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Sitting under an orange tree
Sitting under an orange tree in her father’s garden, with a sketchbook balanced on her knees, Suzie twiddled a pencil between her fingers. The art project was taking a lot longer than she first imagined. How hard could it be to simply draw an aspect of nature, especially in a garden as wild and bright as her father’s?
“The trouble is,” she thought aloud, “that if I draw a simple leaf, it would be an insult to the great tree that produced it. But if I draw the tree, I cannot show the skill and care it has put into creating the leaf.”
As she pondered, she gazed dreamily around the garden. The golden autumn sun washed over her, making the dewy grass glisten like a box of jewels. She sighed and leaned back against the tree, letting the early evening breeze caress her face. Then she closed her eyes.
She was an eight year old girl, standing in the dusty basement of her house. Her father, an aspiring artist, stood in front of an easel clutching a thin brush and worked angrily on a canvas, his brow furrowed with frustration, his brush striking the board furiously. She stood shyly in the doorway, watching him in awe. The dark look that appeared in his eyes when he painted, the look of fury and determination, had always intimidated her - and fascinated her. She had always been too afraid to disturb him, but on this rainy afternoon, her curiosity got the best of her.
“Why do you get so angry when you paint, Daddy?”
Her father turned to her, his face instantly softening at the sight of his daughter. He smiled.
“Come here,” He told her, outstretching his arms. She did as she was told, and he lifted her up and handed her the brush. “Now, think of something that makes you angry. I mean really angry.” She thought of a girl at her school who once spat gum in her hair, and felt her face get hot.
“Paint what?” she asked confusedly. He chuckled.
“It doesn’t matter what. Art doesn’t have to look like anything. Just paint what you feel.”
She hesitated for a second, then shyly touched the brush to the canvas. She felt her father nudge her encouragingly. She thought about the girl again; the way she had humiliated her, the feeling of white hot anger that built up inside her when she saw her again.
As if it were somebody else’s, her hand began to move across the painting, slashing red and orange in every clean spot she could find. Every time she stopped for breath, the heat inside her grew until she slashed again, her fiery strokes overlapping with her father’s thick, dark ones. She couldn’t stop. She couldn’t stop until he pried the paintbrush from her fingers and put her down, laughing. She panted for a while, and then looked up at him.
“See what I mean?” he said. He picked up the canvas and left it on the table next to him, replacing it with a clean one. “Art is no good if it doesn’t have emotion in it. You can draw a perfect picture of a fruit bowl, but if you don’t put your heart into it, nobody’s going to be interested. It’ll just be another fruit bowl.”
She never forgot that lesson.
Suzie opened her eyes. She looked around at the garden, admiring the untouched beauty of the overgrown grass and the specks of colour amongst it. Her father was the person that had helped her, the one she could never have made it into art school without. So why, when she won that award for best painting, did he have to try so hard to hide his jealousy? Why did she never feel like he was proud of her? Why was it always a competition between them?
Maybe it was because he never got the praise that she did. Because he never had anything to share with his father, who told him he was wasting his time and that nothing would ever come of his art obsession. Or maybe it was because now, twenty-five years on, he was still painting in his basement, whilst she was winning awards at an art academy.
Suzie gazed up at the tree, then down at the leaf in her hand, then back up at the tree. A squirrel scurried up it, settling on a branch, its black beady eyes fixing on her. She thought of the professors at her academy, who had demanded so much money from her father; the people who walked all over him because he wanted what was best for her. She watched the squirrel carefully as it lounged lazily on the tree, knocking off leaves and leaving imprints of its sharp claws.
She drew the squirrel. And she painted it red and orange and black.