BY MARIA J. BURGOS
The first day I met Nat Perry she was sitting on the floor putting paint on a canvas. It was the annual Art Battle, where artists from New Brunswick come to Fredericton to compete. A crowd milled around her. I was taking photographs. But for Nat, it was as if no one else was there. Just her with her weapons of mass creation—canvas, paint brushes, acrylics, water, ink and strangely so—string.
She moved her arms with elegance, creating green and blue blotches of colour and playing with the string. She dipped it into the ink and made it kiss the canvas from time to time. This created dark lines and scattered tiny drops of ink that seemed to—somehow—fall into place on the canvas. They contrasted beautifully with the soft colours. It was the kind of abstract art where you can tell the artist’s improvising on the spot, creating images not only on the canvas but also in their heads, as they go.
It wasn’t until I checked my camera to see if the pictures were coming all right that I noticed something missing.
Her left hand.
* * *
“I was just born this way. I call it my stub… it’s my stub hand,” Perry said.
When she was younger, kids would come up to her to ask if they could see her hand. But they would run away after she showed it. “At times I just wished, like many people, I just wished that I was like everybody else. Like I would stick my hand in my pocket sometimes,” she said.
But what really set her apart from the rest was her ability to create art. Perry has been painting since she was able to hold a brush. Her father, also an artist, introduced her to Picasso. Since then, she knew this was what she wanted to become.
Her early paintings were realistic. She made portraits, she painted houses, she made sketches before every painting—perfectly measuring where and how everything would line up. It all had to fit in. It had to be perfect.
But even in perfection, she came to find mistakes.
After some time, her work became a stressful obsession for her.
“I was constantly trying to be what I thought an artist was. I thought an artist needed to be drinking and doing drugs or staying up late and not caring about anything. Just being against the status quo all the time. But I wasn’t creating, I was just tearing myself apart. My mind got too noisy… so I stopped,” she said.
This break up lasted five years. But after this, when she was 30 years old, it came back to her.
Reading Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way was the first step she took before returning to art.
According to Perry, this book is about reclaiming a person’s creativity. One of the exercises in the book was to reconnect with art projects the artists enjoyed as children.
“One of my favorite art assignments I ever had was in grade four. We would dip a string in ink and put it on a piece of paper and then add some color to it. My little perfectionist self couldn’t really know how to do this assignment perfectly. It was like, how am I supposed to make this line perfect if it’s not supposed to be perfect because it is abstract?”
So she went back to this technique. And this time, art freed her.
“For the first time I felt like I wasn’t trying to do something so perfectly and so amazingly. I just felt like I was enjoying painting. Finally, art had become a place where I could retreat to,” said Perry.
Even when crowds walked around her, like during Art Battle, she stayed on that far away land where only her art tools could join her.
The day I met Nat Perry, she won Fredericton’s Art Battle.
* * *
Even though Perry has a part of her body that is different from the rest, it has a lot of movement. She uses her “little hand” as she likes to call it while doing her art.
“It feels really balanced to be able to use both hands. I feel more connected to myself somehow. My left hand can’t perform precision tasks necessarily like my right hand. So it’s about letting my left hand have some fun. It’s like, ‘the ink went over there? that’s okay, it’s gonna be fine’.”