In the studio, when I was small

I still remember when my father painted at home because he couldn’t afford an extra studio. At that time - it was before I entered school - we lived in Czeminskistrasse in a large flat on the third floor. The building was dilapidated, we could not use the balcony because it was on the verge of collapse. The facade was pitted with bullet holes and had not been repainted after the war.

My father’s studio adjoined the bedroom, but could also be entered through a small door to the left of the front door. This door was hardly ever used, however, blocked as it was by a barricade of wooden frames, rolls of paper and cardboard tubes. When I joined my father in his studio, I often found him standing a few steps away from the easel, slightly squinting at a painting to examine it more closely. If I spoke to him at such moments he did not react. He was studying the painting so intensely that he didn’t even hear me.

When my parents went out evenings I waited a while, and then crept into the studio. I never turned on the lights, a street lantern outside the window provided a little light, and I examined the confused mess of paint pots, tubes, spray cans, brushes, powdered pigment, empty egg cartons, etching plates, newspaper clippings and canvas stretchers. There were found objects wrapped in wire next to which lay constructions of wood, plaster and hide. Several unfinished paintings, and finished ones, too, leaned against the walls. My father never worked on a single painting at a time, but always on several, moving from one to the other. After standing a while in the dark room I discerned details in the paintings. I particularly recall a swimming pool. It was a large tank that covered almost half of the canvas. A kind of bungalow stood behind it. The pool was filled to the brim: Divers, who hid their faces behind gas masks, living Gartenzwerge*, aging pin-up-girls, deformed babies and mice baring their fangs.

I examined the picture again and again and was afraid to turn away. I feared the figures would come off the canvas and chase me. The anxiety remained with me long after I had returned to my bed, and also the uncertain feeling that the world of my father’s studio could wash into my room like a wave, I was nevertheless regularly drawn back to it. Pornographic photos, especially the genitals of a certain “Long John Silver” terrified me so that I cut all the corners off of my pillows. I hoped thus to keep away the forms my father had created. Even then, I still didn’t feel completely safe. Were those tourists, with the grey-blue goggles placed on their heads like steel helmets from the war, lurking in the hall, perhaps lying in wait for me behind the curtain? When it was very quiet I thought I could hear them breathing. I held my breath. When I crept past, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe they could jump on me from behind or would injure me with their pointed weapons.

I had problems with his profession in those days. When asked at school about my father’s profession, and I answered that he was an artist, I noticed that most of the children couldn’t imagine what that was.

My girl friends said that I was lucky that my father could work at home. They didn’t understand that he was just as inaccessible to me there, and had just as little time for me as their fathers had, who worked in offices or factories. When they visited me at home they glanced shyly at the pictures, at the grimacing, distorted faces, the bald heads and the deformed bodies. Then they wanted to know why he didn’t paint pretty things, like flowers, for example.

Sometimes I really had enough of living differently than the other children. Then I yearned for a father who left the house in the morning and came home in the evening, who ate with my mother and me, instead of painting until late at night. I could call him “Papa” or “Daddy” and not address him by his first name.

When we went on vacation, my father never took along his camera to shoot the obligatory family photos - although he did do that sometimes - but was more likely to go looking for motifs: winged creatures of stone, grotesque waterspouts or uprooted trees.

When my father hung a swing from the hall ceiling for me, when we decorated a pine together on December 24th, when my parents let me roller-skate around the apartment, when we arrived at the sea and my father and I produced a castle together with drops of wet, muddy sand, or when we constructed an awning of cloths stretched between the rocks, under which he withdrew, after he had been in the water, to draw; then I was glad he was different than the other fathers.

Nina Petrick

*Garden dwarf = a small lawn figure in the form of a fairy tale character.