Each artist could submit three images for jurying in the Federation of Canadian Artists’ show “Humanity.” Liz had painted a semi-abstract in acrylics of her landlord, an actor, posing as a Mel Gibson character, looking both holy and brooding, a cross between Hamlet and Jesus. The landlord had already decided to buy it. The second was an impressionistic oil painting of a stall in Chinatown, the vendor surveying approaching tourists pensively, and the third, a clever and humorous one of her friend Julia at the hairdresser’s. Each one told a story, and each had taken months to prepare and paint.
For Liz, this competition mattered. The cash prizes, large enough to attract international attention, were huge, and she needed the money. With the recognition, she had an excellent chance of being accepted into the Federation as a Signature member, which meant that doors would open for her as an artist.
“How are you going to frame them?” asked Jack as he started to pack his photographic equipment. He had spent the afternoon photographing the portraits.
“I’ll see if they get accepted first.”
“C’mon. The jurors will love these.”
“You can never tell. It really depends on the jurors’ tastes and how many have been submitted. For this show, there will be hundreds of entries.”
Car doors slammed outside. Liz started involuntarily. Ever since the car accident, her nerves had been taut. The loud voices of an aggressive male and a squawky female drew closer.
“That the guy who lives upstairs?” asked Jack.
Liz nodded. Resignation extinguished the enthusiasm in her eyes.
Small and thin, Liz had once been pretty, but now pain and fatigue had left puffy shadows under her eyes and etched lines in her drawn, pale face. Although she was till in her 30s, her once luxuriant auburn hair had turned white from stress.
The accident had left her unable to work outside her home, and she walked with difficulty. Lifting her feet higher than her ankles was agony. Despite the headaches and painful back, she had almost managed to finish art school. She met Jack, a graduate of the Emily Carr Institute himself, while taking the Handidart to classes. He drove the bus but had also been happy to carry her equipment and canvases.
“Didn’t your landlord evict that jerk?”
“He’s trying, but he has to give three months’ notice, and Romeo’s still got a month to go.”
Romeo wasn’t his real name, but he had a succession of girl friends, none of whom stayed with him for more than two dates. They heard him now, shouting as if he were at a hockey match. A door crashed open and slammed shut. Again Liz winced. Heavy footsteps thudded upstairs.
“Something tells me they’ve been drinking,” said Jack.
Overhead, the floorboards creaked and groaned. A dog barked, the neighbor bellowed, and the woman cackled. The bass beat of the stereo began to pulsate through the floor.
“You’ve gotta get out of here.”
“I know. I’ve got my eye on a top floor condo with an elevator – with a north light, too.”
“What about the settlement from the accident?”
“It’s not quite enough. I need a little more cash.”
The dog upstairs barked excitedly.
“I didn’t think you were allowed to have dogs here.”
“It must be the woman’s. He’s not the kind to have pets.”
As Romeo stomped back and forth, Jack noticed that each thud made Liz cringe. “Will you be all right? Too bad I have to go on shift, or we could go out for coffee.”
“I’ll be okay. They’ll probably drink and talk for a while, then head for the bedroom. While they’re overhead, I’ll sit in my bedroom. At least they won’t be directly over me. Then when they move, I’ll come out here.”
But she wouldn’t be okay. If only she weren’t confined to a ground-floor flat, she thought. If only she could drive. And there were times, like now, when she wished she hadn’t been born an artist. An instructor had said that art was a calling, bu sometimes she felt it was a curse. And it was all so ironic.
When she had been ten years old, she’d imagined that artists were miserable, starving people who lived in attics – dark, cramped attics like the one in her parents’ house, low-ceilinged with a steeply slanted roof and dark, impenetrable corners, with two tiny windows at right angles, one in each gable, so covered with cobwebs and grime that they let in almost no light. She spent several years in one small part of that attic. It was her bedroom, and she still recalled her fear of the monsters that lurked in the shadows and in the other part of the attic, behind the cheap partition.
