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A Case for Blotter Art

By Mary Desaulniers

There are moments in our past that shape our vision. Going through my childhood photo albums, I catch a glimpse of Anna in the early grades, a quiet girl who, if she were still alive, does not know how even in grade 4, she was pointing the way to freedom of expression. There is a lesson here that comes in handy for parents and grandparents.

I have often wondered if Anna's life might have taken a different turn had she lived her early grades in the sixties when the ballpoint pen, replacing the fountain pen, dispensed with the use of ink blotters in school. Children of the fifties, we learnt writing the hard way"with steel-nibbed pens which we dipped in ink pots and which invariably turned the writing experience into a mud-bath. It took us months to learn the art of compromise: speed meant accidental globs and splotches; if you really wanted to save time, you would be far wiser to play the tortoise.

But Anna was no turtle. Her mind moved faster than light; she was figuring a way to Bali when we were still stuck in the grade 3 reader; in the fourth grade, when those of us with older siblings were all agog over Elvis, she could find nothing more passionate than Japanese prints.

I remember Sister Mary Michael, the composition teacher in grade 4, who told us that writing was an act of God and that the true writer would find his share of godliness in the holy trinity of pen, paper and blotter. Of the three, the blotter was the most indispensable. "Why? we asked. "Good writing depends on the way you control the ink." There was much else that needed to be controlled as well, according to Sister Mary Michael. Reading Anna's essay on why she liked chocolates, Sister became very still and angular. She peered down at the child, her eyes blue and hard above her spectacles. "Too many adjectives, she snapped. "Too many words!"

When Anna looked at her, unmoved, Sister retrieved her pen. The nib drew a fast, thin line over Anna's script; the blotter followed; there came more red lines, more words slashed away.

I watched Anna after she returned to her desk. She began writing, dabbing the blotter after her pen in true Sister Mary Michael fashion. For a while, it seemed as though Anna had learnt her lesson. But when I peered more closely over her shoulder, I noticed that it was the blotter that was absorbing her interest. She had dribbled a spot on the top right-hand corner of the sheet; she stuck the nib in the center of the spot and watched the darkness grow; a few details with the nib and the blotch became a piece of chocolate, its center dissolving into a hole. Fascinated, I watched her work more blotches on the absorbent paper and more dabs until the entire blotter turned into a kind of chocolate swiss-cheese.

Out of her desk came more blotter sheets. Instead of holes, she made lines this time, dark molasses lines dribbled and dripped almost spider fashion from one corner to the next; she paused just long enough to thicken the middle stretch without breaking the flow until the entire sheet became criss-crossed with tubes of varying lengths and widths and the blotter sat on her desk like a chocolate web.

It was an early version of blotter art, so distinctive it made your hair stand on end. But Sister Mary Michael could not quite see that.

"What on earth are you doing? she asked, appalled, staring at the blotters on Anna's desk. The girl held up her last completed sheet; it was a masterpiece, composed entirely of lines, thick and thin, straight and wavy radiating from a field of chocolate centers, such that when you looked at the whole, you could feel a shift in balance, as though you were being absorbed into the thick of things.

"Young lady, said Sister, breaking the silence. "Do you think that God intended us to use blotters in this fashion? Anna's face dropped. "Do you think that God would have approved of this?"

"No, said Anna eventually.

"Why not ?"

"I don't think he likes chocolates."

Anna left school after grade 6. We did not keep in touch and I had almost forgotten her until years later, when I flipped through a huge and glossy "History of Modern Art and was stopped mid-track by Jackson Pollock; there was in his work inescapable shades of Anna's blotter.

Expressionism"they called it.

Somehow, I felt vindicated.

Copyright 2005 Mary Desaulniers

About The Author

Mary Desaulniers

A runner for 27 years, retired schoolteacher and writer, Mary is now doing what she loves--running,writing,helping people reclaim their bodies. Nutrition, exercise, positive vision and purposeful engagement are the tools used to turn their bodies into creative selves.

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