Only As Deep
There is a man who lives down the street from me. I know him as Nick. I would give you his last name, but he prefers his privacy. Around this town, however, all you have to do is mention the name and everyone knows exactly who you are talking about.
Nick is something of a phenomenon. He appeared in the little white house a few blocks from me an unknown amount of years ago. For so long he kept to himself and just about everybody overlooked him, until two years after he had moved in.
Nick opened up his garage door and people started to take notice.
Every wall of the single car garage was filled with paintings and drawings of all sorts and sizes. There were landscapes, nature scenes, animals, inanimate objects, and everything in between. Every one of them was for sale. But I had been quick to notice something odd.
His skill was extraordinary, every brush stroke and line of charcoal or pencil perfectly captured whatever it was that had fallen into view of his artistic eye. No one could deny that he had a flair for the art. Everything was masterfully done and made every passerby stop and take notice.
But I wondered why no people graced his creations.
I will tell you the story of how I discovered the answer to my question.
It is a hot summer day in June and I am looking at the options that hang around me. I stand in the center of the garage and turn in a slow circle trying to decide which one to choose. Eventually my gaze falls on a familiar figure standing in one corner.
Nick is there, watching me with bright blue eyes that speak of another unrealized creation. His slim figure is silent and still. He looks timid, guarded, but I can still read a faint curiosity in his expression. I pause in my perusal of his paintings.
I tilt my head and gaze back at him for a moment before he finally turns away with a soft blush.
"Why?" I ask softly. "Why no people?"
He is silent and begins to fidget.
"Do you know how to paint people?" I ask.
He nods his head but keeps his eyes diverted away.
He turns to me with an odd expression in his eyes and he suddenly holds my gaze without flinching.
"Because I do not wish to intrude," he says simply.
I frown, confused. "What do you mean?"
"It would be an invasion of privacy to do so without their permission. It would be even worse to sell them in something as public as my garage."
My frown disappears, but my confusion still remains. This seems like it is not something that can be explained with words. I need to know what he means, but I can tell that he is not the type to tell me what I want to know. In the end I make up my mind and square my shoulders.
"Then I ask you to paint a portrait for me."
"I can paint your portrait," he says softly and with a nod.
"No," I say drawing a puzzled look from him. "I don't want you to paint me, I want you to paint my best friend, Ella."
He quickly shakes his head. "I need their direct permission."
"I will get it for you."
He seems skeptical but finally gives me affirmation.
Two days later I arrive at his house with my best friend in tow. Ella had given me her consent to be part of this little project and she now waits patiently behind me as I knock on the door of the little white house. Nick appears at the door a few moments later, standing to one side and waving us inside without a word.
The interior is warm and inviting, neat and well cared for. I peer around at the different rooms as Nick leads us to the back of the house where a small sunroom stands off the rear of the living room. Sunlight cascades through glass walls as we step into the sunroom and I can smell the distinct scent of oil paints and paint thinner.
Nick pulls up a small stool and sets it in the center of the room where the light is best. He then looks over at Ella.
"If you would just sit here," he says as he gestures to the stool.
Ella obediently sits on the offered seat and gazes around in wonder. I cannot help myself either.
The room is filled with plants of all sizes, species and shapes. Leaves of every shade of green and flowers of every color are spread throughout the small space. Only one section of the wall that borders the living room is free of greenery. This space is reserved for the supplies that he needs for his craft.
I am in the process of taking in the variety of paints and brushes when I am startled back to reality by the sound of Nick's voice.
"I am going to do a rough sketch first and then I will work from there," he is saying to Ella. "I am told that my process can sometimes get a bit uncomfortable, but please, I do not mean to intrude in any way. Just tell me to stop if you feel that I have gone too far or if you need to take a break."
Ella nods and I wait for him to tell her which pose will be best suited for his portrait, but what comes next surprises me.
As soon as he has set up a canvas and his supplies, he begins to ask questions.
He asks her about her various likes and dislikes. What her hobbies are. What she does for a living. What her favorite season is. His questions range all over the board, but none of them are ever intrusive or embarrassing. Ella even starts to relax during the process.
It is only then that he begins to sketch.
I watch him with fascination. Nimble fingers elegantly wrapped around the shaft of a pencil, long arm moving with graceful sweeps, and soon a figure begins to emerge on the blank canvas. It is a rough form, barely recognizable as a person, but I can still see the talent that bubbles up from within, betrayed by his smooth movements and confident strokes.
Still I wait for him to ask her to find a pose, to remain as still as possible. But the command never comes and he continues to sketch. His focus on the canvas is intense, eyes flickering now and again over to where Ella sits obediently answering every question. The lines and vague shapes begin to take on a clearer form and I struggle to understand the process.
For the next two weeks Ella and I go to Nick's house. I always stand off to one side and Ella always does her part answering questions. At the end of the first week, his questions slow and then eventually stop. During the second week he does the talking; sharing personal tales and adventures that he has gathered over the years. He tells us of his family, his life before he moved to the area and what he likes to do in his spare time.
