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Lessons From My Father

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Mileposts from a life well lived.

By Claudia Fontaine Chidester

48_lessonsMy father, Paul Fontaine, was a painter, but he was nothing like the stereotypical image of an artist as isolated, disorganized, impoverished and impractical. His life and art were marked by the years of the Great Depression, the harshness of war, the challenging but invigorating life of an expatriate—in countries where he had to learn, at least minimally, the language—and the unending responsibility of being a father to three daughters, all while working to establish his career. His experiences taught him lessons about the best way to live, and we children experienced, in part, the outcomes firsthand. In what follows, are some of his lessons as mileposts for the journey his life took.

Marry a Woman Who Is Above Your Standing But Not Your Skills, Who Likes Taking Risks, Who Is as Handsome as You and Sometimes Smarter.

48_lessons3My parents’ first date was a movie, a walk to the Italian section of town for pizza and beer, and a walk back. Dad had to compete with the wealthy Yale boys she was dating, but none of them gave her the promise of adventure that Dad did. She was pleased that Dad was top in his class, but she fell in love with him over their conversations. The irony is that Mother always said it was better to marry someone from your own block with whom you had money, education and religion in common, but their connection in the realm of art was decisive.

What Seems Like an Obstacle May Be an Opportunity.

By living in the Virgin Islands for a year right out of art school, my parents learned a few things about being expatriates, namely, that the benefits can outweigh the drawbacks. After the war, Dad was stuck in France waiting for a boat to get home, so he took a job with civil service. He wrote to my mother to join him in Paris: “Come over quick to Papa and after a year of Europe all your passions for traveling will be appeased. You and I can have a lot of fun here. The caliber of people you will be surrounded with are of the very highest.”

Have Friends, Be Friendly and Have Friends in Every City.

Another advantage to being part of the U.S. government overseas is that it paid for travel home every two years. We would slowly work our way across the country, through Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco and San Diego. We stayed with relatives or my parents’ chums from college, the war or Stripes, all the way from one coast to the other and back again. Museums were our only form of entertainment. Movies or amusement parks were not on the roster. I cried when we passed Disneyland while Dad yelled in disgust that he wouldn’t waste his money on the $5 entry charge.


Getting Old Is No Fun, But Mentoring the Young Helps.

Dad was not a natural art teacher, but he gave my daughter the ultimate compliment when he used one of her sketches to create a large painting. He taught me to realize how little you need to enjoy a good life, and to know that education doesn’t stop with the diploma. Dad taught me about the value of taking calculated risks, investing in the future, thinking globally, giving back to others through mentoring, and the value in making things. It could be the children you raise, the novel you write or the song you create. It could be a painting. Just make something good since that is like living forever.

Claudia Chidester was born and lived in Germany in her youth, lived her high school years in Guadalajara, Mexico, and transplanted to Austin from New England nearly 30 years ago. She is the director of the Fontaine Archive, an archive focused on preserving and making accessible through publications and the website,, the works of writer and photographer Virginia Fontaine and painter Paul Fontaine.

She is also an adjunct professor at the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches courses on business and competitive intelligence research strategies. She is vice president of the board of the Austin Bat Cave, a writing and tutoring center for children 6 to 18. She has a bachelor’s degree in art history from Wellesley College and a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Texas at Austin.

48_lessons_lastpicThe Independent Book Publishers Association’s Benjamin Franklin Awards, in their 26th year, includes 52 categories recognizing excellence in book editorial and design. They are regarded as one of the highest national honors for independent publishers. Chidester’s Work Standing Up has secured the silver, possibly the gold award for Interior Design-3-color. The winners will be announced May 28 at the award ceremony at New York University’s Kimmel Center. Work Standing Up is available at Collectic Furniture, BookPeople and the Blanton Museum shop as well as Amazon and


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