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First Person: Different Strokes

My mother’s paintings are in museums. I paint for fun—and copy her mentor’s style. Will she understand?

The author works on a stripe painting inspired by Gene Davis. Behind her is a painting by her mother, Mary Page Evans. Photograph by Matthew Worden

“So what have you been doing?” Mom asks over the phone. “Are you writing?”

I’m reluctant to tell her what I’ve been doing. I’m not sure whether she’ll say I’m (1) wasting time, (2) diminishing what she does as her livelihood, or (3) copying the style of her friend and mentor, the late Washington painter Gene Davis.

I look down at the 16-by-20 canvas covered in stripes and masking tape. There are bunched-up paper towels and splatters of paint on my kitchen countertop. The clock inches toward 3, when my two daughters need to be picked up from school. And I have a story I haven’t finished writing.

“I’ve been doing some painting,” I say. She probably thinks I’m sprucing up a bedroom. “I’m channeling Gene Davis,” I say. I’m not joking.

For the past few months, I’ve been obsessed with Davis’s stripes. What started out as a whim—I wanted to paint something for a school auction—has turned into a source of pleasure.

I’ve been mixing colors and experimenting with various shades. I imagine pale gray skies in early spring next to pink blossoms. The darkness of winter bark against a cerulean sky. The hint of green fuzz that appears before leaves unfold on wet branches. Sand, sea glass, and conch shells mixed with the aqua Gulf Stream.

I wonder how my mother—a real artist—will react. Art isn’t her hobby; it’s her life. She’s been painting expressionistic nudes, landscapes, and still lifes since I was born. She shows at galleries, and her work is owned by museums. She studied under Gene Davis at the Corcoran, and my parents own two of his paintings.

I’ve studied art history and have an appreciation for art, but I’ve never been interested in being an artist. I’m still not—I just like to paint.

I enjoy dipping and mixing and brushing while listening to music—Bach, Frank Sinatra, the Fray—or to NPR. I talk on the phone and paint at the same time—something I can’t do while writing. It gives me time to think—like a meditation.

It’s similar to someone cooking for fun. A friend of mine who works in the investment business says he cooks because he gets “something tangible—and an immediate sense of accomplishment.” A friend who also paints—a supermom of three and marketing consultant—says, “You can’t be stressed when you’re painting.”

“Plus,” I tell my mother, “while I paint I can think about what I’m going to write—organize my thoughts.”

“I think Gene would be okay with that,” she says. “Now you know how I used to lose track of time.”

“That’s why you were always late picking us up.”

“Yes,” she says, “you can get lost in the process.”

I’m getting lost in the same process. But not for too long. I’ve got brushes to clean and daughters to pick up. And a story to write.

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