Painting and drawing have always been a hobby of mine, ever since I was a little boy. Even though we didn’t have a lot of money, my parents always found a way to get me pencils and paper and paint. My first pictures, I think I was seven or eight when I made my initial attempts, were very simple sketches of trees and houses and laneways. I remember I drew the front of our building. It was a nice light-coloured building with three floors. There were six windows on each floor that looked out over the street. The entrance on the ground level was at the left corner – two big wooden doors that were rounded at the top. Out front, there was one streetlight with a single bulb hanging. Over the course of my childhood, I drew this scene from several different angles at different times of the day. How the shadows and shades changed as the sun moved in the sky or as the clouds came and went intrigued me. My parents, as good parents do, were very supportive of my work and complimented me often. And I was surprised at how much the images on my paper looked like the real thing.
Down the street from our building was a little park with big leafy trees. The park was always busy with kids playing but I didn’t interact. Instead, I’d take my sketchpad and pencils, sit by myself on the grass, and draw. I loved the big trees. They seemed monumental and powerful. I couldn’t imagine that anything could take them down. I drew the trees individually or, using a bit of artistic license, in groups that didn’t exist in reality. Then I’d go from the very big to the very small and make a sketch of one single leaf, with all its veins and contours, the smoothness of its stem and the wrinkles of its edges.
I have no interest in drawing people.
As I got older, into my teenage years, I had more opportunity to explore and discover new scenes to depict on my pages. One weekend, walking randomly on the other side of town in a neighbourhood I’d never visited before, I stumbled upon a cemetery and it immediately fascinated me. Hundreds of tombstones, some visibly decaying with names almost illegible, others brand new, shiny and elegant. And again, the huge powerful trees that I loved providing cover, like a massive green security blanket.
For months, the cemetery was my chosen destination. It was silent and calm, without distraction. I moved from row to row, selecting a different tombstone each time I visited. I distinctly remember the first one I sketched. It was a simple piece of grey rock, rectangular, maybe eighteen or twenty inches tall, smooth at the top, engravings of vine and flowers around the edges. The name on it was Schmidt, that’s all. Underneath ‘December 18, 1895 - January 20, 1906’ was inscribed in a basic script. I didn’t notice its melancholy. It was just an object to clinically sketch.
Two rows over from Schmidt, on another day, a name similar to my own caught my attention, and I sat down on the grass to sketch Halder. The tombstone was larger and more ornate. I drew the two carved birds that faced each other on the top, their beaks separated by less than an inch, almost like they were about to kiss or had just separated from one. I sketched their finely detailed feathers and slim legs. Below the birds, the name Halder in thick bold letters, and then “Our beloved father, you will be missed forever. May 25, 1829 – May 28, 1899.” At the bottom of the stone, a design of nests and leaves, metaphorical, I guessed, of a comfortable eternal home.
The sketching that I was doing, and the fact that I felt good about it, gave me the confidence to paint. Behind my closed bedroom door, standing in front of my easel, I painted for hours most days, sometimes just small studies of shapes or buildings, sometimes extremely detailed streetscapes that became more and more realistic as my abilities increased. I never had any formal training other than typical public-school classes but my talent was obvious.
For this reason, I stand before you today to submit my application and my portfolio for your review. I am hopeful that, after you review my work, you will appreciate my merits and grant my request to attend your art college.”
“Thank you, Mr. Heller,” said Mrs. Goldstein, the school’s head instructor. “That was a much longer personal history than we normally allow, but you are quite the orator and I found your presentation compelling.” Mrs. Goldstein’s two associates at the table nodded in agreement. “We will review your portfolio diligently and then send you a request to return for our decision. All decisions are final and cannot be appealed. As you know, our school is very prestigious, so the quantity of applications we receive is very large. Before you leave us today, there is one final item, and that is a request that you create and complete two paintings to bring with you when you return to us. The first will be a landscape, done in watercolours. The setting you choose is completely up to you. For the second painting, we request a portrait of two people, one man and one woman, done in a medium of your choice. The scene must project a feeling of comfort and calm. Whether it’s an interior scene or an exterior scene is up to you. We will review both paintings when you return to us. The portfolio you provided today is fine and indicative of what you have created over time. These two paintings will show where your talents stand currently.”
Mrs. Goldstein stood up. Her colleagues followed. “Thank you for coming, Mr. Heller. We look forward to seeing you in a few weeks. Please bring us your best efforts when you return. There are no second chances. You are dismissed.”
Sitting in the tram on my way home, emotions and thoughts raged through me. I felt anxious with the pressure to succeed, but also excited by the possibilities that awaited me. I realized that it was a rare opportunity, as not many lower middle-class applicants like me had ever been accepted to the art college. Mrs. Goldstein and her colleagues must have seen something positive in my work, I thought. Maybe my talent was evident to them, maybe they felt I had good potential. Her parting words concerned me though. When she had said, “There are no second chances”, even though her tone of voice was calm, her look was so serious and severe, threatening even. I almost felt under attack. Her colleagues, I thought, looked equally menacing.
