This is Part III of my online story: After Graduation: The journey of an artist after art school. If you would like to start from the beginning, here is the link: Part I
The overnight hours allowed a cool front to settle over Nested Lake and along with it were heavy, threatening clouds. According to the meteorologist, who was announcing the forecast on Mel’s radio, the rain would be infrequent and with the highest chances in the afternoon. Just as he finished saying his well wishes for the listeners, Mel watched two engorged drops of liquid explode against the windshield. Five more followed. She pulled her key from the ignition and looked at the bookstore, which was only a few running steps away. The drops began to thud with more rhythm. Taking a quick glance around, she didn’t see her umbrella in its usual home behind the passenger seat. Though her hands felt all around, even scooping under the seats, the turquoise and navy blue protector was no where to be found. Her head fell against the headrest just as the memory of her former roommate, Kaylie, crossed her consciousness. At the end of the school year, Kaylie had needed the umbrella while they were in town for something, something that seemed important then but was unremarkable now. She watched as the miniature puddles accumulated and dripped down the glass.
Then the splotches on the windshield stopped momentarily. Mel knew it was best to take her chances in case the torrent grew worse. Plus she couldn’t wait much longer. An artist was going to be meeting her in half an hour – unless he was scared away by the rain – and she wanted to look ready, not drenched, for his arrival. With a clean motion, she slid from behind the wheel, grabbed her purse and slammed the door shut. Her feet crunched against the white gravel. The car’s lights blinked twice as she clicked the lock button, but she didn’t glance back to see their glimmer. Her feet were already hastily rounding the building and throwing open the bookstore’s side entrance. Only a few drips had trickled from the awning onto her arms.
Inside, the bookstore’s lights were dim, but there was evidence of Tilly having started the morning early. The first exhibit greeted her at her feet. Three brown boxes were stacked up and from the top box, half of the paperback books had already been removed. ‘Whispering Lane’ was a popular request in their shop, according to Tilly, ever since it rose to the #1 position on the New York Bestsellers list back in March. It was labelled a perfect vacation read with romance, secrets and murder that tangled together five families all who happened to live on a small suburban street. Mel had a difficult enough time not laughing at the description on the back cover. Thankfully for the book’s author, most people did not share Mel’s taste in fiction. She picked up the packing slip that had fallen to the ground and continued forward.
The next stop on the ‘Evidence of Tilly’ tour was retrieving a neon yellow coffee mug from the top of a nearby bookcase. It was waiting for its owner to return along with a single copy of ‘Whispering Lane.’ Mel embraced the bright mug’s warm handle, leaving the evening suburban street covered book behind, and moved the mug and packing slip to the cashier’s desk. She glanced over to the reading nook where a single table lamp shined a warm yellow hue. Two ‘Whispering Lane’ books had been set under the lamp and two of the reading chairs had been rearranged so they were closely facing one another. A notepad with barely legible notes rested in one chair’s seat. With the clouds outside defusing any sunshine, this would be a wonderful place to spend a rainy day. It seemed that Tilly had the same presence of mind.
“Tilly?” she called out knowing the owner was around somewhere. As she walked towards the back staircase, she pulled from her purse a schedule of the day’s interviewing artists, two in all. Suddenly there was a quick burst of far away laughter, Tilly’s voice mixed with another; his was a deeper tone. They were in the gallery.
After setting the schedule down next to the neon mug, she shouted a bit louder. “Tilly?” Mel pulled back the plastic construction curtain and tried to adjust her eyes. The lights were off in the gallery. The windows were paper-covered and the three skylights were of no help on such a cloudy day. Mel was about to turn around when she heard a commotion in the back storage room. Tilly’s laugh burst again and was moving closer to the main room. The rain began drumming against the skylights and roof. The reprieve had been short lived. The drops pounded in irregular rhythm as though they were warming up for a big show.
Tilly’s voice rang out, cutting through the drums. “Mel! You’re here! What a surprise you had for me this morning.” Tilly nodded her head in the man’s direction. At first he was obscured behind Tilly’s figure and further hidden by the shadows until he drifted to the side. As the two moved closer, any breath that was inside of her body had completely vacated her lungs. She ceased to hear the rain. Her vision had become like a tunnel. There was no more Tilly or gallery, there was just a man who moved in a slowed down version of reality. Her mind was absent of thoughts. Never before had someone caused her body to react in such a way. Tilly was explaining something and laughing, laughing more than normal, but Mel’s brain was fixated as the man moved ever closer. He was reaching out his hand, her eyes moved down to watch it extend closer to her body. His was a hand flecked with paint splatters; the lighter hues stood out against his tanned flesh. A different hand was reaching out to accept his; it was her own hand, so much smaller than his, but the act was not conscious. She was too awed to do that on her own. She could feel rough edges on his palm, which were intensified by his firm grip. Her eyes left the handshake and bolted to his face. He was many years older than her, perhaps close to thirty, or if he was a hard partying artist, perhaps twenty-five. She had been surprised by artists’ ages before given that their intense lifestyles left worn, wrinkled skin as evidence. He had enough wrinkles to be older than her. And did he have gray hair or was that paint?
