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The WE canvas

Posted by Dora

There are two rules when you come to visit my home. First, take off your shoes and store them in the hall closet. If your socks are holey, there are some clean ones in the bag on the door handle. Second, sign the WE canvas before you leave.

What is the WE canvas? Hmmm. I wish I had a two word answer. But it takes a few more than that to explain this amalgamation of an old tradition with several new ideas.

Once upon a time, when my mother was the ward relief society president, she decided that she needed to become better acquainted with the families in our ward. And what better way to get acquainted than over Sunday dinner? Thus began the seemingly endless series of Sunday nights when we hosted dinner for just about every family in our ward, often including the elder or sister missionaries. What do I remember of those nights? Not much. I remember my parents chatting up our dinner guests, trying to understand where they were coming from. I remember making layered chocolate mousse in the fluted glass bowl. I remember all the dishes my sister and I washed. And I remember The Tablecloth.

The Tablecloth was not generally laid on the dining table under the dishes. Oh no. It was usually laid out on the large coffee table in the formal dining/entertaining room, along with an assortment of colored sharpie markers … we got rid of the puffy paints after a missionary with an especially strong grip inadvertently squirted some lavendar paint on the ceiling. Anyway, The Tablecloth was a family institution. All guests to our home signed it. Some just printed their name. Some signed with a flourish. Some even added pictures … a smiley face, a heart, the shape of their home state, or signed their names in foreign writing. It was quite a large tablecloth, but we managed to fill it up pretty well.

I came across The Tablecloth tucked back in an odd corner of my parents’ linen closet a while back. I think it started to decline after my mother was finally released from her calling. Or maybe it was because I moved away to college, and so bereft the family of its main dishwashing power? Anyway, it was quite nostalgic to look over this tangible record of that period of our lives.

Another inspiration for the WE canvas came from an art display at the Canvas Cafe in San Francisco. This was one of my and my sister’s favorite places up north. We could order a large cup of steaming Spanish hot chocolate. We could wander around the back corners and catch quirky works of local artists. And we could listen in to whatever live entertainment was on for the night. One time, there was a exhibit that featured two large canvases that seemed mirror opposites. One was a large white canvas with the word “love” hand printed in black. Just the word love printed over and over and over on the large canvas. The companion piece was a black canvas with the word “hate” printed in white, over and over and over. Typing it now, it seems like it must have been a pretty monotonous project. But it made a strong statement, side by side.

Fast forward a couple of years. My nephews are now racing through their preschool-age years. They love to sing. One song they love in particular goes like this. “You. You. You you you you, you you you, you. You you you …” You get the idea. The next verse goes like the first, except they sing, “Me. Me. Me me me me, me me me, me.” Not very original lyrics, but charming when sung by miniature beings who share at least some of my DNA. At the very end, they sing out the line, “We are you and me!” And I revel in how these two boys, born so close together, who are so different in their abilities and personalities, have formed such a close bond.

Fast forward to last September. Escrow finally closes, and I own a piece of real estate. Slowly I start to make the place my own. New wood floors and tile. Shelving for the kitchen and the garage. Large appliances that make me glow as I walk past. Moving old furniture in. Buying some new pieces. A piano. Putting the library in order. And … the WE canvas.

Bought the largest canvas I could hang over the fireplace. It’s really massive. 48″ x 72″. Thank heavens the art store delivers. I measure and tape out the dimensions. And I start to write, with my black sharpie marker. YOU – YOU – YOU – YOU – YOU.

About halfway across, I switch to ME – ME- ME – ME.

The next line switches back to YOU. But the division between YOU and ME shifts back and forth, much as I imagine the tension does in any relationship.

About a third of the way down, I start writing YOU & ME. Which later morphs into YOU & ME ARE WE.

I keep on writing. Needing tape to keep my writing level. And as the central WE becomes more and more visible, I start getting bored with writing the same five words. It’s a very large canvas.

