This is Part II 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 lake water glistened and gleamed like a blue diamond just as it always did in early June. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon; the sun had already rounded the top of the sky and was emitting sun rays with all its force. Mel had positioned herself under the shade of a large birch tree. Its bright green leaves were dense enough to provide a sheltering amount of shade yet open enough to allow the dappled twinkling light through. She was lying on her stomach amidst the cool grass, which was still soft and supple from the fresh spring rains. Her sketchpad was open in front of her with the pencil markings beginning to show the emerging green stalks of the wildflower garden positioned at the back of her parent’s yard. Come August, the patch of wildness would become the most beautiful spectacle in the yard – as it was each year – even above her mother’s prized roses and her father’s elaborate English gardens. Yet despite the flowers’ August beauty, Mel equally appreciated the young, current stage of the wildflower garden. The greens were at their most exuberant, not mature enough to wear the deep hunter green of the aged plants and having no want to either. The leaves were curled and tight, or in some cases, recently unfurled into a miniature version of what they would become. They still needed to learn how to hold on for dear life when the wind whipped during a storm. They still needed to experience the abuse from fauna that would nibble on their flesh. Then, in defensive necessity, they would be forced to discover their hidden arsenal of weapons allowing them to fight back. They would learn it all in time, but for now she appreciated their greenness, their vigor and innocence.
An hour later, the drawing marks on her sketchpad hadn’t progressed much beyond the same few strokes outlining the growing stems. She had promised herself that she would complete one drawing by the time she started working at the bookstore and the deadline was quickly nearing. This time tomorrow she would find herself either unpacking the latest shipment of novels or helping a customer find the best lakeside read.
It had been a week since she contacted Tilly, the bookstore’s owner and her thirty-five year old friend who pretended to be twenty, to tell her that she was returning to the bookstore for the summer. Much in Tilly’s fashion, she proceeded to inform Mel of the latest staffers, local drama and revolving boyfriends from the past months. It was Tilly’s way of saying, welcome back.
It had been two weeks since Mel had returned from Paris and sent the email to Henry. She was still awaiting his reply, but not so anxiously now. At first she had found her thoughts imagining a relationship with him: When she sat down to dinner with her parents each evening, she would wonder if Henry may someday occupy one of the three empty chairs; while swimming around the lake, she wondered if he would someday join her for a lap of swimming in the cool water. But much like time heals all wounds, it also caused her sudden attraction for Henry to quietly fade. She questioned why she had become so entranced by him after graduation. If she had truly been attracted to him, wouldn’t she have felt something stir inside during the meals eaten together in the college’s dining hall? Or, while waiting for class to begin, shouldn’t a fire have ignited when they shared a laugh as another student imitated their aloof photography professor? This sudden attraction, she decided, was not from recognizing an unknown love but rather her way of holding onto college for a few weeks longer. It was a disappointing revelation. When she had consulted Granny Ann over two cups of English Breakfast tea, Granny wisely offered that letting go was the signal to life that you were ready for grander adventures. And there was the truth. It was time to move forward and let the college experiences become cherished memories. This was why she put Henry’s graduation photos in a folder marked, ‘College stuff’ and hadn’t looked at them since.
Pushing out the sadness by refocusing on her more immediate task, finishing this drawing, she concentrated on the subtle lines of the wildflower cluster. Once her right brain took control, she was blissfully unaware of anything except the green lines in front of her. The creative fervor stayed until the blue evening light began to fade from the sky. With the last available light, she looked over the late springtime drawing and pronounced it complete.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this, Tilly!” Mel was incredulous as she looked at Tilly’s bubbly face. “Actually, I’m more surprised you were able to keep it a secret for so long.”
Walking up to the blue and white clad boardwalk on her first day back, Mel was stunned to see the bookstore had undergone an expansion project over the winter. Attached to its side was an art gallery and next to that a coffee shop. The bookstore’s former neighbor, Trinkets and Things, closed back in October due to the owner moving to Florida after marrying a self-made multimillionaire. Trinkets and Things was the best quality souvenir shop along the boardwalk and its presence was surely going to be missed by many shoppers who had non-cheesy tastes. The cafe that resided next to Trinkets and Things had also closed, but Mia hadn’t been told the reason for its undoing. Regardless of marriages and classy shops, there were two vacant store fronts that provided an eyesore for the local tourism board; they wanted the gaps filled and profitable before the tourists arrived. Tilly had been the first person they approached. Not one to deliberate long on important matters, she was either all in or not and once the idea of having three shops developed in her imagination, it had been decided.
That was back in November and now the finishing touches were just wrapping up in the art gallery. Of course it still needed art, but the café, The Nested Crane’s Café, had been open for a week now with regular visitors.
Tilly was beaming at sharing the news in only the way she could; her wavy, honey-colored hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail and bouncing with glee. Her blue eyes, a jealousy-inducing color that resembled tropical waters, were alight with excitement. Her hands, bandaged in a few places from helping with the construction, were clapping together as her entire body bobbed up and down.
“I know! I paid Rachel and Claire to promise not to mention anything when they saw you.” Claire, currently rearranging the display in the front window, was nodding in agreement. Tilly continued her gleeful shouting. “Your reaction was completely worth the price. Look!” Tilly shoved her phone’s screen in Mel’s direction. The facial expression was not flattering.
Just then, a customer entered and Tilly quieted her emotions along with her voice. “It’s been a good wintertime project for me; that’s for sure.” Claire, who to Mel resembled a quiet mouse in all but species, informed the customer that they were running a sale on historical fiction and if she needed help to please let someone know. The customer thanked her politely then wandered through to the middle of the store. Tilly was motioning for Claire to come towards the register and Claire did with the grace of a ballet dancer. The cheerful jazz music provided the perfect accompaniment for her movements.
