Art Imitates Art

Watch this oil painting of a little girl in a tree come to life

in under 2 minutes (time lapse)

When my dad was stationed at an Air Force base in Indiana, he took some college courses toward a degree. One of his electives was a photography class. I was about four years old then, and he used me as his subject for a couple of his assignments. His artistic eye was interesting and those two photos became the best childhood pictures available of me.

Art imitates art, as I needed some references for a children’s book I was writing about my childhood. I “aged” my child self from Dad’s art projects. In his photos I was younger than the age I was in the stories for the book. Fortunately, I didn’t need to get very detailed in likeness, as the paintings were meant to be simple illustrations with bold lines and bright colors. It didn’t matter that Dad’s photos were black and white pictures, or that I needed to make some changes.

This is a case of “Art Imitates Art”, because I was imitating Dad’s unique perspective of a ground level viewpoint of a child sitting in a tree, rather than painting from my own memory of climbing trees and sitting on the branches. The reality is that I was likely only in that tree to stage the photo for Dad. When I climbed trees at the age I was in the story (about me pretending to be a spy by hiding in trees) in the book “Fred”, I climbed scraggly, spindly, tall pine trees from the neglected Christmas tree farm that was behind our house. I’m lucky I never had a serious fall, as those trees were weak and I’d climb them to the top, where the branches would bend and sway precariously under my weight.

A sparse and unhealthy pine tree wouldn’t have made a good oil painting for my story, and surely an adult reading my book aloud to a child would have been thinking, “This tree doesn’t look sturdy enough to hold this child”. Indeed, it probably wasn’t. I gave my guardian angels heavy work throughout my life. I remember my grandma used to complain to my mom, “I don’t know why you let her climb trees. I can’t watch!” Since I was often unsupervised, no one watched as I climbed trees, and I went far enough back into the neglected Christmas tree “forest” (trees planted evenly apart, but overgrown with weeds, brambles, pine needles, and fallen branches) so that I couldn’t be seen by anyone.

Now, that’s a completely different type of story from the one I was telling in the book. So, if art imitated my actual life, the illustration would have come off as slightly dysfunctional, instead of the cheery, fun “little girl in tree” painting that appears in the book. The story is about the creativity of children, and how their natural imagination and playfulness should be respected by teachers, rather than reigned in, controlled, shamed, and snuffed out. It is a story of resilience, of children whose light doesn’t dim, whose creativity outshines the control of others.

Dad’s artistic perspective was a much better representation for the “spy” scene than my own life memory of it. Art Imitates Art. The spy scene was meant to show the imagination of a child, and how adventurous children can be when inspired by their own creative ways to play. My story would have had the opposite effect if I had painted the obvious safety and supervision issues involved in actually allowing a young child to wander alone in an unkempt wooded area full of hazards, to climb trees that looked suspect for bearing the weight of a small animal, let alone a child. Many of the branches were dry, brittle, dead, and close to snapping off. I learned how to find the flexible live branches, although I’d end up covered in pine sap. But anyway, the reader might have been distracted and their adult minds would, and rightfully so, end up on the very path that I was trying to push them out of: reigning in the imagination and creativity of children.

Because, of course I didn’t let my own children wander off unsupervised in unsafe areas to climb weak trees, and I wouldn’t recommend it for any parent to do. So, a bit of embellishment was needed. Instead of an awkward, yet accurate, painting of me in short pants and possibly no shoes on my feet, in a brittle wispy pine tree, with many brown needles and droopy branches, looking like an urchin, I used the idealized version from Dad’s perspective: a healthy tree bursting with autumn color (imagined, as his photo was black and white), a healthy well-dressed girl, supervised, loved, and free to be naturally playful. Art imitates art, and art imitates life… but sometimes life is bettered in the telling through art.

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