Creation: the first concept. The artist in his studio, poring over blank paper. Canvas to come later. For now, the scene accrues, a color at a time, line by line, an outline, forms growing, flowing tentatively together.
Peter, this one’s name. Painting, his one passion. All the women in his life live here. Or maybe, after all, it’s just one woman, coming out here from his dreams to live and breathe in various stages of colored dress and undress, sliding mercifully to life. And then, only to freeze in a moment of timeless time, for all to see?
“All”—well, that concept is a final one, yet to come.
For now, he is alone. He works hard, he knows; his fingers ache by nine in the morning. He takes a coffee at ten. It’s a real job, he thinks to himself, though without an hourly wage. It’s a vocation as well as an avocation, an occupation as well as a preoccupation. Here in the tiny cabin, his studio, he works, he plays, he studies, he worships. It’s all in his art—the conception, the practice; the reflection, the resultant peace; on to new conception.
A knock at the door: Who is it? Damn. He puts the brush down. Stands in front of the paper. A bare light bulb shines overhead. It’s Zena, plaid-shirted.
“Hi, Peter. Came to see you about some firewood.”
Right—it is October.
“That dry pine, dead-standing… Frank told me you didn’t need it right now, you said. But you would take half of it if we cut it down. Can we do that, then? Say today?”
Chainsawing: today. When the craft calls out for silence. Well, Peter thinks, any day would be the same, that way. “Sure, go ahead.”
“Yeah, that’s fine. Go ahead.”
“Okay, thanks, Peter.” A big smile. She tries to peek around, to see.
Peter shifts. She’s beautiful, he thinks. That turn of the cheek, lovely. The light in the hollow, he could capture that, if lucky. He’ll try.
Zena in the kitchen, frying onions freshly harvested. Frank’s in the den reading. Slanting sunlight passes the climbing ivy in the window, strikes her cheek. It’s flushed, slightly, a rising color as she thinks of Peter… and Frank.
Frank’s all right. He was a good choice, a good provider. She’s loved him. And yet… something Zena cannot express, cannot name with any reliable word… something is missing.
It’s been seven years, their time together, married. Their house is cozy, clean. With the extra firewood they’ll be plenty warm this winter. Frank’s part-time jobs will, they’ve learned, continue to give them a good balance of income and time to spend together, skiing in the woods, walking. Talking of children they might have. Next summer, or…
Zena slices her thumb—Damn. The glob of blood trembles, falls in a tiny red splash to the counter, onto a piece of cut onion. She runs to the bathroom for a band-aid; Frank looks up from his book.
“What happened, Zena? You all right?”
Chainsawing, that afternoon. The all-penetrating violence of death. Red oil, like bloody paint, on the stumps. They’re dead anyway, Peter allows, from white pine blister disease. He has his wood in for this year, and the half he’ll get from Frank and Zena’s cutting will go to next year’s pile. That’s good, Peter thinks. Less to worry about, more time to paint.
Peter is poised over his still-wet, morning’s record of Zena in jeans. Dark silken hair under hard hat, chainsaw in hand—the modern madonna. Is this what the rural masses, nonexistent as that concept may be, want to see? Who knows? Peter doesn’t. He’s a painter, not a market analyst.
What else is there? He’s given up every other job he’s tried, from bush work to rail work to office work to carrying mail, all to no end, no satisfaction. His income now derives from a bit of carpentry and design contract work, draftsmanship and commercial art. Odd jobs, low income, subsistence. A living. And most important, space in his life, precious time freed, for art.
Trouble is, they just pile up, the stack of pictures. Everyone who sees them likes them, but nobody buys. They are intricate, bold, imaginative, sometimes breathtakingly real; others symbolic in an even more real way that strikes him to the heart with their pointedness, their accuracy, their… love.
Or is it this that’s missing, in his art as in his life? Is his love for art alone too inbred an emotion, too sterile to bear the fruit of public work, to bear the colorful children out into the actual, the commercial, the domestic world? The world that spins from love, whose inhabitants live for love, love not merely of their work and pleasure, but love for each other; not the conceptions of each other but each other whole in the mortal flesh?
Mortal. Maybe that’s it, his hangup, the flaw in the human divinity. That we are all doomed to a slow decay, with beauty diminishing inexorably, constantly. And then it disappears, along with what remains of us. And so we’re left with nothing. Except children, whose beauty perhaps increases for the first twenty or thirty years. Then the old cycle again. Nothing permanent in itself, only the overall cycle… and even that—well, of course in the cosmic sense, neither is paint everlasting. Only, perhaps, the concepts it paints, he paints: the shapes and relations of things that themselves perish, but leave their traces forever in the mind… the mind of…
Another knock. Peter blinks out of his daze. He hasn’t painted a stroke all afternoon, while the chainsaw roared, instead has sat brooding over the paper, paint hardening on the slender brush. He’s sat still there, thinking, like a picture himself, the very figure of thought unmoving, reflection of eternity.
“Yes, come in.”
It’s Frank this time, black tuque in hand.
“Thanks, man. We’ve got a couple loads piled. We’ll leave you the same stacked between some trees. It’s great. Helped us out in a pinch.”
Peter only smiles, weakly.
“Yeah, cause I had to go to work, slash-burning, and didn’t have time to go out for wood like we’d hoped.”
We… Peter reflects, silently.
“Now with snow practically on top of us—” Frank turns his half-bald, mustachioed head to the mountainside, where the snowline has crept down to within a hundred feet of the inhabited elevations.
“Well, fine,” says Peter. “And thanks to you, too. A good deal for both of us. Okay, see you, Frank”—as the door closes.
Sigh. Back to work, three p.m. No inspiration, and fading light in the still-treed glade. Incomplete picture.