My late Grandpa Cole once stood with me in his study, straightening the glasses on his nose in the pause, and told me my Uncle Dickie had taught him something important about art. Art can’t be limited by what you think it should be, he said. It has to have room to breathe, to take shape, to be what it wants to be. That was the lesson.

Our semester at UTSA begins in just two weeks, and I’m all set to roll out the Creative Writing Program’s brand new core course: Introduction to the Creative Literary Arts.  One component of the class is exploring creativity itself, what it is, what sparks it, how it arches across the arts, what artists add to the community. This was pretty much one of my Ph.D field exam subjects as well, so I feel right at home with the class already. And in preparing for it, I’ve spent a good deal of the summer pondering the origins of my own creativity.

Grandpa had been a phenomenal self-taught chef and an accomplished woodworker with, eventually, a shop that spanned a good portion of his Missouri basement.  Every room in my house has one of his creations with his name gracefully etched on the underside — end tables, recipe boxes, sewing cabinets, lazy susans, decorative easels.  Sometimes my finger will rest on one of his table edges as I pass, and I’ll remember something specific about him, like the time he called me after I’d moved to New York.

“Are there any hillbilly’s up there?” he’d asked.

“There’s at least one up here now,” I’d answered.

And it was the first time I can remember him ever laughing that hard at any of my jokes.

He made two full-sized functioning easels that I know of, one for me and one for my uncle. Besides painting, Uncle Dickie sculpts what Grandpa had then called “critters,” and it was the uniqueness of each one of those creations, those little expressive figurines that seemed to have tiptoed out of fairytales you never knew existed, sitting on Grandpa’s shelf that had imparted the lesson as Grandpa and I stood there admiring them.  Here’s Uncle Dickie with some of his work:

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Art can’t be limited by what you think it should be. 

It’s mostly thanks to Grandpa Cole and Uncle Dickie, I think, that I love repurposing things and refinishing furniture, in particular. Remember the North by Northwest panels I made during my last crafty binge?

north by northwest panels

This summer, I’ve been working on an end table my sister Alicia gave me years ago, thinking I’d know what to do with it.  I sanded the finish a little, added a black glaze, painted the drawer face, added knobs. Everything about it, a happy accident of a sander and brush. When I carried the finished table into the house, I hummed the Superman theme song until its ball-and-claw feet met the wood floor.


Then there’s the desk Joe found curbside in a yard sale, existing as the shabby little desk everyone thought it was, with a little glimmer of the desk Joe and I thought it could be calling me to unfold some dollars in the homeowner’s hands and heft it into the back of my 4 Runner.


But, of course, this desk was ready to surprise me with what it wanted to be as I sanded off its paint and straightened its drawer mechanics and tested out this color and that and tried on new nickel pulls I’d painted with black Rustoleum. It wanted to be glamorous.


That stool, by the way, was one of grandpa’s square end tables.  He’d always made more than enough copies of every piece he’d forged so that everyone in the family could have their pick.  Somehow, we ended up with three of these and no more room to use them as they’d been intended to be used.  I asked my dad, a wood-working hobbyist in his own right who’d once loved talking shop with his father-in-law, if he could transform it into a stool I could upholster the top of.


Dad also built a new center drawer with a front that flips down on specialty hinges so that Hannah, for whom the desk was intended, could use her laptop on the flattened drawer and leave the desktop itself free for books and such as she did her homework.

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Then there’s one of grandpa’s magazine tables that has sat in my garage for the last year waiting to find use again. I refinished this one with the likes of an old library card on its side. I don’t think he would ever have checked a Jane Austen title out of a library.  Maybe a French cookbook or the like.  But I signed his name in homage anyway.


As I was working on that desk, Hannah had come out with my Nikon to take photos. And you know I’ve been preoccupied with a big project when Firecracker dresses herself and “combs” her own hair and runs out to the garage to play Joe’s drums on a whim as I work. But when she saw Hannah earnestly snapping photos, she stood in the way.


The result is a bit Mary Ellen Mark, no? That look on Firecracker’s face, that look only a sibling can shape for another sibling, one that says, “I’m in your way, and I am relishing every second of it.” Afterward, when Hannah and I looked through her photos, we liked this one the best.  It was the most unexpected, the one least limited by what she’d thought she wanted to photograph. “The most creative,” Hannah said.