Artist and Ice
The Thomas A. Miller Gallery of Modern Sculpture opened promptly at nine a.m. About ten minutes later, a young man strode briskly through its tall glass doors. One of the curators recognized him and nodded amiably as he entered. "Good morning, Mr. Sere. We just installed some new pieces this morning."
"Mmm hmm," Darren mumbled, clearly not interested. As with everything in his life, his visit had a definite purpose. He knew exactly where he was headed, to the west wing of the gallery, to examine an impressionistic mixed media by an up-and-coming reclusive Seattle artist one final time before he purchased it. He was not interested in distractions today.
But as he stepped into the central gallery, a large circular room with paneled mahogany walls, everything changed. The young man's eyes were instantly and unexplainably drawn to the center of the room, to the jet black pedestal encircled by a thick velvet cordon, and to the life-size ice sculpture of a woman that sat on it, capturing the light that poured through the glass ceiling above and radiating it out in all directions.
The rest of the world began to fade out of existence as he approached the sculpture, his steps no longer steady, but reverent and cautious. He stopped inches from the cordon, his wide brown eyes taking in the statue, all thoughts of the impressionistic mixed media forgotten.
He had been standing there, inert and looking up at her, for hours, and his unusual behavior had attracted the attention of many of the other museum patrons. Upon noticing his lack of movement, most of them just stared at him, a confused expression on their faces. They would look at him, then follow the slant of his head upward to the sculpture. They would stare at it for a while, squint and shuffle from one side to the other, view it from all angles, attempting to discern what aspect of the piece had the young man so entranced. Ultimately, however, they would be unable to find it, and with a dismissive shrug, would walk away, leaving the young man with his block of ice. A few of the patrons, mostly older women, were bold enough to tut audibly before walking off.
But one patron, a middle-aged man with a drooping brown mustache, actually walked up to Darren and draped his arm over the younger man's shoulders. If Darren noticed the over-friendly gesture, it didn't show.
The older man studied Darren for a few seconds, then looked up at the statue like everyone else had and said, "It's nice."
Darren slowly turned, his face a portrait of absolute disbelief, and looked at the man. "It's nice?"
"Yes, it's nice" the man repeated.
Darren was too stunned to reply.
"It's a good piece, very nice actually," the man continued, "but look at it, it's made of ice - it's just water. It'll be gone in a few days at most." The man turned away from Darren and motioned at the rest of the sculpture gallery with a wide, slow, grandiose sweep of his arm. "Look around. Your Beautiful Woman isn't the only piece of art here. There's so much more to see, and most of the pieces are as good as this one, if not better. And most importantly, they're made of clay or stone - they last. When this piece is a forgotten puddle, the others will still be here. Do you see what I mean? This artist, this," the man looked down at the title plaque, "this Adam Christof has done the world a huge disservice by creating this sculpture. Now don't get me wrong, he's crafted an inspired piece, but his choice of medium shows me that he's either spiteful or foolish."
"Look at her," Darren commanded. "Do you see any spite in her? You think a fool could have accomplished this?"
"It. Look at it. Nothing but ice," the older man corrected. He looked hard at Darren for a few seconds, then sighed and walked away like all the rest.
The sun shone down through the gallery's glass roof as it traced its daily path across the sky. It was well past the opposite side of its zenith before anyone else approached Darren. The young man was standing in the same spot, staring up at the sculpture that, mounted on its pedestal, rose above him like a shimmering goddess. And yet, she didn't carry the pride of deity in her face or on her shoulders. In fact, Darren saw, there was no pride in her at all. That was why she seemed so peaceful. She knew that she was nothing, and that made her something, something absolutely unique. This revelation and a new voice came to Darren simultaneously.
"Beautiful, isn't she?"
Darren didn't look away. "She's perfect," he answered with renewed conviction. He was silent in thought for a moment. "The detail is incredible. It must have taken the artist weeks to get her right."
"Almost a month, actually."
"How do you know?" Darren asked, his eyes still firmly fixed on the Woman.
"I know because I made her."
Darren slowly turned and looked at the newcomer. "You, you're..."
