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green to see what happens

Atkinson Kimball, “The Art of Puttering,” in The Atlantic Monthly 108 (October 1911) : 568-571 (google books)
568-571 (hathitrust)

Atkinson Kimball is the joint pseudonym of Richard Bowland Kimball (1874-1950) and Grace Lucia (Atkinson) Kimball (1875-1923), about whom both, more later.

  1. The floor of our dressing-room sadly needed painting. The practical member of the firm looked at it, and then I said with sudden inspiration, ‘Why bother the painters with such a little job as this. I’ll paint it myself.’
  2. The practical member was silent. She has not the perfect confidence in me that a partner ought to have; and I went on, to reassure her, —
  3. I have always been interested in the pictorial arts. I have always wanted to be a painter. The only thing that’s kept me from embracing an art-career has been lack of technical skill. When I get to my separate star, I shall paint the thing as I see it for the God of things-as-they-are; and on Saturday afternoons, you can fly over from your separate star, and admire my work. Meanwhile, if I can’t paint pictures on our crowded planet, at least I can paint floors. All you have to do is mix the colors in the right proportions and put the paint on. As in all arts, however, the artistic floor-painter is known by what he omits. He should not muddy his colors any more than a literary artist should muddy the colors of his words. He must select, he must be siimple. In painting this floor, I shall make no attempt to paint anything except a pedestrian floor. But who knows? Sometimes the Muse smiles on the humblest practitioner. In addition to being simple, I may prove sensuous and passionate. It will take about a pint of paint.’
  4. The floor of our dressing-room is painted to imitate a hard-pine floor, a difficult color to match. I made a careful mental image of the exact tint, and enconced myself in the shop, that delectable no-woman’s land where, in Stevenson’s phrase, I can have a hell of my own, and assume, with the slipping on of my overalls, the entity of mason, carpenter, farmer, or whatever artisan is demanded at the moment by the delightfully multifarious exigencies of country life. This morning, of course, I assumed the entity of a painter.
  5. I carefully fashioned a paddle to stir with; I ranged before me on the bench the lead, the oil, the turpentine, the Japan dryer, and the most charming series of pure pigments, running, through umbers and yellows and greens, from lampblack to brightest vermilion. This could be called setting my palette.
  6. Is there anything more interesting in life than mixing paint, putting in black to darken it, yellow to brighten it, vermilion to make it bright, and green to see what happens?
  7. As I poured and stirred, I looked southward through the open window at the sea, most vital of created things; I looked northward through the open doorway at the woods, almost as vital as the ocean. In the adjacent meadow, dozens of piebald bobolinks were constantly frolicking into the air with rollicking rattlings of their silver chains of song. Time, newly born, seemed to consist of an illimitable present, typified by my neighbor across the road, slowly cultivating a cornfield, turning his horse at the end of the furrows with sonorous cries, or stopping to chat for age-long minutes with leisurely passersby. Something of nature’s great secret, the secret of passive growth, known of woods and ocean and dogs slieeping in the sublight, seemed to slip down to me from the heavens as I stirred the pot of paint.
  8. A grim visage appeared in the doorway, not suddenly, but as if it had been there several moments before I observed it. The owner of the face is also a painter, a man who knows the secret of passive growth. His skill and my energy would unite to form a magnificent workman. He merely nodded when he saw I saw him, and deigning to take my brush from the bench, slapped it against the side of the coal-bin.
  9. ‘What’s your brush made of?’ he asked with the monosyllabic or, rather, monosentential manner of many New Englanders; ‘dog’s hair and devil’s wool?’
  10. Without waiting for an answer, he disappeared. He had somewhat of an apparitional effect, especially when he reappeared after I had mixed the paint to my perfect satisfaction.
  11. ‘Well, what do you think of the color?’ I asked, flown with the pride of creation.
  12. ‘’Tain’t no color.’ And again he disappeared.
  13. Nothing daunted, I took would I could carry comfortably in a gallon pot, leaving the rest in the shop, and started for the house. And then I remembered Jasper. I looked in the south meadow, but he was n’t there. I looked at my watch. I could n’t expect Jasper to wait for me until a quarter to eleven.
  14. Woodchucks must take a siesta, for I never see them out in the middle of the day. Every morning, Jasper waits for me at the same spot in the meadow, eating from the same clump of clover. I get my shotgun, and creep out stealthily. Jasper sees me and hears me; but he pretends oblivion, redoubling his feeding in the clover as a screen for his benevolent deceit. I take careful aim and fire; Jasper scampers off clumsily, his fat sides shaking with woodchuckles as he runs. My little friend has had his morning exercise and a pleasant titillation in a monotonous existence; I have had my morning practice in marksmanship.
  15. The southwest wind had risen, worthy of an ode. Our flag, blown out straight, bent the slender pole with its eager life; and I became a human aerometer, estimating whether it was necessary to put up a smaller flag.
  16. On such a day as this, three years ago, a neighbor and myself made a pilgrimage to get the pole. Northward we went, past the bank where the dogtooth violets blow; past the twisted, invincible pasture-oak from whose antique root a spring gushes and is lost among moss-covered boulders; past the hermit’s hut in its overgrown clearing, rude, druidic, as unkempt as the hermit himself; and thence into the sweet woods of birch and beech, oak and maple, fit temple for a pagan service of natural piety.
  17. We carefully selected our tree, a juniper, straight and willowy as a lance; the bright axe bit into the trunk; and the tree settled elastically into the arms of its comrades, who seemed loath to lose it from their company. We indugled a few sentimental compunctions for cutting the tree down; but we reasoned that it was better to be a flag-pole, the admired of all the passers on the road, than to absorb the sunshine fruitlessly in murmurous obscurity. Circumstances had called this tree to a high destiny. From the painful blows of fate, it would emerge a pattern of erectitude, an object of use and beauty, self-centered in every wind that blew.
