I have a tendency to see things not as they are, but as they could become.
Last week, I bought a chair at my local Goodwill store. It took me a while to buy it. I saw it, hesitated. Bought another chair, a lovely armchair that is now in my living room, and then came back for it several days later. Why did I hesitate? Well, it looked like this:
Not very attractive, is it, in this picture? I can’t tell if it’s from the late 1970s or early 1980s. The paint was a sort of faux French country that was popular in the early 80s, but the upholstery said 70s to me. It was yellow satin, which was bad enough, but also stained. And yet, there was something. I think it was the tall rattan back, which I knew could look quite different, and the sweep of the arms. The underlying chair, the form of the chair, was better than its surface. And structurally, the chair was completely sound. So in the end, I bought it. If I ended up hating it, I would have lost $27. I could live with that.
The first thing I did was take off the cushion on the back, which was attached with buttons. I cut them off and exposed the rattan. Then, I took out the long screws that attached the seat and removed that as well, to see what I had. Which was this:
Much better, right? Now you can see the form. It’s a graceful chair, actually. A graceful chair marred by an ugly surface. So I started to paint. I have a favorite paint color for furniture: it’s called Flax, and it’s a sort of rich cream. Everything I paint with it looks fresh, modern but also traditional, and it’s particularly good on rattan. As I painted, I noticed the maker’s name on the chair: Henredon, a company that makes good, solid furniture. No wonder the chair worked so well, structurally. Henredon furniture is also aimed toward an upper middle-class purchaser who wants tradition, but in the current style. It tends to be quite expensive. That explained why the chair was such an odd combination. Underneath was a timeless form, but it was overlaid with the paint and upholstery of a particular era. In taking off the upholstery, I had exposed the form — and it was lovely.
I painted the chair, a little at a time because it was the busiest part of the semester and I didn’t always have time to eat or sleep, much less paint. But the painting was restful, a way to get away from thinking about classes and papers for a while. And now, in my hallway, I have this:
You can tell it’s not finished yet, right? The painting is finished, but I need to have the cushion professionally replaced, so for now I’ve just laid a piece of cloth on top of it. (It’s one of my favorite Waverly patterns.) I feel as though I’ve taken a dancer who was trapped in stained yellow satin and let her dance again.
The important thing, I think, is to see the potential. Not just in chairs, but in everything around you. It’s good to see what’s in front of you, but there are so many things that could still become. That’s my job as a teacher, really. To see the potential in a paper or manuscript — even more importantly, to see the potential in a student. To understand that my time with a student is part of his or her larger journey. It’s also (even more so) my job as a mother, to see both my daughter now and the woman she could become, and to help her become it. And it’s one of my own tasks, as just me. To see the potential in myself and work toward it.
One of the difficulties it that we often don’t see the potential in ourselves. We’ll see it in chairs, or in students. We know they’re not yet where they could be, we know they’re a work in progress. But we don’t see ourselves that way. We think we just are. However, we’re not chairs. Once my chair is reupholstered, it will be done. I will not change it again unless it becomes stained or damaged. It will stand in my hallway, a beautiful cream color with a flowered seat, for many years.
But I will change. There is no final stage, for people — unless it’s death, and that’s not something I need to work toward. What I need to focus on is doing, with myself, what I did with the chair. Finding my true form, the form underneath time and fashion. And creating out of that.
I know — I turn everything into a lesson! But I think even chairs can teach us, and here’s what the chair taught me.
You need to see the potential as well as the current situation. The potential is underneath, so you have to develop a good eye — for seeing the potential of a chair or of a person. You have to understand not just what is, but also what’s possible. And you have to trust your instincts. I knew, as soon as I saw the chair, what I could do with it. But I hesitated, because I had made mistakes before. I went back twice before I finally decided to buy it. We hesitate even more when we think about ourselves. We distrust our own potential, our own sense of what we could become. I need to work on that . . .
Also, we need to be willing to make mistakes. We need to assess them honestly: I could accept a $27 mistake, if that was going to happen. I would have wasted time, but at least I would have learned something. The value of a mistake is always in what we learn from it. (So when you make a mistake, make sure you’re learning.)
There’s an obvious lesson here for artists: find the potential, find what’s structurally sound and work with that. It’s what I’m always trying to do with my poems and stories. Cultivate your eye and ear so you can see it, hear it. In a really satisfying work of art, beauty is not on the surface but in the structure. And, if you think about it, that’s true of people as well . . .