When I was last at Arthur’s Studio his table hosted an army of half formed figures in clay. Each one I examined offered a face or limb of exquisite detail emerging from the clay lumps and blobs. The beauty of the protrusions was devastating. “Have you ever finished one of these?” I marveled. “Never!” crowed Arthur, “Finish and Die!” Being accustomed to his outbursts, I smiled, preparing my debate, but became distracted by his arrangement of the figures.
A goodly number of hands and arms had gathered in a semicircle near a corner of the table all stretching toward and almost touching a central lump of mud. Though it was much larger than they, it held no detail I could discern. I couldn’t decide if the arms were attacking or worshiping the lump. Their desire to lay hold was palpable. From here my eye was drawn to another gathering near the center of the table.
Again it was a semicircle of longing arms (and some outstretched feet) surrounding a central figure. But right between the desirous and the object a wall of chin-set heads, facing out from the center, held the arms at bay. Their expressions were stony and contemptuous. Behind them the larger figure this time was fully formed from the neck down. He was the picture of perfect posture seated with his hands on his thighs and his penny loafers quietly together. His shirt was buttoned to the top and the blob squeezing out his collar looked like toothpaste.
Now I was beginning to see gatherings like this everywhere, large and small arcs of worshippers overlapping and intersecting.
Let me tell you this was no small table. The table was chest high and massive, measuring 12 feet square, the blobular pieces anywhere between 8 and 19 inches high. Because of the height of the table the pieces looked me in the eye, a little above, a little below; like looking into the crowd at Times Square. The table was set up near the door in an old garage with an 18 foot ceiling. It rested on four large oaken posts. The garage is circumdecked by a balcony from which Arthur’s voice was piping. “Do you like it?”
“Yes.” I said, not looking up. “It’s really sucking me in.” I had found an angle where could be seen a tunnel piercing the depth of the crowd, made solely of up stretched arms and down stretched legs. At the end of this arcade, perhaps 7 feet in, the most feminine derriere was emerging from her blob. It reminded me of that old fable where the man makes his lover out of butter but she runs away and he forever is seeing her in the distance through the trees. I had such a longing to see the beautiful behind a little closer.
Had I been 15 inches tall at that moment I would have stubbed my toe or twisted my ankle trying to navigate the pathway. All the ground space between the figures was covered in rubble which looked to be of the same clay. Indeed, I could pick out shattered faces and limbs all over as if many figures had been destroyed. “It’s a portrait of you.” Arthur toned.
“Yeah, right,” I laughed, “and I suppose each of these vignettes display some facet of my personality.”
“That wasn’t mine to dictate,” Said Arthur. “I merely assisted the spirit of your face to say with art what it never could have put into words.”
This was hog-wash of course. I didn’t believe him for a minute. But I wasn’t about to engage him. When he starts talking like that he’ll follow the point tirelessly until he backs it into some small corner. And that is not the end of it. He treats his confounded conclusion like it’s some expansive castle, and with such conviction you start to believe him. And he struts about so, giving you the tour, which of course he’s only seeing for the first time himself. And just when his charm is wearing thin, where the construction equipment lays abandoned at the half-formed wall, he brings all scrutiny to a single hairline crack in the glass of a mirror on the wall of a bathroom in this palace of the conundrummic point in his mind. “This crack,” he’ll say, squinting his eyes, “is your skepticism at work in my world of words. Well, work away!” He’ll sweep his arm up at the mirror. “You can’t lay brick with skeptic mortar.” And if you chance to peer in his mirror, you’ll indeed notice that the crack cuts through the lower lid of your right eye, giving you the face of one trying to swallow a biscuit that holds no water.
“Hey, dreamyhead!” Arthur was shouting, “Come up here and have a look.” I tentatively climbed the ladder fully expecting to be verbally tackled and stuffed inside a make-believe castle. I couldn’t have been more surprised. Looking over the banister, the table with its figures from this vantage actually was a portrait of my face. And a deadly one to boot. “Whoa, Arthur,” I ran my fingers through my hair, “I’m speechless.” I really was. I had been hanging out with Arthur for about six months during which time I hadn’t seen him make one piece of art. Sure, there were some sculptures around the studio, but mostly broken ones covered in dust. I had listened to so many hours of Arthur’s utopic ramblings on the nature of Art and Beauty, I was convinced his ideals hampered actually making any. “I thought old men just expostulated on art,” I looked at him sidelong, one eye brow raised.
