Every time I smell oil based paint or turpentine, I have an involuntary remembrance of my frequent visits to Birdie’s art studio back in the woods behind my childhood home. Because of naiveté concerning the larger world, I did not consider her eccentric, which, in retrospect, she certainly must have been. She had decided to follow her heart, her talents and her reclusive nature and thus became a non-conformist in the truest sense of the word. Birdie lived life her way and it showed.
By her example, she taught me to respect individual perceptions of reality and appreciate the artistic ways these perceptions were depicted, whether in painting, sculpture, music or writing. She was a big fan of Rudyard Kipling and she quoted him a lot. I do not know who her favorite artists were, but she won awards for her own landscapes and portraits down in Sarasota, Florida where she drove herself and her art supplies in a pickup truck every year to paint and associate with other artists.
Birdie liked to draw and paint my portrait because, in her words, “You have ruddy features. I like to capture ruddy features on canvas.” I did not know what ruddy features were, but I was glad I had them because I could sit and listen to her talk, watch her smoke the ever-present cigarette dangling between her and the canvas, and even draw pictures myself with the charcoal she provided. She would sometimes compliment my drawings by saying, “You can draw.” She did not say I could draw well, she just said I could draw. But the way she said it gave me the impression she thought my efforts were satisfactory.
As far as I know, she did not have many close friends, but she was on good terms with a Miss Dyer, the elementary school music teacher who lived way across town. She asked me to hike over to Miss Dyer’s house one day in the wintertime. It must have been during Christmas break. I was probably a first-grader, and I had seen Miss Dyer at the school often. Birdie talked the whole way over there about the way people lived. She was satirical and commented on the smugness or ostentation of various homes and yards. Nothing pleased her about the way people lived until we got to Miss Dyer’s unusual neighborhood. Unpretentious is the way I would describe it now. Back then, I just thought it was unusual to see such a conglomeration of houses and yards so unsymmetrically arranged.
We sat on the porch at Miss Dyer’s, drank Kool Aid and ate cookies. The two women talked non-stop and laughed a lot. I was really surprised when I asked to go to the bathroom and they sent me to a little house out back. I had not seen an outhouse since Mother moved us to town from the country. It brought back memories, such as they were.
I don’t remember much about our jaunt back to the studio. I do recall, however, that Birdie didn’t talk much. Perhaps she had said it all to her like-minded friend.