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A Nice Touch
by Cyndie Goins Hoelscher 
 

The day began ominously enough.  Low clouds, shrouded in mourning colors, hung heavily in the sky, threatening to weep during the plein air class at the Botanical Gardens.  As one of six art students on this field trip, I was looking forward to studying the methods of the Old World Masters.  As I sharpened my HB and B sketching pencils, I reflected on those great painters who sat outside, painting moments unfolding before their eyes.  Monet. Rembrandt. Da Vinci.  Their masterpieces hang in museums, illustrating not only what they were looking at as they composed, but also details about their world during those moments of quiet contemplation.  Each stroke of their brush became an essay of historical and philosophical significance. This was my third sketching class with this Fine Arts instructor.  I wept during the first class, as she tried to discipline my uninspired hand.  “Feel the curve of that petal,” she hinted.  “Can you sense the suggestion of a shadow under that leaf?”   Under her instruction, a new awareness emerged and I finally began to see the world as an artist might.

“But what I see in my mind isn’t materializing onto the paper,” I complained.  Yet, deep inside I sensed that if I practiced patience, focusing every ounce of my concentration on the subject, the picture would eventually become clearer. “Pick a spot in the gardens and start with your thumbnail sketches before moving on to your value studies,” the art instructor announced to the six of us.  “The rose garden is closed off today because they’re decorating for a gala event.  That is the only place that is off-limits.  One more thing:  Today is a free day, devoted solely to your creativity.  Let your soul dance and you may capture miracles.”

My heart sank as I watched a parade of volunteers, their arms filled with brilliantly colored piñatas, marching to the roped-off pavilion in the rose garden.  One piñata escaped and the seven-sided star flipped cartwheels across the lawn before another worker was able to restrain it.  I breathed in deeply, trying to catch the sweet allure of roses in the tropical gales.  Since I first learned of the excursion to the gardens, I had dreamed of working near the rose pavilion, searching for delicate tea roses, hardy florabundas, or the old fashioned varieties, secretly wondering if I could capture their innate sweetness on a canvas.  If I were honest with myself, I would admit there was another reason I longed to work among the roses.  My grandmother had loved her rose garden.  In her backyard, she had orange Tropicanas and velvet crowned Chryslers.  The stately Queen Elizabeth bloomed profusely next to the well-established Peace.  The miniature roses in coral painted petals looked like dainty palaces for fairies.  Deep in my heart, I knew my soul could dance in a rose garden.  There amongst the roses, I could have captured miracles.  But the rose garden was off limits.      

“That’s just great,” I sighed somberly.  I longed to sketch roses that day while the sky was robed in gray. Instead, I had to choose a different spot.  I found another place deep in the shadows, away from the colorful blossoms of the hibiscus and the exotic perfumes of the plumeria.  I settled down in the dreary area and began to sketch. “There you are,” my instructor exclaimed as she ducked under a giant philodendron leaf and surveyed my subject area.  “This is interesting.” 

She glanced at my thumbnail sketches and noted I was already working on the value study, adding shadows and highlights from the sparse splashes of sun.  I deepened the background leaves with stark, black charcoal, gradually moving to a medium gray stroke and finally applying a light brushing from the side of the pencil, indicating the areas that were straining for the affection of the sun.   
 

“Do you see the folded leaves in the foreground?” she prompted.  They are very dark, not quite within the highlighted area.”

 “Yes, I see them,” I quickly added some dark spikes in the foreground which successfully yielded a three dimensional element to my sketch. 

 "You have such a nice touch,” she smiled.  “I’m going to check on the others.  Do you have any questions?

I shook my head, as she moved off to the flower gardens where the other students were busy sketching.

“A nice touch,” I shuddered.  When have I been told that before? 

My pencil worked methodically while a memory tugged at my heart.  I remember performing at a music recital at the tender age of seven.  I felt like a princess, wearing a long pink gown with white polka dots, which my grandmother had sewn for me for the special event.  My long, brown hair was brushed straight and flat, held back with a white velvet headband.  Still, I was nervous about performing because it was my first judged event.  I recognized my name on the loud speaker, summoning me to the stage.  I promptly took my seat at the Steinway piano, noting that the bench was too high and my feet did not reach the pedals near the floor.  I had never touched the elegant keys of a Steinway before, and it was much grander than the small upright piano back home.  I do not remember breathing as my fingers rushed through the musical piece, but somehow I finished the entire score without passing out.

 Afterwards, each music student was called to the head table, where judges delivered individual oral and written evaluations. 

“Your counting was off and you seemed to completely ignore the dynamics of the music, but you played fairly well overall,” one judge said.

 “Did I win a medal?” I asked sheepishly.

“No, but you have a nice touch with the music,” he complimented me.

“A nice touch.”   I beamed happily, although I had no clue of what the judge was saying.

But that memory was outmatched by what was to follow several decades later.

When my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, my husband and I moved in to care for her.  I cooked her meals and tended her rose garden for her when she became bedridden.  In the mornings, I lovingly bathed her, remembering childhood times when she cared for me so tenderly.  After the bath ritual, I squeezed out a generous amount of aloe lotion, rubbing her sore back, her shoulders, her arms and feet.  “You have such a nice touch,” Granny murmured as I worked the soreness out of her weary muscles, her frustration at being dependent after so many years of independence laced every word.  The hospicee nurses praised my grandmother every time they visited her in her home.  They assured her that she had the softest and prettiest feet of all their patients. 

Hours before she died, I sat by her bedside, holding her hand.  She had slipped into a coma during the night and was far beyond my reach.  I did not know if she could hear the encouraging words I whispered to her, but I stroked her head softly, searching for assurances that she was not experiencing any pain.  I stayed there, praying that she still thought my touch was nice and somewhat of a comfort.  Despite the overwhelming grief that engulfed me soon afterward, it did not escape my notice that being there for her was the greatest thing I had ever done in my life.

I still missed her.  The five years since her death had not weakened the impact of the loss of her and her beloved rose garden in my life. “So, what are you sketching?”

Some strangers had wandered into my wilderness area.  I pointed to a tangle of cactus with dried-up flowers and a petrified mesquite stump.  A chameleon hopped on one of the broad leaves and I instantly sketched him into my composition, amazed at how quickly my pencil filled in the details in front of me while my mind had escaped to moments deep in the past. 

“Now, why would you choose to sketch something so harsh when there is so much beauty all around you?” the stranger’s wife frowned as she noted the uninviting, serrated leaves and the dead flowers.  The muted olive and umber colors of the jagged landscape were highlighted once in a while by sporadic flashes from the sun, illuminating a small area in spring green before fading into a memory. 

“It’s an aloe plant,” I mentioned, swallowing hard.  “It’s used for healing.”

“I’m not sure why anyone would spend hours dwelling on such an ugly thing,” the stranger shook his head.  “But it is a good likeness, and you seem to have a nice touch.” 


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