This is a painting by my father, José García Lora, painted eleven years into his life-long exile from Spain, due to the Spanish Civil War. My father died in 1989, and it is one of the most precious objects I own. My mother gave it to me for the Barcelona in a Bag project back in 2013. It formed part of my residency – from which the entire project evolved – in our studios project space, Filament 14.
And then it vanished.
Distraught that I had somehow thrown it out in one of my studio clear-outs, I failed to find it. No matter how many boxes I looked in or how deeply I poked about in the corners of the studio rafters, I just couldn’t locate it.
Cursing my absent-mindedness, I believed the worst of myself. I had thrown dad’s (only?) painting away. But I said nothing. Too ashamed in part, yet ever hopeful that I surely could not have been so very, very foolish, and that some day it would return.
Dreadful pangs of grief and anxiety pierced me each time I saw this photograph in my iPhoto library. But at least I have the photograph I would sigh, trying to console myself.
It must have gone missing in about 2014, and slowly it faded from my daily conscience and remained in the margins of consciousness to rebuke me only on occasion. In those horrible moments I was a careless child again, and should never have been trusted with something so precious.
Periodically I searched for it, but over the two years of it’s absence I imagined that ghastly bin bag it must have slipped into by mistake. You know the scene. The pile for throw away and the pile for keeping must have got muddled in my brain. I played it over and over in my mind.
But today, of all days it came back to me. Today of the flat tyre and the hopeless delays to getting to the studios, became THE day. It became the day the painting came home. And it did so in the most unexpected way.
My studio mate has decided to vacate her space for a few months and I’m taking it on. The timing has been perfect for both of us – she needs to take some time out, and I need to stretch out. The deal was done quite quickly, and during this morning of my endless delay in getting there she had moved out, leaving a table, a chair and two boxes.
The table we had discussed. The chair was a nice bonus – I’ve doubled my studio size and I like the idea of two chairs rather than having to move one chair about all the time.
The boxes, I told myself were hers. Though funny that they looked quite like some I have. Funny to leave just two…
My mind took in the scene and I very quickly decided to put aside my painting session and begin sorting. This I happily did for a while – it’s beautiful space – and there is almost nothing I enjoy more.
But the boxes caught my eye again. I’ll send an email I thought. Perhaps she has forgotten them!
I carried on. For several hours. I can sort for England if the motivation is right.
My sorting brought me closer to the boxes. Hmm…what if I move them out from under the table, I thought? That will make it easier for her to find them when she comes to collect them, and I can start stowing my stuff in their place.
On pulling them towards me, a thought suddenly struck. I better open the lid to check what’s inside. Perhaps she doesn’t have space at home and I can stow them somewhere in the rafters for her, but I didn’t want to go lifting them up a ladder if there were breakables inside!
And that was it. THAT was the moment I saw my father’s painting again, and in a blinding flash discovered that the boxes were mine. Old works from 2012, some collage materials, and dad’s painting safely stowed on the top!
I had not after all been careless with his memory. I hadn’t tossed away a most precious object in a family legacy I’ve pledged myself to these past three years. There was no black bin bag. There was no mistake. I DIDN’T TAKE DAD’S PAINTING TO THE TIP!
Instead it had lain in a cosy cardboard box in my studio mate’s corner space. And now I remember. I was short of storage space and she so very kindly offered to stow these two boxes away for me. Its the kind of gesture we’ve made for each other over the two years we’ve shared this space, and I so appreciate her for it.
But the thought remains. Because my memory is poor, and my boxes are never labelled I DID mislay the painting. I really should have kept tabs…
But honestly, words really can’t describe my joy.
I love this painting so much, and can now again study each brushstroke, marvelling that my dad took so much care. To me it reads as well as any letter. I feel I can read his thought processes, and trace his decisions. I think I understand the tone. It brings him closer to me in the way handwriting also does.
It was made so long before I was born, coming from a part of his life I can only get glimpses of through family photos of the period.
Mum thinks the scene is invented but she doesn’t remember too well.
I like to feel it relates to the joy of holiday reunions with his parents – who had different luck and returned to Spain. The family was forever split in two, but reunited countless times after the long separation of 1939-1947 (which marked them all for life). They used to meet in France, just over the border from Spain, in the years before my father was able to visit Spain.
But this object also brings me sharply into the present. I think about the objects today’s refugees hold dear, and the stories of survival and loss, of their most precious possessions.
I feel more and more the living truth that the intimate objects in our lives come to take on signifanct aspects of human identity, and have the capacity to contain a world of condensed meaning.
I know objects are not life and death, but for me this observation makes the refugee crisis all the sharper.