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From a very young age it was not uncommon to find me with my head buried in a coloring book surrounded by crayons. As I got older, I traded my coloring books and crayons for sketchpads, canvas, colored pencils, pastels, paints and an assortment of other mediums. Art was something I loved and, in many ways, it acted as a kind of therapy — it calmed me at the end of a crazy school day.
In high school the majority of my classes were art classes; there was no place I’d rather be. To be honest, without trying to sound full of myself, it was the one class that I found to be an easy A, even when I turned in work that was unfinished. I will not get into how much that irritated some of my classmates — who struggled or really had to work at it. For me, art was always something that just came naturally and I took pride in it.
As a kid, I was painfully shy. I was the girl who sat in the back of the class and didn’t speak unless spoken to. I hated attention of any kind and avoided it at all costs, except when it came to my artwork. It was a funny thing; I enjoyed the attention my work got from my classmates while I quietly hid behind it.
My weekends usually consisted of sitting around the dining room table listening to music and drawing with my brother, sister, cousins and my Uncle Joe. We’d sit there with comic books open, redrawing the pictures inside two to three times larger than they were. All of us could draw but I really looked up to my uncle. I was always amazed by his drawings, shading and use of color. I wanted so badly to be able to draw like him, and I remember him telling me, “You keep at it and when you’re my age you’ll be better at this than me…”
I had a hard time believing that.
But when I was younger, I never really put much thought into how many people in my family could draw. I was told many stories of my grandfather’s younger brother who was an artist in Texas, well-known for his oil paintings of the Wild West. I also heard tales about my great grandfather Dennis Hughes, a commercial artist in Boston who had been offered a job to work for Disney (however he turned the job down when he decided a talking mouse was ridiculous and would never catch on).
Then there is my grandfather Robert Hughes, Dennis’ son, who has always been known in my family as an artist and builder. Although my grandfather was involved in several projects in and around Boston, one of his biggest career achievements came with his involvement in Alexander Calder’s 1976 Untitled mobile that hangs in the east building of the National Art Gallery in Washington D.C.
Originally the mobile was to be built in Paris out of steel, but the plans changed when they realized Calder’s design would be too heavy. Instead it would be made of aluminum and titanium with my grandfather hired to lead in the building of Calder’s project. Today a picture of the 76-foot long, 920-pound mobile hangs in my grandparents house, along with a small picture of my grandfather shaking hands with Alexander Calder and Paul Matisse, Grandson of artist Henri Matisse, also involved in the project.
It wasn’t until I began researching my family that the list of family artists and their stories continued to grow. When I asked my grandparents questions I was surprised to find out that my great-grandfather Percy Leslie was also talented in art. As a young child living in Nova Scotia, the local women would ask him to draw designs on burlap bags that they would then follow to make a latch hook rug.
As Percy aged, his wife and children also saw his talent and encouraged him to pursue it. He eventually contacted an art school that sent him an image to redraw freehand; he then mailed in his work to be graded. When Percy finally received a response from the school he was surprised to see that he failed the test. Apparently he had done so well, they accused him of tracing. This is an accusation many of the artists in my family have experienced over the years — even myself. However, unlike my great grandfather, I have learned to take it as a compliment.
My love of genealogy continued to grow along with the list of artists in my family, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this talent was something that could be passed on through generations.
After all, I found many of my friends who had a natural understanding or talent in art, music, athletics, mathematics, and so on shared a similar experience. They came from a family that shared the same strengths and while their peers struggled to succeed in a particular subject, they would excel with little or no effort. For some reason, it just clicked.
I suppose some could argue that these talents could have been created by the environment the person was raised in. Yet I still can’t help but wonder if there is more to it — maybe something even genetic?
Regardless, I enjoy knowing that I possess a talent in art shared with so many of my family members and ancestors. I also look forward to the day I have children, to see if it’s a skill that will also develop in them.
By Kris Williams