A Work of Art
By A. Craig Newman
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Entranced by the painting before her, Tamara stood and stared. Of all the paintings she had seen that day, this one affected her the most. While the feelings she had for this work of art were strong, they were so many and so intense that she could not clearly identify them all. The face in the painting seemed familiar and not being able to put a name to it bothered her. The subject of the painting repelled her. Even the picture being on display angered her. Yet, under all the negative feelings, she still felt this desire, even a need, to continue looking. Perhaps, if she looked deeper into the picture, she could see the reason for it. Perhaps. She looked for a clue in the title, but "Through God's Eyes" did not help her understanding in any way.
It had been a full day at the art gallery for Tamara and she felt more than blessed to have seen it all. The myriad of paintings and sculptures she had seen uplifted her depressed spirits. All except this one painting. She had passed it earlier in the day and it brought up such feelings of disgust, she had to move away from it. However, after going through the rest of the gallery, she felt drawn back to this one painting in this odd spot. It hung alone in an archway between two rooms. Though she had been throughout the gallery, she had not seen any other display in a similar location. All displays were in the rooms or in hallways between rooms, but never in an archway. Hopefully, Tamara thought, some employee will recognize the mistake of hanging this painting here and hang it in some proper area in the future.
"So what do you think?" a voice asked her. It was the first thing she had heard in –seconds? minutes? She had begun to lose track of time as she evaluated the painting. She looked around for the source of the voice and found it to be a strange looking old man standing to her left. He was short in stature, perhaps dwarfish. He wore a black tuxedo and carried a black cane with a golden handle. It looked as if a night at the opera was the next stop for him. The hair on his head, like that on his chin, had turned silver many years ago and was now twisted into a neat ponytail. As he pulled one stubby hand to his head to scratch an itch, Tamara noticed how the brightness of the hair stood out so well against his smooth dark skin. The hair betrayed his age as much as his face and skin hid it. Were he to dye his hair black, he could easily pass for someone 20 years his junior. But as it was, she found it impossible to confidently guess an age for him. He did make for a strange sight to see.
"I ask you again, madam. What do you think?" His voice was soft and gentile. Somehow, it seemed to fit his appearance. She noted a bit of an accent, but could not place it exactly.
"Of the painting?" She asked stupidly as she came out of her evaluation of him.
"You could call it that," he said as he stared into it.
"What else would you call it?" She looked back to him again.
The old man looked around as if he were finding the answer in the air. He then tilted his head toward Tamara and said in a whisper, "Art." He then smiled and laughed. Tamara could not stop herself from doing the same.
"Well, that would certainly be a word for it," she half-mumbled as she started to focus on the painting again.
"Of course it would be!” said he, returning to a normal volume. “It touches the soul and forces an emotional reaction. That is the true power of art. It can say words which can not be defined, touch ideas that can not be described, and stir emotions that can not be displayed. That is what makes art beautiful."
Tamara still gazed into the painting as she listened to him speak. She felt lost in it.
"And so I ask you a third time," the old man said. "What do you think of it?" He walked over and stood next to it and looked at Tamara. "What does it draw from you? Love? Passing interest? Boredom? Disgust?" He trailed off, giving Tamara time to think.
Tamara looked at the painting a few seconds longer before answering. "Disgust."
"I thought I read that on your face," he said with a smile that seemed to be incomplete without a wink. In smiling, 5 more years dropped from his face. Perhaps he knew that because he kept that smile on his face through most of his interaction with Tamara. "Why?”
"No background,” she said, listing the first thing that came to mind. “Not that every painting needs one, but it would at least make this one more interesting. The solid black does not do the subject any justice, especially with her dark skin."
He had turned to face the painting, looking for what she saw. "Go on."
"And the subject,” she wrinkled her nose like she smelled something bad. “It's a poor choice of subjects. Why does she stand there with her arms crossed? And such a scowl! She looks like she had just eaten bad lemons or something."
Laughter erupted from the old man. "That she does. That she does. Please go on."
"And why is she nude?” Tamara gestured toward the painting, being able to move now that she found a voice and a name for her feelings. “Her body leaves nothing to speak of. She's not very attractive at all, neither is there anything noteworthy about her."
"You don't find beauty inherent in the naked form?"
"I usually do. But this time, it seems to be nudity for no reason. She could have very well been drawn with her clothes on and nothing would be lost from this picture. Besides, the artist doesn't seem to be trying to capture her beauty. See how he accentuates the blemishes and scars.” Tamara walked to the painting, pointing out the flaws. “You see them before you see her face. I think the artist is just a pervert."
He smiled and laughed, but Tamara did not sense it was at her comment. Finally, paused long enough to say, “I am many things, but not a pervert.”
