the lilies of the field
About eight years ago, my father gave me an enormous spackling job, an entire house which I was to spackle from beginning to end. It was a new home, in Lake Ronkonkoma, and he was giving me the job and taking no money for himself. He did this so that I could pay for my university tuition. I was twenty one years old, I had been spackling for five years already, and I knew what this job meant to my dad and me: I was entering the world of adulthood, I had acquired the trade of spackling fully, and I could now pay my way through life. My dad trained me for those five years, all the while telling me “No matter what you do in life, you will at least have spackling to fall back on.”
And so, I began the job. I worked long days, sometimes twelve hours long. I skimmed entire walls, I walked on stilts, I hung from scaffolding, I went through bucket after bucket of spackle. I was deeply satisfied with myself, and was proud to be making so much money at such a young age. As the weeks went by, the job approached perfection. My father came in and said “Incredible. It is a perfect job, Kevin.” I spent a few more hours on the job, polishing a few last walls, when suddenly I began to feel a pinch in my right hand. I looked down, and everything looked fine. So, I just kept working. I sanded, skimmed, mixed, sanded. The pinch continued, and I just finished the job. I got into my truck, and looked down at my hand. It was a bit swollen. It looked puffy at the base of my thumb. I ignored it, and headed home. The swelling continued, and my hand grew in size until it looked as if a huge egg were stuffed into the heel of my hand. The pain was intense.
I went to a doctor a few days later. I showed him my throbbing hand, and he said “I have no idea what is wrong with your hand. It is a very bizarre type of tear or muscle strain. It will heal, you’ll regain use of your hand. But one thing is certain, you can never work in construction again.”
At the time, I couldn’t understand why this was happening. I couldn’t understand why I had invested years of my youth into a trade, only to lose it overnight. “If you have spackling, you always have something to fall back on” was the phrase, but now I didn’t have that. Margaret stood beside me as my girlfriend, one day, and said to me “Kevin, I know you are upset by this injury, but put it to the side for a moment. If this never happened, what would you want to do most in life?” She knew the answer. I said “I want to be an artist, a painter.” She asked me where I would study. I said “I would study in Florence.” Margaret said “I’ll help you make this happen. We can do it.”
Two years later, after my injury, I found myself standing at the twenty foot tall door of the Charles Cecil Studios in Florence, Italy. I knocked at the door, and as it creaked open, I heard a British accent say “May I help you?” I replied that I wanted to see the head of the school. “Quite right” the accent returned, and he led me up a narrow flight of marble steps. It wrapped around the back of a huge medieval cathedral, over a sanctuary filled with enormous baroque sculptures, and into a back wing of the church. “It’s a deconsecrated church, it’s been used by artists for two centuries now. Let me go and see if Charles is busy- wait here.” He slipped behind a curtain, and I heard some mumbling. A tall man with hair in his eyes and a beat up cuordoroy jacket emerged, palette and brushes in hand. He had the swagger of an American, and he sang out in a booming American voice “HI, CHARLES CECIL. How are you, where are you from?” “New York.” “Great to have a yankee in here, I’m getting sick of all these brits. Just kidding. Well anyway, are you interested in learning how to paint?” He motioned me behind the curtain and into his studio. It was a beautiful room, flooded with north light, and the walls were covered with enormous, life sized canvases. It was some of the most beautiful art I had ever seen in my life. “Well, New York, want to show me any work?” “Uh yeah” I gulped. I showed him some drawings. “Nice, they show promise and talent, but they’re pretty crude. You have no link, yet, to the tradition of the old masters. You have a lot to both learn and unlearn. You may enroll in the evening classes immediately. Start today.”
Had I never hurt my hand, I would, most likely, never have pursued painting. I don’t think I would have ever squeezed it into my busy construction schedule. It’s very likely that I would never have moved to Italy. My greatest curse, a terrible injury, turned out to be my greatest blessing.
A week ago, I walked into my studio, located in the church on Main Street in Islip. The room was filled with furniture, covered with tables that completely occupied the floor space. I was notified that I was not to move them, that I was to “work around them.” I soon found out that some people are in the process of kicking me out of the studio. And yet, others in the church found out that the tables were put there, and they contacted me and said “Move the tables. You are welcome to work here.”
I layed in bed tonight, staring out the window, worrying about the studio. This is where I work, where I paint, how I feed my family. How would I survive without this space? What would I do? Where would I paint portrait commissions? These worries came steadily, descending like a heavy blanket of snow over my thoughts. And then, I suddenly remembered my old hand injury, and how it ushered me into a better situation than I could ever have imagined. And as I type this, I think of how well things are going now, how many portrait commissions have come about, how many classes I’ve been able to teach, recent sales of paintings, how I am surrounded by the most supportive family, in laws, and friends. I might lose this studio. I might not. But, the studio is not the issue.
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you.” Matthew 6