His sense of humor and enthralling skill at story telling make us feel at ease. More than once I find myself laughing with abandon as he regales us with another part of his childhood, Ella's laugh echoing in duet.
At the end of the second week we are finally told that he no longer needs Ella to sit for him. I ask to be able to watch as he finishes the painting, but he merely shakes his head and says that he is sorry.
"I ask that the final stages are finished without an audience," he says. "I cannot focus properly otherwise."
I reluctantly consent and return home to wait for his word that the portrait is finished.
Ella is just as impatient as I am. She calls me every day, her voice holding a tinge of excitement and curiosity. Neither of us knows how much longer we can wait.
And then, four weeks after I asked him to paint a portrait for me, Nick appears at my door.
I invite him in, my eyes drawn excitedly to the cloth wrapped bundle that he holds in his arms. He steps into my house with a shy smile and sets the bundle down on my kitchen table.
"Do you want anything?" I ask. "Coffee, water?"
He shakes his head and steps away from the bundle. He looks so skittish, his eyes darting away every time I try to make contact.
"I finished the portrait," he says, gesturing vaguely at the table. "I thought that I would just deliver it myself. Since you live so close by."
I give him a smile and he does his best to mirror it, but it is dim and cautious. He seems so different from when we had talked during his painting sessions.
"What do I owe you?" I ask. I hope that the question will divert some of his nervousness and help to draw him out once more.
"I will leave that up to you," he says. "Study it closely and give me what you think it is worth. I have not known Ella as long as you. Only you will be able to know how well I did."
I start to move towards the bundle, my hands outstretched to open it and see what is hidden beneath the rough cloth, but he suddenly moves to stop me.
"No," he says as he steps between me and the hidden painting. His voice is firm and commanding and I am taken aback, halting in my tracks with a stunned gaze.
His face shifts between fear and desperation and I take a step back, unsure how to handle the situation. Finally his expression settles on an odd mixture of regret and supplication.
"I'm sorry," he says his voice softer now. "I meant that you should study it after I have left. I do not want your opinion to be altered by my presence."
"Sure," I say quickly. I wipe my palms on my thighs and nod a few times. "If that's what you want."
He holds my gaze, vibrant blue eyes studying me for the briefest of moments, and then he turns and disappears out the door.
I am left standing in my kitchen with a sense of mystery hanging in the air. I glance to my table and stare at the bundle. I want to open it, see what his efforts have produced, but instead I find myself making a beeline for my cell phone sitting on the counter.
It takes only a few moments to call Ella and request that she come over. And it takes only ten minutes for her to show up on my doorstep.
I show her into the kitchen and we both stand looking at the covered painting.
"Go ahead," Ella says as she pushes me forward. "Open it up."
I step closer to the table and carefully pull back the layers of cloth, eventually exposing the canvas beneath. Behind me I hear Ella gasp in wonder and I put a hand to my mouth as the painting is finally revealed.
It is perfect in its layout. Ella is kneeling in a field of long grass, her knees pointing to the right side of the canvas, but her head is turned to face the viewer. I am in awe that the green eyes that smile at me from the painting are exactly the same as the ones that are looking over my shoulder. The painting is incredible in its detail. It shows the same shimmering red hair, the same bright smile, even the sparkling glint in Ella's eyes that declares a bubbling personality. All of it is there, brilliantly displayed in oil paint on stretched canvas.
I find myself speechless. Ella is also silent.
It is now that I fully understand why he had never asked for a specific pose.
To ask for such a thing would have hidden too much. His questions and stories were what drew out the real Ella, displayed her very essence to him and showed him how to put her down as a form of art. Nick does not paint in form, style, or color. He paints in people, personality and experience. His methods bring out what makes up a person.
I understand his need for permission now.
You can paint a form, a person, and get something that looks like that individual's physical appearance, but it contains very little of who that person is. But Nick does not want to capture a face, a figure. He wants to capture a person, and all of the quirks and personality traits that go along with them. And his style is so sure, so complete, that it feels as though he is invading a person's soul.
That is why there had been no pictures of people in his garage. He could not sell something so intimate, so revealing, in a place so public.
"It's perfect," I finally manage to whisper.
I just barely catch Ella's nod of approval.
A day later I go to Nick with payment in hand. Even though it is as much as I can spare without going broke, it still feels too small for something as wonderful and exquisite as what he has given me, but Nick insists that it is too much and hands half of it back.
I try to convince him to keep it, that the painting is beyond anything that I had ever expected, but he refuses to take any more money and eventually convinces me to stop trying to force him to accept the full payment.
I leave his house with a sense of wonder and a new understanding of artists. I had always thought that the creation process was so straight forward, but now I see that there is more to it than that. A true artist sees everything that makes up true beauty and is inexplicably compelled to put down every aspect that they see. Talent is only a part of the skill, the rest is the ability to see the things that everyone else takes for granted, the details that add up to the whole. Because if those details aren't there, then the whole picture seems flat.
I can now see that art is only as deep as the artist is willing to look.