Twenty-one

 

 

Albert slaps a quarter down on the counter. Swivels on his stool. A half-chewed toothpick in his mouth. “Thanks!” The soda-man replies, “Thank you!”
Crossing a dozen steps to the door and onto the street, “Gotta get Peter to agree.”

Still early. The low sun hits him squarely in the eyes. He squints, passing in and out of shade and back again. Sunlight shimmers through a filigree of branches, Leaves at peak color. Maples, bright red and brilliant yellow. Oaks glow a deep ruddy bronze. Tiny blue asters poke out from under the boardwalk.

Passing an alley he glimpses a vista of the harbor, A choir of Hollyhocks. Six, seven-feet tall! Flower stalks a deep rose against the light. Yellow petals litter the ground. Clusters of blasted seed-pods. The last of the Morning Glories. Brilliant blue, white, and gold bells, cascade from withered stems. Vibrant life rising from withered tendrils. A last touch of August in mid-October.

Climbing a rise into the East End, Peter’s no sailor! Last time spooked him.
The street’s deserted. Striding along, head down, he mutters to himself, Damn it! Gotta do this! Gonna laugh in my face! Albert slams his fist into his palm, “DAMN IT!”

A flash of movement. An old woman steps scowling out of her gate. A wicker basket clasped in the crook of her arm. Her disapproval bores into him from under a shiny black bonnet.

He looks away. Looks down. Quickens his pace. Flushes up to his ears, Dammit! Gone a block too far, “Shit!” He turns back, Oh! There she is! “Damn it!”

He knocks forcefully at the side-door of an old fish-house, setting its rough wooden doors swaying, clattering against its frame. The sudden racket reverberates up and down the narrow, shell-strewn alley, “Damn it! What am I doing?”

The old woman passes the head of the alley. Eyes fixed on him, staring, Gonna yell at me? He stares back. Knocks again, Not so hard! Leans way back to see if she’s still there. Catches a final flicker of her trailing skirts. He settles down off his heels as the door slides open. Peter winces into the bright morning light. A tattered sweater with the sleeves rolled up above his elbows. A handful of brushes bristle from between his knuckles, “Albert. What are you doing here?”

“Ah, Hello!”

Albert can’t help but peek towards the street. Peter steps out the doorway, What’s he looking at? Albert steps back, “Peter! Yeah, ah…. Wanted to stop by this morning…. See how you’re doing!”

Peter examines the alley. Shakes his head, “I’m working.”

“I know. Hey, listen. Sorry for barging in…”

“You’re here. Been meaning to show you…, this painting….” Peter backs through his doorway. Sweeping his brush-rimmed hand across his body, he welcomes Albert into the fish-house, Dark. Close. Skinny round-stick joists low overhead. Albert stoops more than is necessary.

Coils of old line hang from pegs and bent nails hammered into exposed joists. Scraps of netting, glass floats, squares of eroded cork smothered under the dust of ages. A line of Peter’s canvases face the wall. Coats and sweaters swing from joists, Like hollow hanged men.

Shaky, climbing steep stairs, Albert leans forward. Taps his fingertips along the edge of each step ahead to keep his balance. Cool, bright light floods the space above.

S’only my third visit. Never been upstairs. A blend of linseed oil, varnish, and sweet gum turpentine cut through the pungent tang of salt fish.

I paint in my room. Peter lives in his studio. Albert whispers to himself, “I’m gonna do this.”

“What d ’ya a think!”

“Peter…” Albert stands before a large canvas clamped to a massive easel squared to the room, Catches the light. Tall, multi-paned windows perforate the end wall, The most substantial thing in the building! Crusted in layers of paint. Stained and battered.

The painting is a horizontal rectangle. Flax linen shows a visible weave. Frayed threads curl into space to frame the canvas in a ragged halo, Surprising. How calm, reserved. Not at all like what we all do on the beach. A subdued palette. Lacks the harsh contrasts and strong colors typical of Hawthorne’s students.

A thin wash laid over a pale ground. Long, sweeping strokes trail runnels of turps that stain the texture of the canvas. Clear notes of color thinly applied. Pale Cerulean Blue suggests a clear sky seen through a humid atmosphere. Golden tones of Indian Yellow, made from the sun-dried urine of sacred-cows. Knowing its source makes it all the more beautiful, Poignant. The luscious color of piss. A dull, organic orange in impasto. Thin washes ring with the pure tone of a golden bell. Strokes of deep Ultramarine Blue or warm Peach Black carve space. Create the suggestion of shallow overlapping planes.

Its power builds slowly. Not at all like Peter….

The best young painter I’ve ever known. Albert’s estimation for his friend’s work rises with a lump in his throat.

Albert’s eyes adjust to the limpid north light falling on the canvas. A penetrating illumination falls on the canvas and lets him distinguish close tonalities. Pick out details, A landscape.

The subject doesn’t declare itself. His understanding of its forms grows slowly as he discovers a series of close relationships, Tone against tone. Plane against plane. Sky, grass, water, each resolves slowly. Structures, trees, and houses, and boats, all fall into place before I can tell what they are.

A reticence…. Seems unfinished…. A scrupulous discipline. He hasn’t fussed over any area more than the rest. Certain junctures…. Yeah, that’s what they are! Intersections. Not representations of objects. They stand out. Focal-points, resulting from the way the paint’s been laid down. They direct the eye’s movement.

