Pushcart 2014: Philip Kelly, “Painting the Summer Palace of the Queen” (non-fiction) from The Sun, February 2012

Queen Emma's Summer Palace, Hawaii

Queen Emma’s Summer Palace, Hawaii

I INVADE people’s lives for a living. At dawn I climb ladders to their second-story windows and fiddle with their locks. I place flammable materials in their garages and wake their sleeping dogs. I meet flannel-robed housewives as they hurry their husbands out the door.
I’m a house painter. I beg hesitant homeowners to paint their sitting rooms Chinese red. To suburbia I bring color wheels and clanking planks and dropcloths as multicolored as Joseph’s coat. To a world too busy with rush-hour traffic and the concerns of Wall Street, I bring beauty and color.
I am an artist on a grand scale. I paint the dreams of architects, of builders, of husbands, wives, and children. I fail often enough. I choose the wrong hues; I must darken and reapply a stain; I have fallen fifteen feet onto a carpet of red bricks.
At times I paint palaces.

Every once in a while, I go off on a rant about The Death of Customer Service In America: everyone’s just putting in time, in a job they hate that doesn’t earn them what they think they deserve in money or respect, and it shows in minimal effort and borderline hostility towards the consumer; this goes for everything from grocery clerks who dread the next customer, to doctors who can’t be bothered with patients when there are medical records to complete. The result is a marketplace full of workers who’ve given up, who are counting the minutes to shift’s end, or who are driven on some Path to Future Success that makes the present barely worth bothering with.

It’s nice to read about some people who’ve chosen a different path.

I was charmed by this piece. I like Art of Craft essays in general, since I not only learn a lot about the craft under discussion, but I also get a sense of what it’s like when someone does what one loves (of course, this assumes the writer loves doing something besides watching Real Housewives or partying). In this particular piece, the tone felt inviting, knowledgeable, and gentle.

Phil Kelly loves painting. Not landscapes or watercolors; Phil Kelly paints houses. But he paints houses the way Van Gogh painted potato eaters, or Monet painted flowers.

Upstairs, painting a bedroom, I had Vermeer’s View of Delft at hand. When I had counseled Papa to paint his bedroom the color of the yellow house in Vermeer’s distance, Papa had nodded. I’d told him how Proust had written of that house, of its yellow color, and Papa had nodded. And when I was done exclaiming my passion, he’d raised a bushy eyebrow and said simply, “You’re the painter, painter,” and left me to my work.

Of course, the Great Recession hasn’t been kind to this kind of approach, or to that of his friend Terry, who “[even] with a master’s in English in his pocket, he continued to work construction.” That made me smile. You think it’s tough making a go of it as a house builder? Try finding a job armed with an English degree. Terry gives us a springboard into wider discussion of risk and failure, woven to Phil by the theme of a world that knows costs but not values; he serves as a mirror to Phil, and he likes what he sees. So do I. They spend weekends in Mexico building houses for the poor. They dream of doing Great Things. But, let’s face it, most people just want their houses painted a color they can live with, in the shortest possible time, at the lowest possible cost; funding for Great Things is short. So Phil makes everything he does, a Great Thing.

The temporal center of the piece (a substantial portion of which is excerpted online at The Sun) is Phil’s trip to Hawaii to paint a mansion. He wants to paint it white, but not just any white: “the white of the queen’s summer palace.” So he visits and talks to Charlotte, the docent:

Charlotte lifts the hem of her muumuu and walks barefoot up the porch stairs. She touches a finger to the paint chip in my hand. “In the morning it’s white like this,” she says, and I can smell the ginger flowers in her hair.
It took me thirty-five years to come to this royal palace, to choose a color for another palace. I get to play this delicious game because I’ve given all those years to my trade. ….I read books on wood finishing and went to school to study colors. I learned that preparation is 75 percent of the job. I learned how to use blowtorches to remove paint, to use “long-oil primers” and other old-world techniques now illegal. Who knows how much skin and lung I’ve given to my craft? But each day spent breathing sanding dust and washing my body in paint thinner brought me a little closer to this serene palace porch where I am discussing colors with Charlotte.
“At noon it looks like celery,” she says. “In the evening it’s the rose of roses.”
Charlotte has seen the ghost of the long-ago queen twice. Both times she was descending these porch steps in her white wedding gown.
“This is the white you want.”
Thank you, Charlotte. Thank you, Queen Emma. I go home now, to paint.

You can put in your hours and go home. Or you can make art, whatever your job is.

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