|Melinda pulled the beer can from its hiding place in the half-open
desk drawer and took a deep swig. Letting the bitter hops roll over her
tongue, she glanced up at the clock that ticked away on the paint splattered
wall at one end of the studio – one o'clock in the morning. A long night,
perhaps, but certainly a productive one. She heaved a deep sigh, rubbing
one paint-stained hand along the seam of her jeans as she squinted at the
canvas in front of her. Its grey-white nap was visible only at the edges
of the paint that covered the surface in curving, organic lines of black,
and a shade of midnight blue that had taken hours to mix so that it would
blend perfectly into the deep purple that seemed to pulse through the patterns
and define the shape in the painting -- the shape of a seated woman, faceless,
hugging both knees to her chest.
Taking a final swallow, Melinda returned the can to its hiding place and looked around her corner of the loft. She had been working on the new series of paintings for almost two months now, and her three finished panels were propped around her corner of the loft, crowding the threadbare, paint-speckled green couch a few of the students had dragged up the stairs to adorn the narrow space above the college's main art classroom.
All of the panels echoed the sweeping organic lines of the canvas still drying on the easel: Glory‚ was a riot of gold and dark army green, its figure stepping forward as if ready to stride out of the painting, both arms stretched over its head, reaching for something beyond the viewer's range of sight; Desperation showed a blue and grey figure curled into an almost fetal position, its head touching the floor between its knees; and Inhibition‚ was a study in blood red and a hazy golden orange, tracing a figure on its knees, arms uplifted, arching backward as though driven by a force beyond its control. The figures were all faceless. And the figures were all women.
Sighing, Melinda rubbed fingers over her burning eyes and stretched, tossing an unruly strand of her straight, black hair out of her face. When she had originally worked out the idea for her senior show at Amberg U. she had planned on exhibiting a series of six paintings, but the date of the show was creeping up on her, and, with her other schoolwork, she was glad to have these four completed. She yawned again. Painting took a lot out of her, and she had pulled one too many late nights trying to finish enough work to fill the little gallery below Fillmore auditorium that was yearly reserved for senior art majors to show their work.
Plunking her brushes into a stripped JIFF jar filled with turpentine,
Melinda hooked her coat from the edge of a primed and empty canvas, and,
grabbing the beer out of the drawer, pounded the remainder and stuck the
empty can in her pocket. If Professor Shoemaker ever saw her with a beer
can in his art building there would be hell to pay. Sometimes he reminded
her of her father, always demanding, always inventing and enforcing new
rules. But, like her father, he was good at what he did, and she was fortunate
that he was impressed enough with her work to help her with her show. The
last thing she wanted to do was piss him off now. Allowing the
The cold air hit like a physical force as she pushed open the door,
and Melinda shivered deeper into her coat as she hurried around the building
toward her car and her car heater. In her hurry, she almost stumbled over
the inert figure propped against the brick column at the corner of the
building. She paused for a moment out of pure instinct, just long enough
to recognise that the thing she had stumbled over was actually a derelict
-- a black man in worn clothing sleeping in the meagre warmth that leaked
through the glass window of the building. Quickly, she made her way
Blowing on her hands as she waited for the engine to warm up, she felt almost a pang of pity; homeless people didn't usually come on campus, and the ones who did were quickly routed by campus security. It was a cold night for an old man like that to have to find shelter.
"Well," she shrugged, "I wasn't even sure if it was going to come together there at the end – everything got so rushed and mixed up that for a few days it didn't even seem as if I was going to have a show."
"And it's a kick ass one. Your folks make it?"
Melinda shrugged. She barely had time to catch a glimpse of blonde hair before Jeremy leaned up from behind her to peck her on the cheek.
"Thanks." She giggled self-consciously, then promptly felt embarrassed for laughing, indulging a twinge of jealousy as she watched Jeremy's golden curls disappear through the crowd beside Caitlin's purple tipped spikes. How did Caitlin get along so easy with guys when she always felt that she had to throw herself at them to even get any attention? Or was it the other way around? She looked around the gallery. It had turned out to be a pretty good show.
A series of water-colour landscapes depicting the woods and ponds surrounding Amberg filled the wall beside the twin staircases that led down into the gallery. Just to their left hung several portraits she had done of her friends. The independent display wall opposite the water-colours displayed a series of etchings facing the main part of the gallery and her oils on the other side of the display.
The gallery was filled with the ebb and flow of voices -- many of her friends had come, either seeking her out to greet her or drifting from one painting to the next, but there were a great many people she did not know as well. She hoped desperately that maybe they would buy something. Most of the crowd seemed to be pooling around the oils. She glanced over at the portrait wall and shifted uncomfortably. She had been uncertain whether to even show the portraits at all.
They had started as an experiment with a concept, and, if she were to be honest, as a way to flatter Jeremy and Chris. But they had grown into much more. They had haunted her because, even working from photographs, she could not get the pictures to look like the people she was trying to draw; the features were the same -- the shapes were identical to those in the hotographs -- but something was missing. After struggling through four of the pictures she had quit, hoping to put the experiment behind, but when she had come up short for the show, Professor Shoemaker had pulled out her picture of Chris and arched an eyebrow. So the portraits went into the show. A frown creased her forehead, and she jumped as she felt a glass pressed into her hand.
"Congrats, babe." her roommate Lynne grinned at her, "don't look so
pissy. The party is going great, and there is a drop dead gorgeous guy
over there who just asked me about the price tag on Glory. C'mon, I think
you guys need to be introduced. I don't think he believed me when I said
I knew the artist -- maybe you could put in a good word for me." Laughing,
Melinda allowed herself to be propelled across the tile toward the oils.