  18. On the shady side of the hermit’s clearing, we trimmed off the branches and peeled the bark; then we bore the pole home in triumph on our shoulders, a vibrant burden responsive to our steps. As we neared the house, we saw a sight at once uncanny and ludicrous: not a decapitated body, but a decorped head — the rubicund face of a neighbor, grinning at us from the level of the grass. In our absence, he had dug the hole, in which he stood neck-high, where our tree would take new root. He stood in a perfect cylinder that showed graphically the geologic strata of our country — top soil, loam, blue clay, and hardpan running down to China.
  19. At last, with the pole as white as paint could make it, with its golden vane flashing a heliographic message of the wind’s direction, everything was ready for the flag-raising. We summoned the friendly neighbors who had helped get the pole, or prepare the pole, or select the site of the pole, or place the pole. The colors were bent to the halyards, which were grasped by a holiday crowd of all ages and both sexes. The word of command was given by a whaling captain emeritus, old in years but young in enthusiasm. He pulled as sturdily as the rheumatism he had caught in the Okhotsk Sea would allow; we pulled with him; and our peace-flag rose and rippled in the sweet, salt breee, to a self conscious, Anglo-Saxon cheer.
  20. We have a set of colors almost as elaborate as a ship’s set — big flag for holidays, ordinary flag for ordinary days, little flag for big winds, littlest flag of all, a bright bit of color in the blackest storm, and an absence-flag to apprise itinerant burglars that we’re away from home. Who could guess that the arrow of our vane was whittled with a jack-knife, that the big ball was formerly the sport of ladies on a croquet ground, that the little ball, before its elevation, had flown fast and far on the links, that the brass rod performed aforetime the humble function of holding up a sash-curtain?
  21. Perhaps the flag-pole suggests to the passer-by that we keep a boarding house. If so, so much the better. The thought will mortify our city snobbishness, which has been mortified almost out of existence in a country where none is very rich, few are very poor, where a man can lose everything except his self-respect.
  22. I carried the pot of paint indoors; I went into the dressing-room with all the enthusiasm of a true amateur. At the first glance, I set the paint-pot on the floor and myself limply in a chair, with the sudden, sharp, hideous reaction of the artist who has failed.
  23. Through some inexplicable inadvertence, while enjoying the bobolinks, or watching my neighbor cultivate his corn, or listening to the laconic professional painter, I had made a mistake in mixing. I had blurred the color in my brain. The product of a morning’s work was over two gallons of paint having not even a common denominator of tone with the surface I wished to cover.
  24. The practical member had heard me come in, and she left her serious work. She came into the dressing-room, she looked at the paint, at the floor, and I looked back at her.
  25. ‘How perfectly,’ she remarked with an exquisite tact, ‘how perfectly you’ve matched the kitchen woodwork!’
  26. I looked through the doorway. She was right. I had matched the kitchen woodwork perfectly; and fortunately the kitchen woodwork needed painting as sadly as the floor of the dressing-room. I submit that for such a remark a man could learn to love his wife.
  27. In my relief and gratitude, I even forgave her when she slyly added, ‘Some time, when you feel like painting the floor of the dressing-room, you might try to match the kitchen woodwork.’
  28. The art of puttering consists of doing for yourself, slowly and inefficiently, what you can pay someone else to do for you, quickly and well. It is hard work that you do not have to do, strenuous loafing that invites the soul. It abrogates the curse of Adam, bringing back the Golden Age before the Fall, perpetuating the playtime of the race. The putterer works in pure love; and if the product is a poor thing, it is at least his own. He learns the great truth that the unknown quantities in the quation of life can be found only by a cumbersome method of trial and error. He steps out of his narrow professional track, and meets the world with a thousand fresh, humanizing contacts. To be a perfect putterer is to achieve a liberal education. Puttering is a tonic relaxation from the mechanical efficiency of our professional selves, a corrective of the extreme specialization that, otherwise, would result in our becoming all foot, or hand, or head.
  29. When we lived in the city, I did n’t know a cut nail from a screw, and I could n’t drive either. The other day, with infinite, delightful labor, I was able to construct a rectangular cold-frame, six feet wide at one end and seven feet wide at the other. To have a rectangle develop under one’s hands into a trapezium, is an experience beyond the most expert carpenter. The putterer makes laws and breaks laws, and breaks the laws he makes. He produces startling variations from type. An inspired fool, he is a true creator.
  30. As I put the paint I had mixed to match the dressing-room floor on the kitchen woodwork, I noticed that it did n’t act precisely like the paint that comes already mixed in cans. My paint showed unexpected streaks of scarlet, flecks of beryl, flakes of jade. These I worked in as well as I could with my brush of dog’s hair and devil’s wool.
  31. A few weeks afterward, when the paint had finally dried, I found that unwittingly I had made a great discovery. My painter-friend was right when he said that it ‘was n’t no color.’ It was no color because it was every color in the world. Iridescent, fluorescent, — no other kitchen was ever painted with a pigment bearing such a rainbow resemblance to favrile glass.
  32. I simply note my discovery for what it may be worth. The true putterer, like the true theoretic research scientist, cares nothing for practical results, for mere commercialism. If any Edison of the brush should chance to read these lines, I freely give him permission to carry further the experiments inaugurated so auspiciously by myself. I shall not grudge him any of the large supply of paint on hand.

27 March 2022