Thursday, November 27, 2008

Eye of the Beholder (Pt 1 of 3)

To be pursued is an awful feeling. To have something nipping at your heels is pure dread. For many, life is spent looking over their shoulder. Like it or not, know it or not, there is always something back there. For some the menace reveals itself huge and obvious, for others the pursuer takes lesser forms.

I always take a second look. Ever since I could remember, I've always had this feeling that something was behind me. So I've developed a habit of looking for whatever it is that trails me. I casually glance over my shoulder, then after turning back, I quickly look again. Maybe with that second look I’ll catch it, whatever it is, just once, and confirm my god damn suspicions. But the problem is there’s never anything there, at least anything I can actually see. Is this paranoia? Probably. But I think we're all pursued, one way or another, I just happen to look back a lot.

The bus was full of work day people, elderly people, an anarchist-type sitting, naturally, in the back row, and a few of those people who just go along totally unnoticed. They blend in to their surroundings. I fit somewhere in the middle of all of this. I don't think anybody noticed me, except the lady with the funky hat who was sitting in front of me. I caught her looking at me.

The bus lurched to a stop, the air brakes let out a burst, the uniformed driver yanked the handle and the glass door slid open. I stepped off and into one of those gorgeous San Francisco late afternoons, cool, pleasant, with a beautiful, deep, dark blue sky cut by a few silent wispy puffs of pacific fog.

There was a commotion, an event of some kind, on the sidewalk where the bus let me off. A dozen or so artists were displaying their efforts among the hustle of city streets. It was some sort of sidewalk art sale. I had time to kill, as I often do, so I decided to check out the art, and the artists.

I should clarify. I hate people. Maybe hate is too strong a word. Perhaps I dislike a lot of things about people. I don’t know. I can say more often than not, far more in fact, that they bore the shit of me. Sometimes I meet people and I actually hang out with them for some time, but once I get to know them, they bore the shit of out me. I know that sounds awful, snotty, whatever, but I can’t help it. It’s reality.

The flip side is I love people too. I love characters, people who are different, kind people, beautiful people, intelligent people, creative people, and those who laugh. I love all kinds of people. And I love love, true love, and real love. Christ I fall in love all the time.

It’s a hell of a way to go through life, hating everybody one moment and then falling in love the next. It's a high maintenance path.

I walked around the displays of mostly horrid art; sea scenes, waves crashing against rocks, bridges, gulls, bearded old men with skipper hats, whales, rotting wharfs, and old light­houses, all on cheap canvas sold in the open air by sad-eyed neurotic artists. Perfect, I thought.

I stopped at one booth. There were three paintings sitting on rickety easels. One was of a bird on a fence. Some sort of sea bird, I guess. The bird was bored to death, I could tell. Another was of a sunset. It was full of colors and looked pleasant except I was convinced the colors were the result of smog and pollution. And finally the last painting was a portrait of a woman. She was sitting on a stool. Her face was childlike; her eyes were full of misery. She looked awful. You could see the sadness written all over her face, although she appeared to be quite young.

Behind the table a middle-aged woman was reading a book. She didn’t look up when I stopped. At least I didn’t see her look up. She might have peeked, who knows.

“I like your work,” I said.
“What?” she replied, somewhat annoyed.

So I thought to myself, why in the hell are you even here? I mean her, not me. I know why I’m here, I’ve got nothing better to do – and that’s a whole other story – but her, she is presumably the artist, and this is accordingly, her work, and she set it up so people could see it and maybe put a couple of lousy dollars in her hand so she can buy more paint and continue to do this thing called “art”. She might sell an awful painting now and then if she looked up, made eye contact, and maybe even smiled for Christ sake.

“Your paintings, I like them,” I said, hoping maybe I’d engage her. It seemed like a challenge.
“Oh, thanks.” Again, her eyes never parted with the tattered paperback in her hands.

Fucking lively, I thought.

