Our Iowa farmstead as painted by my dad in the 1960s.
by Phil Houseal
I remember the year my dad took a painting class. It changed the way I looked at grownups.
This happened around my sixth grade year. My dad would have been in his early 40s then... a very old person in my worldview. At dinner one evening, he mentioned that he had signed up for a painting class at the nearby university’s community education program.
Up to that point, I couldn’t envision my parents doing anything outside their roles of breadwinners and caregivers. We had grown up in a large family on a farm. As one of nine kids, my main interaction with my parents was when I needed discipline or a haircut.
For kids, parents were nebulous bodies that orbited around our fantasy universe, like Neptune or the Orion constellation. We knew they were there, and were comforted by their presence, but we never really looked at them as individuals distinct from other celestial mysteries.
So when my dad told us he was taking an art class, it made me see him as something else–a person.
School and learning was for kids. I knew that as a fact based on all my worldly experience. Getting out of high school–which to a 6th grader seemed an impossibly long way in the future–was emancipation. I was not really sure what lay on the other side of graduation, but I knew it did not involve going back into a classroom. Especially for 40-something fathers.
For the next several weeks we watched as this new person in our family dutifully went to art class every Thursday evening. That in itself was unsettling, as dad was always, always home in the evening. For him to be out on a weeknight left us all a bit off balance. We looked on with interest as he brought home sketchbooks filled with his exercises. He really was quite good at drawing, a fact that made me proud for some reason.
The culmination of the class was to complete a landscape in oil. He chose to paint our family farm, a fitting subject that perhaps made his foray into the art world less avant-garde.
When he brought home the finished piece, we were duly impressed. It was a painting that looked like our farm. And it was painted by our dad. The old dog had learned a new trick. At some childish level, that gave me hope that we could learn new things forever, even in our dotage.
The painting was hung with pride above the Lowry organ, which represented another new skill our dad picked up in middle age. Some 50 years later, the painting still hangs on the wall of the family farmhouse.
It is interesting that the young boy who couldn’t envision school past the 12th grade ended up running lifelong learning programs that taught thousands of dads–and moms–new lessons. Even I, well past the age my father was when he painted that picture, have tried to master new skills from tapping to tweeting.
So if you have always wanted to learn to dance, or paint, or weld, or write a song, but just haven’t got around to it, please reconsider. Do it for yourself, of course. But do it for someone else, too.
You never know who might be paying attention.