You have no right to threaten me, Mrs. Goldstein. You and your kind.
Arriving at home with thoughts still swirling, I opened the large wooden front doors and bolted up the stairs to our apartment, greeting my parents with a token nod and continuing directly to my room without responding when they asked how I felt about my presentation at the college.
Already I was focused on my assignment. The only possibility in my mind was the possibility of succeeding.
The following morning, with my satchel over my shoulder, sketchbook and pencils inside, I walked to the cemetery where I had done so many sketches before, where I was comfortable and confident that I could produce a great piece. This would not be a typical landscape. It would not be a sunset over a lake or a meadow of wheat or a field of sunflowers.
I found Halder and sat down in front of it, emptying my satchel on the ground around me. I opened my sketchbook to the first blank page, selected a pencil, and began. The results came easily as the time flew by. I did not think of eating or of drinking. I don’t know if I was cold or warm. I don’t know if any other people walked past. Nothing but the evolving image in front of me meant anything, and the tombstone emerged on my page exactly as I hoped it would. It didn’t dominate the page. Instead, I allocated a lot of space around it for images of tree trunks and flowers and fallen leaves. Once the initial outline of the entire sketch was satisfactory to me, I used my coloured pencils to add the greens and greys and yellows and browns. In my mind, it was a success, an unusual landscape to be sure, and a great piece of work.
On the following day, in the confines of my room, the process of transferring the sketched image to the canvas began. As the hours passed, the empty white space filled with soft colour. I was entranced and oblivious to all but my work. When the sun set and the lone streetlight out front flickered on, my painting was essentially complete. I fell backwards onto my bed and slept the night through without even changing my clothes. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, lunch or dinner.
In the morning, I added a few final flourishes and touch-ups, a small dot of colour on a leaf, one more thin line of brown on the trunk of a tree, a slight addition of grey to the shadow at the base of the tombstone. Then I stepped back, observed, and sighed with contentment. The painting was completed when I added my name to the bottom right corner. Now it could rest and mature.
After a quick meal of porridge and tea, I went outside and began to wander around town. I had no destination in mind. It was purely a day of observation. I needed to see people. I needed to see men and women sitting together or walking together. The images needed to infiltrate my mind so that I could go back to my easel with enough ammunition to paint. Landscapes and buildings, my normal choices, were easy and I had been sketching and painting them for years. People, by contrast, had never been an interest, not as subjects and not even as friends. I found them uninteresting and not worthy of my time. They were either boring or mean, and often stupid. And so often demeaning, like Mrs. Goldstein and her colleagues who I knew had been purposely condescending to me. Aristocrats loved to be condescending.
I wandered for hours but, unsurprisingly, saw no one that intrigued me. I saw a middle-aged couple sitting at an outdoor café, two small espresso cups and a basket of bread in front of them on the table. They were talking and laughing and looking lovingly into each other’s eyes. The man had short brown hair, the woman’s hair was long. They wore middle-class clothes and had middle-class unremarkable faces.
I continued on, past the town’s centre gazebo, past other restaurants and shops, into a large department store, but again there was no one that looked interesting. One older couple, probably in their sixties, were looking at men’s pants. The woman, short and fat with a double-chin, was berating a man who I assumed must have been her husband, saying that it wasn’t going to matter what pants he selected, he would always look slovenly and untidy. The man didn’t say anything. He just stared silently at the pants. He was also short and fat. They were like a cartoon and I left them to their misery and walked back outside.
I went home feeling incomplete and unsatisfied but not unsurprised that my day had not been a success. In my mind, interactions with people were rarely successful. Walking down the hallway towards my room, I noticed the framed portrait of my parents hanging on the wall. I took it down. It was no more interesting than any other portrait, in my opinion, but it would suffice.
Selecting a new canvas from my closet, I positioned it on the wooden easel. I leaned my parents’ portrait against the wall next to my desk. I decided that my medium of choice would again be watercolours, similar to the landscape I had just completed. It would be a challenge, to be sure, as oils were much more conducive for portraits and, most likely, they were the expectation of Mrs. Goldstein and her colleagues. But if I could create a successful portrait with watercolours, I was convinced my entry to the college would be guaranteed and they could not reject me. If they did reject me, it would be because of their prejudice and arrogance, not due to any talent lacking in me.
For the rest of the day, interrupted solely for meals which I made sure to eat, I sketched the portrait’s details. Thin light lines from my pencil slowly filled the white space of the blank canvas, at first just the general outlines of the heads, necks and shoulders, then the intricacies of the faces, eyes and hair. I wanted precision. I wanted to show the smallest irregularities. My father, in his youth, had broken his nose in a fight and it had an unusual bend. He had a very prominent Adam’s apple and a bit of a curled lip that was partially hidden by a short dark moustache. My mother’s face was thin and long with a very fine scar under her left eye. I think she had been hit by a falling icicle when she was a child and been cut, but I can’t remember exactly. She wore a necklace of pearls. There was nothing special about their hairstyles. They were just typical for the times. But the detail, the variances of the individual strands, could still be shown.
