The Artist’s Studio
When I opened the door to my studio and flicked on the lights it took me a minute to comprehend what I saw, which was something completely uncanny and seemingly impossible. I froze in position with my thumb and index finger still on the light switch. I tried to absorb the details of the sight that greeted me, tried to make sense of it, as a scratch of fear tickled my throat. Everything looked to be in the same spot where I left it last night: my desk was still against the far wall, my rolling chair tucked underneath, my painting clothes were still hanging from the rack on the back of the door, my wetvac was still stored next to my supply cabinet, my supply cabinet doors were neatly closed, my painting table was still next to the canvas on the wall. The blank canvas that I had gessoed last night and hung on the wall to dry was still there in the same spot on the wall—but here is where things take a turn to the implausible—the canvas was no longer a blank white surface. Someone overnight had painted a landscape of a New England moonscape, in my style of painting, which was a style that hovered between realism and abstraction, almost like the early modernists but with more flourishes. It looked as if I had painted the painting, but I hadn’t. My mind quickly went dark; did I make the painting in a blackout? I had stopped drinking years earlier for this very reason, that I started having periods of time that I couldn’t account for, usually late at night while drinking in a bar, then waking up in bed with many hours missing, my arms bruised, an empty wallet on the floor.
As I no longer got drunk, I remembered that I went home last night after prepping the canvas, that I took the subway and that I had put my key in my apartment lock, which I remember because I had a few shopping bags that I had to put down and think to myself not to forget to take inside. I remember I made dinner, nothing special, just some stir-fried vegetables with rice. I remember I watched a few episodes of a crime series on T.V. and then went to bed looking forward to an early start today to work on the new painting. I couldn’t account for any missing time except for the time I was asleep, but somehow I had come to the studio in the middle of the night and made the painting. What other explanation could there be? I didn’t take Ambien and I didn’t sleep walk as far as I knew, all I could think is that I must have a brain tumor that has been growing undetected and now it was pressing on some part of my brain that was allocated to memory, causing me to forget that I had returned to the studio somehow by subway, used my electronic key as there would be no doorman present in the middle of the night, and spent hours of the night painting, then somehow returned home again and got into bed as if nothing had ever happened.
I raised my arms up and examined them but could see no bruises. I looked at my palms and the backs of my hands but there were no paint smears like I usually got when I painted due to the splotches of paint I would somehow get on the handles of my brushes. I hung my head down and did my anxiety breathing exercises. As my rapid breathing calmed down, I straightened up and went over to inspect the painting further. I noticed beside the painting all my brushes had been washed and were neatly lined up on my painting table in order from shortest to tallest, which was almost as shocking as the mysterious painting because usually I wrapped my brushes in a rag after washing their bristles and left them in a jumble on my table, not being particularly organized with my tools.
I was still stunned and staring at the painting, when my cell rang. I could see by the caller ID it was my gallery. I shook my head to try to reset myself so that I sounded like my normal self on the phone. My gallerist said she was in the area with a collector and asked if I had anything new in my studio. I started to say no, but then looked back over at the painting—it was a good painting, even if I didn’t remember making it. I spoke with some hesitation describing the new painting and I knew my gallerist wouldn’t pick up on anything peculiar because I was always hesitant about new paintings, never liking them initially, sure they were garbage, but after a while they usually grew on me and I gained more assuredness after I showed them.
My gallerist and the collector arrived a short time later, knocking lightly on my studio door. I plastered a fake smile on my face and took a deep breath as I twisted the knob and beckoned them inside. After introductions and a few sentences of small talk, my gallerist and the collector walked over to the painting exclaiming compliments about the color, composition, and especially the mood of the landscape which was mysterious, perhaps even magical, and the glowing aura of the moon as it cast a warm light through the trees, the shadows almost looking like ghosts that were dancing in the far away depths. The collector went up close and said he felt like he was being enticed to enter the woods where he feared he would become lost in a spell that was being cast over him; maybe the woods were about death or maybe they were about entering another reality, or maybe they were about a journey which one would embark on and emerge from changed in some significant way. My gallerist nodded her head about all the possibilities in the depths of the woods and I was characteristically silent, nodding my head and stroking my chin as if all the interpretations were possible, which they were, as I hadn’t made the painting, or didn’t remember making the painting so my intent was a mystery even to me.
