When I was a freshman in High School, my parents took my brother and me to New York for a week. We stayed in the tiniest of tiny hotel rooms (my mattress had to be stored underneath my brother’s bed during the day so we could walk across the room), ate rotten yogurt and delicious bagels from a shop we’d later discover was famous, witnessed a bum-fight in the subway, rode a ferris wheel in F.A.O Schwartz and spent an excessive amount of time and money in Macy’s. Alex and I also learned that the Rock’s serious cinematic debut Walking Tall was far outclassed by the Scooby Doo Movie, both of which we were unfortunate enough to get stuck watching while my parents spent the evening at Late Night with David Letterman.
But what I remember most about that trip was not the afternoon ghost-town of Coney Island or the hidden corners of Central Park, or even the dazzling lights of Times Square. What I remember most about the one week I spent in the Big Apple is this:
I encountered this painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which my mother took me to while my dad and Alex entertained themselves elsewhere. It was cloudy when we set out, but we were Seattlites, so there was nothing to worry about. We strolled down the street, poking fun at all of the New Yorkers brandishing umbrellas for what could barely be called a light drizzle, much less actual rain. The Biblical downpour moments later caught us entirely by surprise, and we had to run the rest of the way, ducking into the front lobby of the Met dripping wet and laughing.
Thus it was with high spirits that we set off through the maze of paintings and sculptures, creeping from room to room, picking favorites, jostling with other tourists and trying to avoid the guards’ gazes long enough to snap a covert photo or two. After about half an hour perusing, we rounded a corner and came face-to-face with Villers’ painting, and stopped dead in our tracks.
I cannot speak for my mother, but I was instantly and inexplicably drawn to this girl, whoever she is. The determination, the sadness, the loneliness, the soulfulness, the hope–all wrapped up into one truly haunting stare that seemed to have so much more to say than could ever be said. Her gaze was so enthralling that I almost didn’t notice the tour group behind us, which we had been roughly matching pace with for the past ten minutes. My mom nudged me, indicating that I should listen as the guide spoke.
“See what those two just did?” She said, indicating us. “Women do that all the time, especially mothers and daughters. They come around that corner, walk straight up to that painting and just stand there, staring.”
So it wasn’t just me, then. There was a universal magic in this painting, something strong and raw and true about it that went beyond the oil and canvas, beyond the soft lighting and stark contrast and subtle symbolism, beyond all the technical details to something bigger and far more powerful. Some inexplicable thing about this painting grabbed me so tightly that even now, seven years later, it is my most vivid memory of New York. The city itself pales in comparison.
But how can that be? What is about that painting?
I don’t know what the point of this is, except to say that this painting symbolizes to me the ultimate goal of any form of art: to stand out, to speak out, to exist on a level that cannot be reached with mere words. A picture is worth a thousand words, so it also begs the question: can writing ever do what this painting has done? Can mere language stare directly into a person’s soul and reflect back what is there? Or does the truth get lost in the jumble of letters and punctuation marks?
For myself, I choose to believe that they can. At least, I hope that they can, and I hope that one day I can help them to do it; if not, then all this is as useless as that rotten yogurt.
“A young woman has young claws, well sharpened. If she has character, that is. And if she hasn’t so much the worse for you.” -Henri Matisse
P.S. To my beautiful mom: Happy Mother’s Day. <3
Bottom of the Garden: Chapter 3 FINISHED, though quite terrible and already slotted for revisions. XD Outline expanded; now includes ten chapters, prologue, epilogue and antagonist.