When my niece's two year old began to talk and ask questions, she would come to me and touch my cobalt
blue shirt, and ask, "Why is it so blue?" Or, if I had on a red shirt, she would say, "Why is it so red?" If I gave her a banana, she would ask, "Why is it so yellow?" I often
gave her colored pens and paper to draw on. She would look at the paper and ask, predictably, "Why is it so white?" Or, she would look at her dress, and ask, "Why is it so pink?"
She liked to examine the handle of my magnifying glass, and ask, "Why is it so black?"
I have been a painter most of my life, and a colorist, so it seemed to me that I should have been able to give her better answers than the lame
ones I did give her. Too many times I found myself saying, "That's just the way they made it." My inadequate answers did prompt me, however, to ask some questions of my own. I have
always thought that children are the best art critics, thus I felt obliged to take little Selma's questions about color seriously. Why indeed is a blue shirt so blue? Why indeed is
a ripe banana so yellow? Eventually, after dwelling on Selma's questions for a while, I began to realize that she was experiencing the mystery and magic of color, just as I had
once done. I considered, as well, that all during my painting years I had been exploring, in various ways, the mysterious qualities of color, which I have come to think of as a
kind of esoteric language.
Selma's infatuation with the intensity of pure color made me realize that my approach to color has been a little off the mark all these years.
If color is a language, it is also a form of music. A color, like a note of music, can produce feeling and meaning all by itself. Western painters, like Western composers, like to
use their colors and their notes in a temporal, sequential way in order to attain the desired feeling and imagery. It occurred to me that Selma's questions were pointing me in a
new direction, something more to do with the Asian concept of art, a greater focus on individual colors and their power to challenge the mind and the senses. It's a direction I've
been taking since I began to lose my vision to macular degeneration years ago. I didn't understand why I was painting this way, I only knew that my loss of vision had forced me to
paint this way. Large and small areas of color, outlined in black.
I like to believe that it's possible for a two year old to teach an eighty-three year old artist how to paint. I truly believe that is what has
happened to me. Selma has been instrumental in making an awkward style clearer and more forceful. I am still employing pure colors in a variety of settings, only now the colors are
more alive and significant unto themselves. What it all means I don't know. It feels right, as well as necessary.
And now, when I look at a finished painting, and my eyes rest on a certain patch of orange, I say to myself, "Why is it so orange?" Then
sometimes I add, "Is it orange enough?"