The collector bought the painting on the spot and wanted to take it home immediately. Luckily I painted in acrylics so the painting was dry. I took if off the wall carefully since the collector was watching, making sure to only to handle the work by the stretcher bars on the back to keep the surface clear from any fingerprints. I suggested they go out for a coffee across the street to give me time to wrap the work, and so I could do the wrapping in private and not let the collector see the behind the scenes of how roughly I handled my own work, breaking the theater of the sacrosanct. Since I didn’t remember making the painting I handled it with more deference, admiring on closer inspection the twists of the brush strokes, the other-wordly color combinations, the nuanced shimmering of the black shadows which radiated the color spectrum almost like when you pressed your eyelids shut as a child to see fireworks within your reverie.
After my gallerist and the collector returned to retrieve the painting and left, I shut the door tightly and exhaled. Maybe I am dreaming, I thought. I debated calling my primary care physician to explain what happened to see if I could schedule a brain MRI. Then I thought maybe I should call my psychiatrist as perhaps this inexplicable event occurred from an allergic reaction to my psychiatric medication. I finally settled on stretching three more canvases with the remaining linen I had ordered, pulling and stapling the fabric skins over the wooden stretcher bars while listening to NPR, which returned a sense of normalcy to my day. By late afternoon the canvases were ready for the gesso and I pulled the gallon tub of white ground from the bottom shelf of my supply cabinet and worked carefully with a large soft brush to coat the surface of each of the three canvases. I went out for coffee between each coat of gesso, allowing each application to dry before adding an additional layer. After the last coffee I went to the hardware store to refresh my supply of sandpaper and returned to the studio with my hands shaking from caffeine and perhaps some residue of fear, and worked methodically to sand down the surfaces of the layered gesso until by early evening I had three smooth white canvases hanging on my wall in a row, ready to be transformed into paintings in the following days.
As I packed up to leave the studio for the night, I found myself orating my actions in a play-by-play like a sports caster for a game of ‘the Artist Leaving her Studio,’ in an attempt to emphasize to myself that I was conscious to all my actions and all my time was accounted for. ‘I’m putting the gesso back in the supply cabinet. I’m changing my clothes and shoes. I’m putting my subway card in my pocket. I’m putting on my coat. I’m walking to the subway. I’m riding the subway. I’m getting off at my stop. I’m walking in the front door. I'm walking up the stairs. I’m opening my apartment door. I’m taking off my coat. I’m cooking dinner. I’m eating dinner. I'm watching T.V., I’m going to bed.’
As I lay in bed still wired from the afternoon coffee, I had an idea that I’d seen on an episode of the T.V. crime show, and feeling somewhat foolish I did it anyway, rummaging around in a drawer in the kitchen to find a roll of blue painter’s tape. I removed a strip from the roll and applied it to the bottom of the door, stretching it across the doorway so that if I did sleep walk from a brain tumor tonight and opened the door I would see the broken tape in the morning. I had a hard time falling asleep, but I did eventually and when I awoke to my alarm in the morning the first thing I did was go to the door to inspect the blue tape, which was where I left it intact, no sign of my own secret breaking and entering. I felt somewhat appeased by the uninterrupted strip of blue tape and as I got dressed I thought about the three blank canvases while arranging various compositions in my head as potential layouts for each of the paintings.
When I opened my studio door, I flicked on the lights with my key still in the turned lock and my heart sunk so low I thought I would faint. On the wall were three completed paintings, shimmering with dark tones of complimentary colors that were laid down in overlapping brush strokes so the paintings seemed to have an inner illumination. I quickly entered my studio, shut the door and locked it, as if I had committed a crime and feared my murderous actions would be discovered. But there was no dead body, there was nothing destroyed, it was the opposite, there were multiple creations, and as I took some time to examine the paintings I became awed at their mysterious beauty. Again they were scenes in a woodland at night, each one rich in detail painted in the closest of hues so as you got closer to the surfaces it was as if a magnetic field was pulling you in, and for a moment I lost touch with the fact I was standing in my studio, suddenly I was in the woods, examining with awe the roots of the trees, the undergrowth of mushrooms and rotting stumps under my feet, the slivers of moonlight breaking through the branches and creating sparkles on my body. I snapped out of the hallucination and was back in my studio. I ran my hands over my skull searching for a lump that gave a hint of the brain tumor. I didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary and I grabbed my phone and started scrolling through my contacts for my doctor’s number. I paused and looked back up at the paintings. I put down my phone. These were the best paintings I had ever made. I hadn’t been selling much work in the past year and I had overdue bills. Maybe I could ride this eerie painting streak while it lasted. I looked over my hands again. They were clean and smooth. It didn’t look like I was hurting myself or anyone else by my sleep walking and painting. Maybe painting in my sleep had freed me from my self-consciousness allowing me to paint unencumbered by judgment, art school techniques, art historical knowledge, biases from previous sales of what collectors would like. Maybe I was painting as the most authentic artist I could be. What harm would it be to let this happen a bit longer to see where it might lead?
