The odors of paint, ink, charcoal, and other media with which beauty could be created mixed in the air beneath the vaulted ceiling just as brilliantly for the nose as the colors did for the eye in the Alders University Art Building. Painted wire sculptures hung from steel rafters, swaying in the heat blasting to comfort the occupants against the Autumn chill; a painted sculpture peeking out of a frame greeted visitors at the entrance; and a maze of drywall partitions created alcoves in which students worked and could be observed by visitors.
Amid it all, a man in tweed sat, mesmerized, barely on his cushion, elbows digging into his knees and eyes darting side-to-side, as the young woman at the painting station before him waged war upon emptiness. The white which resisted, no matter the color she chose, no matter what brush she held, no matter her attempts to turn its nothing into something. She dipped her hand in paint and smacked her work; she dipped rags and threw them; she even loaded her long, blonde braid with paint and whipped it around her in an arc which sprayed the canvas and everything around it.
Another man with paint smeared on his apron approached the spectator, the rubber soles of his running shoes squeaking on the freshly waxed linoleum. “Dr. Walton I presume. Welcome to Alder.” When Walton continued watching the spectacle, the aproned man looked at the artist and mentioned, “I see you are enjoying your visit.”
Dr. Walton stood slowly, eyes still forward, and extended his hand to shake before giving his attention. “You must be Dr. Connelly, the Art department head,” he said. “I saw some of your pieces at the Met.”
Connelly’s expression remained neutral. “Oh? Which was your favorite?”
Walton straightened his posture and squeezed Connelly’s hand in reply to what had become a frozen shake. At thirty years of age, he had only recently been awarded his doctorate and offered his first professorship; but he knew a trap when he saw one. Truthfully, he did not like any of Connelly’s pieces, so he had to choose one he hated the least and give a good reason for it or else Connelly would own him. He could explain what emotions he knew Connelly must have been feeling when he was painting or sculpting and own Connelly, but Walton had never won many popularity games in his time, especially the ones which allowed the winners to control the losers.
“I appreciated all of them. Which would you like to talk about?” Always answer a question with a question.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Connelly retorted, shaking a finger and sounding half-serious. “Your opinion will reveal something about you. Don’t be afraid to answer the question.”
“Your work reveals things about you,” Walton countered. “Are you sure you want me to?”
Connelly breathed a laugh. “I’m not insane; why not?”
Walton smiled slyly, one end of his lips reaching for an ear. “Relax. I wouldn’t be able to diagnose anything. Maybe an Art Therapist could, but I’m just a psych teacher and hopefully soon a psych professor," he said, his eyes trailing.
“It just seems to me that you don’t really enjoy your work.” He turned his eyes back to the student who was clearly not enjoying her work either, trying to manipulate the medium with a pattern of grunts, screams and pleas for obedience. “Don’t get me wrong; you’re very good at it. It just seems to me that your attention to detail is taking away from the fun you could be having with your trade. But what do I know? I’ve got a doctorate in Psychology and a master’s in teaching, so I know very little about art except what I like.”
Connelly turned his eyes from Walton to the art student. “And what is it that you like, Dr. Walton?”
“I like art that says something other than, ‘Hey look – I painted a bowl of fruit or sculpted a human being. Look how good I am at it.’ I like art that makes me feel something and forget that someone else actually crafted it. Although, I have had the rare opportunity to watch this artist, and I must say how impressed I am with the passion and raw emotion which go into her work.”
The art professor took a sip of coffee and offered, “Too bad her work is crap.”
Walton whipped his face back at Connelly, his wiry hair struggling to catch up. “She can hear you; that’s terribly rude!”
“I hope she can hear me,” Connelly admitted with a nod. “I have tried telling her nicely for years that she doesn’t have what it takes, but she just won’t listen.”
“She’s being persistent and not giving up on her passion. Even Da Vinci had canvases crumpled in the corner.”
“Persistence is admirable if it pays off,” Connelly agreed. “Da Vinci made mistakes and didn’t let them keep him from his success, but the fact is that he finally did succeed.
“Another thing about Da Vinci though, is that he didn’t paint because it was his dream; he did it because he was paid, and we all admire it because it is beautiful. He might have hated the Mona Lisa, but because his employers were pleased, it was a success. The helicopter, I suspect, was his dream, his passion; but he failed at that just like this young lady is failing to produce art. She needs to find out what she is good at and do that and get paid, even if she hates it.”
