My grandpa didn’t teach me anything about art.

He was a farmer. Part of a fraternity of Carhartt clad men who made their living raising corn, soybeans and wheat in the fertile soils of the Mississippi River valley. The kind of man that recycled nails and screws in old Folgers cans in their machine sheds. The kind of man that fished farm ponds with Zebco combo reels and red and white bobbers baited with grasshoppers caught by hand or earthworms dug out from underneath a wet hay bale. The kind of man that helped shape a culture and community we know as rural America.

Married for 59 years, he and my grandma (Sharmi, as the grandkids call her) not only raised row crops, but also a family. Their three children, one of whom was my dad, multiplied into a large family of grandkids and great-grandkids. My grandpa was known by all of us as “Papa.” If there was one thing he loved more than being a farmer, it was being a grandpa. He took us fishing. He took us hunting. He took us to the cattle sale (even letting us raise the bid card for him). He let us ride horses and sit on top of a tame cow we creatively nicknamed “Tamey.” He and Sharmi never missed a home sporting event that one of their eight grandkids was playing in.

Because he was so present in our lives (and also because the whole family lived within a few miles of each other) we have endless memories with Papa. My brother remembers cutting down a den tree, just to see if there might be a ‘coon in it. Turns out, there were three. I remember him always having a bag of Kit Kat or Snickers in his truck during deer season. He had one of those old-school woven seat covers over the bench seat. I’ll never forget crawling up into the cab between deer drives, looking for the chocolate that was always waiting in the middle of that scratchy, dusty seat cover.

That old seat cover saw many years of work on the farm. And those years of hard work taught his grandchildren lots of life lessons. Around the time I turned 30, I finally started to realize just how much we learned being raised in the country, and how much men like Papa taught us. 

Papa taught us patience and perseverance. On a farm, there’s going to be droughts. You’re going to lose calves. There’s lean years, low prices and unexpected illness. But there’s also good years, perfectly timed rains, high yields and the satisfaction of watching a sunset over tasseling corn from your pack porch. The seasons come and go, and you’ve got to ride them out. Papa taught us the importance of family. He and Sharmi sat in the same seats at half court of our small-town gym for every home basketball game. He let us grandkids tag along in all aspects of working and playing on the farm. Their home is wall to wall pictures of his kids and grandkids to this day. Papa taught us to respect your neighbor. I literally never heard anyone say a bad thing about him. And for that matter, I never heard him say a bad word about anyone else. When your roots run deep in a small town, sooner or later you’re going to need that neighbor for a favor. That bridge you burnt may be the one that you needed to reach your new back forty. Papa taught us how to work. Farmers don’t get credit for this, but they’re the ultimate self-employed small business. They wake up every day with the opportunity and responsibility to make choices that affect their family and their livelihood. You don’t work, you don’t eat. Reaping and sowing is literally the foundation of what they do. This may be the most important lesson I’ve learned from my family. Nobody is going to plant your corn for you, and nobody is going to paint my canvas for me. You’ve got to put in your time, invest in your craft and never lose sight of what’s most important.

My grandpa didn’t teach me anything about art. But he taught me everything about how to be an artist.

We'll miss you, Papa.

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