“I’m going to show Mel the new gallery space. Could you hold down the register?”
Claire claimed her new position in front of the simple counter. “Of course.”
Mel followed Tilly through the rows of paperbacks, admiring the store anew. The bookstore was a long, narrow space with tall ceilings and quiet nooks for reading. Since it was located at the beginning of the boardwalk, the store not only benefited from being the first stop for foot traffic, but also from having its long, exterior wall facing the southern exposure. To take advantage of the glorious light, a foot-tall clerestory of windows was added along the wall’s entire length. Somehow the sunshine never felt too warm when Mel basked in the chaise lounges for an hour or so of reading. Opposite this wall was the border between the bookstore and the new art gallery. A ten-foot wide archway, which was sealed by a draping plastic protective sheet, connected the two spaces. Tilly pulled back an edge of the plastic that was latched with painter’s tape and walked through. Mel followed.
The gallery was meant to look like an extension of the eclectic bookstore and in every way it did. The ceiling was the same shimmering metallic gray and the register’s island was adorned with the same Carrara marble. The lights shining down on the walls were left over from Trinkets and Things and had an old world flare with their antiqued brass sheen. Near the back of the store, the walls weren’t left blank, but were adorned with cantilevered shelves that would most likely hold various artfully designed souvenirs. Bare display cases were sitting in the belly of the space like stepping stones leading you from the front door to the back.
Tilly propelled herself on top of the marble and crossed her legs. “I bought some of Sally’s inventory before she left. She sold it at an amazing price, which really was hard to refuse. She said it was a thank you for being a good neighbor, but let’s be honest, she agreed to the deal after two margaritas and what does she care about profits now?” Tilly rolled out a belly laugh then immediately jumped down, consumed with a new thought. “Here’s what’s lacking in this space; art!” They both laughed at the obvious statement. “I need a discerning eye to curate a collection. What do you say to being my artistic eyes?”
The offer was so sudden and Mel wasn’t expecting it. She had a moment’s pause before answering. “For the entire summer?”
Tilly shrugged. “If you pick well then it might go a bit longer too. You know I’m good with picking books. When it comes to curating art, however, I think I’m aesthetically challenged.” Mel looked over with a sympathetic nod. It was the truth. Tilly walked towards the empty display cases and began wiping off the fine, white dust. “Here’s what I’ve been envisioning: I’ll manage the book shop, you manage the gallery?”
Tilly looked over with child-like eyes. It was immediately obvious to Mel that this was part of Tilly’s plan all along. It was an easy decision. “Sure. Why not?”
Tilly’s face fell and the smile transformed into a pout. “That’s not exactly the enthusiasm I was looking for.”
“You know I didn’t mean it like that, Tilly. This is a lot to find out on the first day back at work – that I’m a manager of an art gallery – an empty art gallery at that. I’m going to need to find artists and figure out how to get them here in our shop. Plus, I graduated with an education degree, not a business degree. Do you think I’m the best fit to run a store?”
Tilly waved off the last part as her expression cheered back up. “Look at me! I’m running a few businesses without a business degree. It’s fine; that should be the least of your concerns. Just focus on your love of art and we’ll be fine. But we do have to talk business eventually like going over the expected profits in order for this store to recoup its renovation costs. There’s also staffing, which can just consist of our current staff for now. I have a whole notebook of ideas for workshops featuring painters, illustrators, and possibly children’s books illustrators. I’ll get that to you. Remind me. You’ll be the one who does most of the scheduling and organizing, so I’ll let your mind wander with how you want to handle those.” Tilly paused. “I can see your eyes glazing over.”
Mel nodded as her train of thought was careening down the tracks. Yes, she probably was glazing over.
“Let’s have a working lunch and go over the details, like what you think is best for the theme of the space. Should we do contemporary, nautical, nautical contemporary, or rustic? Colorful? Design-y? I really don’t know all your art terms, but what I do know is that we need a clear artistic identity. There’s an artist coming in today to show his work. He’s a friend of my sister and graduated a few years ago. His work is pretty good; he might even convince me to buy a piece today…” Tilly continued on as Mel’s head reeled in awe of the opportunity in front of her. But she didn’t have much time to admire the new adventure. Tilly was spewing curious ideas from her head, some of which were quite good, which caused Mel to reach for a scrap of paper and scribble down what she could catch.
That night in bed as Mel listened to the frogs croaking a lullaby, she pondered what had transpired that day. It was the high-spirited nature of Tilly that made you jump into uncomfortable situations without much thought. Had Mel ever considered running a gallery? No, not once during her life, but now she was and as far as the first day was concerned, it had been enjoyable. But in the seasonal economy of Nested Lake, she would likely only have the art gallery job until October at the latest. There was a chance, if she could grow the store enough, that the extra money she earned from peak season could be saved and stretched through the winter, allowing her to spend the off-months doing her art. That option would mean staying here in Nested Lake. Was staying in the town where she grew up what she wanted for her future? She still didn’t have an answer and knew herself well enough to know she wouldn’t have one for another few months.
The frogs sang their chorus in asynchronous harmony for many more moments. Her thoughts moved on.
The clock was shining 9:30, but it felt more like midnight. The agenda for tomorrow was already full: Mel needed to research possible artists, but first there was the important task of deciding on the artistic style of the gallery. The artist they had interviewed today had been a perfect fit if she was going for nature-inspired contemporary theme, but she wanted to sleep on the decision. She had exactly two weeks to get the gallery presentable and impressive enough for people to be wooed into buying half the store. It seemed like an impossible deadline, but on her side were youth, vigor and innocence; she knew she could do it. After saying a few quick prayers, her eyes closed tightly shut and didn’t stir until the alarm buzzed at 5:45 the next morning.
© 2014 Cortney North. All Rights Reserved.