"Adam Christof. Yes."
Disbelief was evident on Darren's face. "You-you made her?"
"Yes," the man said again.
"Oh my god, I can't...I can't believe it...how did you do it? How did you..."
Adam smiled. "I chose a medium, and I worked with it tirelessly. She was rough at first, nothing more than a piece of the Arctic or a skating rink. I didn't go out and find a flawless block of ice to work with. In fact, the ice I chose was full of imperfections before I began to work. To form something perfect from something flawless is an action that deserves no great recognition. But to take something rough and scarred and make it beautiful...that is something completely different. I set to work with the large tools first, mallets and chisels, even a chainsaw, cutting away the huge chunks that were unnecessary."
Darren's eyes were locked with Adam's. "Were you ever worried about cutting away too much?"
"Never. In my mind, I saw her as you see her now, finished and lacking nothing. In my thoughts, she was already a masterpiece. It was only a matter of making the ice match my vision. A shape began to emerge, her shape, and even though I had seen her a thousand times before in my dreams, I fell in love as her form emerged.
"Then came the detail work, the part of the creating that I love most. There are no chainsaws here, only the delicate knife and the engraver's needle. To get up close and give life, to give emotion and personality to a blank and graceful form is something that I will always treasure. To craft her delicate hands, to etch into her a smile, a warmth and peace that is so beyond us...it's...amazing." Adam shrugged in resignation. "Amazing - I have no better word for it. And when every feature is in place, every hidden sparkle and subtle nuance, when every strand of hair is accounted for, I wipe from her every trace of the crude, jagged chunk of ice that she was. I brushed away all the imperfections from her surface. I smoothed her skin with my own hands.
"You say she's perfect. What do you mean - in what way?"
"In every way."
"No." The word was almost a whisper, but Darren could feel the fervency in Adam's tone. "Don't hide behind cliches. What do you see in her? What makes her who she is?"
Darren knew. He didn't need to think about the question. From the moment he first saw her, he had known. He paused, not from lack of knowledge, but from the struggle within himself. The overpowering and vital threads of emotion that wrapped so tightly, so closely around his center refused to be easily unraveled and woven once again into words.
"Her eyes," he responded at last, "the way she looks toward heaven and only heaven. There's a softness to her eyes, despite the medium. There's.. a tranquility, a level of essence, of quiet emotion that I never knew an artist could move from his heart to his work."
Adam's eyes shimmered, reflecting the gleaming ice. "Go on. Please understand, I'm not seeking praise or flattery. I only want to know what you see in her - I want to understand what it is that has made you stand here all these hours."
The words were beginning to form more easily now. "Look at her hands - the way she clasps them tightly, holds them against her breast. She's devoted, without a doubt. She's passionate and she believes - you can see the trust in her face, so smooth, no place for worry or doubt. There's...," conviction and understanding rose up in Darren, "there's no one like her- not here, not in this museum, or in this city, or anywhere! I look at her and I see the artist, I see someone out there who understands humanity and its problems and flaws and sees past them and creates something so spectacular that I have no choice but to be amazed. I - I can see you in her."
A new thought grabbed Darren. "But who did you use as a model?" he asked excitedly. "Who did you shape her after? I've gotta know; I must meet her."
Adam gave him a strange half-smile. "She's modeled after no one. She's unique."
"What? I don't -"
"I told you, she came to me in a dream. She's a creation entirely my own. The others were based on models, flesh and blood. You could track them down if you tried. But not her. She is only here, only now."
Darren shook his head in amazement. "And yet...I've been around this gallery. She's the only one. The rest are formed from stone or clay, but your most incredible creation you shaped from the most fleeting of substances."
"It adds to her beauty, don't you think? Along with the simple thought that she won't always exist comes a sense of urgency. She's fading, Darren, as all the most beautiful things do. Do you know why roses don't everbloom? If they did, we wouldn't appreciate them. The reason they live so brightly is that they live so briefly."
