Painting lesson: artists are strange

A large bookcase with rows of tightly packed books forms the outer boundary of the studio. Usually the bookcase lingers in a sort of semi-darkness, but today sunlight plays its game of hop and skip on the lower shelves. Dust particles dance in the light, following their own rhythm. The afternoon has almost gone to make way for early evening. I am sitting uncomfortably in a lumpy old armchair, covered in paint, trying to get comfortable in between springs that have simply given up.

The painter is seated opposite of me in a similar chair, even wonkier than mine. We listen to some old blues music in silence. He hums along, and mixes it with sips from a glass. I am drinking a coke, from an old marmalade jar. There were no more clean glasses. The scent of linseed oil and turpentine a heavy presence in the air. He calls it a “studio”, but to my youthful eyes it’s a sort of storage room filled with mysterious, interesting and adventurous objects. Especially his collection of erotic photography (third shelf on the right) is to me, as a sixteen year old, highly interesting and adventurous.

“Actually, you are not that strange”, it blurts out, direct, blunt, and not yet marked with the quiet politeness that would dominate my conversation in later years.

He looks at me inquisitively and stops humming: “should I be?”

I shrug, “well, artists are usually a weird bunch”.

He laughs, with a loud booming laugh. His eyes embedded in a web of fine lines that surround them.

“Well, you are right for some of them, they can be pretty weird. But to tell you the truth, I just try to be me. It would be rather difficult, I imagine, trying to be someone else”.

I nod, as if I understand his words. At the same time I’m observing his large brimmed hat, and his big ragged moustache as if someone had pasted some old tattered rope on his upper lip. A greyish dirty jacket is worn over a faded t-shirt, complemented by some trousers that used to be green, or grey. Maybe they were a greenish grey, but fading and blobs of dried paint ensure that this mystery will never be solved.

My mind searches for a reason to break the silence, while my eyes wander across the easels where canvases stand in various stages.

“Do you ever work with other artist?”

“No, I work best when I’m alone. In here.” The hand with the rollup taps on the side of his hat, and ashes drop down on his clothes. There’s no quick brushing off, no standing up as if stung by a wasp, like I am used to with other people. He just sits there quietly with ashes on his clothes and throws his head back to sing along to some couplets of a song.

At the same time I wonder what he meant by tapping his head. Does he work in his head, with his head? The only work I know is done with your hands.

My jar is empty and I walk over to the refrigerator.
“While you are standing, hand me my guitar.”

Now it gets complicated: in the corner there are three guitar stands with guitars on them. I don’t know which one to take and seek guidance from his eyes. They are closed and he hums along with the music. In doubt I look at the guitars: a black shiny one, a wooden classic one, and one made of metal.

The metal one fascinates me.

“Grab one”.

“Which one?”

“Choose”

I grab the wooden classical guitar: “You want this one?”

“I don’t know, do I?”

Again I search for guidance or confirmation, but his head is still resting on the chair, still the eyes are closed.
Carefully I replace the wooden guitar on its stand and grab the metal one. Carefully I hold it in my hands and watch how the light plays on it.

“Good choice” his voice says behind me.

“So, you want this one?”

“That is the choice you made. Any choice is a good choice. As long as you make a choice, otherwise the choice makes you”.

That I don’t understand, but that’s probably me.

He lifts his hands and I put the guitar in his lap. He puts the glass on the floor and his hands caress the instrument.

Finally I get to refill my marmalade jar. You know, sometimes I just don’t get him. Most of the time, actually. Why do his words sound so easy, and yet so difficult?

It’s like there is some meaning in his words that I can’t grasp yet. Like trying to pick up something from a high shelf, with your fingertips barely touching it, and every time you grasp you push it away.

Silently I sit down in my chair again. A different singer tells about sadness and sorrow, the old painter adds a note here and there on his guitar.

“Do you actually like this music? I really can’t bear to listen to it.” It doesn’t come out quite the way I want it, it sounds too blunt. Again.

“Just you wait, there will be a day when you will understand..”

I sincerely doubt it, ragged guitar play and whining men singing about despair.

“Experience, son, experience”.

I smile, and consider myself quite experienced already, thank you very much.

Sunday evening, and it’s later then I care to remember. I have just gotten home, and I must acquaint myself with my bed if I am to get my eight hours sleep. From my studio next door, who am I kidding, it’s a storage room full of interesting and adventurous objects and books, the scent of linseed oil and turpentine waltzes into the living room. The weekend that has past is not one that I would care to remember. Words were said that can’t be unsaid, doors have been slammed and the sound still reverberates in my head.

I am tired, mentally tired.

Sitting in an old armchair next to the window I look out and  take a draw from my cigarette. Ashes fall off on my clothes and I ignore it. The ice cubes in my glass make a desperate attempt at sounding cheerful when I take a sip of the drink that burns pleasantly in my throat.

Music sounds in my living room. An old singer sings of heartache, loneliness and the silent sadness of men. I close my eyes and lay my head back. Inside of me the words suddenly find their way to my throat and I sing along. Loudly, while the tears in my eyes are clinging on for dear life.

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