Today I Met a Skeleton Who Paints Skeletons

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“Dancer”, Cherl Harrison, hand-colored etching Source:

Today I walked into my first college drawing class. I followed the tall, awkward guy in front of me and stepped into a circular studio lined with easels and drawing boards. The warehouse-like room was full of students and yet it was completely quiet. I could hear the clock ticking, filling the dome like a chanting drum as we all waited.

She busted through the door and skidded her seemingly heavy sandals into the room, her hair caught in its own storm of entanglement and attempted control. Her cracked and weary voice began the series of introductions, explanations, and awkward beginnings I’d already heard four times in the last day.

After a slowly-passing hour of drawing and working on preliminary sketches, trying to figure out where we all were on a scale of drawing experience, she cracked open her portfolio of paintings and drawings, revealing that a majority of her career had been spent painting abstract skeletons, all in memory and dedication to members of her family. She stood there as if caught up in her own world, describing the series of paintings as well as the people from whom they were inspired. She told us about her Uncle Roy, who was a barber, and about her friend who battled breast cancer, as well as the man who stood by her through it all. She introduced us to her imaginary self, a much younger woman with blond hair and an untamed ribcage, dancing in front of her favorite Jackson Pollock. We met her Aunt Pearl as well as her grandmother, a cherry red skeleton working in front of an exaggerated wood stove. She explained to us that when she was taking her first drawing classes, she hated drawing skeletons because there were too many bones and angles to try to fit into measurements of proportion. She quietly laughed to herself, I guess in recognition that she had made a career and developed a passion for something she once hated so much. I laughed too because I’ve experienced that so many times. Perhaps the things we hate the most define and become who we are and what we love. Think about that one.

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“West End Barber”, Cherl Harrison, oil on canvas. Source:

My art professor turned each page and looked at her own work with such admiration, not for her skill, but purely out of memory and adoration for who they represented. I sat there, on my withered leather seat, and realized that the stories people tell when they describe the people they love are louder than any introduction or list of accolades. My professor didn’t walk into class and give us her list of experience or inform us of her degrees or tell us of how many times she’d taught this class. She didn’t give us a list of her awards or accomplishments; she merely opened up her artist’s storybook and let who she was pour out from the description of people she loved.

“Young Grandma at Woodstove”, Cherl Harrison, watercolor

As you can see, today I learned a few things about art from a skeleton who paints skeletons. Most importantly, I learned that when an artist opens his portfolio and explains his pieces, he is opening the back door to his soul; not the front door with the correct placement of masks and decorations and good family photos, but the back door with the dirty stairs, the rough nights spent tossing and turning, the broken dishes, and a glimpse into what’s behind the rose-colored glass we have all placed between ourselves and who we allow into our lives. Maybe we should all open our portfolios more often and let a little light break the glass.


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