A painter invited three of her closest friends over to her studio for the unveiling of her four new pieces. The friends were very excited to see the artist’s latest work as she had become locally renowned after doing a series of paintings describing her life.
As the friends entered the twilit gallery, the painter greeted them warmly and served them drinks. The studio was in disarray. A cold draft seeped in between the window panes. The friends asked the painter why her studio was so cold, and the painter responded that the furnace had broken down. The landlord was very slow in maintenance requests; most residents of the complex had taken to hiring people to fix minor problems. The artist could not afford such services.
“Now,” said the painter, “I will introduce you to my latest works.” She flipped on the studio light. It glowed dimly in the dusky light.
She led them over to a corner where four veiled easels stood and removed the first cover with a flourish.
The friends gaped. It was a beautiful oil painting of a black woman in a shimmering yellow robe. Her head was wrapped in a red shawl and her eyes twinkled within her lined face. The corners of her mouth turned up into a beautiful smile.
The first friend, Amari, spoke. “She seems to be wearing traditional African dress. Are you doing a study on African culture?”
“No,” the painter replied.
The second friend, Will, blurted, “So why did you paint her? She’s a pretty far stretch from your other works. I mean, she’s…” He trailed off, at a loss for words. Will’s partner, Drew, gazed at him for a moment, then seated herself on a nearby stool. She looked from Will to the painting.
The painter sighed. “I was commissioned to paint a woman. There were no details on what she should look like. So I painted a woman.”
“Ahh, did Ms. Witton commission that one?” Will interjected enthusiastically, referring to the artist’s African American neighbor who loved watching the painter work.
“No.” the artist said firmly. “It was commissioned by the director of the local Christian Women’s
The sun was sinking lower in the sky. A faint band of cumulous clouds was turning a brilliant shade of pink against the lemon sunset. The painter moved to the next portrait and unveiled it. It was a beautiful charcoal drawing of two males. Their hands were intertwined, and one’s lips rested on the neck of his partner.
This time, Drew spoke first. “Wow, that’s…graphic.” Almost at the same time, Amari sighed, “It’s beautiful.”
The painter rounded on Drew, looking puzzled. “Graphic? You mean too sexual? The drawing is only from the waist up; there’s no real nudity.”
Drew looked uncomfortable. She shifted slightly in her seat, nestling closer to Will. “Well, I guess it’s just the subject matter. Why on Earth would you draw something like that?”
“I was commissioned to draw ‘love’,” the artist responded. “So I drew a couple in an intimate pose.”
“Who commissioned that?” Will queried, straining to think. He did not know of any gay men that knew the artist well enough to commission a work from her.
“My elderly aunt. She spoke of love in her youth, and how she misses her late husband in her old age. I showed her the painting, and she glowed with fond memory when she saw it,” the painter replied. An awkward silence descended as the friends tried to think of why she had drawn two men to represent love for her aunt.
Drew broke the pause. “But why those two? Your aunt is straight!” she said shrilly. “That’s not her kind of love.”
“Love knows no sex or gender. My aunt related to it well enough. Does it truly matter what the people are? Love is love,” the artist patiently insisted.
“Makes sense to me,” Amari murmured. Drew crossed her arms, unconvinced. Will gazed determinedly out the window at the sunset. The sun was nearly down, streaking the horizon with orange, pink, and lavender. The sky was darkening to a deep indigo and the moon gleamed palely in the northern sky.
“I’m glad you like it, Amari,” the painter responded. She moved on to the next painting, unfazed by the reactions of her other two friends. The next painting was a watercolor rendition of a lavish mansion. Carved stone columns enclosed a beautiful porch. A large turret jutted above the main house. The painter had included landscaping; trees and shrubs bloomed in a riot of color.
“Wow,” Drew breathed. “It’s absolutely beautiful!” Amari and Will echoed her sentiment.
“Thank you! I’m glad you like it. This one was not by commission; I painted it more for fun,” the painter responded.
Amari nodded. “It’s like a dream come true. Is that what it means? Did you paint your dream home? It’s loads better than your studio.” She giggled.