“Ha!” he beamed. “I admit I’ve indulged in scrabblous banter and fanatical posturing. AND audacious preposterocities! Anything to divert your attention from the basement, where I’ve been making these.” He splayed his fingers at the portrait. “I started this the day after I met you.”
Now some, I suppose, might be embarrassed to have so much attention devoted to their face, but not me. If you’ve only just seen a picture of me, you will ascertain that I welcome it. This monumental portrait, then, was becoming, the more I stared at it, the nicest thing anybody had ever done for me. The arcs of figures I had seen from below made up the lines and curves of my face. The differing heights mapped the topography. Each angle of the protruding limbs followed the grain of my flesh and the rubble made all of it hard to distinguish until I moved my head from side to side. Suddenly the image seemed to float holographically above the table. “My original plan,” Arthur injected, “was to make your face a city, complete with a wall containing it, but when I realized how constrained it was making me, I went at it with a baseball bat.” I gave him a worried look. “You wouldn’t beLIEVE how good THAT felt,” Arthur gloated, “but that explains why your face is rising out of ruin…a lot could be read into that.” He grinned. “For me, though, that was when the magic happened, when I finally let go of my plan and started destroying my work, Art herself was released from the city-face where I contrived to keep her and in her gratitude she wrapped her arms around me from behind and spoke words in my ear. And Michael, I must tell you, standing there on the table leaning on my bat, I felt light as morning breeze, and my heart like laundry on the line, fluttering away. And everything became clear. Crystal clear. It was like all the metaphors had lifted and I could see sheer potential in everything. Euphoria!”
Here he threw his arms over his head, and his watch which was too loose, flew off his skinny wrist like a rocket, smacked the skylight window and then dropped to hang dangling in the outstretched arms of my eye. A number of puns sprung to mind, but Arthur wasn’t done.
“That,” his voice got low, “is where I touched my humanity. Forever refining, never reclining, always opining humanity.” His voice was a sacred whisper. He put his hand on my shoulder and stared into my eyes. I looked at his wrist where his watch had been. To my surprise he began to sing a wordless lament. And, reader, to this point I admit, I’ve cast Arthur in a yellowed light and that I’ve presented him as an eccentric crack-pot and rightly so for that was how I felt but this song he was singing…
It shot with arrows my proud heart full of holes till it hung slack like a deflated disco-ball and as the quick tide rises it reflates my chambers with sorrow and agony sweet as honey wide as an ocean. For now my sievous heart becomes sewn to the prow of a ship on a turbulent sea, plowing under. Rooting up and plowing under. Like the drunk ruthlessly dunked in the washtub and roused from his stupor my colander heart at each pause in the song would rise gasping and squirting, alarmed and aliver. It seemed to go on and on. Arthur’s voice filling the garage like ten thousand sable brushes full tilt.
I felt pursued. Not by Arthur but by something so large it could have been planetary. The feeling made the hair stand up on my neck and the air taste electric. Arthur’s hand left my shoulder as his song came to a roaring crescendo, and by roaring I mean the way a lion roars and his arms tree limbs in the hurricane. And this shadow of planetary mystery was pressing so thick my eyes dilated, I could count the pores in Arthur’s distended jowls. He was reaching a high note. I felt it coming. His operatic gesticulation became outlandishly animated. He paused, the tide sucking back before the final wave.
You’ll appreciate the fact that here there was a knock at the door interrupting my absorption. Indeed, no small knock it was. The hinges popped and the wood splintered as a car, a coup de-ville , stuck it’s left front corner through the garage door into the studio. The headlight was still shining. I made some noise which sounded like an antelope and pronked over a bench to not be hit.
The car slid to a stop, half in, barely knocking out one leg of the great table. In slow motion the table listed and tipped coming to rest on the hood. A third of the pieces fell over, and those nearest the edge were lemminging the hood in a heap. Like clowns falling off the short wire, waving their arms. I was amazed at how easily they broke and shattered. It was a full 20 seconds of sliding, teetering, tumbling, rolling, dropping, and smashing, all accompanied by rumbling and thudding and somebody screaming.
The passenger. She was screaming and screaming. Ranting a torrent of scathing words at the driver. He was smiling and trying to open his door.