Its power builds as Albert’s intuition, his acceptance of the work, Brings it to life. A consistent language. But not a system. Each mark placed in space. Each tonal consideration resists being read simply as a graphic shorthand, a naming of things. Unfinished or not it doesn’t misrepresent itself. What’s left undone is implicit….

Albert’s trust in the painting grows, What’s here is true. Whatever’s missing will arrive in due course. This recognition completes the painting, Even if he had abandoned it after a few preliminary strokes it would still be complete, dammit! Ineffably, quietly, subtly complete. Taking it any further now might not gain anything. What if it’s farther along…?

They’re silent for a good, long time. Peter stands behind him. Off to one side, leaning against a post at the head of the stairs. His right hand stuffed in his pocket. His left, held up and away, still clutching his brushes, He spends hours like that. An Inuit hunter in the far-off Arctic waits for hours like that. Poised over a breathing hole. Spear at the ready. Peter stands there for hours, watching and waiting for wordless clues to bubble-up. Show him what needs to be done.

His oil or charcoal sketches are quick. In class he pushes through a motif before the model can twist away or a cloud obscure the sun. On this painting everything has accumulated at a much slower pace. Not just the quiet surface. The clear deliberation. Each observation translated into pigment. The painting slowly reveals its essence. Might not be obvious to anyone but another painter. You can feel its pace. The span of the effort in its creation. No faux dramatics getting in the way.

Albert steps forward. Peers at its surface. Close enough to smell the fresh pigment. He steps back, squinting to take-in the overall massing of tone and value. His footfalls are the only sounds in the room, echoing back up the open stairway. A dog barks. Sand swishes as a wagon passes. Muffled, indecipherable voices rise from the street. These sounds barely register.

The not-quite coordinated noon-whistles at the town’s seven cold storage plants let go in a ragged salvo, filling in from east to west, snapping Albert out of his reverie. He turns to Peter, Almost forgot he was here. He flounders, What to say? The moment almost passes, Expect Peter will launch into one of his monologues. Albert feels a lightness. An urgency builds within him. He starts talking, “Peter, thanks,…” Peter nods.

“It’s an honor… I mean… Let me put it this way…” Albert looks down, blushing, staring at the floor for longer than is comfortable. Looking up, he realizes, He’ll give me all the time I need. He relaxes. Thoughts begin to flow, “It’s not what I expected! It’s so good…”

“That’s not what I mean! I expected it to be good! It’s different.” He stammers, looking up at Peter, then back down at the floor, at the painting. Admiration and his sheer pleasure at being here shine on his face. He blurts out, “It’s done isn’t it?”

Peter cocks his head. Looks past Albert at the painting, “I think so. Still working on it when you knocked…” Albert blushes. Peter gestures at the canvas, brushes still clutched in his hand, “Now?”

“A painting changes when you look at it with someone else!” Albert nods in agreement. “This one’s changed for me. Having you here. It’s not just watching someone’s reaction, wondering whether they like it or not. Sometimes…, somebody ‘Oohing’ and ‘Ah-ing.’ They leave and you feel like slashing the damn thing!”

“It’s watching someone’s eyes on it. Seeing a person in the same view. Something to do with scale, I guess…” He leans back and squints. “That’s just part of it! I don’t really know…. It happens! It happened today.”

Peter steps forward, circling the room. Puts down his brushes, plucking them one by one out of his fist. Plunking them in jars of turps on a bench along the far wall. His shoulders relax. He lowers his eyes.

He wants to hear what I have to say. Albert stands in front of the painting as he talks, watching Peter. Emphasizing a point by meeting his eye, Albert is filled with the painting.

October light carries a softness like early morning all day. The path of the sun in the sky never penetrates the room’s north-facing windows directly. A house-front across the street is bathed in full sun, sending sharp reflections flooding into the room for a time. A tree shades everything. The space filled with a soft glow emanating from its brilliant, lemon-yellow leaves. The painting feels alive. Light gives it breath. Dim light modulates subtle relationships between its colors. Bright light masks these differences and highlights tonal contrasts.

Having carried the image of a living painting within and between them for hours they stand in silence, watching the light leave the room.

Peter has returned to his post. Albert leans against the bench along the far-wall absentmindedly rubbing a daub of Peach Black off his forefinger, Love the silkiness of it. A fat glob is deep black, aggressively black, sensually black. He smears it with his thumb, Thinner streaks glow a surprising blue. An alchemical transformation. Nothing about the full pigment prepares you for the change. A warm black turns blue. An especially cool blue-gray against the warm undertone of his skin, Amazing! Gets me every time. A soft smile spreads across his face.

Peter scratches a match. Lights a cigarette he’s rolled one-handed. Magnified by the lenses of his spectacles the little flame’s glow washes over his face. The twilight spell is broken. Restive, thirsty, hungry, Albert is taken aback, Remembering why I came here….

Peter lights a lantern with the tail-end of his match. Holds it high to illuminate his friend’s way. Its golden glow, So harsh after the softness of dusk. Alive with a flickering heart. Albert can’t resist one last look at the painting. Curious what effect this different light will have on it. A sharp sense of confronting a living thing returns as the painting revives before his eyes. A fresh insight tingles in his spine.

The moment passes. Peter shifts the lantern. Their shadows obscure the canvas. Albert goes on ahead down the steps.

 

 

 

 

 

Continue…

 

 

 

 

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