Soon, I decide that I can no longer take those five words any longer. I start to write names. My grandparents. My aunts and uncles. My parents, siblings, in-laws and nephews. There’s still a lot of canvas left. So I start adding good friends. Elementary school. Girl scouts. Junior high school. High school. Friends from my travels. Friends from college. Friends from the numerous wards I’ve been in. Boys I dated. Friends from work. Important role models. Teachers. Important experiences. Friends from dancing. Song titles. Soon, the canvas seems to represent my whole life … so many of the things that have helped to form my character and inform my mind and soul. I never thought that it would be such a fulfilling experience to write things down in such a manner.

And so it is that I ask everyone who comes to my home to sign the WE canvas. To leave a small reminder of the times we shared together. Every time I pass it, a smile comes to my face, as I recall good memories. Singing Christmas carols together as we drank wasail. Having 30+ people over for curry dinner. Book group dinner to discuss a favorite work. Meeting together at the start of a long road trip. Just hanging out.

Life is good.

Here, grab a marker. And sign.

What about you? Do you or your family have hospitality traditions? Is there a creative space in your home where you (or your spouse or your children) can let loose?


Dora is a pediatric critical care nurse. Therapy to alleviate the stress in her professional life include traveling around the world, reading, partner dancing and hosting dinner parties.

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6 Responses

  1. Anita says:

    what a unique and wonderful idea!

  2. Jessawhy says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post and congratulations on home ownership!

    It’s exciting to have a place where you can look at your life: past, present, and future (the blank spaces are your future, no?)
    This really is a great idea, one that I think would especially appeal to children.

    I’m curious about the responses you get. Do you find people interested in your We canvas? Has anyone been unwilling to sign it? My guess is that people are flattered by the idea that they are important enough to be documented, to be remembered.

    Thus, the WE canvas becomes a way of your truly welcoming your guests and honoring them.

    I really liked you idea. Maybe I’ll have to give it a try.

  3. Lorene says:

    I love this idea and I fully intend on starting this with my family! Thank you for sharing.

  4. Dora says:

    Right now there are lots of blank spaces. Who knows what the future will hold? Hopefully many more friends and good memories in the making. At some point, when my nephews come, I want them to sign, then trace their handprints.

    Just about everyone who comes to my place has been really excited to sign. They want to know the story behind the canvas. And they search to find where their name (I only wrote first names) is in the print.

    A good friend hostsa large LDS Rocktoberfest each year. He invites local singers and musicians to prepare to perform a song or two, and then opens the area up for dancing. And each year there is a painting. Maybe a 30″x30″ canvas that he lets people at with paints and a brush. The results of the past 10 years are hung around the vaulted walls of the living room. Last year the dominant image was a finely painted Carol from “Where the Wild Things Are.” In 2001, the dominant image was a waving flag. It’s interesting to sit in his living room and see what was on the surface of people’s minds in retrospect.

    When I bought the canvas at the store, the cashier asked what I had in mind for it. When I explained, she seemed delighted. She told me that she’d been to a fantastic party with a bunch of other artists. It was like playing authors, except with paints. There was a huge canvas, and each artist started in their own distinct area. After a specific amount of time, they all had to switch, and continue on with what someone else had been working on. She said it was exhilarating to try their hands at this (timed) cooperative painting. And at the end, there was a gorgeous piece of art to remember the evening with.

  5. Caroline says:

    What a wonderful tradition.

    I personally am totally lacking in hospitality traditions. My guests are lucky if I even offer them a cup of water. I think I come from a background that was just not all that social/hostessy oriented, so I never picked up on some of these niceties that I should have.

    Of course, your canvas goes way beyond hostessing nicety. It’s a unique and wonderful way to honor your relationships and make them continually present in your home.

    Thank you for your reflections on this.

  6. EmilyCC says:

    What a lovely idea!

    We’ve done birthday and missionary farewell banners out of butcher paper at parties, but I love the idea of having a permanent canvas to celebrate those every day events that make up life.

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