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On Being Colorblind

August 2, 2010

Our home is decorated with art, most done by our family. Our children brought many pieces of art home from school. As adults, they have continued to express their creativity in multiple ways, including visual arts.

On Father’s Day 2010, they encouraged me to try my hand at painting.

I have done a lot of painting in my time, most of it on furniture and walls. I had never before tried to be an artist.

When our children suggested it, I protested. “I can’t do that. I’m colorblind.”

They, of course, know that. Through the years they have noticed my mismatched socks. Our son Erik once quipped that my choices in neckties harkened back to a time before the invention of color.

“Dad, you ought to try painting,” they encouraged.

My first tentative attempt was on canvas. Our son Kris, the Assistant Dean for Studio Art at Wofford College, viewed my efforts.

Ever the teacher, he asked, “Are you happy with it?”

“No!” I answered. “It doesn’t look a thing like the picture I had in my mind.”

Kris said, “Let’s talk about it. Dad, you might try painting on wood. It’s a lot more forgiving.”

Forgiveness is not a word I had thought of using in connection with art. But, looking at my first canvas, I found that the idea of forgiveness seems appropriate. I must confess, I felt like a school child presenting a piece of art, hoping it would be displayed on the refrigerator door.

I’ve done a lot of painting on wood. I spent most of one summer trying to paint a fence for my Uncle Wesley. The rough pine boards drank gallon after gallon of white paint. By the end of the summer, it looked like a bad whitewash job.

Having grown up on a lumberyard, I know a little bit about wood. I had some pieces of Oriental Strand Board, called by contractors OSB.

I am hesitant to use the initials OSB for fear I might them mixed up and say something I do not intend. To be safe, I just call it strand board.

I assembled a few paints, dragged out an easel our children used when they were preschoolers, scrounged together some old paint brushes and a forgotten shaving brush, and dared to try.

Last month, I took two pieces to the Pop-up Gallery at Kris’ art studio at Hillcrest Shopping Center. The two paintings I entered were still wet, appropriate for his enterprise, The Wet Paint Syndrome.

A group of seventeen young artists gathered around my paintings. Most of them offered kind comments. All of them were encouraging, making helpful suggestions.

They, like my children, said, “You need to keep at this.”

My first two paintings were of crosses, an odd symbol when you think about it. Most of the world’s great religions use an object of beauty to identify their faith – the Star of David, the crescent moon, the lotus flower. Christians have chosen the cross, a cruel instrument of execution. It might just as well be a guillotine or an electric chair! Through death by crucifixion the Romans devised a way to inflict severe pain and suffering.

For me, there is a compelling beauty in the cross. It is a reminder of divine love. 

So, I paint crosses.

Now that I have embarked on this new venture, I see crosses everywhere – in the shape of a tree, the form of a dragonfly, a constellation in the night sky, the markings on a hawk.

Some crosses are literally in your face. Others are far more subtle.

I am a novice artist, and I am colorblind. Mama was the first to discover my color impairment. She could tell from the drawings I brought home from school. I couldn’t distinguish red roses on a green bush.

As a teenager I drove through a town in Georgia one dark night. A police car tailed me all the way. Just beyond the city limits, the officer pulled me over.

 “Son, are you colorblind?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“Colorblind folks have trouble here. When they installed our stop lights, they hung’em all upside down. I followed you all the way through town. You stopped at every green light and went through every red light. I’ll warn you this time but don’t ever let it happen again.”

When I was in the Army ROTC at Furman, we were all given a colorblind test.  The Colonel called me aside.

He barked, “Neely, this man’s army needs you in reconnaissance!”  

Turns out, colorblind people are not easily fooled by camouflage. The life expectancy for a reconnaissance officer in Viet Nam was something like two days. I respectfully declined and went to seminary. 

My children comment on my paintings, “Dad, you have such an unusual use of color and the colors are so vivid.”

I cannot see the colors, but I can read the labels on the tubes of paint. I am having fun! I am like a sixty-five-year-old kindergartener.

I have posted the painting at http://www.kirkhneely.com which is my Web site.

Interested in colorblind art? I’ll be at Kris’ Pop-Up Gallery on Thursday evening, August 5. Drop by between 6:30 and 9:00 at Wet Paint Syndrome, in the lower level of Hillcrest Shopping Center. With other local artists I’ll display a couple of paintings.

Tell me the colors you see.

Kirk H. Neely
© August 2010
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