My father loves being underneath the arm of his yellow drafting lamp. On his wooden stool, he moves the triangular ruler across the white expanse, pulling parallel lines from space. The lines frame the closets in every room, cabinetry in kitchens, cathedral ceilings in dens. He keeps a silver eraser block in his hand to tear down unwanted walls and sweep the shavings onto the floor with a soft-bristled brush. Sometimes I would find him up at 3 AM, the bright light casting a shadow on his sunken eyes.
“Who is it for?” I ask him.
“Basang, it’s for us, our dream home.” And I would stare at the lead lines illuminated across the sheet.
We spent long days together inside someone else’s house. My father was the handyman, the interior decorator, the struggling artist who worked for family friends, Mom’s co-workers, family friends’ co-workers, and random clientele who all, unsurprisingly, were Filipino. “We Pinoys stick together, help each other out,” he said, and I would sit inside their homes while he decorated their living spaces when I was five, six, and seven years old watching TV all day. They were never shows he approved—mostly Ren & Stimpy. “That show has ill-content,” he said; “that show is stupid,” he said; “that show should be renamed Ren & Stupid,” he said.
I never understood why, but I changed the channel when I heard his footsteps nearby, feeling guilty that I disobeyed. It kept me from hearing him rant about its idiocy and poor taste, an argument he made for everything that lacked utility or beauty.
Though my father was only five-foot-five, I wanted to be tall like him. Reach the top shelves like him. Tower over the boys in my class like him. He stood like a carpenter: legs jutted out, square at the hips—the locale for his center of gravity.
When my legs grew restless from sitting down, I would look for my father. Behind the corners of the room, I watched him hang floor-length burgundy drapes held up by brass rods with French-inspired knobs that he told me were called fleur de lis. He told me a room should have no more than three main and complementary colors pulled from an outrageous rug or decorative couch pillows. That less is more when decorating. That ornate designs belong only in the Renaissance period as he perused through IKEA, stopping to admire the geometric designs and living room furniture. But these rules of decorating didn’t apply to his paint-splattered jeans and faded orange shirts freckled with bleach stains and grime.
The scope of my father’s art was extensive. In the Philippines, he taught art at the college level. One-point perspective. Two-point perspective.
“Is there a third?” I asked.
“Of course, why wouldn’t there be?”
And he drew it in front of me. It was like standing atop a skyscraper and peering into the street at the crowds on the sidewalk.
Sometimes he sketched me at the dinner table, my black hair in a ponytail at the top of my head. They were always candid; I would be eating or doing my homework, reading a book sprawled out on the couch, and always nimbly drawn. My eyes peered over the smooth lines and shades of my face, my funny limbs, and the nose that I hate so much.
I asked my father to teach me to draw. The next day he bought me a sketch pad and pencils. He set up our model: a wooden fruit bowl with grapes, apples and oranges, and a wine glass half full with water.
“Draw this,” he said. “Notice the shading. Look at where the light is shining.”
My fingers moved across the page slowly. I couldn’t draw in front of him, the maestro, the grand artist.
“Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.”
But I was, so I let my long hair drape over my drawings, creating a curtain he couldn’t peek through, a place where I allowed myself to commit blunders without his judgment, without his scrutiny.
When I turned fifteen, my father bought an easel for us to share. It was six feet tall and light pine with adjustable heights to hold large canvases. I graduated into acrylic paints and collected old brushes from my high school art class to bring home. It was with them he taught me how to paint with oil and admire the canvas’ luster under bright lights.
“Over-brushing ruins the picture. Less is more,” he said, urging my brushstrokes to cease.
I tucked the brush behind my ear, and he laughed, telling me I looked like an artist, like Monet or Cezanne, and explained that impressionism is the easiest form of painting to learn.
“You don’t need to get detailed. Stand back when you paint, that’s why the handles are so long,” and he pulled me back from the canvas.
But my hands never understood how to let the smudged paint be. To me, less was not more, but in fact, less. Monet had beauty, but Matisse had color, and van Gogh felt pain. I painted hair as red-orange flames flickering around a white face that held illegible words and black scribbles.
“What is wrong with her,” he asked.
“She’s angry. Words are slipping out of her.”
My father just stared at the painting with furrowed brows. He said it was too abstract, too much was going on. There was no realism. She had no face, so he taught me how to draw one.
“Keep the eyes low. They’re always in the middle of the face,” he said. “Ears are the same length from the top of the eye to the bottom of the nose. The edges of the nose line up with the tear ducts, and the lips measure from iris to iris.”
I flipped through art school pamphlets and drew the students spread on the page. At school, I printed face shots of celebrities and discovered that Joaquin Phoenix had the easiest face to draw.
There were a few times I attempted to draw my father. But his head was never right, the eyes were too large or too small, and my fingers couldn’t keep still when I knew he was watching me. His face was elusive, even though he sat in front of me waiting to be captured.
“Keep practicing,” he told me, “faces are hardest to do.”
I didn’t give up, but only partially quit. It was easier to capture softer, feminine features, so I drew them for practice instead. My sketchbook had thumbnail pictures of famous women with their slender necks and round jaws. Pages filled with numerous attempts at drawing myself—my heart-shaped face, my large brown eyes, my horrible nose. It was the closest I got to seeing who I was, who I was becoming.
I showed my father the portrait, but he thought something wasn’t right.
“It’s not as pretty as you, basang. You smile more, and your nose doesn’t look like that.”
But he didn’t draw me. He didn’t fix it.
And in the cab of his white truck incensed by Marlboro Lights, I told my father about Cornish College, the art school in Seattle I was applying to.
“Do you think I’d be good enough for them?’ I asked him.
“Anak, just stick to your day job.” He smiled languidly at me before gazing forward past the streets and buildings and sat quietly as the sun and my heart sunk deep into dusk.
Years later, I picked up a paintbrush in an attempt to capture the scintillating sunflower that danced inside a green vase on my window sill. It felt foreign in my hands. I thought of how it was like when I first learned to use chopsticks and began stabbing at the canvas, hoping to coax the bristles way from my heavy brushstrokes and uneven color. But it didn’t relent and I didn’t continue.
Like a weed broken but not pulled, my hands did not cease to create. Brush strokes became leads words on a pale canvas as I wrote and wrote and wrote unburdening in twilight and past the light of the dawn. In America Is in the Heart Bulosan said,
The old world is dying, but a new world is being born. It generates inspiration from the chaos that beats upon us all. The false grandeur and security, the unfulfilled promises and illusory power, the number of the dead and those about to die, will charge the forces of our courage and determination. The old world will die so that the new world will be born with less sacrifice and agony on the living …
And now I understand what my father meant.
I look at my old self-portrait and know that that girl has passed. She is older now, drawn with straighter lines—bolder and more decisive with the bags under her eyes grown darker and heavier. She no longer paints, no longer draws.
Instead, she writes prose.
Yet, together we create still life. On his wooden stool, my father sits under that arm of yellow light. His hand sketching and erasing the home he still dreams of while I watch from my desk and write.