance around the studio, Henry’s robots could be seen from every angle.
The shelf against the wall to the right of the studio held each individual robot toy. Gigantor posed in the front, 2 ½ inches tall, pressed in beside Rosy the pink domestic robot with her silver aluminum coils of hair protruding vertically from her head, her bright white apron with silver breasts, and a large metal key inserted at her waist. To his other side, and twice as tall as Gigantor, stood the famous mechanical servant to the Robinson family from “Lost in Space.” This collector piece still verbalized his warning to the family’s son Will. Poor Gigantor had never been able to speak. Behind on the back row rose space ships of various forms; rounded yellow ones, tall and slim rocket shaped ones, and ships with large spreading turquoise fins to hold them upright.
Ray guns hung on the wall, many fabricated by Henry himself. Old metal hair dryers and drills had been transformed with washers, coils, gold paint and wire into a deadly array of Milky Way weapons. With so many robots below, it seemed appropriate to have the weapons above, just in case.
But robots were not Henry’s only fascination. A box at the back on the floor of the studio held as an assortment of 1950’s swim caps. The mint green rubber cap had a floral pattern of nubs that begged for fingers to rub across the top. One of the most treasured caps had rubber daisies that would have originally emerged from a swimming pool like a floral bouquet topping a swimmer’s head. The once white caps with wide chin straps had the institutional feel of a college swim team and brought forth the feelings of fear associated with not being able to pass a swim test. Henry battled collectors from Germany and Japan to secure the choicest of his collection. The life sized canvas of the swimmer in her leopard bikini on the back wall of the studio wore the flowered cap and tiny dark goggles. Her warm orange shadows and green highlights gave life back into the swim cap, a gift that Henry would impart to all of his props and treasures.
Japanese cups of yellow and turquoise cloisonné, diner style salt and pepper shakers, 1960’s mustard and ketchup bottles, bright pink sunglasses with simulated diamonds on the rims, and an assortment of cocktail glasses filled the cabinet near the door. Henry did not drink. When he painted a glass in a model’s hands, a drink to show her opinion of the oven on which she perched in her animal print slip, Henry colored water to give the impression of intoxicating liquor. What came from his imagination did not require alcohol or drugs for stimulation.
High above the studio, in the two story extension, flew a skeleton with angel wings, the angel of death. The bony fingers of the left hand pressed to the chest where the heart would have been. Henry had also used the white feathered wings for his daughter Emma’s portrait, for the life sized painting of a lady with blue night cream, and for a miniature set of dentures in bubblegum pink. Henry laughed that his first painting at the age of 10 had been of a vampire, so why not angel wings, dentures, and skeletons now that he was in his late 40’s.
Henry had frightened me when I first saw him. He lifted weights, and his muscles were huge. A worn baseball cap covered his balding head with a pony tail tied behind at the base of his neck. He painted on the first day of the outdoor workshop in large noise cancelling head phones that blared with rock and roll. He looked like a Harley driver with a paint brush and terribly unapproachable. This could not have been farther from the truth. Henry had the intuition of an accomplished astrologer and the sensitivity of an expectant mother. He could tell after only a few moments of conversation if you put on your socks before your shoes, the zodiac sign under which you had been born, and how you needed to be taught. I required kid gloves. Henry had those in his prop bag as well. He easily reinforce and built confidence in students. Without being told, he sensed the trauma of my personal life, soothed and supported my efforts at painting, and took me away to the world of portraiture. My son’s leave from his Ivy League university seemed to momentarily fade, as I concentrated on the faces of each day’s model, the light of sun and the cool afternoon shadows that dappled their faces. By painting with Henry, a student learned to open the window into a model’s personality, and open that same window into their own being.
Now, surrounded by the magic of Henry’s studio, I had made the six hour drive to paint with the master again. Many more traumas had come and gone in my life over the past two years. My husband had left with an ugly divorce battle which has just ended. I had moved twice, and the last of the moving trucks had unloaded the remains of a previous life on the garage floor of my new rental house. I left the boxes unpacked and went to Eastern Washington to study with Henry, driving through snow, rain, and sleet. I crossed the pass through the Cascades, the high desserts near the Columbia River, and the moon like landscape south of Spokane,until I reached the rolling farmland near Pullman. I pulled my grey Prius into the driveway, and unpacked a car load of painting supplies as quickly as possible. I settled in behind the red door and was read to begin.
Henry set up a small still life with a bottle of Lady in Red wine, a large round wine glass, white leather gloves, the pink sunglasses, a leopard purse with brown wooden handles, and a black and white poster of woman with full lips for the background. The entire vignette was set on a cloth of bright red. I was excited to begin. My pallet was filled with four different red oils, from cool to warm. To impress Henry, I had piled all the colors with abandon. I couldn’t be miserly with my paint around Henry. There was no part of him that was stingy, and he was not charging me for my lessons. He had just invited me to come and paint.
I toned my canvas in French ultramarine and began.
“Loosen up. Don’t be so afraid.”
I was amazed that he could see that I was frightened. I was using red with my large brush. I thought I was exuding boldness.
“Look at the bigger picture. You can’t squint and see the color.”
Henry continued to urge and offer the lessons that I needed to bring me back to the bigger shapes, and the truth of the color. Henry’s was not a world of black and white value changes. His was a world that was bold and bright. It took a trained eye to see the greens and violets of a young girl’s skin, or the deep purples and oranges in the shadows of a still life.
“There,” soothed Henry, “Much better. That highlight was blue, not white. You are seeing it now.”
Through the window of the studio I could see the snow drops with their heart shaped centers emerging from the rock garden. The dark red shoots of young plants poked like swords through the newly thawed soil. It would not be long before the columbine and coral bells would fill the garden beds. I painted quicker and larger. I painted with stronger colors. I swished my brushed in solvent and mixed the colors cleanly avoiding the murky mess of a dirty palette. The Lady in Red emerged on her bottle with sexy orange hair and vibrant warm flesh. The wine glass sparkled with light Cerulean highlights. The luscious lips of the background photo hung just above the orange cork. It was a nice painting.
“It’s time to stop.” Henry’s watch quietly beeped twice. “We’ll work on this painting tomorrow. Let’s clean our palettes, and we’ll start with the model after lunch. “
I hated to put down my paint brush. The two hours had flown by. I forced myself to turn from the still life nitch to the model’s stage, a symbolic gesture of stopping. I would love the afternoon spent painting Annabel as well. The time would fly again. We painted in two sessions a day, for 3 more days. My colors grew brighter and truer. I returned to Seattle with the faces of the models on canvas, wet, clean and bright. I returned with the Lady in Red, perched on her bottle, sexy and happy. I said goodbye to Gigantor and his friends, and look forward to the day when I could return to Henry’s studio to relish in his colors. I took home with me the list of his paints from his palette, his recipe for painting. I took with me his recipe for living, and drove back across the Cascades, home to Seattle.