Inktober is a month-long art challenge created by artist Jake Parker: each day in October, participants draw a picture inspired by a one-word prompt (here are this year’s 31 prompts). I’ve participated the last few years, and it has been my custom to compose an anecdote to go with each picture. (Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I write the anecdotes I feel like writing, figure out a way to shoehorn a daily prompt into each one, and draw pictures to go with the anecdotes.)
Anyway, this episode of The Habit Weekly is devoted to Story Time. Here are my first three installments of Inktober 2023…
Inktober 1: #Dream
When I was 10, the Houston County Board of Education put on a summer enrichment program for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, and I signed up for a painting class. (I signed up for Rocketry too, but that fact doesn’t figure into this story). It was the summer of 1980; the American hostages were still being held in Iran (surprisingly, that fact does figure into this story).
The first day of our class, our teacher stalked in five or ten minutes late. She surveyed the bright and willing faces of her nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-old students. She seemed unimpressed.
The teacher wasn’t much taller than the eleven-year-olds in the class, but she was an imposing presence nevertheless. Her eyes somehow flickered back and forth between heavy-lidded indifference and an artistic wildness that I have since decided was mostly affectation. But it made an impression on me at the time, I don’t mind telling you.
“If you’re here because you want to paint pretty pictures for your mama…” she began, then she paused for effect. Her gaze fell on me; she could see on my face how much I loved my mama, and it disgusted her. “If all you want is to make pretty pictures for your mama, I’d suggest you leave this class right now and go get yourself a camera.”
My mama, of course, was paying for my art lessons. She was expecting to get at least one pretty picture out of the deal, and who could blame her?
“Art isn’t just pretty pictures,” the teacher was continuing. “Real art says something. Real art makes a stand. Real art is political.” She had made her way to a large stretched canvas that faced against the wall, and even I, the naive ten-year-old, could see a Dramatic Flourish coming.
When the teacher whipped the canvas around to face us, it electrified the room. It was a life-sized portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Only when you looked at it closer (the teacher invited all of us to come up and get a closer look), you could see that the pupils of his eyes were actually the silhouettes of people running for terror, and his flowing gray beard was actually the smoke of a burning village at the bottom of the canvas. There were more people running in terror out of the village houses. They were naked, for some reason. Lurid flames licked in the background. It was like something from a fever #dream.
It was a political painting, the teacher explained. It took a stand.
I don’t know how many Khomeini supporters there were in Middle Georgia at the time, but I had to admit, this painting would definitely give them something to think about. It was strong meat.
Inktober 2: #Spiders
When my dad was a boy in Dodge County, Georgia, people got to talking about strange noises that had started emanating from the depths of Gum Swamp late at night. Some people described the sounds as a deep moaning. Others said, no, it was more of a roaring. Could it have been the wind? No, the noises came on still nights and windy nights alike. Maybe a bobcat? A panther? Alligators? No, folks around there were pretty familiar with the sounds of the swamp animals, and this wasn’t like anything anybody had ever heard. Was it a ghost? A swamp monster? Those suggestions seemed as likely as any other. There was much speculation around firesides and across checkerboards throughout Dodge and Telfair Counties.
As it turned out, however, the noises came from a roaring machine constructed by one of the locals. He stretched a cowhide across one end of a nail keg, poked a hole in the cowhide, and ran a rosined string through the hole. As he ran the string back and forth through the hole, it made a moan that was amplified in the resonating chamber of the nail keg. At night he carried his roaring machine out into the swamp and roared away, among the snakes and #spiders.
It was just a prank (though an elaborate one). I like to think how much trouble that old boy put himself through for the mere pleasure of alarming his neighbors and giving them something to talk about. The man was an artist.
Inktober 3: #Path
When my sister Melanie was in high school, she broke up with her boyfriend (we’ll call him Harold). Harold was a fine young man, but I think maybe he didn’t know too much about being a boyfriend, and Melanie was ready to head down a different #path. So she sent Harold packing. Harold didn’t understand why, nor did he seem to understand that Melanie meant it. There were phone calls. The phone calls got shorter and shorter as Melanie got less and less patient (this was before caller ID, when a lot more unwanted phone calls got answered).
Anyway, one day Melanie answered the phone, and with no preliminaries Harold said, “Dont hang up! Just listen!” And before Melanie knew what to do she heard the click of a cassette player, then the unmistakable voice of Willie Nelson:
Maybe I didn’t love you
Quite as often as I could have
Maybe I didn’t treat you
Quite as good as I should have
If I made you feel second best
Girl, I’m sorry I was blind
… You were always on my mind
You were always on my mind.
Sometimes when you don’t know what else to say, you let Willie Nelson say it for you..
In many an idle moment I have imagined Harold holding the phone receiver to the tape player, calculating how long to let Willie Nelson do the talking, and when to hit ‘Pause’ and make his own case one last time. When he put his phone to his ear, did get Melanie, or did he get a dial tone? I don’t even know. But I do know that, even with Wille Nelson’s help, Harold didn’t win Melanie back. The grand gesture rarely works, except in the romantic comedies.
Ineffective as it was, Harold’s gesture still has its place in the family lore. Just the other day, a full forty years after Harold’s (and Willie’s) phone call, my daughter Betsy texted from the restaurant where she works: “They’re playing ‘Always on My Mind’ by Willie Nelson. Makes me wanna call Aunt Melanie and apologize for being a bad boyfriend.”