The Last Painting
By Tom Kelly
It was in 1976 that I met George at least from what I can remember. Working as a life underwriter at Lincoln Life Insurance I decided to take an art class in the evening. Specifically I chose oil painting taught by George McCullough. Even though I received a “C” in the class, I enjoyed it so much I returned a number of times taking the same class with the same teacher, George.
George loved to paint “Plein Air”, out in the open. With gray hair and long eyebrows, he was the Zen of painting, a master of color with an acute ability to use color’s different intensities so wonderfully. I joined him regularly. We became friends. He would tell me “T’s a matter of color, Tom”. We would search different sites to paint and often times would bring a picnic. His wife, Sue, as well as other painters would also join us for our group paint outs.
One time on the way to enter paintings into the Elkhart Art Show, George saw a hill in the distance and told me to stop. He said it was the perfect place to paint. We pulled in and George jumped out of his truck and walked briskly to the front door of the farm house and asked if it was OK to go to the top of the hill to paint. The two occupants, in their 90’s I think their names were the Wilsons told him sure drive the truck on up to the top of the hill. But one condition was that they wanted to see the paintings after we were finished.
Once set up and painting away on top of the hill, farmer Wilson decided to let the cows out. The group of 100 or so curious cows slowly worked their way up the hill and before long we were surrounded by huge cows and their young bulls. I remember painting while a cow stood one foot away staring at me. When we stood up from our seats, the young studs would run and head butt our chairs. We would have to chase them away and recover the now bent up aluminum and plastic..
Some people would get upset and let it ruin a beautiful day but not George. He embraced the moment. As the cattle settled around us lying on the grass, George quickly grabbed another canvas and painted a beautiful little painting of a cow resting beside him.
Later as we sipped tea and conversed with the farmers, we laughed and talked enjoying the end of a pleasant afternoon. The cattle painting was one of many moments I had with George painting our in the open air.
In 1977 I quit work at LNL and after traveling by myself around America I started working for the family business in June. Sometime after I started at Kelly Box, we hired a 20 year old shy blond beautiful student from Saint Francis College. Her name was Debra Rene Hatfield. In 1983 she would change her name to Debra Hatfield Kelly because we fell in love and married on October 1st 1983.
Debra’s grandfather on her mother’s side was named Howard Adams who owned and operated a farm at CountyLline and Highway One. It was called the Adam’s Farm. During the period while I dated Deb, George and I decided to do a painting on the farm. The first painting I did was large and won entry into the prestigious Tri Kappa show that year.
Going to the Adam’s farm to paint became an annual fall event and sometimes in the winter or summer too. But September or October was our favorite time and we would make sure to set a date. I would always bring the Hot Dogs and George the buns. My brother Matt would join us and become part of the tradition. Sometimes the group was small and sometimes large with a number of painters standing in the open fields. George would ask. “Was it corn in the fields? Or those beautiful beans that you had to catch at just the right time?” It really didn’t matter. We would build a fire and spend the day. Over the years the children grew up and joined the paint out. They looked forward to the hiking and cooking hot dogs over the fire running to the railroad tracks with the first sound of the train whistle far in the distance.
I did close to 50 paintings at the “Adam’s Farm”. Some better then others but I do not remember ever having a bad time. We may have missed a year or two in the 25 or so years we painted together but I don’t think so.
In 2004 George was in the final stage of prostate cancer that had spread to his bones and other organs. He tried chemo once and said heck with that. The doctors said he would not live long without chemo, maybe 3 to 6 months. When I visited him after his one and only chemo which he said about killed him, the Hospice person was at their house asking a list of silly questions. George who was lying on the couch barely able to lift his head and weighing close to 100 pounds just nodded his head to the question. When the interviewer came to one question I remember George perking up. The question, whether his situation bothered him in any way, was ridiculous I thought. George struggled and sat up saying “yes”. The Hospice interviewer quickly got his pen ready to write and ask what was specifically bothering him. George replied that he was unable to do what he liked to do…. and what he liked to do was paint. He then lay back down and did not utter another word until after the Hospice person left.
George stopped chemo and continued to paint when he was not too tired. Later when he started to feel better he set up and started a painting of his Hospice visitor. Working for short periods at every visit, he finished a wonderful portrait and sold it to the friendly volunteer for a bag of fish. George never missed an opportunity to paint.
In the summer of 2005 I remember calling George to see if he had the strength to paint. I was going to Lakeside Park and would pick him up. To my surprise he said yes. We sat out on a beautiful August day, the last time just the two of us painted together. We talked, but George was in a lot pain. I remember George criticized that I changed my painting and lost the original strength. I tried to get him to explain but he said “you just changed it, can’t explain it”. During the paint out I had to massage George’s neck because he could not move it. It was not easy watching him die.
In early October of 2005 my brother and I planned another fall Adam’s farm outing. We called George and he agreed to come. He felt a little better. Matt picked him up. He wore a straw hat and a scarf but was very thin and only worked in water colors now because oils tired him too much. He sat in his chair and did a painting. We built a fire and cooked our hot dogs. Along with Matt, our wives and children came out too. We brought the Go Kart and the kids took turns riding around the farm while we painted and talked.
George didn’t say much. He sat and enjoyed the day and of course painted. Soon he tired and requested to return to his home. We put out the fire loaded everything up and left capturing that day on video.
I had to go out of town that week and when I returned I learned that George had taken a turn for the worse and was at home in a coma. While I was gone my brother Matt had visited and George showed him the Adam’s Farm painting that he did the past weekend. The painting included everyone that was there that day. He asked Matt whether he missed anyone because he had taken a pencil and wrote each of their names on the painting next to their representation. Matt looked at it and said everyone was in the painting except for his daughter, Sarah. George was upset but Matt said that it was Okay. That night George fell out of bed and slipped into a coma. This watercolor was one of his last paintings he produced.
I visited George every day while he laid in his living room in the Hospice bed. Later I would do a painting of the image of Sue standing over him. One of the quilts that Sue made was covering George keeping him warm. On Saturday October 15th, my mother’s birthday, and about a week after George had slipped into a coma I visited early. He was not good. He was having trouble breathing and was fading fast. I sat next to him for hours watching his breath fade away.
Bill Quance was there along with Ray Collins both old friends of George and Sue. While I sat on the couch waiting for the inevitable, Bill came in and we talked about some small sculptures that George had made. Bill said they were wonderful. George had climbed up on the roof and put them around the top of the chimney. I told Bill I had never seen them before. So the four of us headed outside at about 3:00 in the afternoon and looked up at the tiny sculptures with admiration. Sue went back in and we stood in sun feeling the warm breeze for a little while before joining her. When I entered the room I noticed that George was not breathing anymore. I think George wanted to die alone or with just Sue there. I told Sue and she got up, kissed him, stroked his head while tears filled her eyes. I followed and kissed him on the forehead telling him I loved him and would miss him. Bill and Ray followed. Sue called the funeral home. Within minutes they were there, confirmed the death and took George away to be cremated. There were no services according to Georges wishes.
A few days later I visited Sue and she gave me the last painting he did on the Adam’s farm. We looked at it and noticed that he had added Sarah to the painting before he collapsed. The painting is now framed and in our house. There is no amount of money that could take it away from me. I look at it often remembering the “Adams Farm” paint and cookouts. I’ve never been back to the farm for a painting. I guess it is just too hard and not the same anymore.