“Back to you,” Walton said. “Do you like what you do?”
“Honestly, I didn’t at first; but because I am psychologically strong, I learned to like it because I’m good at it.
Connelly leaned to one side. “Look, she’s not a special case. I get at least one of her every year: a wide-eyed young man or woman, fresh out of high school, away from home for the first time, and full of misguided optimism about their hopes and dreams. I’m not here to help their dreams come true. If I taught something more like History that doesn’t require more talent than staying awake in class, I would say that I could teach it to anyone at all; but art, like music, writing, or even empathy which counselors require, is not a skill but a talent; and people either have that talent or they do not.
“Besides, where would you and I be without people working at The Store or The Restaurant? We wouldn’t be able to buy food or anything else. I help talent develop. I cannot create talent that is not there. You might think I’m being unnecessarily cruel like that judge on the singing competitions, but really, she isn’t either. She merely tells it like it is, and the truth only hurts if people are too emotionally attached to the idea of being famous singers, wouldn’t you agree?"
"Why must some people be subject to poverty simply because they lack talent in demand?"
"Be careful, Sir. That comment sounds awfully Communist. And even if you didn't mean it to be, there isn't a single ideology that is without people in poverty. There simply isn't enough resources to go around.
“I have already broken it to Mz. Beck as gently as possible, reminding her that everyone has one or more talents, and I have encouraged her to discover her talents elsewhere. But she refuses to listen to reason. Surely you must understand. Emotions are fine things, but in the end, our brains must be in charge of our lives or else we would go insane,” Connelly said, widening his eyes and shaking his wiry, black curls.
Walton brushed one side of his sportcoat back and put a fist on his hip. “Isn’t art subjective, though? Some people don’t like Da Vinci but love Warhol or Picasso. How can you tell if art is good or not? Some art doesn’t bring joy but fear like Dali or Munch. Who and how many people do you poll when you grade?”
“The same amount as you will. Even though most of the answers on your tests will clearly be either right or wrong, I don’t figure you were planning to consult Professor Edwards of the English department when grading your students’ essays.”
“So your opinion is all that matters?”
Connelly’s stance relaxed as he gave a slow nod. “Now you’re beginning to understand what it means to be a professor. For four years, you are the god to whom your students pray for their future; and you deliver judgment in the form of grades to prophesy said future – in your particular subject. It would be truly cruel to flunk them without directing them to try something else, of course; but the responsibility of figuring out what that ‘something else’ is lies with their advisors. You’re going to flunk plenty of students in your time here.”
“If they don’t apply themselves.”
“No, no! This isn’t high school. You’re not making them shove a bunch of useless facts into their brains so that they have the right to make minimum wage. There will be brilliant minds, geniuses even, in your classes who will not be able to use those big brains of theirs for Psychology. Nonetheless, they would be phenomenal at Physics or Chemistry…” Connelly looked away for a moment and waved a hand to address the building, “or Art maybe. Only half your job will be to teach Psychology, but the other half will be to weed out the people who are not supposed to be psychologists. And again, remind them that there is hope: this university offers nearly every subject imaginable.
“Now if you like Mz. Beck’s piece well enough to buy it from her, that’s between the two of you; but I’m willing to wager that you would be the only one interested in any of her work.”
Walton pursed his lips in frustration. “I still don’t understand how one can judge that certain pieces of art are bad. With singing, you either have a range of pitch and a pleasant tone and sing on-key or you don’t. With writing, you either use the English language correctly or you don’t. My students will get multiple choice questions right or else they won’t. Art has so many dimensions – Impressionism, Realism, Abstract – it seems to me that Picasso and Pollack must have been called failures in their time.”
Connelly nodded. “I see where you’re going with this; and, yes, there have been artists of whom it has been said were ‘ahead of their time’. Many artists who we would consider successful never made a dime while they lived, but their success was simply unrealized until after their deaths.”
“Because they broke the rules that Art had at the time.”
Connelly’s bottom lip pushed against the top, and his eyebrows rose. “One could say that, yes.”
“Wouldn’t you say that Mz. Beck is breaking the rules of Art that exist now?”
Connelly smiled. “I would say that; however, she has read every textbook and required reading and even the recommended reading. She knows the rules and, I believe, is genuinely trying to obey them; but she seems unable. I’ll even give her that she might even have a vision in her head of what would be high quality art, but she just has not proven herself able to get that vision out of her head and onto canvas… or clay or stone or anything else she has used.