Her father had liked to paint every evening after dinner, but her mother disapproved. When her mother looked around at the rented house, she saw mismatching second-hand furniture and chipped antiques. She shopped at the Salvation Army Thrift store. When Liz was sixteen, her father stopped painting. By then, her parents had bought a house, and he threw himself into his new job. In the evenings, he drank.
Although Liz was offered an art scholarship, her mother persuaded her to go to university to get a well-paid job. But after ten years of nursing, a divorce, and a serious bout of depression, she realized that she had become her father. Then a careless driver changed her life, and she went to art school. Now, instead of a dark, shadowy attic with monsters in the corners, she lived in a cheap, ground-floor flat with an ogre over her.
She had escaped the maelstrom that had raged in her parents’ home beneath her attic years ago, but now, a rowdy, perpetually angry lech banged cupboards overhead, stomped on the floor, and shouted at both his date, who screeched back in protest, and the dog. The dog’s barking reached a crescendo.
“Put him in the car!” Romeo shouted.
Liz moved into the bedroom, put on her headset, and opened her novel. She had read thirty pages when a scream pierced her headset. Instinctively, she pulled it off, ready to act. Should she telephone the police?
“No! No!” she heard the woman scream. “Oh, my God.”
Liz had always considered herself a coward. She hated confrontation. But she had taken a course in self-defense, and she had cans of spray – fixative for her charcoal drawings, varnish for her paintings, and a can of white spray paint. The screaming increased. She heard a crash, a thud on the floor, and then silence. Was that crying she heard? Once before, Liz had called the police, but the woman that time had told the police to mind their own business. Another scream rang out, then another.
Stairs were torture for her, but there were banisters. She pulled herself up slowly, then knocked on the door. No answer. Inside, she heard the woman sobbing.
“I’m calling the police,” Liz said loudly.
Romeo flung open the door. Tall, with the muscular torso of an athlete, he could have been handsome, but now he was livid, his face twisted with hate.
“F- - - off, you little cripple,” he snarled.
“I want to see if she’s all right.”
“Get out of here.”
He grabbed her hair. She sprayed his face. He screamed and doubled over. Inside the room, a disheveled redhead, one side of her head bleeding, lay on the floor, moaning, beside her an unconscious beagle.
Liz started to check her vital signs, but the neighbour began to recover. She sprayed him again. Staggering blindly, he groped his way to the kitchen to wash out his eyes.
“Don’t call the police,” whimpered the redhead.
“I’m a nurse. You need a doctor. That’s a serious head wound.”
“My dog. Is he okay?”
“He’s alive, but he needs a vet.”
“Just call a taxi, will you?”
“Okay, but I’m going with you to make sure you go to St. Paul’s. Then I’ll take your dog to an emergency clinic.”
Liz hurried the woman out of the apartment and called a taxi from her cell phone on the street. A Yellow Cab turned the corner within minutes.
When Liz returned home, the house was quiet. Her door was open. Where was her neighbour? His lights were out. Liz’s lights were still on. Was he there, waiting for her? She stood outside in the cold, unable to decide what to do.
To her relief, her landlord’s red BMW pulled up in front. When she told him what had happened, he went in first.
The studio/living room was trashed, the curtains torn, furniture slashed, and paint everywhere. Worse, her neighbour had defaced and ripped up all her paintings. Her head felt suddenly very light. She felt dizzy and cold, and then she was violently sick.
When she came to, she was on a stretcher, with an IV in her arm and a paramedic taking her pulse.
“Shock,” she heard someone say. They took her to St. Paul’s.
When her best friend, Julia, brought her home the next day, the landlord and her other friends had cleaned the place. They had duct-taped the slashes in the couch. The curtains were gone, sheets in their place.
