This is Part IV 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
Because there was so much to be completed with the gallery and Mel needed every moment she had available, she pushed back the art lessons with James until after the gallery opened. The two weeks had passed, with this past Monday being the successful grand opening day, and the gallery looked sophisticated and full of breathtaking art. But this wasn’t the highlight of her week and in fact, when the opening day came, Mel was more excited about who would be at her side rather than the number of customers to grace their way through the door. After their first meeting, James had stopped by almost daily to help out with the arrangement. Though it was unprecedented for an artist to spend that much time assisting a gallery manager, Mel never refused because she needed the help and his well-earned expertise. The only problem was her difficulty with focusing on anything when he was nearby.
Each evening as she waited to fall asleep, she let the memories wash over her. The way he had spoken to her while in the gallery, flirtatious and flattering. There were the meetings when James, Tilly and Mel discussed the gallery, James reached over and touched Mel’s arm more times than she could remember. His touches had a way of clearing out her thoughts and melting her into a moldable piece of clay in his hands. When considering the artwork on the walls, he would stand within inches of her. His scent always surrounded her like a warm friend. Each time he asked a question, she looked over at him, reading his eyes, his features with more interest than she had done with anyone before. There was the time late one night when evaluating the souvenirs, they were hunched over the marble countertop assessing the items laid out in a neat line and his arm was lying against hers. That same night, he bought two large coffees from the next door shop and, cozying up on a sofa in the darkened bookstore, told of his past romances, his future plans, her past romances and her future plans until early the next morning. The newness of everything with James left her feeling wired without ever consuming an ounce of caffeine. She found herself not needing to eat or sleep. She hated leaving his side when it was time to go home. She especially despised the past two days because he needed the time to work in his studio.
She had known him for days, yes, but it had felt like so much more. Not surprisingly, her dreams last night had been filled with his presence. Most of her dreams were foggy, wrought with confusion and odd circumstances or creatures. This one, however, was very clear.
James asked to take her on a hike in the nearby woods. The trees were what every photographer hopes to find in autumn. Gold leaves shimmered more than any cathedral interior, crimson-red maple leaves had fallen on the path and created a thick carpet, still-green leaves were deep and earthy. The breeze was a cooling hymn through the leaves. James guided her through the forest, birds whispered their secrets. It was a path she had ventured before many times, but never with such wonder. She knew where they were heading; there was a lookout of the deep valley further ahead. The path was easily followed. Once they reached the edge, he offered his hand and pointed her beyond the protective fence that kept tourists restrained. Leading first, he kept her hand braced against his lower back. They descended into a thicket of plum-colored brush, carefully placing their feet on the stony mountain steps. They walked single file, his hand embracing hers with steady assurance. As they hiked, she stared at his masculine form in the simple long sleeved shirt. The fabric was thin and she could feel the muscles of his back shifting with every step. Trees arched overhead and when she was brave, she looked upward to see the tunnel of colors shift between yellow, orange and green. Squirrels chattered unhappily, sad to see their private paradise invaded.
Further and further south they negotiated on the barely visible trail. James glided through the forest with unnatural ease. Over his shoulder, he glanced back and smiled; a loving smile that sent ribbons through her body. Then the narrow path opened up. The sun was at their back and flooding parts of the valley with its beautiful glory. He pulled her arm around to his side so that now she was embracing him. James curled his arm around her waist to hold her even closer. His body felt so warm, so solid, more solid than she remembered. She moved further into his side and he looked down, his face moving closer to her. All of the sounds left the forest except the sound of his breath and, in her ears, her pounding heart. Just as their lips were about to meet, the birds scattered over head. It was a piercing noise that wouldn’t end. Confused and unsure, they looked for the cause of the startling. A drumming rose above the alarmed birds’ shrieks. The leaves started to fade. The beautiful scene was dimming as she stirred into consciousness. Slowly, her mind became aware of her reality and heard the steady vibration of her phone. She blinked twice before reaching over to silence the noise. She rolled back to her warm spot in the bed. She wanted to bring the dream back. Tightly closing her eyes, she tried to remember the images of James, of the overlook, of the flock of birds. After five frustrated minutes of trying, she pulled the covers off and began the task of getting ready. In only a few hours she would get to see him in real life and that was far better than the illusion she had just indulged.