“I have also explained to her at length that while she may have ideas of her own, she needs to master the ‘rules’, as you call them, first before trying anything new; but she seems too afraid that doing so would taint her artistic individuality. She is not the first student who has proven too impatient to learn the techniques of the masters, but we want them to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ to borrow a quote.
“You went through the same experience, I’m sure, when you wrote your dissertation. You had to come up with something original, base it on information that your industry already possesses, and get your original idea out of your head and onto paper.
The department head inhaled. “I’m not unsympathetic. It is very frustrating for student and faculty alike that so many people’s brains are programmed through experience to enjoy something but are not equipped through genetics to actually perform it well. Maybe you and your Psychology cohorts can figure that one out. My best advice for Mz. Beck is that if she enjoys making bad art to continue doing it every day for the rest of her life but to stop wasting her time trying to turn it into good grades.”
Walton looked back at the mess on the canvas and the warrior who had fought valiantly but lost. He sighed, signaling his own defeat.
Connelly turned to leave, his voice reverberating off the vaulted ceiling and back to Walton. “If you think you could convince her to quit, she and I would owe you debts of gratitude.”
Walton put his hands in his pants pockets and blew out a deep breath, surveying the carnage. He had to admit – to himself, of course – that he had enjoyed the creation of it more than the piece itself. If he had seen it in a museum, he would have passed it, shaking his head and swearing he knew nothing about art. How many other pieces had he passed that had been hung in museums since their artists somehow managed to obey the seemingly unexplainable laws of art?
Half of him wanted to stay wisely silent while the other half insisted he say something after having spoken at length about the young woman as if she herself had been a lifeless, witless piece of art hanging on the wall collecting dust. “Uh…”
She had not moved for some time but stood before the results of her rage. Understanding clearly that no one would be satisfied with it, she took it off the wall, smashed it to the floor and ripped it to shreds.
“I know you put yourself into your work, but please don’t destroy yourself.”
She hung her head for a few minutes, trying not to scream or say things she would later regret. Satisfied with her self-control, she spun and faced Walton for the first time, the skirt of her own paint-stained apron rising slightly. She found herself needing to adjust her gaze upward as she had misjudged his height from only overhearing his voice.
Her surprise only delayed her mood for a moment. “I know you’re a Psych professor and are just trying to help even if you care more about your reputation if someone you talked to commits suicide than you do about me because you don’t know me; but you don’t need to worry. I’m fine.”
“So what are you going to do?”
She sat upon a white, rectangular bench which, despite its function, looked more like art than any of her paintings. Her hips seemed to widen unnaturally as she sat, and she bent to rest her elbows on her knees, leaning deeply as though she were used to being a size much smaller than she appeared. Her comparatively thin face, hands, and bare feet hinted that perhaps she had added some padding to her overalls. “Please don’t take this as cynicism, but why do you care?”
“If I leave, is there anyone else who will care?”
She bowed her head. “Yeah, I’ve got Someone. He and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but I’ve got Him.”
“If you’ve been having domestic disputes…”
She raised her head all the way to laugh at the ceiling. “What is it with you mental health people? You always expect the worst. Every argument is domestic violence, every spanking is child abuse, everyone who is depressed is going to commit suicide. Some problems are just normal parts of everyday life. You can’t solve everything with a pill.”
Walton held one wrist with his other hand and bowed slightly. “I completely agree with that: not everything can be solved with medication.
“Well,” he said, “if your problem is nothing more than a common annoyance which you can solve on your own, I’ll be off. It just seemed to me that it has been going on for some time with no end in sight.” He spun on his heel. “I apologize for the interference.”
He had taken a few steps before she sobbed, “Stop.”
He turned and walked back to his previous position.
“I’m sorry,” she sniffed, sitting again and trying to regain her dignity. “Connelly isn’t the only one who thinks I have a problem. I just want to make something beautiful, but I can’t no matter what I try.”
When she heard the echo of his wing tips returning, she continued in a sarcastically authoritative voice, “And this is the part where you tell me, ‘Art takes so many other forms: music, dance, theatre, architecture, writing, photography, etc., etc.”
He sat next to her. “And this is the part where you tell me you’ve tried all of that and failed.”
She pointed at him with one multicolored finger while wiping tears with a clean part of her wrist.
He looked up at where her canvas had been and the white rectangle outlined by the paint spatter. “And I suppose since your favorite of all of them was painting, you decided to stick with that until you got it.”
