“The gesso, the violet, the haircut, the angst.” A fiction of aspiration, desire, and possession; migrating canvases and sculptures.

I Call This One “Happiness”

by Steffani Jemison

Digital Project Published on May 7, 2015

“I’m an avid collector.” He entered, all swagger and grin. He was in his element. He was “fresh to death.” He made the rounds, pausing here and there to notice a texture (rough), a shape (round), a look and a feel.

It was a “mixed media exhibit with contemporary African American artists.” It was “Love, Peace, and Joy.” It was as good as it gets. It gave as good as it got. It gave it up.

He wanted to possess it. But could he afford it?

There were “black and white”; there were “color”; there were “charcoal drawings”; there were “photographs”; there were “paintings.” There was one, and then there were two.

The bodies were volumes. The air was infinite. They “took” his “breath” “away.” I couldn’t wait to meet the artist, but when I did, I almost stumbled over my feet.

Her twin hated it when she started talking about stuff she couldn’t see. Bitch, why is you in here getting so deep?, she would say.

“Hold up.” Not so quick, sis. Is it thick? Is it clear? Is it rich? Is it fly? Can you prove it? See through it?

Can you hold it high? In the evening shade? In the light of day? She had always been “into philosophy.”

It's intuitive, actually.

“It's private.”

It's oils mixed with iron and wood.

It's the Emerald City. The City of Angels. Cancun and San Juan. The French Riviera. Off the coast of Italy. Alpine, New Jersey. Prince George's County. Ladera Heights, the black Beverly Hills.

“I’ll see if I can get you on the list, though.”

“So you’re the artist,” he asked?

Was it the “fringe” on your vest? The “sequins” on your jacket? The holes in your “jeans”? The gesso, the violet, the haircut, the angst. The softness? The harness? The ingenuity? The bright future unfolding like wings on either side?

The plot thickened. (“I guess I never thought of you being into Black art.”)

“One day she was in Paris on a ladder painting a mural, and she fell off,” she told him as he popped the cork. He was sympathetic. “You can’t change what’s in your blood and heart,” she told him. “Don’t I know it,” he said. His eyes shined like glass. No, like brass. (No, like “gold.”)

But, he said. “There’s nothing else that you’d rather do?” She was quiet. “How does someone become an artist and then stop?” she asked after a pause. He was quiet. Then he spoke. “Thoughts that come with doves’ footsteps guide the world.”

All of them, every one, was your own.

They mingled.

Closing her eyes, she painted a portrait in her mind. “Every person was portrayed with love.” Every available space on the walls. To give and to receive; to invest and to yield; to ask and to grow. Her cup overflowed. It begins: so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.

And now they were wide open. “Oh, I’m going to have to paint a picture of this.”

This was a great day. He couldn’t help thinking ahead. Day follows night. Night follows day. You glide into the future. It is staggeringly complex; it is “abstract with vivid colors.”

“What does that painting say to you?” she asked. He furrowed his brow, but his thoughts were elsewhere.

She had exaggerated facial features and perfect ample breasts. He took a step. “I love watching you paint,” he said, stepping. “You make it look so easy.”

He knew what happened next: knocking paintings out of place on the walls and leaving a trail of clothing all the way to the bed. Skin clear as umber, dusky as asphalt, “musky” as sea salt. She was rendered with heaven’s brush.

She was standing in front of the easel, staring at the canvas. She frowned and brushed away some loose particles. He looked and looked.

When she arrived he was knee-deep in oils. He barely looked up. His hands were occupied. What a fabulous sense of color, she thought. And she said, “This better be one hell of a show.” She said, “I told him I would make sure he got his money back from painting sales.” She counted “$15,000” and gave him the cash. She said: “This could really jump-start your success.” Her smile turned thin. “So you better get to painting.”

“I never stopped,” he replied.

It was “sculpted from mahogany wood.”

It was chiseled and cut.

It was carved, scored.

It was hewn, shaped.

It had a theme, which was “City Life.”

“It sure was some of your best work because I still remember every stroke.”

“Wonderful.” He checked. “That’s the fifth one I’ve sold today.”

“All I can say is ‘Wow!’”

“Silliness? What’s so silly about a wife using her husband’s last name?” He was close. She ignored him. He knocked the paintbrush from her hand. It fell onto the drop cloth.

“Do you think I’m crazy?”

“No. But I don’t understand you.”

“Is that art show paying some of the bills around here?”

“I haven't been selling lately.”

“It didn’t look like you were painting to me.”

His pieces varied in size and price, but the average amount was $4,000. She took him in—spattered, shirtless—with her hands on her hips.

She didn’t have to elaborate. She had been “busy researching art shows and art patrons.” She was waiting on the “damned assembly line.” She was ready yesterday.

“A rage built upon a foundation of frustration was consuming me,” he recalled. “I grasped her shoulders, backing her against the wall. I moved closer to where our breath intermingled.” The smell of vanilla. A distant glow from the hall. In the night, her eyes; in her eyes, the loan. We will make good.

She pushed him away, tossed the canvas across the room and burst into tears. Her voice was heavy. “I call this one Happiness.

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