Caitlyn Mullen’s small face lights up as she looks at her painting. “We have purple flowers and we have orange flowers,” she says, as she begins to describe her creation. “And I painted purple and I painted red and I painted different kinds of flowers. I painted our heads and ears and flowers and happy faces and noses and white and green and all sorts of stuff and decorations on our dresses,” she puffs out in a long sentence, then slaps her hands against her knees.
The four-year-old’s blond pigtails are tousled after a morning at school followed by lunch at a restaurant. Dressed in a red sweater over a yellow t-shirt, black and white striped leggings and pink rubber boots, she is in turns shy and verbose. Typical for her age, she and her friend Zoe love pretending to be cheetahs and chasing boys; she likes to swim, cook pasta and play with her dog Takumi.
Not as typical is Caitlyn’s painting. She wanted to make it special – bright and colourful – a portrait of “mom and me” as a Christmas gift. Done in the style of Gustav Klimt, with bits of shiny paper substituting for gold leaf, the portrait is intricate, detailed and clearly a labour of love.
“It was a special project the family requested,” says Jennifer Hope, Caitlyn’s art teacher at 4Cats Arts studio in Oak Bay.
Caitlyn started her artwork in October. While she painted, her mom – the inspiration for her portrait – battled breast cancer.
“I made a purple dress and made pink right there and pink shapes and a purple mouth on … I like purple,” says Caitlyn, rubbing her lips with her forefingers, eyes bright, focussed on her painting.
The portrait includes stars and swirls and hearts. “And we’re saying hello because our hands are up, and our hands are touching together and it’s sparkly because of the gold paper,” Caitlyn continues, tiny hands waving in the air as she describes the scene. “Her eyes are green, because that’s my momma.”
Diagnosed in January 2011, Caitlyn’s mom, Charlene, endured radiation, a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. After a month of naturopathic treatments in October the family hoped for good news. In November, Charlene’s health took a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse.
“It was unfortunate that her mom got really sick,” says Hope. The pair rushed to finish Caitlyn’s painting in the hope of presenting it to her mom as an early Christmas gift.
“We really tried to get it done. The saddest part of the whole thing for me was the last day that we were together and she got it finished … her mom passed away,” says Hope.
Charlene Mullen, a fun, generous, strong woman who loved playing in the yard with her daughter and decorating their home for holidays was just 48 when she died on Nov. 24. She never saw the painting. Caitlyn’s portrait was unveiled at her mother’s funeral.
“I smile because my mom is so happy, but my mom is gone now and I’m not going to see her again. She’s in heaven,” Caitlyn says softly. With the wisdom of a child, she knows her mom can see her creation. “She loves it,” Caitlyn says enthusiastically bouncing on her feet and throwing her hands up.
Earlier this month the portrait of Caitlyn and her mom hung at Red Art Gallery as part of a special display of children’s art. “Having the show at the Red Art Gallery was very special for all the kids,” said Hope. “After it’s framed, it’s like it has a new life. When they see it in the art gallery under the spotlight, it’s unbelievable.”
“I wanted to make it special for mom and bring it to heaven,” Caitlyn says.
Caitlyn has been taking art classes at 4Cats since she was three, and was happy to have her art on display, but she doesn’t see a future as an artist.
“I’m going to be a cheetah and a mermaid,” she says. “And Zoe too.”