She sighed in surrender. “Ok. You deserve a lot more credit than I gave you.”
“That would be the empathy to which Dr. Connelly was referring. Is there nothing else you want to do with your life?”
“I want to get married and have children. I just wanted to know if there was more to me than just that. I guess there isn’t. I hope I marry someone rich.”
“People defining themselves by their jobs is very often unhealthy. There is a lot more to me than being a psych teacher. There is a lot more to people who are waitresses at The Restaurant or who work in factories or office jobs which they might hate. That’s why so many people have hobbies and go on vacations to do the things they always wanted to do but never had the time. It’s unfortunate that some people can’t make money doing what they love or make enough money to do what they love or have enough time after work to do what they love, but don’t let that keep you from your dreams.”
She stared at him with unnaturally bright blue eyes, hoping he would say more or that she would come up with something else to say.
Walton walked over to the flammable pile, picked it up and reached into his pocket for a one-hundred credit note. “I think I will buy this piece after all.”
“What are you doing? I destroyed it on purpose. Connelly’s right; it’s crap. It’s completely viral; even I hate it. I was trying to make it look… well different than it did anyway.”
“Performance art,” Walton accused, smiling and pointing a finger. “You and I are trying to say the same things, just in different ways. You’re crying out to people who see no value in something that has taken your time and effort; and I am telling you that everyone has value regardless of their talents and regardless of their appearance. Edison said he didn’t fail seven hundred times to perfect the light bulb but that he had successfully found seven hundred ways not to make the light bulb work.
“Notice that I did not say, ‘invent’. Edison found a failed bulb in his neighbor’s trash and committed to making it work. We don’t know his neighbor’s name because his neighbor gave up. Maybe you won’t find the right way to paint a masterpiece, but your efforts have not been in vain. They will carry you to your ‘light bulb’, whatever that is. Somehow your experiences here will aid you, even if they are no more than challenges to your faith in yourself. And if you don’t give up on yourself, someday I suspect you will find your masterpiece in the mirror.
“So I’m going to take this… reminder of your tenacity, and when your ‘someday’ comes, find me and tell me all about it so that I can take this off my wall.”
She snorted a laugh.
“I mean it. I’m counting on you. I want to put this in the fireplace as quickly as possible.” He extended his hand to shake. “I’m Dr. Luke Walton.”
She laughed through her tears and introduced herself as “Heroine,” pronouncing the “i” as a long “e”.
Walton’s eye twitched and he stared at the wall.
“Sorry. Your parents named you after a drug?”
Heroine inhaled, getting herself ready to repeat the explanation she had needed to give to almost everyone she had ever met. “They were trying to redeem the word so that, through me, it would go back to meaning ‘a female hero’; and to emphasize the difference from the drug, they pronounced it differently.”
“I see. If you’ll excuse me.”
Heroine watched as the man who had proven to be a strange sort of hero left abruptly.
He, uh, never made it home, Walton. The police traced his bus route back here and found his body on a bus stop bench with his VR specs on. Everyone who had seen him told the police they just figured he was into his game and minded their own business. He must have had a needle in his pocket when he was here, because his bloodstream had more than enough Heroin in it to kill five people.”
The next student who had reserved the public workspace arrived with a canvas in hand, struggling to keep all his art supplies tucked under his arm. He raised his eyebrows and pulled his smile tighter to communicate he would patiently wait for Heroine to gather her things but that he would soon need her to move on.
“For what it’s worth,” the young artist said in a squeaky voice, “I thought it was great – your painting, I mean. I’ve liked all of your paintings. What does Connelly know?”
Collecting her things from the stained cement floor, she replied, “He knows what most people will think and whether or not enough people will like my art to keep me in business. I know no one buys paintings anymore, and maybe I would have just ended up in advertising for The Store, but I was hoping I would be directed toward something instead of being forced to succeed at something that isn’t working. Why do you have to know how to paint before you learn how to create art on an Interface?
The male artist pointed a finger to speak again, unwittingly taking the hand from his materials, which spilled across the floor. Heroine bent down and helped him gather the brushes at her feet, bare as the chilly concrete beneath them except for sprays of paint and spots of polish, a different color for each nail.
“No kidding about people not getting breaks unless they’re super smart, super talented or already rich,” he said speedily. “If you really want to work for TS Advertising, you should whip something up and present it to them directly.”
“Maybe I should,” she said after a painful pause. “Thanks.”