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Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: SUN 03/14/99
Section: LIFESTYLE
Page: 1    Edition: 2 STAR

Gratitude helps inspire artist's work
By Melissa England

I've painted children's faces not because I'm a good person. I've painted them because I'm a pretend artist.

I wanted the artistic ability my mother showed in her short life. I didn't have it; I felt inadequate next to her. My paintings were flat, lifeless, somehow slightly distorted. I got away with still lifes, but anything living took on a cartoonish air.

A teacher suggested a living canvas, a child's face. For children I was wonderful - the dragons I painted spat fire and wrapped their glittery tails around their necks. No one honored my work more.

I painted things I loved. My favorite toy as a child was a mechanical blond King Kong. Its eyes lit up red, and it growled and bit anything placed in its mouth. It could show emotions that were not OK for me to show - anger, rage, feelings that were never betrayed on my face when I played with King Kong in front of my stepmother.

I would paint King Kong on children's arms, legs, cheeks; I told them the secret of his anger. I told them that he was their protector, that he would keep them safe, that everyone else would be afraid and back away. Nothing is sweeter than the giggle of a tickled child; it sounds like music.

I volunteered to paint at the Ronald McDonald House. I thought my paint made the children somehow safe. One little girl of about 8 was fighting a cancer that caused her to lose all her hair. She sat by my side, watching me paint, waiting for her turn. She wanted to be last. She wanted to see everything I painted so she could pick something special for herself.

Her eyes were a soft green, and her teeth were lining themselves into pretty neat rows. She had a dimple in her left cheek.

Finally it was her turn. She still wasn't sure. She told me she had brown wavy hair before her medicine; she said there was a tumor in her head. I asked her if she hurt. She said no, but she wasn't feeling very good.

We looked at the painted children in the room. She was very complimentary; she thought I was a wonderful artist. I didn't want to tell her I wasn't, so I smiled and thanked her for being so kind.

I saw her mother resting her head on an overstuffed chair. She looked tired. For a moment I tried to imagine this precious child as mine. Her green eyes, her very gentle ways. Then in my mind I saw her as healthy, whole, filled with energy.

I told her I had an idea. I opened my sunset yellow and my raw sienna brown and lightly dipped my medium-size brush in the paint. I swirled airy curls of paint over her forehead, in front of her ears and down her neck, carefully avoiding the still-angry scar. With my bright pinks and reds I painted clusters of baby roses in a half circle from ear to ear. With a touch of pale aqua I connected the roses with a thin ribbon of color.

All the time I painted she held the mirror with two hands, never saying a word. Two more children were standing by her side, then another. No child said anything; they just watched in silence.

With my silver and gold paints, I dabbed diamonds on the ribbons of color that rested on her neck. Just under her left eye, I added a lacy heart of pale pink.

I cleaned the paint from my fingers and opened my theater glitter. I chose a transparent and a silver color; for the curls I touched on clear, and for the diamonds I added silver. I sat back to survey my work.

I tilted her chin toward me. Her eyes glistened. She smiled one of those incredible smiles I feel in my heart every time I call up her memory. She ran to her mother, saying, "Look at me, look at me." Her mother was in tears. She clutched her child and buried her face in the girl's small chest.

In a moment the girl was free to be the center of attention. The other children turned her, touched her. Someone started taking pictures. Children came running back to have me do something else for them.

Moments later she was back by my side. She slipped her hand into mine and thanked me for making her beautiful.

I hadn't made her beautiful; she was all that and more. But I thanked her for making me an artist.

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