I picked up my phone again and called my gallery. I told my gallerist I had three more finished paintings similar in feel to the one that sold yesterday. My gallerist was thrilled—she didn’t even ask how I could have produced the paintings so quickly—she said she would send a car over to pick them up in a few hours so I had time to wrap them. I took some quick pictures with my phone and texted them to her. She texted back “Holy Shit.” Then she texted, “Gold!”
I wrapped the three paintings and brought them downstairs for the doorman to give to the car service when they arrived. I went back upstairs and turned NPR up loud to drown out the voices in my head that were warning me to go to the doctor. I could become incapacitated soon. I could die. I would call the doctor tomorrow. Just a few more paintings tonight to help pay the bills, maybe get museum interest, maybe MOMA would take notice, maybe I’d get a retrospective scheduled that I could execute before I had to have brain surgery and show up at my opening with my head wrapped in scarves.
Even though I told myself I would only let this happen for a few more paintings, I stretched six canvases and worked all day to apply the layers of gesso. When I finally finished with the sandpaper, I was sneezing from the dust. I had a fleeting thought this was probably how I got the brain tumor in the first place. I finally noticed the time—it was late—I didn’t have windows so I didn’t know the sun had long since gone down. Instead of commuting all the way home and applying the blue tape to the door, when clearly the blue tape wasn’t giving away my escapism—I must have removed the tape in my sleep and then reapplied it—I decided it would be more efficient to sleep in my studio, thus saving me the dangerous activity of commuting on public transportation in the middle of the night while sleep walking. I unfolded a beach lounge chair I had in my studio that I used for taking naps. I was exhausted from preparing the canvases and fell asleep quickly even though the beach chair didn’t recline all the way and my torso was slightly propped up and facing the blank canvases.
Something woke me in the middle of the night and I slowly opened my eyes half expecting to find myself standing in front of the canvases with a paintbrush in my hand. But I was still reclining in the beach lounge chair and I could hear a buzzing noise, like a bee, which must have been what had awoken me. I propped myself up further and saw there were several flashing lights moving and buzzing around my canvases and, I know this sounds impossible, several of my paint brushes were hovering in the air near the lights, and the brushes were applying paint to each of the canvases. I was so frightened I didn’t know what to do, I was frozen in the chair, but as I watched the lights and paint brushes with disbelief, my curiosity was starting to grow stronger then my fear and I swung my legs off the beach lounger to come to a full sitting position.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I started to make out shapes that were part of the blinking lights, as if the small shapes were fireflies with only their bottoms blinking, and the fire flies were holding the paintbrushes somehow, and flying in intricate spatial patterns to apply the paint in unusual and ingenious ways. I must be having an out of body experience or was dreaming, or hallucinating from the tumor. But whatever was happening, the paintings were taking shape, and I stared with a mixture of fascination and dread at the hovering paint brushes that seemed to work effortlessly, almost like they were dancing to the buzzing, swinging back and forth and up and down like a waltz.
As I continued to stare at the phenomenon in front of me, I slowly stood up and approached the blinking lights and dancing brushes for a closer look, half expecting to see strings that were pulling the brushes like puppets, and someone jumping out of the shadows to say “Gotcha!” and it would all be a prank by some juvenile delinquent on cable TV. I went so far as to pass my hand back and forth through the air above a brush like a magician proving his magic to a skeptical audience. There were no strings, but I started to make out more details on the shapes that had the blinking lights and I can’t even believe I’m saying this, and I’m sure you won’t believe me, but the shapes were tiny insect-ish humanoids that were flying with tiny wings, like Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly”, but the figures manipulating the paint brushes were smooth and green and beautiful, like little androgynous grass hoppers that had sprung out of the mystical woodland scenes they were now painting. My terror was replaced by astonishment as I could now discern there were six little green, I'm not even sure what to call them, with the tiniest of transparent wings, with their little chests blinking like Christmas lights as they buzzed up and down and side to side each holding a brush that was enormous in scale compared to their delicate shimmering bodies.