She spent extra time getting the details of her person correct in anticipation of the day. Wanting to ensure James hadn’t cancelled their lesson, she opened her email and, seeing one unread message, quickly became jolted. She stood staring at the laptop, considering what she was reading in the open email.
Sorry it took so long to get back to you. I accepted a user experience job here at Interspace Media and have been getting settled in ever since. I work with some great people. There’s a coffee shop below our office and my apartment’s only two blocks away. It’s pretty nice. The Paris pictures were awesome. They convinced me to go before I forget all about art history.
I thought I’d mention this too: I’m sure you’ve found something great for a job, but if not, Interspace is looking for another person to hire. Brad would prefer a Whiting grad; I mentioned you and I hope that was okay. It would be mainly a graphic design role, but some work with CMS. I told him you were the best in our class at graphics. Let me know soon if you’re interested. We’re growing by the month, which is a good thing, but it means some of us are working around the clock. It would be good to have a familiar face around the office.
Let me know,
She didn’t have time to think about this with the gallery and, simply stated, James. But there was a familiar flutter in her stomach. She repeated what she had told Granny Ann weeks ago; Henry was her past and she wasn’t moving that direction. She closed the laptop, grabbed her keys, and launched out the door to meet James for the art lesson.
James’ studio was in the neighboring town, which, on a warm, sleepy Sunday in summer, was only a fifteen minute drive. She had allowed twenty minutes to traverse the unfamiliar roads to the easterly town, but it had only taken ten before she saw the traditional brick downtown buildings. The quaint lamp posts matched the colonial period architecture that decorated the city’s numerous blocks of two story buildings. Never before had she ventured into this town because she had little interest in antiques. The city was known in all the guidebooks to be the superior collection of high-quality antiques in the area. Sundays were a popular day, she quickly ascertained, as she bumped along the downtown brick road. The street was divided by a well-manicured median, complete with shrubs and flowers. While stopped at a light, she couldn’t help but stare at the shoppers strolling past with paper coffee mugs in hand. Sophisticated bags hung off their arms like well-planned accessories. Some people were seated on outdoor patios, sipping coffee, chatting lightly with friends or reading through the Sunday paper. A piece of her soul connected the scene with memories of Paris. Though not as chic, it was a decent stand in. The light turned green and as she traveled further, she reached the other end of the downtown. She wasn’t entirely sure where the studio was located though she imagined in such a small stretch of buildings, it shouldn’t be hard to find.
There was a cluster of open parking on her left, just as the boulevard condensed into a street. She looked at her notes again, compared the street numbers with the one she was given, and headed back into downtown, passing the outdoor tables and smelling the indulgent coffee.
Her nose alerted her to a breakfast shop up ahead that smelled how her imagination said a grandmother’s house should smell – if the grandmother wasn’t Granny Ann. Cinnamon and vanilla was mingled with buttery pastry; it greeted her nose with a wafting temptation. She forged on until she arrived at the last door on the block. The door was plain and the address, 801 E. Main Street, was correct. Turning the knob, the door loosened and opened directly to a narrow flight of wooden stairs.
His studio was one of the most impressive studios she could have imagined. The entire upper story of the building’s block was an open atrium. She caught a firm whiff of mineral spirits, paint and something else that reminded her of the college’s printmaking room. Windows, tall and multi-panelled, welcomed in the late morning light. She had just started taking in the almost-blinding brightness of the space when James’ voice called out.
“Hey, Mel, welcome to the studio.” He rose from a generous chair; one of three grouped in a tight cluster. With the golden light at his back, he looked like a silhouette moving against a heavenly backdrop. He tossed his sketch pad on the nearby console table. The pencil rolled off the thick tablet and pinged on the wooden floor. The sound echoed softly across the room.
