For 23 years, he's written me letters that always include a hand drawn card. They are usually donning flowers, butterflies, and the faces of stunning black women I suppose he means to be me, though they're always much prettier. I used to think that my father knew what I would look like when I got older and that those drawings were his gift to me, a glimpse of my future. For me, they were proof that I would grow out of an unsatisfying body and into something much more sightly.
Like my father, I've always had an affinity for art. Anything beautiful could quickly become my favorite thing, and everything could be beautiful. To this day I enjoy a children's book with gorgeous illustrations. "Tar Beach" by Faith Ringgold and "The People Could Fly" by Virginia Hamilton are two of my favorites with very different styles of illustration. I like to think my father taught me how to enjoy them, one of the few contributions he could make in my upbringing.
Unlike my father, I've never been good at drawing. The closest I've come to visual artistry are my random fashion design sketches, and although I get incredibly excited to show them to my friends, they aren't terribly exciting. Painting, sketching, sculpting, etc. Tried them all and have no real aptitude for any. It's a little heartbreaking for me. Art is what my father and I share, and I'm just no good at it.
Today, I went to an Art Talk at the Ball State University Museum of art. The talk was over "Seen Unseen: The Black Image in American Art", which is one of the best exhibits I've ever visited at the museum (Admittedly, I'm highly biased on this one). A former professor and current hero of mine, Dr. Maude Jennings, provided the commentary for the art we discussed. As I had already walked through the exhibit earlier in the week, the biggest draw for me to attend the art talk today was Maude.
One of the last works we discussed was this one:
This painting is by Andrew Wyeth and the name of it is "Sarita Daniels".
This painting made me want to cry. In a room full of people, who only moments before I had surely impressed with my comments on the history of the "Sambo" and "Uncle Ben", I stood in front of this portrait and I swallowed three times to keep from bawling. She was so splendid I could hardly stand it. Even if I didn't cry, my eyes welled with what? Sadness? Anger? I still don't know. Whatever it was, it was overwhelming.
Standing there, before her, Sarita Daniels, I knew that my father would love her. I knew that she was who he wanted me to be. Not because she was beautiful, but because she stood with her back straight and her neck long. There was strength in her posture and fragility in her gaze. She wasn't just a "strong black woman" she was a whole woman. Comfortable with her baroque body, her short hair, and her bountiful lips that may have stuck out too far to be considered beautiful, but she wouldn't have it any other way. She doesn't look away out of shame or discomfort. She's looking forward. Settled in her way, but ready for change.
My father is no sooth-sayer. He's an inmate at an Indiana State Prison and he has been for the whole of my life. My interaction with him boils down to a handful of visits (the last when I was twelve years-old), and an antique picnic basket half full of letters. But he's always shown me things. His letter's have taught me about love and beauty and so many other things that I've come to cherish.
I like to think that my father gave me Sarita. That he knew I'd need her right now, to let me know that he's happy I'm settled, but I need to get ready for something new, maybe even something better.
I'm ready to take those steps forward with Sarita to remind me why, my father to show me when, and God to catch me when I fall.