At first, critics celebrated my use of blues and greens. ‘A colour field abstractionist who brought figuration and landscape back,’ they wrote. Whatever. But after they saw the same palette in my second, then third exhibition, praise turned to damnation. I continued to paint what I saw in my mind’s eye. They finally dismissed me when faced with skeletal greys and near white canvasses. Even my crippled hands couldn’t garner me the plaudits that launched my career.
Before then, as a kid, the hours after school centred on the kitchen. When I got home my grandmother would be waiting to fix me a snack. Renovated from Mid-Century Modern to a ‘70s-pop happening, it crackled with burnt orange panelling, woodgrain veneer, chocolate countertops and red-speckled vinyl floor tiles. All this burst into flame when the afternoon sun hit the westward facing window.
With simple ingredients – black mustard seeds, dried chilli, turmeric – she made a mouth-watering fried rice. Sometimes she let the bottom layer burn, adding a crunchy element. It’s remained my favourite comfort food. Close to eighty and frail, she retrieved the drawings I did that day from my school bag, offering praise and criticism while I ate. Afterwards, she shuffled off to lie on her bed.
It never occurred to me that she was getting out of the way before my parents got back. She was a daytime grandmother who disappeared at night, an intruder who my father kept in sufferance. Years later I found out that she’d been violently opposed to their marriage. She made their lives hell after they eloped, abusing and threatening him for stealing her daughter. He never spoke to her again, and the newlyweds soon fled the country as refugees. Time, a new life and my mother brought them back together for this false détente.
Oblivious to all this, I sat drawing in the Jaffa kitchen. That room where I witnessed an escalating argument, saw my grandmother slip, fall and break a series of bones, inflicting injuries that took her to a palliative care home. Then, later, paramedics trying to revive my father, slumped on the floor after a heart attack.
There wasn’t much worth salvaging after the fire. My mother’s slide into dementia and frying rice didn’t mix. She remembered it was my favourite but absent-mindedly left it on heat to create the burnt crust. Since then, I’ve had an aversion to any colour that reminds me of the kitchen. I’ve painted it, and the people in it, again and again, trying to find in abstracted blues, then whites, a serenity they never enjoyed in life.
The other day I wandered by, unable to curb my curiosity, and saw the new owners had completed their renovation. Scandinavian flat pack most likely. But in the afternoons, the sun still burns and bleaches everything bone white.