Friday, October 09, 2009

The smell of rubber cement


(You can now listen to this entry, with an explanatory preface.)

I am not artistic. Yes, all right, I used to doodle cartoons that were a step or two above stick figures, and I'm a self-taught calligrapher, but I am not a full-fledged artist by any stretch of the imagination. And yet I find myself drawn to art supplies. I linger over all the items you might reasonably expect, like pens and lined notebooks, or implements of calligraphy, or fancy papers, or colored inks, certainly -- but I also end up inspecting all the watercolor pencils, fiddling with the French curve protractors, running my fingers over the squared-off chalky colors of the pastels and the fat greasy roundness of the oil crayons, opening the paint sets and sighing over the evocative names of the tiny filled tubes of watercolors (burnt umber, Prussian blue, viridian green, yellow ochre -- you can practically taste the names). Most of all, I love the smells -- the rich tang of oil paints, the sharp aldehyde scent of big-boned Prismacolor markers, and the heady, slightly giddy-making fuminess of rubber cement. I was set to use the phrase "kid in a candy store," but that isn't quite right -- more like a jewelry-lover at Tiffany's, or a bibliophile surrounded by beautiful leatherbound tomes in all directions. I am in my element.

To me, there is a repleteness of familiarity in all these things. Though I don't know how to use these art supplies and therefore don't feel right buying them, they seem to give off an air of intimacy. Because, of course, they are home.

When I look over the watercolors, when I make beautiful swooshes of color with the pastels, when I smell rubber cement, I am remembering being ten years old and lying on the floor next to my daddy's drawing board as he worked on another project for a client. I remember playing with bits of his Letraset letters, rubbing them off to make little letter-people on the paper. I remember covertly taking his Prismacolor markers (which I was not supposed to touch) out of their little carousel and carefully drawing my name. (Dad always made a sharp distinction between writing, which was just scribing down words, and calligraphy, which was drawing them.) And I remember always there was rubber cement: we used it to tack together school projects, make puppet show theaters and other creative objects, or sometimes we'd just paint it on our hands and roll it into squishy little rubber ball boogers as it dried. Rubber cement was a Dad smell, just like Old Spice and shaving cream on Sundays, or sweat and earth if he was working in the garden, or the tinny green smell of the canned asparagus that he loved (usually a birthday treat).

I love art supplies -- especially rubber cement -- because while I am pointlessly lingering over them, my mind is back in a time when Santa's existence was real and unquestioned, when my biggest decision of the day was what style of kite I should buy, when the Concord Public Library was full of unexplored wonders, when I had both a mom and a dad, when it seemed the structure of my life would always be as it was then. The smell of rubber cement is the ghost of home.

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