“The bird, he looks bored. Is that the case?”
“Hey, he’s whatever you want him to be man.”
“Oh yeah, right. I forgot. Well then, he’s dying of boredom. That bird is seconds away from the end. In fact, if you painted him ten seconds later, he’d be flat on his feathered back.”

She looked up. The weird draw the weird.

“OK, I’ll buy that,” she said, “You’re the first person to say that about the painting. Most people have nothing to say. At least you see something other than just the bird on the fence.”
“I see lots of things in your paintings.”
“You wanna buy one?”
“Maybe,” I said, which was total bullshit because I didn’t want to buy one, but I wanted to keep the conversation going and I knew if I said no she would have shut it down fast.

“The sunset, I like the colors.”

She put her book down, and I finally got to see her face. She was a middle-aged lady, with sort of black curly hair. She looked like she had a few hard years punched into the lines of her face. She had big brown eyes behind these trendy intellectual-looking hard framed glasses, and in those eyes I could see lots.

“Thanks. I painted that a long time ago. When I knew I was coming here today I had to pick a couple of paintings to bring with me. I wish I had a reason for choosing those three, but I don’t.”
“Well, I think those colors are because of pollution and smog. I know it’s all up to me, but you can’t tell me you paint these things without the slightest idea of why you choose that color or why you put that look on the bird’s face. You must have some idea of those details, right?”
“Um, well, I guess. But whatever they were when I painted them are gone now. Anyway, its way easier to just let you carry that weight. What I think or thought when I painted them is irrelevant now.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I don’t like to be disappointed. I learned early on that if I had something I wanted to convey in a painting that it was almost totally impossible for that to happen. People see things the way they see them, and that’s all there is to it. Once it’s on the canvas, its outta my control. I can’t tell you to see or feel anything. If I want you to see what I see, or feel what I feel, and you don’t, then I’m disappointed. So, I have no expectations. You look, you see, you feel, or you don’t. That’s that.” She shrugged her shoulders and went back to her book.

I liked that answer a lot. I looked at her differently. She gave me something to think about. It made perfect sense. I stared at the portrait.

“Who’s that?” I said, pointing to the girl on the canvas.
She looked up, over her glasses. “Why do you want to know?”
“I don’t know, curious I guess.” Truth is I didn’t care, I was making small talk.
“She’s a person in a painting. That’s all. Once she’s on there, that’s it, she’s anonymous.”

Suddenly there was a loud voice and up stepped some filthy, bearded old madman. Somewhere beneath an explosion of grey-black hair was his face. His voice was pure sandpaper and gravel. He was going on about something I didn’t hear because the physical trauma of his appearance hadn’t worn off yet. He was talking to the artist lady behind the table, totally interrupting our conversation.

“Everything has to be offa this sidewalk in half-an-hour. We can’t have everybody scraggling out of here late, the god damn city assholes’ll be all over me with their freakin’ citation books. So start packing and make sure you’re outta here on time.”

“Who’s that?” I asked the artist lady.
“He’s the promoter, for lack of a better term.”
“HE is the promoter? You’re kidding? That guy?”
“Yup. He used to do concerts or something in the sixties.”
“Yeah I'm sure he did lots in the sixties.”

The lady stood up and started packing her stuff. She looked up at me. I thought she was going to ask me to buy a painting.

“Are you busy later?” she asked.
Was she hitting on me? I admit my mind is a mess, but that’s how it came across.
“Not sure, I have some options.”
“Well you got another one. There’s a party tonight at the house I’m living in. There’ll be lots of artists, writers, poets, freaky people of all types. Maybe you’d like to stop by and see more of my paintings?”
“Thanks, I’ll see what I can manage.”

She handed me a creased and very used business card.

“Leanne” was her name. Underneath it was the title, in italics, “artist”. There was a Berkeley address on it.

“What time?” I asked.
“Oh later, anytime really, the house is always going. Come by, I’d like that,” she said, and then she smiled. I thought, “Do that more often, and you might sell a painting.” She was very attractive when she smiled, but then, who isn’t?

(c) AC James

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