When I awoke this was the image that came to me as I shifted uncomfortably in the beach lounger, my back having locked up from the lack of support in the night. There were no signs of blinking lights or buzzing noises and I stood up painfully and shuffled over to the doorway to turn on the light. The sudden illumination from the floodlights revealed six completed paintings hanging on the back wall. Again my brushes were washed and lined up neatly on my painting table. I don’t know if I dreamt about the little green humanoids or if I had actually awoken in the middle of the night and witnessed the bizarre and unbelievable spectacle. The one thing I was sure of though was that there were six completed paintings that were brilliantly executed, imbued with a mystical aura that caused them to radiate rainbows from their centers out to their edges, the color spectrum spilling out the frames creating auras onto the white of the wall that surrounded their perimeters. I was mesmerized by the infinitely expanding space that unfolded as I looked through the silhouettes of trees and traveled deeper into the woods. I exclaimed over the tiny textured sprigs of grass, saplings, mushrooms, and moss as I bent over to marvel at the detail in the tiniest splotch of mold to see an even tinier caterpillar, striped with black, orange and yellow that was feeding off the green fuzz.
My cell rang and I looked up and found myself suddenly out of the woods and standing in front of the six paintings. I had a shiver of déjà-vu and I knew the call would be my gallerist. I took pictures again and texted them to her and within seconds I received a texted response, “OMFG, Gold x 6!”
I could hardly contain my rising excitement and for a moment I forgot about the little green humanoids who made the paintings. Of course that was a hallucination brought on by the brain tumor, and although I had told myself I would call my doctor today, I decided one more day wouldn’t make a difference between life or death, and I really wanted to buy a car—one more day could mean a lot financially for me—so I removed the six finished paintings from the wall and wrapped them, again bringing them downstairs to the doorman to deliver to the incoming car service my gallery would send in a few hours.
I rummaged through the back stock of stretcher bars under my desk and found I could assemble eight more canvases before I depleted my supplies and needed to phone in a new order which would take a week to receive. That would give me a natural break to go to the doctor and get the necessary brain scans to locate what is hopefully a benign tumor that could be shrunk with acupuncture, perhaps cured without needing surgery and I could go to my opening at MOMA with my long flowing beautiful silver streaked hair that was currently on my head and would not have fallen out in clumps from any difficult treatment.
By the time I finished prepping the canvases my back was so tweaked I could barely stand up straight. I thought it might be better to try to sleep on the floor tonight instead of in the sagging beach lounger, so I pulled two moving blankets out of my supply closet and folded them into the approximation of a twin mattress, not a plush one but maybe closer to a mattress one would sleep on in Japan. As I lay still in the darkness I was plagued by self-doubt. Was I not even making these paintings? Would it be discovered that I was a fraud, taking credit where none was due? If a brain tumor unleashed my innate brilliance, would my talent have shone through eventually on its own? What happens when the brain tumor is gone? Should I lie about my age when MOMA schedules a studio visit?
I tossed and turned and occasionally sat up to look for the flashing lights. When I awoke I took a few minutes to meditate in the darkness and then I slowly rose up to turn on the lights. I was completely astounded by what I saw around me. I turned off the lights again hoping to see something else when I turned them on. I counted to ten and I turned them on again. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Everything was gone.
The eight canvases I had prepped and hung on the wall were gone. My painting table with tubes of half squeezed paint and a stack of brushes and rags—gone. Everything was gone. My desk, my computer, my supplies, even my supply cabinet. My coat rack on the back of the door with my painting clothes—gone. My calendar taped to the wall, my pinned up sources of reference, my books, my bookcase, my desk chair, my rolling carts, my stored canvases, my giant roll of bubble wrap—gone. I was standing in a completely empty room as if a gang of thieves had stolen everything in the night, swept the floor clean and had grabbed the broom on their way out. The trashcan, the dustbin, the wetvac, all gone. I slowly turned in a 360, absorbing the reality of the completely empty room save for the two moving blankets on the floor that I had slept on and myself standing by the door. I lay back down on the moving blankets and stared at the white ceiling until the architectural edges faded away and all I could see was a field of white, like being sunk in an avalanche or lost in a blizzard. I needed to call my doctor. I needed to buy all new furniture. I needed to call the art supply store and order new paints and brushes and stretcher bars and a stapler and bolts of linen. I got on the phone and made the calls. Then I lay back down on the moving blankets to wait.