The Design Of Spring

The Design Of Spring

YES, IT’S BEGINNING TO FEEL LIKE SPRING TIME. I’m sure East coasters would scoff at this southern Californian point of view. To them we must be living in an endless summer, while they have been and still are, bracing themselves for one of the meanest, coldest, and snow laden winters in memory.  But short of our usual rainy month, (which this year has been a “no show”), trees are beginning to green out, wisteria blossoms are beginning to dangle from their arbors, and the sweet smell of the earth’s eternal attempts to bloom again are filling our nostrils once more.

by Tom Callaway

Unfortunately I am so allergic to all things growing or odoriferous, including trees, flowers, grasses, perfumes, face creams, and almost every four legged animal, that I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself allergic to some of the two legged versions as well, especially when doused in perfume or cologne when I’m stuck in a taxi or elevator interior with their aromatic selves. Then my eyes begin to swell shut, my under eye skin droops into large, welt-like pouches, and my chest presses down to make every breath a gasp, and every body movement an unforgiving ache. So I medicate thoroughly most every day, year round, but with spring in the air, (forget about it)… I’m a walking drug store.

Tom Callaway Spring

Photos by Tom Callaway, depicting the landscape he designed at his Brentwood home.

In spite of these personal issues, the notion of spring on its way is happily sparking my thoughts of rebirth and new beginnings. It’s as if we have a button to push to give us a jolt of inspiration to the instincts, talents, and interests that each of us, in our own way, seem to be born with (not learned or acquired), flowing right there in our blood stream from our first breath. I’m, particularly thinking of creativity…artistic creativity, which at first glance, seems to me to be something you either HAVE OR HAVE NOT.  I’m suggesting that creativity is less learned behavior, but rather a part of our innate instincts and abilities.  This opinion is not studied scientific fact, but just my personal observations, or sense of things. It may not be scientific, certainly not a clinical trial, but thinking back to my earliest memories, I can’t recall an instant when drawing, painting, colors, shapes, stories, music, or attractive images and the clear sense of pretty or beautiful were not at the forefront of my mind.  It may have only been finger painting, or playing Mr. Potato head, but making images, organizing forms and colors on a sheet of paper, or caring about the appearance of virtually everything was always foremost in my consciousness.

When I wasn’t drawing or coloring, as soon as I could talk I was giving my verbal opinion about damn near everything visual.  My inner, imaginary life, knew no bounds, and perhaps due to being an only child for ten years, I was acting out entire pageants with my imaginary characters, both friendly and frightening.

I memorized my childhood storybooks by the images on the page in relation to the text, as it was read to me. When some kindly elder would be reading aloud to me, I would correct them if they left out a single word, or changed a phrase from what was actually printed on the page. Therefore, before I could read a single word, my little neighbor friends were shocked to think I could read before we even got to kindergarten.

With both of my parents working all day and many nights, I spent a huge amount of time at my grandparent’s home surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins. This made the time spent with my Mother all the more meaningful, and as a result, we became extraordinarily close. To this day we share an extraordinary bond that speaks volumes about my interests and talents. Not because of all she taught me or shared with me, but more for the support she showed for my visual and artistic proclivity, even without her understanding of how I could show these interests at such a young age.

After World War II, a couple years after my father returned from over seas, I eventually came into the world.  My mother stopped working for almost two years when I was three, but when I was about five, we moved to a larger house where mother took in custom orders for dressmaking and alterations in our home.  She also continued to make every piece of her own wardrobe.  It was in this environment that my own visual sensibilities and point of view began to make themselves known.  At the ridiculous age of five and six I was already critiquing my mother’s clothing projects, sitting at our kitchen table looking through my mom’s pattern books, and choosing the styles and outfits I preferred for her personal wardrobe.  I also pronounced what skirt length was appropriate for her, and helped choose her shoes on shopping trips together to Miller’s Shoe Store on College Avenue, the main drag.

Some of Mom’s wealthier clientele would bring in gowns and party dresses purchased in larger cities, like Green Bay or Milwaukee, for her to fit and do alterations. One such back sequined dress had long sleeves of black chiffon that ended at the wrist in white satin cuffs.  I took one look at the cuffs, and at age five, told my mother that the hideous cuffs had to go.  After she patiently explained that the dress did not belong to her, that she was altering for an important client, and it was not our concern whether we liked the dress with or without cuffs, Mom completed her work on it and hung it up on a rack near her sewing machine.


Later that afternoon, while she was cooking dinner, I slipped down the stairs to her basement workroom, lifted the plastic cover, and with one of my mother’s nearby pinking shears, lopped off the satin cuffs to my desired effect. I then zipped up the plastic clothing bag over the dress and hung it back up on the rack.  I headed upstairs to dinner without saying a word about my added alteration. The next morning, when Mom returned to finish her project by attaching sparkly rhinestone buttons to the infamous cuffs before her client’s arrival for pick up, I heard her scream my name, and flying up the stairs and grabbing me by the ear, she demanded an explanation for the ruined sleeves! At five years old, I snapped back at her “since she didn’t have the good sense and good taste to cut off those stupid cuffs, I did”!

I was spanked within an inch of my life, and with tears streaming and my rear end burning, I watched my mother, tearing her hair out, trying to repair (in mere minutes) the infamous gown. Only her resourcefulness and talent saved my skin.  The client arrived, the re-cuffing not noticed, and the entire affair was never mentioned again. I now look back to this vivid memory as one of my clearest recollections of an early step forward on my meandering path toward a life in the arts, specifically, a life in design.


But what is my point in this long anecdote of my impetuous guerilla tactics to an innocent evening dress?  In a way, I like to think that my need for acting out as a young kid to express my visual point of view was part of my DNA, no differently than a flower needs to push up from the earth each spring and open it’s bloom to the sun. That my intense desire to have the largest Crayola Box so I could have all the colors at my disposal was more than a spoiled kid wanting the big one, but instead, the seed of an artistic person wanting the full range of the color spectrum to make his colorful images come to life.  I think my need to tell my mother her proper skirt length, or what pair of shoes looked best on her was as unlearned an event as my heart beating of its own accord, or my wanting to eat when I felt hungry.

I’m not suggesting that one’s innate abilities, i.e., whether one is good at design, or the ability to act or sing, or to be a whiz at math, or to be a natural athlete are enough to stick with from what we have from the outset.  Rather that these natural talents are to be cherished, worked on, studied, and expanded over the length of one’s life to be more than just an instinct.  These are gifts to be valued, explored, and expanded through every means possible, and with this exploration not viewed as a chore.  These are tasks we do because we cannot help but do them. They give us the endless pleasure of learning more and doing more with what came as part of our birthright… our individual gifts.  I’m hoping these sunny days, blue skies, and scented breezes will push each of our buttons to do more of what comes to us naturally, but with a renewed vigor. So Happy Spring everybody!  Go do your thing! I know I’ll be taking a new stab at mine. But first, here goes another antihistamine, down the hatch.

Tom Callaway

About the author: Tom Callaway is an interior designer and architect, living in Brentwood.

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