Early on a Sunday morning she pulls a worn paintbrush across her canvas. It leaves a trail of muted blue paint. She scoops up a hue of yellow and takes a step back from the canvas that is longer than she is tall. The brush whips forward as she flicks the yellow pigment across the surface. She repeats this motion until the globs of yellow paint have composed a chaotic pattern. She leaves the room to let it dry.
When she returns, the globs have hardened into a disconnected range of yellow mountains. After moments of staring at the composition, her eyebrows furrow. She squeezes a pile of bright green oil paint out onto her palate, grabs for her brush and covers the dissatisfying image, stroke by stroke. As the paint moves, her expression softens. Atop the green background she creates bright red window shutters. Out this window, she brings two little girls with yellow hair to life. One wears a blue dress, the other purple, and they are surrounded by lush greenery. She doesn’t worry about perfecting the details, only about pleasing the eye with color and showing the vivacity in her subjects.
If you were to ask Sonja Krastman if she is an artist, she would humbly chuckle and reply no. She might tell you she works in corporate communications. She might label herself as a mother, my mother in fact. She might even give herself credit for being a creative person. But Sonja would never claim the title artist. In technical terms, art isn’t my mother’s career. Her income doesn’t come from painting sales. She hasn’t abandoned everything else to pursue art. But whenever I am asked to describe my mother, the word artist immediately jumps to mind.
The two-car garage behind our home in Huntington Beach, California hasn’t seen a car in years. Instead, the garage serves as a makeshift art studio. A large wooden worktable stretches from one end of the room to the other, held up by multiple sections of stacked industrial drawers. Those drawers are filled with paints, glues, markers, scissors, paintbrushes, ink, stamps, beads, wire, and tools. On the other side of the studio are shelves filled with more supplies- canvases, papers, discarded household items that will maybe one day be made into art. In one corner of the room, oil paintings are stacked one on top of the next, like a library of forgotten books, which never reach the hands of readers. Some completed paintings have made it to the walls of our home, but very few.
Instead, most of the works on the walls are detailed impressionistic paintings of landscapes and flowers by Sonja’s mother, my grandmother, Rita. Bright, optimistic, and sensible, like their painter. Though she was orphaned at 12, struggled through Nazi Occupation of Holland, and immigrated to the United States with nothing, Rita was stalwart. Even later, after losing her husband, Rita, didn’t crumble, she just kept striving for a stable life for her daughter. She sought positive activities that made her happy, like an evening painting class.
Sonja went with her mother to that class. While she painted alongside her mom, Sonja quickly became frustrated with painting. She couldn’t mimic the delicate and precise flowers her mother created, so she hastily labeled herself a failure at the craft.
It wasn’t until high school, when Sonja took another painting class that she felt something different. Instead of frustration, she felt freedom. Sonja began to consider the idea of pursuing art as a career. But the thought was quickly packed away and discarded in a corner. Art wasn’t practical, or a path to any stable future. “What are you ever going to do with art?” her mother would ask any time she brought up the idea. Determined to be as sensible as her mom, Sonja attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she would make detours through the art department, on her way to Comparative Literature class.
After graduating she took a job as a corporate communications manager for Staar Surgical and then a marketing assistant for Alex Foods. Each job was fine. Stable. But she couldn’t help but feel a nagging desire to explore the art world.
When she was 27, she finally did. Sonja enrolled in classes at the Long Beach Art School to pursue a four-year BFA. She was engaged at the time, and her fiancé encouraged her to pursue this neglected dream. As a soon-to-be lawyer, he assured her she would never have to worry about finances. Even with this encouragement, Sonja had to somehow rationalize the decision, both to her mother and to herself. So she entered art school with the intent of studying graphic design—it was still art, but practical art.
Sonja took very few graphic design classes. She dabbled in different artistic mediums like photography and drawing. But it was only in her painting classes that she felt that inexplicable freedom. Every time she began to paint she felt like there were no rules. All which existed was an internal puzzle to solve, a challenge to figure out what was evolving on her canvas.
One teacher had the students paint on large canvases—longer than they were tall. She told them to paint big. Big ideas. Big emotions. Big colors. “Don’t be a Sunday painter,” she would say. “You’re an artist, artists create big paintings.” So Sonja created big paintings. She used thick, bold strokes that brought energy and life and freedom to every painting.
Sonja began to feel she really was an artist, or at least on the right path to become one. But the same man who had pushed her forward was holding her back. The lawyer, who was now her husband, couldn’t keep a job. Sonja was nervous; she could hear her mother’s concerns echoing in her head. Then, her second year of art school, she found out she was pregnant with me. The concern grew. Later that year she found out my father had been unfaithful throughout their entire relationship.
My mother didn’t leave him, but she did leave art school. She wanted to create a stable life for her baby. That meant keeping her family together and finding a way to be a provider. She sought employment, and found a part-time job writing newsletters, making much less than she had prior to art school. Eventually she landed at a large technology company where she spent the next fifteen years climbing the corporate ladder in marketing communications.
While professionally she was climbing, her marriage was failing. In that time she had another baby girl, Emily, who gave her greater motivation to repair her marriage. For seven years she fought, unwilling to acknowledge the foundation of her marriage was like a canvas that hadn’t been properly dried or cured. It would forever have cracks. Finally my mother asked him to leave. Like my grandma, she didn’t crumble, and instead put every ounce of energy into supporting Emily and me. Her art was stacked on shelves in the corner.
All the while, she encouraged us to be creative. She taught us how to make something beautiful out of nothing– Halloween costumes, birthday cards, and paintings to hang on the walls. She urged us to pursue our passions, even if they never seemed practical or plausible. She still does. My sister wants to be an actress and I want to write.
As Emily and I have gotten older, my mother has taken an art class here and there, and tries to make more time to practice her craft. Last year when she was laid off from her job at CSC, I told her it was a sign she should pursue art. We both entertained the idea for a while. She joked about joining me in New York and renting an artist’s loft in Bushwick where she’d spend all day painting. But instead she’s consulting in the healthcare industry, responsibly paying the bills.
To her, the notion of an artist’s life is no longer attainable. A painting that has been covered in white gesso. She will never call herself an artist because, in her eyes, the label represents a goal she was never able to obtain. I sometimes wonder if she’s saving the title, tucking it away in a sacred place, for the chance that she may one day be able to wholeheartedly claim it as her own. But despite any reservations about the title, most Sunday mornings you can find her in her studio, pressing oil to canvas. “It’s like time warps when I’m creating,” she says. “I’m released into a creative zone, and time no longer exists.”
My mother is an artist. She creates beauty out of even the most dismal circumstances. That large 4×6 painting of the two little blonde girls still sits against a wall in her studio. Textured bumps jut out from beneath the bright green façade. But from a distance, all that is visible is a vibrant impressionistic image of Emily and me, walking through a garden hand in hand. My mother never accepts situations she doesn’t like. Instead she sees them as a puzzle, one that only she can put together. So she paints over them with brighter colors, layers yellows and greens and reds in heavy strokes until there is nothing left but art.