False Valor on the Mantelpiece: A (non)Artist’s Confession

My goal as a child was to be a midget. If I was going to be the smallest kid in my elementary-school class year after year, I at least wanted the notoriety of midgetdom as an adult. Not knowing any adult little people, I assumed they all made their livings on stage and television, either as henchmen or comedians. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, I didn’t achieve that goal. For the record, by the time I was in junior high school, I wanted to be a major-league ballplayer—another dashed hope. In high school, my stated goal was to wage revolution and bring down the United States government. So far, that goal seems safely out of reach.

As a little kid, of course, I had other shorter-term goals. At 11, for instance, I wanted some girl, almost any girl, to want to kiss me, or at least hold my hand. At 11, I wanted to be able to play a recognizable tune on my musical instrument of choice—the tuba. (A brief aside, the tuba is not a solo instrument; to my knowledge, people may ironically call out for more cowbell, but no one has ever sat through one more note than necessary emanating from a tuba. If readers of this column have not already recognized this, Richard and Beverly Howard were saints. Imagine writing out weekly checks to a tuba teacher so you could have your musically inept son make sounds worse than a hippo choking on an easy chair. That is divine patience and love.) Finally, I wanted to make a picture or any piece of artwork that would be taped up for praise and recognition instead of held up for shame and ridicule. Kissing and tubas were clearly beyond me, but each time I’d start a picture, I’d swear this time was going to be different. If I was drawing a horse, I’d leave out every non-horse stroke, and erase any stray marks. Unfortunately, while I could recognize “horseness” in my classmates’ picture, and sense its absence in mine, I was incapable of drawing a figure that bore any resemblance to its target. I laughed on the outside about my lack of ability, but still wanted just once create a picture that would get a simple, “Nice picture.”



“What’s that supposed to be?”

“It’s a horse.”

“Horses have four legs.”

“I know, but I didn’t have room, so I made the third one really fat.”


“What’s that supposed to be?” (As an aside, no positive artistic conversation ever began with “what’s that supposed to be?”)

“What does it look like to you?”

“It looks like nothing. A box with sagging sides and spaghetti flying over it and a few melted candles beside the box.”

“It’s my house with me and my sister outside.”

“Was there a nuclear attack?”

I’m thankful that none of the school-suggested psychologists I was ever “referred” to was an art therapist. I demonstrated enough evidence of maladjustment just through my words and behavior without some Ph.D. declaring me unfit for life based on a self-portrait. I mean, maybe my mind’s eye sees four holes at the bottom of my nose and eyeballs of different sizes and shapes.

+         +         +

When I was in fifth grade, I was no more an artist than I’d been when I was five. In fact, in some ways I was worse. A five-year-old isn’t expected to produce realism—“primitive” is the operative term. In fifth grade, my skills were still undeveloped (and have since proven undevelopable), but I’d picked up some artistic flourishes that looked like makeup on a pig.

Jeff Dewing was different. He was really good at everything artistic, from sketching to sculpting to silk-screening. For example, when we were given copper sheets and styli, I scratched out a dog that resembled a piece of gum shoved under a tabletop. Jeff created a Roman soldier in profile, complete with galea, the Roman helmet. Jeff’s carving captured the glory and sadness of the soldier far from home; mine looked like a lint-ball. When the teacher returned our projects, Jeff got his usual A or A+ and I my C-. Amazingly, to me, Jeff looked at his grade, considered his etching and threw them into the wastebasket. Although I was no artist, I could appreciate his gift and scrambled to rescue his art from the dump, then shoved it into my book bag, planning to hang it in my room. It never made it there.

When I got home and poured my book bag out, a huge grin spread out over my mother’s face. I knew it wasn’t for my half-eaten PB&J scrunched into a plastic bag, my Encyclopedia Brown book with the torn cover or the C+ on my spelling test.

“It’s . . . beautiful,” she said, gazing lovingly at Jeff’s etching. “Keith, I’m so proud of you! I didn’t know you could do something like that.”

I couldn’t. And can’t. But I also couldn’t break my mother’s heart yet again, not after all the phone calls home about my behavior, my wasted potential and, especially, my attitude. I just looked at the floor and let her believe what she wanted. And do what she wanted, which was to take the copper Roman soldier carving and place it not on the refrigerator—where no picture of mine had been magneted—but on the fireplace mantel. She’d taken Jeff’s work and not just built a shrine to it but elevated it to Mount Olympus.

For the next two or three years, when we celebrated Christmas or Thanksgiving or birthdays, or my parents had friends in for drinks or we had a New Year’s Eve party, all the adults would ooooh and aaaah over Jeff’s work then cast an appreciative eye at me. The smile I offered back was unsure, crinkled and fleeting, but it was not the confession it should have been.

By the time I was in eighth grade, my “difficulties” in school had blossomed, my kid sister’s genuine artistic talent had budded, and my inability to create anything like Jeff’s, er, my earlier work had led to Jennifer’s work taking over the mantel and the Roman soldier to be put into a drawer. I snuck it out, folded it like a study-hall note and threw it away, the last, if completely false, evidence of my artistic ability.

“Untitled” by Keith Howard (from the Private Collection of Jennifer Kilar)


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