Exhausted, she took to her bed and slept, but her sleep was full of nightmares. Just before she awoke, she was in the attic of her parents’ old home, trying to find her cat, who liked to crawl into the deepest, darkest recesses, as if escaping from the rage below. Cobwebs clung to her face. At one end was a tiny window. As she drew towards the light, fearing the shadows, suddenly, in the way of dreams, she was back in art school, in class, standing around an ugly, black monstrosity of papier maché. The instructor was Romeo, extolling its merits, for in this class, ugly was good.
When she awoke, she found that her friends had left sandwiches, cookies, and cheery notes to phone them when she got up. Her landlord had changed the locks.
She took stock of her art supplies. The man had slashed and torn all the canvas and paper in sight but a large wooden panel underneath the bed. He had stomped on her tubes of oil paint and emptied the jars of acrylic, but missed the two-ounce pots. And he had failed to look inside the cupboard under the kitchen sink, where she kept her largest pots of acrylic, her gesso, and acrylic gels, the kind she used for glazes and collages. He had snapped the handles of her brushes (or most of them) but the hairs and ferrules were intact. He had missed a large pile of magazines (Life, National Geographic) at the back of the closet. And she had scissors.
She covered the wooden panel with gesso and then she began to tear out pages and images from the magazines. She cut out pictures of liquor, hiking boots, pneumatic drills, stereos, and ads for headache remedies. In a Life magazine, she found pictures of Nazis. She experimented with the images, making a collage. Over the collage, she slathered layers of semi-transparent acrylic and then painted over that. She lost track of time.
When her landlord dropped by to say that Romeo was in custody, he asked, “What’s the title?”
“Could be asking for trouble with that one,” he said.
Liz looked at the images half-hidden under the glazes and all the dark corners of the paintings. “Shadows,” she said.
The deadline for the digital submissions or slides was 5 p.m. the next day. At 3 p.m. , Jack photographed the collage, emailed the digital, and Liz got her application with the fee to the gallery just in time.
Liz told herself she didn’t care if it was chosen. The exercise had been cathartic. And yet when the notice of acceptance came, she was relieved.
In the past, someone would phone her to tell her if she had won a prize, but when the day of the opening reception came and no one had phoned, she knew she hadn’t won. Despite the pep talks to herself, she was disappointed.
She did not want to go to the reception. Ever since the accident, she had avoided crowds and parties, but her friends and landlord wanted to go and wanted her to go, and they had been good to her.
The gallery was crowded. Near the front, on an easel was the First Prize winner – a traditional Impressionist portrait of a woman playing a violin. It was almost identical in technique and style to one of her portraits, the one her neighbour had destroyed. Second Prize was a semi-abstract, a cross between cubism and surrealism, of a woman’s face. She was curious to see the other paintings but also demoralized. Slowly, she and Jack worked their way around the room, but with the crowds and her small stature, it was difficult for her to see.
Then they heard the voice of the Federation of Artists’ president ring out. There was a hush. They were presenting the awards. She heard the president announce the First Prize. People clapped. Then Second Prize, then Third.
“And now,” the president said, “a new award – the Sprezzatura Award. Sprezzatura for us means art that does not seem to be art. It is the appearance of spontaneity or effortlessness, the ability to show you’re not showing all the effort you obviously put into it. This work clearly demonstrates great skill - - effortless virtuosity.”
There was a pause.
“Is Liz Whitson here?”
Her friends pushed her forward.
Next to the president, on an easel stood her painting “Shadows.” But when she looked at it, she did not see her vicious neighbour at all. She did not see the hate she’d felt. She did not see revenge. Instead, she saw herself, her life. There in the shadows, under the smoky glazes, were the attic, suggestions of her father’s drinking, her mother’s anger, the accident, and all the oppression her neighbour represented. But gone were her haunted eyes, the tired defeat, the pain. Staring out was blazing defiance. The energy was shocking. I will forge my own fate, it said, regardless.
“Could you tell us something about his work?” asked the president.
Could she tell the truth?
“Victory,” she said.