It took me two days of solid work just to complete the initial pencil study. When I knew it was done to my satisfaction, I stepped back and observed my work. It was an excellent beginning, in my mind. I left it alone for the next day to settle, to grow into itself.
Over the next week or so, I painted diligently, adding colour, making mistakes, correcting mistakes, and continuing on, until my task was finally complete. I was enthralled with the result. My cemetery landscape pleased me, but this portrait was a true success, a pristine watercolour exactly as I had hoped and an excellent and precise replica of the original source.
The following morning, a brown envelope from the college arrived at my doorstep. Inside, the time and date of my return visit were printed in dark ink, Mrs. Goldstein’s signature prominent at the bottom, formal and professional and arrogant. The other two signatures, I assumed belonging to her colleagues, were smaller and illegible.
On the morning of my follow-up interview, I was slightly nervous as I walked up the stairs and through the front doors of the college. I had no doubt that my paintings were good, excellent in fact, and I attributed my anxiety to the surroundings themselves, the novelty of me being in this kind of aristocratic academic environment, with no control over my own destiny. But I was still confident and I assumed that success would come. My artistic talent had to be recognized, I told myself. Talent had to supersede any other prejudices that Mrs. Goldstein and the college may have to people of my class.
When I knocked at the door of the meeting room, Mrs. Goldstein and her colleagues looked up and motioned for me to come in. My portfolio that I had left with them was spread out on their table.
“Please sit,” she said bluntly, pointing to a lone wooden chair. “But bring us your assignment first.” I did as I was told. As I took my seat, she removed the protective wrapping that was around each painting.
“We have reviewed your portfolio,” Mrs. Goldstein began. “It is decent work.” I swallowed, absorbing her sentence. I was hoping for a more positive and congratulatory beginning. “The work is just decent,” she said again, her head down and looking at the various pieces in front of her. “But unremarkable. The vast majority of applications we receive are decent but unremarkable.”
I stared, slowly maddening.
“Perhaps your two new pieces will impress us,” Mrs. Goldstein continued. She stood up and lifted my landscape off the table, holding it so her colleagues could view it. “This is unique. Not much of a landscape, in my mind, so you didn’t really follow our instructions. It’s just a tombstone surrounded by some examples of vegetation. You do know what a landscape is?”
I nodded, humiliation adding to my anger. “Yes ma’am, I do. But my point was to do an unusual landscape at more of a micro level, which is why…”
“Please don’t contradict me,” she interrupted. “We don’t need explanations. We view what we see, and what we see here is unsatisfactory.” Her colleagues nodded. Mrs. Goldstein dropped the painting back down on to the table and picked up the portrait of my parents.
“Your portrait. Watercolour, I see. Interesting choice. Gives it a washed-out, unremarkable feel. Was this your goal?”
I didn’t answer her pointed sarcasm.
“We noticed that there were no people in any of the works in your portfolio. Perhaps now I see why. These figures, this man and woman, have no soul. There is no emotion, no spirit. It is simply a clinical representation. It almost feels mathematical. You copied this from something else, right?”
I nodded. “It’s my parents.”
“It is disappointing, no offense to your parents. They are as pleasant as they can be, given their place.”
I winced at her insult. “If I can interject, Mrs. Goldstein, I really don’t think your tone is appropriate. Only my paintings should be judged, not my parents or their class.”
“You may leave now, Mr. Heller. Please gather your works and leave. Good luck with your future endeavours. Perhaps you should consider architecture instead of fine art. It may be more suitable for your abilities. You may be able to paint, Mr. Heller, but you are not our kind of painter.”
“I knew from the beginning this would be the outcome!” I yelled. “You and your arrogance! Condescending and insulting! You’re all the same! You’ll get what you deserve some day!”
“Thank you, Mr. Heller,” Mrs. Goldstein said softly, smirking. “Please gather your things and leave.”
I collected my belongings from the table and stormed out, down the hallway, out the door, down the steps and into the street. The arrogance of Mrs. Goldstein and her people enraged me. I sensed that my life had just taken on a whole new struggle.
Chris Klassen lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. After graduating from the University of Toronto and living for a year in France and England, he returned home and worked the majority of his career in print media. He is now living a semi-retired life. His stories have been published in numerous journals including Across the Margin, Fleas on the Dog, Vagabond City, Dark Winter,Ghost City Review, The Raven Review, The Coachella Review, Sortes, and Toasted Cheese, among others. Chris recommends Haven on the Queensway, a non-profit food and clothing bank.