The day began ominously enough. Low clouds,
shrouded in mourning colors, hung heavily in the sky,
threatening to weep during the plein air class at the
Botanical Gardens. As one of six art students on
this field trip, I was looking forward to studying the
methods of the Old World Masters. As I sharpened
my HB and B sketching pencils, I reflected on those
great painters who sat outside, painting moments
unfolding before their eyes. Monet. Rembrandt. Da
Vinci. Their masterpieces hang in museums,
illustrating not only what they were looking at as they
composed, but also details about their world during
those moments of quiet contemplation. Each stroke
of their brush became an essay of historical and
philosophical significance. This was my third sketching
class with this Fine Arts instructor. I wept
during the first class, as she tried to discipline my
uninspired hand. “Feel the curve of that petal,”
she hinted. “Can you sense the suggestion of a
shadow under that leaf?” Under her
instruction, a new awareness emerged and I finally began
to see the world as an artist might.
“But what I see in my mind isn’t
materializing onto the paper,” I complained. Yet,
deep inside I sensed that if I practiced patience,
focusing every ounce of my concentration on the subject,
the picture would eventually become clearer. “Pick a
spot in the gardens and start with your thumbnail
sketches before moving on to your value studies,” the
art instructor announced to the six of us. “The
rose garden is closed off today because they’re
decorating for a gala event. That is the only
place that is off-limits. One more thing:
Today is a free day, devoted solely to your creativity.
Let your soul dance and you may capture miracles.”
My heart sank as I watched a parade
of volunteers, their arms filled with brilliantly
colored piñatas, marching to the roped-off pavilion in
the rose garden. One piñata escaped and the
seven-sided star flipped cartwheels across the lawn
before another worker was able to restrain it. I
breathed in deeply, trying to catch the sweet allure of
roses in the tropical gales. Since I first learned
of the excursion to the gardens, I had dreamed of
working near the rose pavilion, searching for delicate
tea roses, hardy florabundas, or the old fashioned
varieties, secretly wondering if I could capture their
innate sweetness on a canvas. If I were honest
with myself, I would admit there was another reason I
longed to work among the roses. My grandmother had
loved her rose garden. In her backyard, she had
orange Tropicanas and velvet crowned Chryslers.
The stately Queen Elizabeth bloomed profusely next to
the well-established Peace. The miniature roses in
coral painted petals looked like dainty palaces for
fairies. Deep in my heart, I knew my soul could
dance in a rose garden. There amongst the roses, I
could have captured miracles. But the rose garden
was off limits.
“That’s just great,” I sighed
somberly. I longed to sketch roses that day while
the sky was robed in gray. Instead, I had to choose a
different spot. I found another place deep in the
shadows, away from the colorful blossoms of the hibiscus
and the exotic perfumes of the plumeria. I settled
down in the dreary area and began to sketch. “There you
are,” my instructor exclaimed as she ducked under a
giant philodendron leaf and surveyed my subject area.
“This is interesting.”
She glanced at my thumbnail sketches
and noted I was already working on the value study,
adding shadows and highlights from the sparse splashes
of sun. I deepened the background leaves with
stark, black charcoal, gradually moving to a medium gray
stroke and finally applying a light brushing from the
side of the pencil, indicating the areas that were
straining for the affection of the sun.
“Do you see the folded
leaves in the foreground?” she prompted.
They are very dark, not quite within the
“Yes, I see them,” I
quickly added some dark spikes in the foreground
which successfully yielded a three dimensional
element to my sketch.
"You have such a nice
touch,” she smiled. “I’m going to check on
the others. Do you have any questions?
I shook my head, as she
moved off to the flower gardens where the other
students were busy sketching.
“A nice touch,” I shuddered.
When have I been told that before?
My pencil worked
methodically while a memory tugged at my heart. I
remember performing at a music recital at the tender age
of seven. I felt like a princess, wearing a long
pink gown with white polka dots, which my grandmother
had sewn for me for the special event. My long,
brown hair was brushed straight and flat, held back with
a white velvet headband. Still, I was nervous
about performing because it was my first judged event.
I recognized my name on the loud speaker, summoning me
to the stage. I promptly took my seat at the
Steinway piano, noting that the bench was too high and
my feet did not reach the pedals near the floor. I
had never touched the elegant keys of a Steinway before,
and it was much grander than the small upright piano
back home. I do not remember breathing as my
fingers rushed through the musical piece, but somehow I
finished the entire score without passing out.
music student was called to the head table, where judges
delivered individual oral and written evaluations.
“Your counting was off and you
seemed to completely ignore the dynamics of the music,
but you played fairly well overall,” one judge said.
“Did I win a medal?” I asked
“No, but you have a nice touch with the music,” he complimented me.
“A nice touch.” I
beamed happily, although I had no clue of what the judge
But that memory was outmatched by
what was to follow several decades later.
When my grandmother
was diagnosed with cancer, my husband and I moved in to
care for her. I cooked her meals and tended her
rose garden for her when she became bedridden. In
the mornings, I lovingly bathed her, remembering
childhood times when she cared for me so tenderly.
After the bath ritual, I squeezed out a generous amount
of aloe lotion, rubbing her sore back, her shoulders,
her arms and feet. “You have such a nice touch,”
Granny murmured as I worked the soreness out of her
weary muscles, her frustration at being dependent after
so many years of independence laced every word.
The hospicee nurses praised my grandmother every time
they visited her in her home. They assured her
that she had the softest and prettiest feet of all their
Hours before she
died, I sat by her bedside, holding her hand. She
had slipped into a coma during the night and was far
beyond my reach. I did not know if she could hear
the encouraging words I whispered to her, but I stroked
her head softly, searching for assurances that she was
not experiencing any pain. I stayed there, praying
that she still thought my touch was nice and somewhat of
a comfort. Despite the overwhelming grief that
engulfed me soon afterward, it did not escape my notice
that being there for her was the greatest thing I had
ever done in my life.
I still missed her. The five
years since her death had not weakened the impact of the
loss of her and her beloved rose garden in my life. “So,
what are you sketching?”
Some strangers had
wandered into my wilderness area. I pointed to a
tangle of cactus with dried-up flowers and a petrified
mesquite stump. A chameleon hopped on one of the
broad leaves and I instantly sketched him into my
composition, amazed at how quickly my pencil filled in
the details in front of me while my mind had escaped to
moments deep in the past.
“Now, why would you
choose to sketch something so harsh when there is so
much beauty all around you?” the stranger’s wife frowned
as she noted the uninviting, serrated leaves and the
dead flowers. The muted olive and umber colors of
the jagged landscape were highlighted once in a while by
sporadic flashes from the sun, illuminating a small area
in spring green before fading into a memory.
“It’s an aloe plant,” I mentioned,
swallowing hard. “It’s used for healing.”
“I’m not sure why anyone would
spend hours dwelling on such an ugly thing,” the
stranger shook his head. “But it is a good
likeness, and you seem to have a nice touch.”
Subscribe to our weekly e-newsletter