Art, Artist, and Life
by Robert Watts Lamon
Emmett King stood at his easel applying oil colors to a canvas already lined with sketches. The morning sun was bright, the sky clear, and he had stationed himself on a knoll overlooking a series of tree-covered ridges and valleys. The other tools of his profession were arranged on an old picnic table that sat near him. Behind him stood his cabin, in itself a likely objet d’art. He had rented it from the family that owned this mountain in the Southern highlands. It contained some basic amenities and had a small porch, though its roof was metal and its walls were made of logs and caulking. The landscape had brought him here — and, of course, the isolation. Perhaps here, he could regain the freshness, the simplicity that had marked his early work.
Today he was recreating some of the nearby trees — the gnarled limbs of the old white oak, the autumn yellows and reds of the hickory and maple, the dark green of the fir and pine. Was he really as good an artist as so many said? He still had his doubts. Some years ago, when he sold the first of a series of paintings, he had felt a flood of confidence. The art dealer in Philadelphia had loved that picture of fishermen at a pond beside a huge factory. Yet now, he wondered about his skills.
After three hours of painting and introspection, he carried his easel, palette, paints, and brushes back to his cabin. He stood the easel in its usual place in the corner and put the canvas on it. He stood back, looked at it, and gave a reluctant nod. He would stay with the project. That decision made, he went to the woodpile behind the cabin, returned with his arms loaded with logs, and set them down near the fireplace.
He spent the afternoon on the porch, sketching whatever caught his eye — a deer among the trees, a red-tailed hawk perched on a hickory limb. When the sun sank behind the mountains, he went inside and cooked dinner on wood-burning stove. After the meal, he continued sketching, this time the cabin’s interior — his coat and cap hanging on the crude wooden wall, the fireplace and the pile of logs. He spent time writing in his journal and then went to sleep under the thick blankets of his cot.
He was up at dawn the next morning, tossing cold water on his face, building a fire, having his usual breakfast of mush and a boiled egg. Once again he carried his equipment across the yard to that knoll and began to paint. But as he dabbed and brushed, some movement among the trees distracted him. He scanned the woods, thinking it was some form of wildlife —perhaps the black bear that had visited his cabin. But then he dismissed it and returned to the canvas, taking another brush, making some long strokes. When he stood away from the canvas, he didn’t see the combination of beauty and melancholy he was trying to achieve — the glory of the autumn, the sadness of a summer gone.
Again, he was aware of motion among the trees and, with it, the sound of footfalls on the leafy trail. A woman emerged from the woods and approached him. She was likely in her twenties, a slender girl in old jeans and a sweatshirt cut off at the elbows, part of a farm family that grew sorghum in a nearby hollow. And she was quite pretty, taller than most women, with auburn hair that hung to her waist.
“Y’all new here?” she asked.
“Yes — don’t you live in the next valley?”
“Right yonder. My daddy’s fixing to make molasses.”
He looked at her for a moment, scratching his chin. “Say — uh, can you climb a tree?”
“I reckon that depends on the tree.”
He pointed to the oak tree in the foreground, the one he was recreating on the canvas. “That one — right there. Can you get up on that low limb?”
“Yes, sir — I just might could do that.”
“I need a model — for a project I’m working on. I’ll sketch you sitting on that tree limb and do a separate sketch of your face.”
“I ain’t fixing to get naked.”
“No, no — that’s not what I want. You might take off your shoes.”
She took off her sneakers, walked to the uphill side of the tree, and pulled herself up onto the limb.
“Now just sit there,” he said. “Relax and look halfway up — toward the treetops.”
He took a sketching pad and pencil from a nearby table and worked for some minutes, getting her figure, her posture, the arms, the legs. Then, he moved closer, and, on a seperate sheet, carefully reproduced her face. He had always been good with faces, and he was sure he would capture the essence of her face — the freshness, the bright-eyed look, and, yes, the innocence.
“I’ve got to leave soon,” she said. “Almost time for chores.”
“Just a minute or two more. Keep looking at the treetops — that’s good.”
When he had finished, he put the sketch on the table and went to help her down. But she simply stood on the limb, edged toward the end until it bent low, and jumped off.
“Hey — that was a graceful landing,” he said.
“Can I come by and look at the picture?”
“Of course — anytime.”
He thanked her, and she picked up her shoes and glided down the path toward home. He began to paint, adding the figure of the young woman to the picture. He was making progress, getting the hands, the bare feet, the lithe quality in the arms and legs, adding the brown leaves and the red leaves of the oak tree. The scale would allow a careful rendering of her face and make it the center of interest.
