Milk of Magnesia challenge

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Art and painting were always a mystery to me. Indeed, an empty sheet of paper and a set of delicate water paints could probably still reduce me to a quivering wreck. So many factors collaborating to make me feel inadequate: teachers telling me it was easy, when I didn't find it so, my family trying to let me off the hook by explaining I wasn't artistic (and making things worse in the process), and Thomas Bennett.

Thomas was in my class, and we were six. It isn't quite true to say that we were friends, it was more serious than that. We were painting monitors. These days, a phrase like that would conjure up a Macintosh with a super-duper resolution screen and an Adobe some-thingorother package. But in the good old days of classroom powder paint, being a PM meant you had real responsibility; the jamjars that had held everyone's painting water had to be made spick and span ready for next week's class.

Carefully we carried these full vessels out to the cloakroom, and made our way around the pigeonholes of plimsolls, past the pegs where we hung our coats and hats, until we reached the porcelain sinks.

The sinks were low and shallow, and Thomas and I experimented while we emptied the jamjars. Would Mary's green water make a better colour once mixed with Anthony's dirty purple? Why did a few pupils only ever produce paint water of one colour, and why did most of them turn up with that squidgy brown tint?

Such were the scientific debates that occupied Thomas and me behind the shoebag racks. This, to us, was the real fun of painting. Clearly we were fixated with right-side-of-the-brain endeavours, and perhaps that's why we were singled out as PMs?

One summer day, Thomas took our scientific experiments to a new height. The class had been working on sunshine, and harvests, and nearly all the jamjars were full of yellow liquid. All different hues, but yellow, and begging comparison. The hue seemed to be related to the amount of chalky sediment, and we lined them up according to depth of yellow. The jar at the end was the most exotic. Its contents thick and gluggy, leaving yellow chalkiness on the jar as we tipped it back and forth.

Then, with six words, Thomas changed my attitude to art: "I dare you to drink it." Life would not have been worth living had I not risen to the challenge. What self-respecting six-year old could hold her head high as a painting monitor again, if she were not girl enough to test that most yellow of yellow. So I did.

If you're interested it tasted like super-strength Milk of Magnesia, and tugged at the insides of my cheeks till they nearly met. A whole half pint of sunflower coloured, calcium-flavoured pop, and the terror of the next few weeks began.

Would it kill me? Did Thomas know? What would my mother say? Would purple have tasted better? I cannot answer most of these questions, except that the imminent death I feared, has, so far, lingered for 40 years. I cannot tell whether my antipathy for naive yellow art was linked to this early experience, but you never can tell.

Last week, taking a coffee break at our local Co-op I looked up expecting to see details of the latest loyalty card or the Scouts trip to Mallaig, and the most beautiful painting greeted me. It's style was unsophisticated, purely yellow flowers in a simple vase, and painted by someone with an uncluttered approach. Accompanying the painting was a note written with an effort of co-ordination, explaining that Ellen Fletcher was the artist and that she just loves the colour yellow, and flowers.

I cannot tell why or how it was difficult for Ellen to write that note, however her verve sprang through her painting. Highland Printmakers have been working with artists for the Highland Festival, and the Co-op cafe show was part of this initiative. In bringing recognition to local painters and an exhibition to Co-op shoppers they have now also provided art for the wall in my new office and memories of Thomas and the jamjars.

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