Adam glanced around the gallery. "No, if I had formed her from stone, do you think they would notice her? If she was to exist forever, do you think mankind would recognize the treasure before them? If she was made of stone or clay, she'd be lost in the sea of others. They would take her and line her up, put her between two statues, and she would sit there unnoticed. She's made to be noticed, you know. I didn't pour myself into her so she could be lost in a line. No, she is in her place here, on a pedestal, not art for art's sake or beauty just because, but for me. Every person who sees her for what she is, everyone who recognizes the artist in the ice affirms her existence, but more than that, they affirm mine.
"But look around." The artist seemed suddenly frail, his voice smothered by dark emotion. "There's no one else here. Have you ever wondered why there isn't a throng of people in this chamber, each of them pushing and shoving , trying to get close to her?"
"Yes," Darren admitted. "When I saw her alone, I thought it was a trick, an illusion, too good to be true."
"They don't see it. They don't realize her beauty. They give her a passing look and move on, content with their statues of stone. They're not willing to take a risk, to put themselves on the line. They're afraid of what might not be here to tomorrow, and they're too ashamed to admit that what they've called 'best' really isn't."
Darren's eyes returned instinctively to the Woman. "It's not right, Adam."
The sculptor's voice was quiet. "No, it's not."
"Someone should make them see...don't you think? Adam?"
Darren looked over his shoulder in Adam's direction. He was standing alone at the statue.
Sudden terror seized him. "Adam!" he called again, his voice loud enough to attract the attention of several patrons. He turned, taking in the entire chamber with his wide eyes. "Adam?"
He was spinning faster now, whirling in place, an illogical, unexplainable fear winding around his heart and stealing his breath.
A firm hand grabbed his shoulder, and stopped his movement. Darren spun around and found himself face to face with the curator.
"Mr. Sere, are you okay?" the elderly man asked cautiously.
"Adam!" Darren took a step backward, bumping into the security guard who stood, arms folded, behind him.
"Adam Christof!" Darren's eyes darted to where the artist has stood. "You know who!"
The curator's forehead wrinkled as he searched his memory. "Christof...oh, the sculptor, of course! We have a few of his works here, sir, if you'll just come with me."
Beads of sweat were beginning to form on Darren's forehead. "Adam! Where is he?"
The curator's fingers wove together, his voice soft and disarming as he spoke. "Well, sir, I imagine he's at his home - in Italy."
"No! He was here - he's...."
The curator nodded sympathetically, then glanced at the guard. Why don't we go to the lounge, Mr. Sere. You can lie down if you like. Here, these men will help you."
A second guard grabbed Darren's free arm, and together the two uniformed men began pulling Darren away from the statue.
"Where is he? I just need to-will you listen to me? Adam Christof was here and he was telling me about - Adam!" Darren was fighting the guards at every step, tugging and kicking, desperate to get free.
"Sir, if you'll just calm down," the second guard began.
Darren whipped his arm upward, his elbow connecting with the guard's chin. Darren spun, wrenching free of the other guard and stumbling back towards the light. Eyes blurry with sweat, he stumbled forward, his legs twisting and snagging on each other. He toppled forward, his chest catching the velvet cordon and pulling it down with him. He fell to the ground at the base of the pedestal. Pain shot through his ribs, but he wasn't going to stop now. He raised a free arm and, finding the top edge of the pedestal above him, reached out for the Beautiful Woman.
His searching hand found only empty air. Confused, he let his palm drop to the pedestal.
Grasping the edge, Darren pulled himself to his knees, eager to see her face once more before they took him away. He lifted his bruised head upward, and he saw, and he couldn't move.
The pedestal was empty, nothing on it except a small puddle.
"I - uh - where...."
The curator shook his head sadly as the guards approached the pedestal. Darren felt them brace their arms under his shoulders, but he put up no resistance as they dragged him away. He absentmindedly brought his fingers to his lips, the puddle water sliding over his tongue.
The bitter tang of salt made him flinch.
As they pulled him from the chamber, his eyes never left the empty pedestal and the small pool that sparkled in the fading sunlight.
On the other side of the world, Adam Christof sat alone in the darkness, his head in his hands, his palms filling with warm pools of saline.