Consider an artist, we’ll call her Grace, toiling in obscurity for fifteen years whose fate changed in a matter of weeks. A friend invited her to submit two paintings for possible inclusion in a local museum exhibition.
While Grace didn’t often exhibit her work, she had recently experienced a breakthrough in her art, an exhilarating feeling like teetering on a razor’s edge between creation and collapse. Somehow, her experimental paintings held together when they hadn’t before. Exploring edges and unexpected intersections of lines, she reveled in the contrasts of gritty and smooth, ugly and luscious, in the marks and fields of color that emerged.
A little voice inside her head said, why not submit these new works for the upcoming museum show?
Three months later, to her great surprise, two of her paintings were selected for the exhibition. By this time, she had almost forgotten she had applied.
She delivered the paintings by strapping them to the roof of her trusty old Honda, wrapped in plastic, because they were too big to fit inside.
Later, arriving at the opening, she was speechless when she saw her two large paintings prominently displayed, one with a Best of Show ribbon hanging beside it.
A San Francisco art critic lauded her work in the local paper ahead of the show, calling it edgy, revolutionary, a cross between Brice Marden and Joan Mitchell.
Word got out. The room was buzzing like an artistic bee colony awaiting their queen. A murmurage swept across the space as her heels clicked through the doorway. Artists and collectors jockeyed for position; champagne glasses held at chest height serving as defensive weaponry. A superficially polite artistic scrum.
As she made her way to her painting, her friend whispered, do you know who that man is? He’s the art critic for the San Francisco Comical. He’s friends with the museum curator.
After the opening, invitations arrived for solo exhibitions in museums across the country. To Grace’s delight, she was able to retire her Honda and drop the two part-time jobs she was holding down to keep the lights on.
Two years later, her big break came when a gallery in New York known for rejecting artists without an MFA from Yale or Columbia offered Grace a one woman show. She couldn’t say no.
In the velvet plushness of the air-conditioned classic old Manhattan hotel, sweat soaked her taffeta dress as she stepped into beige six-inch heels. A chill coursed through her body as her jaw locked up and her teeth chattered uncontrollably. How was she going to speak?
She had imagined this moment for years but dismissed it as a paint thinner induced fantasy. Perhaps the aromatic hydrocarbons had addled her brain. It was an improbable dream. Would she blow it with self-conscious awkwardness?
But something else bothered her.
In the whirlwind three years after the museum show in San Francisco, punctuated with shows and interviews, and despite her new-found popularity and financial security, a growing sense of vulnerability and dread had crept over her. She felt exposed. She’d dreamt of being a celebrated artist, yet the reality terrified her. What if they change their mind about my art?
In her studio, she’d stare at her prize paintings and wonder how she could create more paintings like those. Were these winners a fluke? Can I keep this up?
Afraid to make a move lest she ruin a painting or worse, create something mediocre, she waited, hoping for inspiration, desperate for a solution.
She shivered as she recalled the frenzied months of creating the first twenty-four of twenty-five paintings that would hang in the New York show. A few months prior, Cannus O’Carolan, an Irish art critic, wrote a blistering review of her last exhibition, calling it derivative and pedestrian.
She dreaded his criticism. He was the tail that wagged the dog of the art world, feared by artistic pedestrians.
Struggling to create the series of paintings for the show, she tried to push her art further, to experiment, but ended up taking only minor risks and merely slightly varying each subsequent painting. Her seminal painting from three years prior kept getting in the way-as if it were a paint-by-number template tattooed on her retina. A plan doggedly followed.
Cannus was right. She had repeated herself.
She had two weeks left and one painting to complete before shipping the new series to New York, this time not upon her Honda’s roof.
Reviewing the first twenty-four paintings, she felt humiliated. She yearned to disappear, to run back to the time before anyone knew her work, but it was too late. Cannus would likely be at the show. It would be a disaster.
She slept fitfully. A crying newborn appeared in her dreamworld studio, and she awoke, startled by the image. She needed to do something new, something radical.
What have I got to lose? Even an ugly painting is better than a predictable one.
She loaded her number eight Escoda sash brush with black latex house paint and lost all sense of time.
In the hotel room in New York, reaching for Xanax, she spilled the bottle.
Her contacts not yet in, eyes too myopic to find her glasses, she raked the carpet with her fingers. Like her mother and grandmother, she carried the lineage of blind artists dotting her family tree like blurry leaves.
Her heartbeat throbbed in her ears as the room’s walls closed in.
She found the cool, hard pill near her feet and gulped it. The exhibition was starting in an hour. Would Cannus be there?
The opening had been underway for a half hour when she arrived, breathless from the taxi. She’d spilled chamomile tea on her skirt but folded the voluminous material to hide the stain.
The tapping of her stilettos as she walked in on wobbly toothpick legs made her self-conscious. Why had she not bought the $900 designer shoes instead of the $100 ones?
As she teetered into the show, she saw a crowd gathered around a painting in the anteroom of the gallery. It was her last painting of the series, the one she had just finished.
The room grew louder, fueled by banality and champagne. Cannus held court as he discussed the painting in his inimitable gruff voice. A leather-lunged bellower, his words carried across the room as he gesticulated animatedly. Grace’s throat tightened as she neared the group.
Creating that last painting was exhilarating, it was completely different from the first 24. What did Cannus think of it?
As she approached, Cannus turned towards her. His eyes squinted with a quizzical expression. The room fell silent. Her raspy breath deafening to her ears.
Bracing herself, she imagined he would say something like: Here’s Miss flash-in-the-pan because Cannus was known for barking at artists both in person and in writing.
What he said instead was:
Did you actually paint this?
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