• Susan Ossman

A Whif of Paris

My aunt Lu bought a paint-by-number set she could not finish. Or so it is that my mother explains how a set of three paint by number canvases on cardboard arrived at our small ranch home on 6th avenue in Des Plaines, Illinois. ( That’s Des Plaaanes— of the planes? These planes? It is just next to O’Hare). Perhaps it was '63 or '64? I could not read yet- but I  could tell numbers from letters. Mommy explained that she would match the number on each paint pot with those on the canvas to complete the picture. She said it was like filling in a coloring book. But these paints were not like watercolors or finger paints. They could not be mixed with water. That's why she’d but my infant twin sisters to bed for a nap before starting her painting project. They should not breathe in these colors with their toxic vapors. I was allowed to watch along with  Mary and Linda, who  two and three . But we were not supposed to  inhale the paint smell ; no getting too close! We watched from a distance as mom picked up a tiny pot of sky blue and  searched  the canvas for  the corresponding digit. She said she’d start with a light color because it would be easier to clean up. She was afraid of making a mistake or making a mess.  The suspense was intense as she prepared a rag to wipe up spills and steadied the canvas on the kitchen chair that served as an easel.  I was afraid to move or breathe too hard. What would the noxious odor of this poison paint be like?

When she popped of the top of the tiny tub of color the room I was amazed.  The scent of the paint was intoxicating, delicious, enveloping. It glistened on the brush.   I threw caution to the wind and drew closer to watch my mother color each tiny patch of canvas. I wasn't much interested in the picture.  But as my mother’s work progressed and she became confident with the darker colors a painter standing in front of an easel came into view. Mommy painted his tiny brush so very carefully. Voilà, there he was in front of his easel, palette and brush in hand.  Admiring her work I realized I wanted to be him. Did I also want to be there? I had no idea there was a place called France. No one in my family had been abroad. But perhaps this mass-produced, do-it- yourself view of Montmartre was a portent. Although I often do without an easel, I cannot imagine life without oil painting.  I rarely wear a beret and never paint city views. But Paris has been a central place in my life for many decades.

A whiff of linseed oil, a bright spot of cobalt, a first-hand view of the brush in the hand of a first-time painter was enough to spark my passion for oils and for art. I have never  kept my brush or my life within lines of any kind. But I trace my love of oils and who knows, pehaps also  my move to France back to this clichéd, mass produced yet made by hand Parisian scene.

A Parisian street scene I glued-together/sketched shortly after moving there in 1980. I was not allowed to use oils in the tiny rooms I lived as an "au pair" and then as a waitress. That would come later.

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