The painter smiled without humor. “Well, no, it was more for practice in dimensions and architectural structure. I’m perfectly happy with my studio. It may not seem like much, but I’ve worked hard for what I have.
Will smiled at her warmly, and the artist smiled back. They had grown up together – their parents had worked at a local textile factory and lived in the community housing provided by the company. They had had happy childhoods, despite frequent hardships. During high school, both friends had worked several jobs and managed to establish themselves after completing school with help from their families. They took much pride in their backgrounds.
Amari was at a loss for words. She didn’t understand why the painter would rather live in a drafty loft than in the mansion in the painting. Amari’s brother worked as a state attorney and lived in an opulent mansion in the city’s richest suburb. Amari had always been jealous of his home over her modest three-bedroom apartment in the city. She shivered and pulled her jacket tighter around herself. The room was quite cold.
The sun was over the horizon now. Bands of pink and maroon stretched across the horizon. The moon was much brighter now, glimmering frostily in the November chill. Drew stared intently at the final easel. “So, what’s the last one?” she said after a time.
The painter glanced over. “I’ll show you,” she said, and reached for the cover. “This one was also by commission; the pastor of the church down the street opened up a Community Prayer center in the vacant space next to his church.”
The cover fell back, revealing another oil painting. It showed a family at prayer: father, mother, and two children. They knelt on a beautifully colored prayer rug, garbed in loose-fitting robes. The mother wore a purple hijab over her head. The scene was very genuine in that the family seemed so real, as if they were in the room.
“It’s a painting of a photograph,” the artist said. “The photo was taken by my cousin while she was on a humanitarian trip to
The three friends all stared at the piece. “It’s so real,” Drew said. “Where did you say it was going?” she added, looking back at the painter.
“In the new Community Prayer center down the street,” the painter replied.
“I didn’t know that was a mosque,” Will said. “I thought it was some kind of non-denominational Christian congregation.”
“It is,” replied the painter. “But the Community Prayer center is not specific to any religion, it’s open to anyone who wants a peaceful, quiet place to get away – it’s situated beyond a little courtyard away from the street. This neighborhood can get pretty loud at night,” she finished. Obnoxious honking from the nearby highway confirmed her statement.
“Their aren’t any Muslims in this neighborhood, are there?” Amari said. “I though most of them lived up in that area over past the mall.”
“I’m sure there are some Muslims around that would appreciate it,” Will replied.
“What does it matter what religion it portrays? It’s beautiful whether or not you’re Muslim, and it’s clearly showing prayer. I think it’s perfect,” Drew said. The artist nodded her thanks.
“I guess so,” Will said. “It just seems like…” he stopped. Everyone looked over at him. Past Will, outside, the sun had completely set, leaving the sky a deep navy blue. Individual stars twinkled dimly, strangled by the lights of the sprawling city. Amari suddenly remembered her childhood in the country, where the oppressive city lights didn’t cover up the stars. She and her brother had loved laying in the fields, staring up at the night sky and telling fantastic tales that took place among the stars. Amari found herself missing those times. She shook her head lightly, pulling out of the memory.
Will was biting his lip. “It just seems like you took every commission and did something that people wouldn’t expect. It’s like you tried to make everything all different and exotic, on purpose.”
Drew looked over at her lover. “Are these really that different? When you lose sight of the similarities, you lose the whole point of the works,” she said. The painter nodded.
Amari was squinting out the window, looking up at the night sky. She realized the stars weren’t that difficult to see, she just had to focus past the haze of the city. Suddenly, Amari turned to Will. “I think that’s the point. We’re so used to seeing things through the lens of what we believe to be normal that thoughts, ideas, and people that challenge our norms seem to be strange, awkward, or unnatural."
Will smiled at Amari, then turned to the artist. “Well, that’s that. I think your new works are a huge success."
The painter was glad her friends had enjoyed her pieces. She couldn’t wait for them to be put out for the public to see. Hopefully, they would provoke some thought in addition to enriching the community.
J.M. Kohfeld, September 2009