Saturday, October 15, 2011

Primal urge

This morning I read a story in the Washington Post about how archeologists have discovered that ancient people seemed to have had an innate desire to express themselves using paint.* A hundred million years ago people in Africa were painting their faces or painting drawings on the walls of caves. (Maybe it was a hundred thousand years ago—I often get confused with zeros in large numbers. That could explain why I’m so disappointed when I find I have a couple hundred dollars in my bank account instead of a couple million.) Archeologists found clam shells and animal bones that were used for painting tools as well as paint made of ground ochre and charcoal, bone marrow, and minerals.

I wondered what has been compelling me to paint. Last week, while the weather was perfect painting weather, I painted my back gate with ochre and oxblood (redwood color alkyd paint) and patched and painted my deteriorating front door with chalk, petrified cedar roots, and boiled yak eyeballs (white alkyd paint).

But that was purely functional painting, just an effort to make my old wooden gate and my front door last through another winter. What about the urge to create?

I’ve been doing that too, feeling the fever to transform something with paint. My current thing is painting furniture using European chalk paint that I discovered. I got the inspiration, tracked down the supplies, watched some instructional videos, and read a couple of books. A little more than one week into this new obsession, I have finished three pieces—my kitchen table, a small Victorian plant stand that my mother just gave me, and an old pine drop-leaf side table with lovely spool legs. (I've posted the photo of the drop-leaf table, nearly done, still waiting for its final coat of wax.) I’m testing colors and wax techniques and varying how much I distress the pieces. There’s hardly a piece of furniture in my house that’s safe. And as soon as I finish a piece, I start looking at it again, wondering how it would work in another color, another technique.

I haven’t been to the grocery store in about three weeks and have barely left the house except for frequent trips to the paint store. (You should see my cool new wax brushes—I’m psyched.) What a great avocation for me—I can sit on the basement floor in grubby clothes. I can’t answer the phone because I’m covered in paint, wax, and dust. So I understand the primitive people sitting in their caves with their paint and their tools. I get them. It’s just what we feel compelled to do, to pull away from the world and create. Slightly different circumstances, but the same nonetheless. Eccentric hermits, aren't we all?

*See the original story online at

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