But he had done all he could that day. The picture was taking shape, and he felt the need to wander among the hills and trees. After depositing his artist’s tools back in the cabin, he set out along the trail leading to a bald prominence — he was already three-thousand feet above sea level. From the heights, he could see a small town in the valley and tiny cars along its highway, all framed by the nearby slopes, with a backdrop of mountains to the west. He crossed the summit, and entering the woods on the opposite side, he noticed a black bear near the trail. It was a mother bear, and with her were two cubs. The mother bear hissed at him and waved her claws — and then surprised him by hustling her two cubs up a tree. When they were well up the trunk, she simply sat and watched him. Taking this as permission to proceed, he walked on, giving a thank-you wave to the bear.
As he strolled along, he heard a woman’s laugh — and then another, and another. The laughter came from a clearing, visible through a scattering of trees. The clearing was overgrown with tall grass and Queen Anne’s lace. He noticed a familiar figure lying among the weeds, identifiable by her long auburn hair. But the old jeans and sweatshirt were partly lowered and raised, and a man lay next to her in a similar state of undress. He paused for a moment and then, embarrassed by his own curiosity, carefully walked away, unnoticed by the lovers. He returned to his cabin in a troubled mood. The sight of the unfinished picture on the easel depressed him. Should he toss it out the window? — or carry it to some hidden Gehenna? No, he would complete the picture — after all, he was a professional, and his work might sell, simply because it bore his name.
Up early the next morning, he remained indoors, addressing the problem of the young woman’s face. For some time, he stood at his easel, staring at the canvas, his former inspiration gone. He couldn’t transfer that face to the canvas. What he finally produced was a face with a sly look, a naughty, come-hither look. He was tempted to remove some of her clothes — dishonest perhaps, but appropriate to her expression.
He decided to keep what he had on the canvas. He took it outside to add some final touches to the scenic background. The day wasn’t quite the same as yesterday. The sun was bright, but there was a scattering of web-like cirrus clouds and a distinct breeze rattling the tree leaves and moving the fallen leaves in the yard. He was painting and still bothered by that face, when the young woman appeared behind him. She brushed aside her long hair and stared at the picture.
“Is that me?” she finally asked.
“I’m not sure — I didn’t get what I wanted.”
“She looks like a whore — I ain’t no whore.”
“That wasn’t what I intended. I just couldn’t —”
She had tears in her eyes. “I swear I ain’t no whore.”
“Please — look, I’m sorry that it offends you.”
“I look plumb mean — like I got the devil in me.”
She wasn’t quite the same girl he had seen yesterday. There were shadows in her face — lines he hadn’t noticed. Her arms and ankles were red-blemished, perhaps from her encounter in the weeds.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll get it right.”
But could he? — he really wasn’t sure. Sadly, he watched her drift away down the path. She never did return.
When he had done all he could with the painting, he was still tempted to toss it away. But instead, he drove with it to Charlotte and to the shop of an art dealer and old friend. When he presented this latest canvas, the dealer placed it on his own easel and stood away. He looked at it for a long time — too long. Then he looked at it askance — another bad sign.
“Emmett — I’m sorry, but I don’t want this one.”
“I’m sure you have your reasons, John.”
“That girl’s face — it’s a cliché. There’s a face like that on every gossipy magazine cover. And the Internet’s full of them. Some calendar publisher might want it.”
“No — I’ll just keep it as a vacation souvenir.”
And so, he rode with his failed canvas back to the mountains. It occupied a corner in his cabin as the weather grew colder and the snow began to fall. He remained active in the winter weather. He had sound clothes to protect him and kept a good fire to warm him. And he was having a grand time painting the snow covered scenery with its bare trees, frozen ponds, and dauntless animals.
But then one morning, while sipping hot coffee in front of the fire, he glanced at that painting in the corner. An idea struck him — an irresistible idea. He set the canvas on the easel, nodded, and began to work — smearing, brushing, carefully stroking and dabbing. And at last, standing away from the altered picture, he nodded and smiled and set it aside to dry.
Once more, he rode with it to the dealer in Charlotte, and once more, the dealer placed it on his own easel and moved away. But this time, his response came quickly.
“Oh, yes, yes,” he said. “I’ll certainly take this one.”
The canvas no longer carried the picture of a young woman. Along its lower edge, it showed part of a man’s shoulder, clothed in wool plaid, giving the impression of a scene viewed by a passer-by. On the limb of the oak tree were two black-bear cubs. At the base of the tree, the mother bear sat staring with claws raised. Did he finally get it right? Well — at least the dealer thought so. As for the artist, Emmett King, he kept that earliest sketch of the young woman’s face. He would look at it, from time to time, and considered it among his finest works.
Robert Watts Lamon lives and writes in Durham, North Carolina. He has published a number of short stories in print and online magazines, including Toasted Cheese, Foliate Oak, One Million Stories, Xavier Review and The MacGuffin, and contributed six book reviews to Liberty.