At least they had turned out the way she had wanted them to.
Balancing the cup in the hand on her stomach, she ran a hand through her hair, indulging in a deep sigh. Sometimes it seemed as if nothing came out right. The opening had gone well enough; a lot of people had been able to see her work. But she had only one sale and the promise of another. Her college career was almost over and she didn't feel as though she were ready for it to end. She swirled the punch in the glass, watching it catch the dim light and turn it into rubies. She wondered what her father would have thought of the show. It didn't really matter. It shouldn't matter anyway. Even if he had liked the show it wouldn't have made any difference; he would still scream at her and tell her she was weak and emotional; he would still care for his prized stock company than his family. Raising herself to her elbow, she ran a hand through her hair. Some things never changed.
With an effort, she righted herself and swung to her feet, pulling her black tunic, slightly crumpled by the night's wear, straight. She paused for a moment in front of her portrait of Chris. It didn't really look much of anything like him; she shook her head. As she had drifted through the crowd tonight she had overheard one of the freshman art majors ask her companion who the girl in the picture was. She stared at the black and white lines -- there was something she couldn't get. . .
Taking a deep drink, she wished fervently that someone had had the notion of spiking the punch. This was college, weren't people supposed to spike every available punchbowl? Leaning against a wall, she stared at her oils, their colours taking on an almost surreal glow in the dimmed lights of the empty gallery.
"I think it is their failure that makes them so moving."
"Failure?" Swinging around, she found herself face to face with an elderly black man, his gaunt figure seeming elongated because of his height and the white hair that clung to his scalp in a haloed frizz pale in the dim light.
For a moment she was afraid. The next annoyed. But the man made no movement that could be construed as threatening -- he made no movement at all, and his voice soothed away her annoyance. For some reason she could not have explained, she found herself listening to the rhythms of his soft speech,
"They reach so hard, yet fall short just at their mark."
She looked again at the oils, their lines still glowing in the soft light. Annoyance whispered again in the silence. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"These paintings." A smile quirked the corners of the old man's mouth, painting shadows a shade deeper than the deep mahogany of his skin.
"So?" Melinda wrapped her arms around her waist, trying to pull it in, to stand straighter, to look defiant.
"Look at your portraits." The voice was soft, gentle, with no trace of mockery or condescension, but she found herself flinching. "Do they draw emotion from you?"
"Well," Her arms became a cradle of protection, hiding her from the mild gaze and soft voice. She had to leave. But she couldn't leave him alone with her paintings. Somehow, blindly, she found herself explaining, "But those are done directly from photographs. I owe it to myself as an artist and to my subjects to portray them as they really are."
"And you owe your viewer your perspective. And your faith."
"Look,"Melinda unwound her arms, jerking at the hem of her long tunic, searching for a title, "sir-"
"Here." He moved toward the monochrome row of portraits, and she noted that he favoured his left leg as he walked. As he passed under one of the overhead spots, the harsh light revealed his dark clothing to be threadbare, and for a moment Melinda thought she caught a scent of outdoors and fresh cut grass. But then he was speaking again, a thin arm indicating the portrait of Chris. "When you drew this what were you thinking?"
Staring at the picture, Melinda found herself reaching for the emotions,
the thoughts that lay behind the painting, and found herself coming up
empty. Licking her lips, she began boldly,
"Did you learn that from a textbook?"
Biting her lip, and fighting a feeling that she did not understand, she tried to justify herself to this man, tried to make him understand. He obviously knew about art; he had to understand.
"That's why I did the oils. They are all emotion -- even their titles."
"But they have no faces."
"They're universal emotions. They are supposed to allow the viewers to impose their own interpretations."
He extended an arm toward the row of portraits in front of them, "If you cannot capture the essence of a friend -- someone you know, interact with, care for -- how dare you presume to paint icons of human emotion." The voice seemed to fill the gallery with intensity, yet it was infinitely gentle. "You make yourself a hypocrite. If nothing else,"
He pulled something from the inner pocket of the threadbare jacket, "paint a subject you know something about." He pressed a Polaroid into her hand, then, turning away from her, walked toward the stairs, his shoulders straight under their shoddy covering, his head held high, still favouring his left leg.
She watched him go, clutching the picture as she listened to the uneven tread slowly working its way up the stairs and strained to hear the thud as the door above her swung home. For a moment she stood, waiting for something more, then slowly lowered her eyes to the photograph in her hand as if just remembering that she was still holding it.
It was a glossy black and white image, catching the glow of the overhead spot and drawing it into yellowed pools on its glassy surface. Although evidently taken at night, the image was clear. It depicted a girl with long, straight hair bundled in hat and gloves standing outside a clear glass window, looking down at the lanky figure of a darkly clad man in front of her. Her face was turned partially away from the lens, making it difficult for the viewer to catch her expression, yet her posture and the shadowy face gave an inescapable expression of impatience and preoccupation.
Without thought, Melinda tucked the photo into the pocket of her skirt where her tunic would protect it, and turned toward the hallway that led out from the back of the gallery. As she turned into it, she reached toward the plastic plate to flip off the remaining gallery lights. Pausing, she pivoted for one final look at her oils.
For a moment she couldn't place the difference beyond a vague feeling that the paintings had changed in some way. Her eyes scanned the canvases, finally resting, as they usually did, on her final painting for the show. It was the study in blues and purples that showed a figure with both knees pulled protectively to its chest. She had called it Reprimand.
Her yes traced the familiar lines, resting finally on the face. The gradient blur she had painted was gone, and her own eyes looked back at her from a face painted with uncanny realism. She pressed the switch and moved slowly down the hall, the streak of a single tear glistening red in the glow of the exit sign over the door.