My Father Has Started a Painting

Voiceover for a film about a man in a garage

Jonathan Lethem
Human Parts
Published in
7 min readJan 19


A painter’s hand/photo by Mara Faye Lethem

“Painters love the winter, they hunker down and begin masterpieces.”

— William Parker, Painters Winter


I hold four or five memories of my life before Brooklyn, my life in Kansas City, where my parents lived until I was three. These are memories unreconstructed from photographs (there were few photographs taken) or accounts by others.

The one that has seemed certain to be the first — because it is a memory which inhabits a body that is crawling, while the others are those of a toddler up on his feet — involves my mother’s arms gently restraining me from behind, as I attempt to enter my father’s painting studio.

We lived on the campus of the Kansas City Art Institute, the college where my father taught, in a large stone building with fossils embedded in some of the wall’s stones. Being led to trace the fossils’ impression with my fingertips is another of the memories. The building has since been razed and replaced.

In the memory there are five or six steps to my father’s studio’s door. It feels attainable.

At other times I will be invited to enter. Photographs show this: a toddler standing propped on the studio’s wall, with a crayon in hand, scribbling beside the father painting. But this is a photograph, not a memory.

Not now. This is not the time. He needs to be alone now to paint.

Untitled, Richard Brown Lethem, circa 1958?/photo Jeremy Cole



In Brooklyn, for fifteen years or so, my coming of age partly involved a negotiation of my proximity from the scene of my father’s painting. My entry into that space was always charged. Not because he required imperial solitude — a requirement, in that family, in that house, in that city, in those years, that would have been met with an absurd, almost gleeful refusal by the oceans of reality that battered at his studio door — but because it meant so much for me to enter.

I painted and drew. In his studio beside him, and elsewhere. I sat for a portrait, five or six times, and sat watching as he painted my mother, my siblings, others. I stood before his canvases and spoke with him about the results, the impasses, the connections. I sat and read while he painted. Once, I snuck in and altered, on a canvas not yet dry, a few brushstrokes that bothered me. I sat in groups of artists including my father and drew from the nude models they’d hired to pose there. At one point I carved out a space to insist was my own creation, a tiny occupation within his studio: a shallow wooden box of gravel and soil in which I planted miniature cacti and created bonsai landscapes of stones, a strange harbinger of my own future desire for the desert.

Then I went away to college, and then I ran away from college to California. Around that same time my father’s studio moved to a building under the Manhattan Bridge that was eventually set on fire by its Mafia owners — a Brooklyn story — and for the next fifteen years, more, I was barely present for his life, or he for mine. My place in his studio was wholly glossed in memory.

“A Cup of Kindness,” Richard Brown Lethem, 2022/courtesy of the artist and Inman Gallery/photo Ian Byers-Gamber



I began to journey back home, and the home to which I’d begun to journey back was in Maine. His studio was a barn beside his ramshackle farmhouse. We recommenced what has begun when in my high school years, standing side by side in front of his paintings, discussing their progresses, frustrations, breakthroughs, and the successions of chapters in his method and style. I’d become witness to so many.

In the early middle of my life, and the late middle of his, I began writing about my father’s studio. I did this obliquely, even allegorically, in the manner of a fiction writer, with the predictable misleading results. After I depicted a man in a studio making a painted film, my father recalls being asked, “How is your film coming along?” He had of course never been making a film. I did this as directly as possible, in an essay that began I learned to think by watching my father paint. I wrote (somewhat glibly) of joining the groups drawing from the nude models. I added my voice to two or three exhibition catalogs. I was at the openings of his exhibitions again now, as I had been (involuntarily) as a child. Too many to remember exactly: in Maine, in New Hampshire, in Manhattan.

I believe it took my father a year or two not to feel disappointment at my own diversion from the medium of painting to the medium of writing. It took him a while to recognize my writing as a continuation, not an interruption — to understand it as a part of my life that was enclosed in the influence of his practice, as it so obviously was to me. But that time quickly passed. Our conversation standing in front of his paintings (or not standing in front of his paintings) began to include discussions of my own process, my own relation to form, my own aspirations to make things I’d not yet figured out how to make. Some of my most crucial writing depending on answers to questions he’d supply, regarding the life we’d known in Brooklyn, its earliest undercurrents. This remains the case in the most recent work I’ve done, a novel that will appear later this year.

I have entered his studio, but he has also entered mine.

Selfie on treadmill desk in my father’s studio



In my father’s eighty-eighth year of life, his seventh decade of painting, the story took a turn. In the unvaccinated early months of the Covid years, I drove my father and a few of his belongings from Maine to California. His studio life was collected, necessarily, into my care.

To be clear, collected into a garage. A fortunate garage, one placed deep back from the street, in my vine and vegetable and weed-choked backyard, and already cleared and appointed with clean white walls and bright lights. The garage door more or less permanently open to the micro-seasons of the Inland Empire, that hinge we occupy, between ocean and desert. He resumed painting there within weeks, if not days. He remained, remains, a painter who paints. The dailiness of his practice, habituation, addiction, however one might wish to understand it, is almost unfathomable unless glimpsed up close.

Checking the progress in his studio was now as easy as falling out of bed, or specifically strolling from the breakfast table into the backyard. I could do it in robe and slippers, with my morning coffee. After forty-eight years apart, my attention and his studio had been restored to a domestic partnership.

More, still. In deep quarantine mode I’d also shifted my walking desk from my campus office to the same garage, to relieve pressure on the number of remote students and teachers inside the house itself (there were four of us) and to resume my preferred mode of writing-as-daily-trip-to-nowhere. I’m no runner, neither of sprints nor marathons, but when I’m lucky I’m a diligent walker. Some mornings I woke earlier — I wake early, these days — and trudged and moved sentences around out in the garage in the company of his paintings in progress, for hours before he’d appear and begin advancing his own causes. Other days I’d absent-mindedly turn the corner from the house to the garage with my coffee cup balanced on my laptop, thinking I’d be working alone, and find him there stepping back from a canvas to consider the freshest marks he’d made there, and strategize the next.

More than a few times, we simply worked together.

He was almost always happy to find me already there, or to see me appear. Solitude, these days, so often feels boundless. Art, the-companion-of-no-companion, an empty fullness.

Once in a while, though, I’d round that corner and understand that he needed the garage to himself. It happened just the other day. I heard him say, “I’m just getting something going here.” I knew the implication, easily, since it called back to that other studio into whose precious solitude I’d sometimes intruded, on the fourth floor of the brownstone in Brooklyn in that impossible family in that impossible city in that impossible time, so unimaginable from the becalmed Inland Empire, lately cloistered in Covid silence. It called back even to my mother’s hands adjusting my crawling body backward on the stair and reaching past me to seal his studio door. Yet the favor of my retreat, now, is nothing I can’t easily bestow. The weight of longing is gone. This is just part and parcel of living with the old man.



Jonathan Lethem
Human Parts