Going Deeper

By Celina Colby

My abuelo’s hands slowly trace over the fresh canvas, taking in the size of the new surface. His paints are all prepared, small dabs of primary colors lining the wax paper next to him. I watch his hands caress the brushes; he holds in a tin can next to the canvas. He’s spilled paint on his shirt but I don’t say anything about it.

His works line the walls around us. They’re piled haphazardly around the floor, and I can’t help but wonder what the organizational system is. Are they chronological? By subject, soccer players on one end of the room, gently bobbing boats on the other? His most iconic piece stands in the middle. It’s a white sailboat with two red stripes, floating gracefully across a lake. He’ll proudly tell you how it was featured in Yankee Magazine. His paintings have as much depth as any of the artists I’ve studied in my textbooks, or seen in museums. Sometimes even I forget he’s blind.

He remains silent during the preparation but as soon as his brush touches the canvas he breathes easy again.

“Which painting do you like best, Celinita?” He asks, and he somehow knows each one and exactly where they are in this chaotic studio.

“I could never choose, I like them all,” I say.

“Don’t think too much about it, just walk around and tell me which ones stand out to you.”

I’m immediately drawn to a stormy seascape. Dark waves are crashing against rocks and a tiny shack teeters on the edge of the water.

“You like the dark stuff, eh?” he says, smiling to himself. It’s more than true, I worship at the artistic alter of Goya and Friedrich, and in the literary temple of Dostoevsky and Nabokov. I was interested in death, madness, heartache, and this painting seemed like just the landscape for those stories.“Do you want me to describe it?” I asked.

“Not the painting. Tell me what it makes you feel.”

It sounded like a question from a psychiatrist’s office but it made me stop and think. I took a step forward and tried to explain what about his painting it was that moved me.

“It makes me feel…on guard. It’s ominous.”

“I think you can go deeper,” he said from his table where he continued to paint.

These words I continue to use to this day when I view art in a museum or a gallery, or as I examine my writing. I think you can go deeper.

As a child I hated interacting with Papi, as we called him. He was old and smelled funny and once he grabbed your arm and got to talking, you were stuck there for hours. I was often cruel to him, taking advantage of his blindness and creeping in and out of rooms without saying anything. Now I’m sure that he always knew when I was there. But he never called me out on it. He was never angry. He took on his condition with the kind of optimism and content that can only be called loco.

Despite my disregard of him, it was Papi who taught me to see. Papi always wanted me to describe things to him. I remember one time in particular I drew something and brought it over to show him. He touched the piece, feeling the chalky pastel of my preferred medium, and comparing the shaded textures to the smooth white computer paper. Then he asked me to describe it.

“It’s a ballerina,” I said with typical ten-year-old embellishment.

“What else, Celinita?” He asked, turning to face me with those glassy non-seeing eyes.

“She’s dancing.”

“You’re telling me what you’re looking at, but tell me what you’re seeing,” he said.

That was the first time I had ever heard a distinction between the two. Slowly, I began to tell Papi that the ballerina was extending her right leg onto the bar in front of her, that she was strained by the stretch, you could tell because her eyes were bunched up in concentration. I told him that her gown was most likely chiffon, not a bubblegum pink but more of a champagne pink. It extended out around her, fluttering a little with her movement, contrasting the hard muscles that kept her upright on one foot. In many ways this helped the writer in me better learn to articulate things. Papi was using me as his eyes, and he didn’t just want to look at the world like an average person, he wanted to see the world like a painter.

My other grandfather is also an artist, and he and my grandmother would take me to museums every time they visited. I hated it. Most kids got to go to amusement parks and the movies, and I was stuck touring every art exhibit in New England. I begged and pleaded for them to take me somewhere more interesting, but now I’m so thankful they refused. I know every artwork at the MFA Boston, every corridor, and every security guard by name. I live and breathe those galleries.

I like to think that Papi saw some potential in me, that the blind man, somehow more perceptive than us all, looked at me and thought she can go deeper.

About this writer

  • Celina Colby

    Celina Colby

    Celina Colby is a Boston based writer and the blogger behind travel, art, and style site Trends and Tolstoy.

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One Response to “Going Deeper”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Papi gave you perspective and taught you life lessons. This story touched me deeply.

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