Sounds started coming back fully. Tilly’s voice was infiltrating just like the pounding rain. Mel suddenly wondered if she was smiling, or was she giving any hint of a response? What had overcome her? Her face flushed with the realization that she was staring at his kind face; a wide, perfectly set grin was looking down at her. Mel looked over to Tilly who was staring back with curiosity. She dropped his hand knowing she had held it for far too long. He hadn’t wretched it away though.
Tilly’s hand rested against Mel’s shoulder. “Did you bring your laptop with you?”
Her eyes gradually looked over to Tilly as her brain registered the word. She was asking about a laptop. The laptop? “No, I left it overnight in the bookstore. It needed to be charged.”
“Great, we’ll look at the other gallery’s photos over there.” Tilly was first to glide to the partition, pulling back the curtain, as the two followed behind. The artist motioned Mel forward.
He spoke to her back. “I know I arrived earlier than my appointment time. With the rain,” he pointed to the bookstore’s side window that showed a thick gray sheet of wet, “I didn’t want to risk it.”
Mel glanced over at the appointment schedule sitting next to the laptop. “But only by a half an hour, right?” The name James Wright was in the first block.
“Yes, but early is early. Sometimes it’s not a good thing.” He ran his fingers through his hair.
Tilly didn’t look up from the computer as she spoke. “I’ll speak for everyone when I say we don’t mind one bit. Like I said, your work is amazing. Look at this, Mel. He’s in other galleries around the area and I can see why.”
Mel leaned over, curious to see what this paint speckled man created. What was appearing on the screen was the exact art she had envisioned for the space. Landscapes of lakes and hills were the most plentiful, but there were plenty of paintings depicting rolling countryside. The colors were the best bold colors of nature, but tame enough to be used within any décor. Modern, but natural, and accessible for artists and non-artists, which was the perfect combination for this tourism-driven town. A breath escaped both her and Tilly’s mouths when a sunset painting appeared on the screen. The lake was reflecting the colors with passion and every tree within the painting seemed to be standing proudly that it was able to be included in such an image. She could fill the gallery with just his art and sell enough to stay in business.
“The landscapes sell the best. The tourists seem to like them. I earn my living mostly during the summer season.”
Mel glanced over at him as Tilly scrolled by a painting of her parent’s lake. “Did you bring any with you?”
Tilly answered. “Oh, that’s what I was putting back in the storage area. I already told him we’d take his work. I mean, look at it! I’m completely stepping on your toes, I know, but I already bought one. If I love it, how can other people not love it?”
Though she was glad James had agreed to be in the gallery, she also felt a twinge of annoyance creep up her spine. She stared at Tilly, who was still enraptured in the images. “Great. So you’ve gone over the pricing, signed the contract, percentage of space that we’ll offer him in the gallery?”
Tilly waved her hand towards Mel in a dismissive way. “Sort of. We agreed to the 60/40 split and for all I care he can take the entire gallery and arrange it – wow, look at his one. How did you get the water to be so, so…?”
James leaned over and chuckled lightly under his breath. “Full of depth?”
“Yes, that. I know it’s a painting because I can see the brush strokes, but it just looks like, wow… you artists amaze me. You give me the same colors and…” She paused for a few moments before jumping away from the computer. “Well, I’ve really got stuff to do.” She reached for the packing slip. “Mel, seriously, go look at his pieces back there. James, I’m so glad Brett introduced us. Thanks again. Good luck you two.” Tilly walked away, doubling back to grab the neon mug. Mel was unhooking the laptop, James had already gone back to the gallery, when Tilly called from midway up the narrow spiral staircase. Mel stared up at her boss, not doing a great job at hiding her frustration, as Tilly winked at her and mouthed, “For you.” Mel rolled her eyes, smiled slightly, and found her way back into the gallery with the laptop cradled in her hands.
James was leaning against the covered marble counter with one hand scratching his chin as though he was analyzing the space. He glanced up at the skylights. “This will be excellent as a gallery. Tilly said she put in the skylights to help with natural light.” If it was even possible, the rain had turned up the pressure and was spewing drops as fast as bullets.