“This is incredible, James. I had no idea you would have this much studio space. It’s bigger than some of my college’s studios.”
“It was a good find thanks to some friends who work in commercial real estate.” He walked over and kissed her on each cheek. “You didn’t have trouble finding it, did you? Google thinks my studio is in the gazebo across the street, which, I agree, is a pleasant spot, but not good in the winter.”
She laughed. “No, I found it easily.”
“Good.” He put his arm around her waist and guided her towards the room’s belly. “I’ll give you the quick tour and then I figured we’d get started.”
Though the space was ample, it was easily walked through within minutes. He showed the most important aspects such as the kitchen, a deep sink for cleaning brushes, the restroom, the day bed – that looked to have been used the night prior – and an assortment of still life objects. Sitting on deep shelves in the far back corner, Mel spent the most time taking in the nature-inspired assemblage. Her meandering eyes caressed over the collection of feathers, vases and odd finds neatly grouped together. With certain objects James would tell the story of how it came to be in his possession, specifically with the intertwined deer antlers and enormous quartz geode. Upon reaching the end of the sights, she was stopped in her path by an irregular, short peninsula jutting out from the middle of the wall. There were two rows of white, gessoed canvases in a variety of sizes. Having to assemble her own canvases in school – a time-consuming task she dreaded – she saw the quantity as something from a nightmare.
“There have to be about sixty canvases here. You didn’t make all of these, did you?”
“Of course!” His response was too quick and she immediately laughed at his joke. “There’s only so much time you can spend gessoing canvases before you decide to pay someone else to do it. In grad school, one of my professors recommended I use a company in Winston-Salem because they are the only ones who fold the corners correctly. I’ve been ordering them ever since. They’re not cheap because they do it right, but it’s worth it.” He patted the nearest canvas with a reassuring hand. “While we’re over here, we should pick the canvases we’ll use today. What size do you want?”
She leaned back on her heels and tapped her finger against her chin. “I’ll take the largest one you have.”
James shook his head and nudged her side with his elbow. “I think the 18″x18″ would be a manageable canvas. Here.” He leaned half the pile against his leg and shuffled two medium sized canvases away from the others. With a firm shove, he moved the remaining canvases back together. Her hand was about to grasp the two rectangles, but James batted her hand away and tucked the two canvases securely under his arm. She felt the warmth of his other hand between her shoulder blades, which encouraged her forward.
He was directing her to the two easels in the middle of the room, but she stopped mid-stride to stare at the row of half complete paintings, which leaned against a long wall of windows. She counted twelve in all. Most of the paintings were wearing only a base coat with color washes in green, blue and gray. The quick brush strokes were wide and sweeping. Early in her college career, Mel remembered the slight embarrassment of letting someone see the beginning of her canvases. There were so many details missing and the perspective was rarely correct on the first try. James’ pieces however, stood in stark contrast and could have been sold just as they were; full of ragged, imperfect beauty.
He moved in line beside her as she analyzed the new stock. “I was able to get more done on these three.” His fingers grazed the top of canvases that showed a rough image of a foggy mountain morning. “I’m hoping to get them to you by the end of next week to replace the three that sold. Maybe sooner if I can find the time.”
“They’re incredible. I just haven’t seen…” Words escaped her in the moment.
He leaned over and whispered closely to her ear. “People will say the same thing to you, but not if we don’t get this lesson started.” He began the short journey over towards two easels. She followed reluctantly, wanting instead to appreciate his art for a few minutes longer.
The two easels faced a large table draped in a heather gray sheet. A white plaster bust of Michelangelo’s David sat lonely on the cloth surface. James handed her the canvas and she repositioned her chair to ensure the best view of her subject.
“Ready for a study in the value scale?” She nodded and focused her mind on absorbing his wisdom for the next two hours.
© 2014 Cortney North. All Rights Reserved.