(This is the second in a four-part series)
I kept thinking about painting her.
Because of this, I had a hard time staying focused.
Normally, I’m a person who paints in straight lines and hard edges. But I would let my mind wander and find my brush sweeping a curve down the canvas — a curve like the inside of a waist, or the outside of a thigh.
I spent some time drawing and fiddling around with paint on paper. I was actually toying with the problem of how to abstract a woman’s body on canvas. I visited the bookstore, looking for historical inspiration – some sort of reference point. I found parts of bodies and reductionist portraits, but I didn’t find any abstracts that recalled an impression of a body.
“Well, there’s Georgia O’Keefe,” I said to myself.
Finally, unable to live with my obsession one minute longer, I threw on my jacket and headed to the diner.
I looked around and didn’t see her.
The same older woman sat near the cash register, thumbing through the same time-worn copy of Redbook. Her nametag read “Madge”.
“Madge, is the other waitress here? The young one with the ponytail?”
Madge shook her head.
“May I leave her my card?”
Silently, Madge took the card from me and placed in on the register, right above the cash drawer.
“Thanks,” I said.
Back at my studio, I turned on the electric teakettle. The room was warm, despite the wood floor and brick walls. A small wood-burning stove keeps the place cozy. Since I live here, I try to keep it burning most of the time.
A folded cotton futon in the corner is one of the only clues this is my home. I keep my food and clothes stashed in metal cabinets, and there’s a tiny cube refrigerator under one of the tables. I’m a secret resident — one of two or three in the building. We create what the city calls “a non-conforming, illegal use”. Since a disgruntled tenant wrote a letter of complaint to the building department a year ago, we’ve been subject to periodic inspections. This is why I can’t let the place slide to homey. It needs to look like my workspace, nothing more.
This building was once a cannery and it shows the scars of heavy industrial use. Giant beams span the ceiling and metal supports cross the walls. The hallways are wide with uneven cement floors. Grooves in the cement show the path of apple carts that rolled through the building. The hallways are always cold, even in the hottest months of the summer. In the winter, they’re frigid.
The warmth and light is what makes coming into my studio such a nice surprise, despite the lack of decor.
A large window looks down on the street and several skylights splash light across the floor. I’ve added some halogen work lights in the corners, and some photographer’s lights with full spectrum bulbs are clamped to the beams, throwing the equivalent of daylight down on my work area during the dark months of winter.
I sat down on a wooden stool with my cup of lapsang souchong in my hands, the smoky scent filling the room. I looked around. Fresh canvases were piled against one wall. My paints were laid out on a long wooden table. Another table held jars of brushes. I cover these tables with white paper and change it frequently. I like the crisp, clean look and it makes it easy to find what I’m looking for. A painter’s drop cloth protected the brick wall where my easel stood, waiting.
So why was I feeling so blocked?
Thinking perhaps some music would help my mood, I grabbed Kate Wolf’s “Back Roads” cd. Music from my childhood, this is where I go for musical comfort.
Then I sat down at my work table and opened my journal.
On the first page I had written a quote from an article Stephen Batchelor had written for Tricycle, the Buddhist Review;
“The artist’s dilemma and the meditator’s are, in a deep sense,
equivalent. Both are repeatedly willing to confront an unknown and
to risk a response that they cannot predict or control.”
I turned to a clean page, dated the top of it, and began to write this story about how I had met a waitress in a coffee shop and painted her. “I dried my hands on my pants,” I began, choosing a familiar gesture. The afternoon stretched out in front of me and the window began to darken as I drank another cup of tea and continued writing.
Finally, I stood up stiffly, and began to add some wood to the stove. I was crouched down there, poking a log into place, when there was a knock at the door.