Mel put the computer down and reached around to plug it into an extension cord. “She says she doesn’t know anything about art, but I think she knows more than she’s letting on.”
“She agreed to take my work, so that is saying something.”
Mel looked up at him unsure if she should laugh or agree. It wasn’t an incorrect statement.
“That was a joke. I’ve been called egotistical, but I’d like to believe it is mostly untrue.”
Mel smiled and nodded. “Well, your work is incredible.”
James repositioned himself so that he was leaning both elbows on the counter. His hands were clasped tightly. “Tilly said you’re an artist. What work do you do?”
Mel laughed and copied his position after the laptop whirled to life. She stared at the empty wall on the far side of the gallery. “I just graduated from art school a few months ago. I can’t say that I’ve picked up a brush since my exams. And I haven’t wanted to either. For now I’ve resigned myself to sketching.”
“Fair enough. What was your concentration then?”
“I was in art education so I needed to know a bit about everything, which meant no concentrations. My dream was to become a high school art teacher and teach my days away, shaping the youth of America.”
He chuckled again. “That seems a bit idealistic if you ask me. High school art seems more like keeping a balance between trusting kids with sharp objects and remembering that you’re not the idiot they think you are.”
She sighed at the truth of his words. “Sounds like you know from experience.”
“I shadowed my high school art teacher a few years ago. I give him all the credit for having the patience of a saint. We need good teachers.”
“Yes, we do.” She watched as he walked over to a nearby gallery wall and rubbed the dust from the surface. He seemed to be measuring it with his hands. “You went to Clemson?”
He methodically wiped the white powder in circles against the wall. “For my MFA. SCAD for my undergrad.”
“Savannah was nice. I’d love to go back, but I think it would just bring back too many college memories. Plus I think I’m still banned in a few bars.” Her eyes grew wide though he couldn’t see them. What did you have to do to get thrown out of bars in a college town? “I had my fun, but grad school grew me up. There wasn’t any time for anything except art and getting inspiration, which apparently doesn’t come from the inside of a bar.” He seemed satisfied with the wall and meandered back to the desk.
“Did you get your MFA in painting?” She was scrolling through more images of his work. His ability was unlike any artist she had seen before. Raw and natural, not unlike the man’s exterior.
“Yes, but I also merged some of my painting with ceramics. One of the girls I was dating was incredible at ceramics. I don’t have the skill to make a living at it, but I’m glad I learned it. What about you? If you aren’t going to teach, what about an MFA?” His eyes were boring into her as though they were telling her there was only one correct answer.
She looked back at the screen pretending to assess his work. “The thought overwhelms me right now. I think I need a better body of work if I were to apply. No one would accept me.” The truth was simply she had never let it cross her mind. An MFA? Why did she need that? She was going to be a teacher. That was her script all through college.
“Hey, if you need the help or want some coaching, I’m happy to be your guide. I have an extra easel in my studio. Do you have some of your work on here?” He pointed to the laptop.
“I think, maybe I do.”
“Great, let me see it.”
“I, uh, shouldn’t…” He put his arm on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. His scent wafted around her, one of a freshly showered person. It should have been a refreshing smell, but on him, it ventured somewhere further. She fought hard against her feelings in order to concentrate.
“You can’t be self-conscious if you want to grow as an artist.” His hand squeezed before letting go. Once she was free of the paralysis, she opened her portfolio folder and let him browse through the collection. He lingered and pondered. Every so often he would mumble something incoherent.
“Mel, this is a really great base. Your digital work is incredible, by the way.” He closed the folder and looked up at her. “Your portfolio is where it should be for your training. You have some impressive base talent there. But if you want an MFA, then why not take this time and work on some pieces? Let me give you tips to move you further into your style and then you’ll blow the admission committee away. You might even get a full scholarship. I really think you have that potential.”
She stood staring at him with thoughts that were reeling in her mind. She found the word exiting her mouth before she gave it permission. “Okay.”
He leaned further into the table, now covered in fine dust particles, especially in his hair. “Great. I have plenty of canvases, just bring your ideas. What about Sunday, in the evening?”
Again she said automatically. “Sure.” The back of her mind was screaming too quietly, What are you doing? Do you even want help with your painting style?
He etched his information on the back of the artists’ schedule. When he slid it back against the kraft paper, she glanced through to make sure it was all there: phone, address, his website. He added, “Time to go check out the pieces I brought for you?”
© 2014 Cortney North. All Rights Reserved.