Tamara blushed when she realized what he was telling her. "Sir, I'm so sorry. I didn't know-" she began to stammer.
He held up one stubby finger and said, "Hush. It's OK. In fact, I'm quite happy you didn't know that I made this. I like the honesty."
"But if I knew it was yours, I wouldn't have said those things." She still held her apologetic tone.
"Not saying something doesn't make it false. Be honest with me, dear woman. If I were standing here or on the other side of the world, would that affect the subject's scowl, her nudity, or my perversion?"
She winced at the last word. "I really didn't mean to say that."
"You were being honest." His voice seemed to float from his lips to her ears. She decided to let go of further apologies. "After all, isn't that what you look for in art? Honesty?" Tamara looked back at the painting again, but hung on each word of the old man. "Art, true art, all has the same source for ideas, the heart. It's a piece of the artist soul taken out and put on display for all to see. And what lies at the heart but honesty?"
"Not all people are honest," she countered without taking her eyes from the picture.
"Not even most people are honest. But when you create from your heart, you will create from what you are, honestly. If you are honestly a crook, your ideas and passion will spring from that crookedness. If you are honestly a lover, you creativity will spring from that love.” He paused and stared deeply into Tamara’s face. She, in turn, was lost staring into the painting looking for answers for questions she couldn’t seem to form. But slowly, the questions started to come to her.
"So what does this say about you?"
He continued to gaze upon Tamara and let out a sigh. "I love her. I loved her from the beginning."
"Then why did you paint her in such a way?"
"Because that's who she is," he said cryptically.
"But if you love her, why not spare her dignity and paint her with clothes?” The floodgates open, the questions seemed to come in a rush and she posed them as they came to mind. “Or if she must be nude, why accentuate her faults? Why the scowl is SO pronounced? Paint her happy or with a smile or even content, but not so angry. And her posture and body language are horrible. She is so closed and upset. Why not paint her in the softer way which loving eyes would see?"
"Because that is not her. This," he said pointing the painting," is her. She does not like who she is. So she scowls at herself. She is nude because she cannot hide who she is from me. Her arms are crossed because she will not let anyone in. She is quite closed and very upset.
"But yet this is the woman I love. I love her how she is with no changes. That means that I love the scowl, the closed nature, and her anger. That means that I also love her blemishes and scars. Each one of them contributed to who she is and I love them for that. I love her, who she is, as she is. No rosy coloring or softening effects."
In the seconds of time that seemed to stretch to an eternity as the man described his love for the lady in the picture, Tamara began to see what he saw. His greatest act of love for her in his art could only be to display her, perhaps harshly, but honestly. The disgust in Tamara for this painting seemed to crack and slip away piece by piece. "I see," she whispered and for the first time since stopping at this picture, she felt that she was beginning to see.
"Then I hope that you will see more. Like, for instance, your feelings toward the picture added to your observation of it. The scowl is not nearly as severe, the posture is not nearly as closed, and the blemishes not nearly as accentuated as you supposed."
Tamara looked with renewed attention. Everything the old man had said was true. The subject did not look so much angry as she simply looked sad.
"Do you think she is beautiful?" the old man asked from the blue.
Tamara evaluated the subject's face again. After a moment, "No," was the only answer she could give.
"But she is!" the old man said, as he approached Tamara. "She's beautiful by nature. She is, after all, a work of art." He smiled and extended his hand. "Like yourself." Tamara took the old man's hand, and was startled when he brought her hand to his lips for a gentle kiss. He put his other hand on top of hers and looked up into her eyes. "You know what I wish the most?"
"What?" Tamara felt a tad enchanted by the whole strange scenario.
"That, if only for one moment, she would see herself through my eyes, the eyes of someone who loves her. Then maybe she would stop frowning."
"Maybe," Tamara echoed. She smiled as she looked down into the old man's eyes.
"Well," he said as he released her hand after a small pat, "it has been a delight speaking with you. You have a good night."
"You have a good night too, sir."
He tapped his cane on the ground, flashed another smile that seemed incomplete without a wink, and walked away. "Stay beautiful, Tamara," he called over his shoulder as he disappeared into the crowds. In one heartbeat, he was gone. In two heartbeats, Tamara realized she never told him her name.
Tamara looked back at the painting and realized that it had changed. The subject's face was the same, but now she wore a white T-shirt, blue jeans, black sneakers, and a confused look on her face. Her arms were no longer crossed, but down to her sides. The background was no longer black but a scene of people milling about. In a gallery.
As Tamara observed the picture and all the new details and the changes, a sudden understanding came to her when a gallery patron passed between her and the painting. It was no painting she had been observing. From years in the future, she would think back to this moment and wonder if the painting had actually changed at all, or if the old man had just let her see it for what it really was. Either way, at that moment she could only stare at the mirror.