In 1984, I was 8 years old in Sydney Littenberg’s oil painting class at the Culver City Teen Center. We stunk up the poorly ventilated basement with elixirs of turpentine, linseed oil and the thick fragrance of the original Mr. Clean. The hairy, sweaty, grunting men aspiring to be Lou Ferrigno in the weight room next door to our classroom never complained.
In this day and age, the toxic fumes and proximity of half-naked testosterone engines to little children in a confined space would never fly, but in those days we reveled in the oddity of it all. To drown out the grunts, we turned up the volume on “Born in the USA” and “Dancing in the Dark” by Sydney’s favorite vocalist, Bruce Springsteen.
In between lessons in mixing, blending and brush stokes, Sydney would share stories about living in her artist loft in Downtown LA above Skid Row. The magical mystery of the oils, the connection with creation swirled with the carpentry of wooden stretcher bars that she made for income and stories of homeless people hiding in her fire escape.
On her last day, she walked me out to her car, held my shoulders and looked me in the eye and said, “Promise me you’ll keep painting. Don’t stop no matter what they may say.” I was eleven. I still miss her.
One thing that continues to ring true is the beauty of brush cleaning with Mr. Clean. I’ve tried the fancy stuff, I’ve tried dish soap and shampoo, but 35 years later, Mr. Clean is still the best for cleaning brushes.