Time passed, and less than four years later, I moved from NYC to LA and kind of forgot all about it until I read that MacArthur Park's lake would be filled with brightly colored painted beach balls this summer. I loved the look of the renderings: a splash of color in the middle of a pretty bleak area with a history of crime and no natural gardens. But they also looked somehow familiar, tapping into some dark part of my psyche where memories get expunged.
Of course, although Portraits of Hope has done lots of projects in NYC, including some after I left, they're bicoastal and also have flowered the oil derrick tower in Beverly Hills and lifeguard towers in the South Bay, both pre-dating my arrival here.
Back in New York, I didn't know about the project until I saw the final results, but this time I heard about it early enough to get involved. I wanted to paint one of the 7000 spheres floating in the lake at MacArthur Park. I wanted to be a part of something. I wanted my artistic DNA to contribute something positive to the LA experience, something that might bring Angelenos some joy.
Fortunately, it's a community project, and although much of the focus has been on bringing in school children to do the painting, weekend open sessions welcome anyone. After all, there's a lot of painting to do.
I arrived a little early on Sunday, and they put me immediately to work, flattening out the completed balls from the day before and stacking them to the side, so that the new balls – blank except for the black outlines of the flowers – could be inflated and set up for a whole new crew of painters.
I felt like I was reliving some part of someone else's childhood. I was never really allowed to get messy when I was a kid. There were no clothes that were OK to paint in. My mother would've covered me in plastic if she could've gotten away with it.
I took off my shoes and walked barefoot across the paint-speckled floor...
...threw on a big purple t-shirt to use as a smock...
...and started selecting my paint colors.
Of the already completed balls, there was a certain consistency in color palette: mostly an eco-realistic combination of yellow, green, and red.
I decided to go full-out girlie, fulfilling some fantasy of hybridizing my own species of flower to my own exact specifications...
...with a lilac background, pink petals, and a red center.
The volunteers kept telling us to keep the paint layers thin – mostly because they need them to dry quickly, and they just don't have time to apply a second coat.
Besides, the colors would look pretty solid from far away.
"Its better to go over the black line," we were told, "than to leave some white space."
As one of the few adults there who wasn't a parent, I felt very low pressure to paint perfectly, so I let myself just paint, without much attention to quality. As I progressed, though, I became more focused, and gave myself the time to apply a second coat. I didn't want it to be just fine; I wanted to do it right.
I thought I wouldn't have much competition from the kids that were also painting, but actually their balls turned out great – and somehow way more precise than mine.
My favorite one was the messiest of them all, but there was a certain artistic genius to it. I'd heard the boys painting it complain, "We have failed. We are terrible," so I went to check it out. I loved it. I'd rather see the work of a heavy hand than a light touch.
I found the whole process extremely therapeutic. I always loved painting, and even graced the front page of the Life section of the Syracuse Sunday newspaper on Mother's Day 1979, sporting a painters' smock and wielding a paintbrush.
I'm pretty sure I painted some part of my parents' house growing up – I have vague memories of the basement walls and the kitchen woodwork and the front porch – but I probably haven't really painted anything since 8th grade. I gave up fine art in high school, even though I had so much potential.
But when the program director walked by to inspect my work and look for white spaces, he said, "You're a painter," and I said, proudly, "Yes I am."
Unfortunately my health is so bad right now that I could only make it through one side of a sphere, but I'd like to go back and paint again. I'm already envisioning my next botanical creation.
Photo Essay: Rose Parade 2014 Floats, In Progress
Photo Essay: Wildflowering at Poppy Peak