The Painting Room

For fifteen pesos each a month, a group of us
took painting lessons every Saturday in a room
on the second floor of the old music building—

the Uson brothers, the Jularbal sisters,
my schoolmate Joseph who likewise took music
lessons from my teacher; the Chinese girls Judy

and Debbie, Mitos who ran a local pizza parlor,
and a few others I no longer remember. Most of us
then had never been inside a museum, much less seen

a work of art that wasn’t a reproduction hanging
in someone’s home. For instruction on depth
of field and perspective, chiaroscuro

and color tone, our teacher rooted through the bottom
shelf of a cabinet stuffed with pictures from glossy
magazines like National Geographic or Life.

When we graduated from sketchbook to our first
canvas and six-tube pack of oils, we rummaged
through trays that held pictures torn from art

books: Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and his Starry Night,
Fragonard’s slipper falling from the foot of the lady
frocked in cream and peach on a garden swing. Dutch

still life arrangements: waxy fruit reflected
globe-like on the mirror surfaces of pewter dishes
and glass goblets, the blood-rimmed eye

and neck feathers of a pheasant draped artfully
on the table’s edge. First, we learned to apply
outlines in burnt ochre thinned with a bit

of linseed oil; then filled in a primer, building up
a base for where the play of light and shadow would,
if we were lucky, quicken to a likeness in three

dimensions, then lift to passable beauty. Combustible
smells of thinner and turpentine rose from empty
mayonnaise jars where we soaked our brushes—

lingering hours in the air, burrowing into fingers
and clothes, even when we took breaks outside to share
sips from bottles of Coke. Every now and then

the nun in the room across the hall came over
to give us snacks— crisp handfuls of cut-outs,
remnants from trays of communion wafers

she baked for the church. I liked to hold them up
to my eyes like a viewfinder, aim at the trees outside,
observe what light did to make aureoles around each leaf.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

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