A ceramic box that M made in eighth grade sat prominently on the coffee table in the living room of our apartment in Bangkok. One of the many ceramic projects she completed in Vienna. A black shoe. A blue dragon coming out of an egg. A green and pink teapot with a rose on its lid. Definitely inspired by a trip to the Herend porcelain factory in neighboring Hungary.
M was never very good at making things with her hands. While all the other children in Ms. Whitelaw’s kindergarten class in UNIS indulged in finger painting, all she wanted to do was get the paint off her hands. She could not wait to go to the bathroom to wash her dirty hands. On days they were given glitter, girls and boys alike sprinkled it on themselves. M did not want any of it. She was very much bothered by glitter sticking to her fingers even after several trips to the sink.
When ceramic class started at VIS, most students dreamed of making vases, and lamps, and busts…all sorts of complicated works. M wanted to make a box. She was a smart girl. She knew her limitations. What she lacked in technique though, she made up for with imagination.
She made a box. And although it was a triangular box, there was nothing very special about its shape. But it was an unusual box. It had a handle in the shape of a human ear. And it was painted yellow. Sunflowers and leaves.
And inside the box, there was a name. Vincent. For Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch painter who could not sell a single painting while he was alive, but whose priceless sunflower paintings are now worshipped and admired everywhere. The lunatic who cut off his own ear, and sent it as an offering of peace to his friend and roommate Paul Gauguin.
M’s box was the talk of the VIS art department. She was not much of an artist, but she had a passion for art. And it all started in New York City.
The summer that M was four, she had daily art lessons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the perks of living in Manhattan. She learned to mix colors, and on the day that she finally perfected grey by mixing black and white, she painted a very pretty elephant. In grey. But the class had moved on to another color. Mauve.
M loved art classes at the Metropolitan. At the end of each class, the teacher took the children to see one special painting in the museum. M had a favorite painting, and she took me to see it after each class. The Starry Night. By Vincent Van Gogh.
M liked paintings. But M was also a four-year-old, and she would rather go to the zoo to look at Gus, the white polar bear. Gus could swim. I was very much impressed with the swimming polar bear, but I would rather look at the paintings that hang at the Metropolitan.
To be in the Metropolitan everyday. It was a dream come true. My compensation for having spent many months within the walls of a compound in faraway Lagos. My reward for eating nothing but chicken twice a day during those months.
I turned to look at the four-year-old M who was watching Gus swim back and forth intently. I was never one to impose my preferences on others. Besides, her interest in swimming polar bears may some day lead to an exciting career. Expeditions in the Arctic. Zoology. Synchronized swimming.
But for every hour in the zoo, I wanted an hour in the museum. I thought that was fair. And I wanted M to come with me willingly. I wanted her to have fun looking at Monet and Degas and Renoir. As much fun as watching Gus swim. I knew I had a problem.
And it was M who gave me the solution.
On the way out of the museum, as we passed the museum shop, she asked if I would buy her a postcard of The Starry Night. We went to look at the postcard rack, and as I searched for Vincent, a hundred-watt light bulb lit up in my head. It could have been a halogen bulb.
We left the museum shop with more than The Starry Night. Lots more.
The next day. Right after art class.
M: Can we go see Gus?
Mommy: Sure. But after we go on a treasure hunt?
M: A treasure hunt? What treasure hunt? Where?
Mommy: Right here.
M: There are teasures here?
Mommy: Definitely. Priceless treasures.
I started with the French Impressionist painters. M liked pretty pictures. I gave her five postcards. All French Impressionist paintings.
We climbed the Metropolitan’s majestic stairs to the second floor, and headed straight for the European paintings. I went around the room slowly, taking my time with each painting, looking at every detail. The envy of over-scheduled Japanese tourists.
M went around the room as well. To find the paintings of the treasure hunt, she had to look at every canvass in the room. And when she found a treasure, she would come to get me. To show me what she found. And we would look at the treasure. Compared it to the postcard in her tiny hands.
M loved treasure hunting at the Metropolitan. I was a valued customer at the museum shop. I eventually gave her a photo album for her postcards. And I took her treasure hunting at the Museum of Modern Art where she found Pablo Picasso’s painting of his daughter, Maya. A framed poster of that painting now hangs in her room.
The Frick Museum was another treasure hunting ground, and M fell madly in love with Francois Boucher and his pastel paintings with roses and cherubin. Years later, they were reunited at the Louvre.
Vincent, though, will always have a special place in her heart. Especially after seeing three of the four sunflower paintings hanging in one room in Amsterdam. And it was Vincent who inspired her to be creative in spite of her limitations.
And Gus, the swimming polar bear. We continued to go and watch him swim all summer, and during the weekends in autumn, but we stopped visiting him when the temperature started dropping. M seemed happy enough treasure hunting in the well heated museums.
And she never showed any interested in becoming a synchronized swimmer.