In my senior year of college, I was given my own art studio. It was a small room, with a worktable, a chair and a stool. Its best feature was an ivy-framed window that looked out on a green quadrangle.
I set up my easel on the paint-spattered floor and laid out my supplies on the color-crusted table. I had paint tubes, linseed oil, turpentine, canvas and wood stretchers. I also had a stash of small fireworks, for entertainment.
To begin, I prepared some canvases. I slid stretchers together, cut the cloth to size and pulled the fabric tight with pliers. I stapled the canvas with a spring-driven gun, folding the edges as I went. Then I applied a ground of rabbit-skin glue. When I was finished, I lined up the blank canvases on my worktable. The canvases stayed that way for days.
When my elderly independent-study professor came to visit, he looked around my studio and said, “You seem to have a talent for organization. Maybe you shouldn’t be painting. Maybe you should be in the hotel school. All you’ll have to do is schmooze.”
“I’d rather not work in a hotel,” I said.
“Maybe the restaurant school,” he said. “You could keep track of profits and losses. You could scout new locations. You could write menus.”
In the morning, I stopped by my studio on my way to art history class. I removed the lid from a cup of coffee and poured whiskey into the cup. Then I replaced the lid and carried the coffee to the lecture. As Futurist images flashed on a screen, the professor said, “The theme here is movement, or as I call it, MVT. You can find the direction of the MVT in any Futurist painting. Below the MVT, you’ll see the composition, or CMP. When you combine the MVT and CMP, you’ll feel the overall impact, or IMP.”
We examined the MVT, CMP and IMP in paintings by Boccioni, Russolo, Severini and others. The images glowed as I sat in the back of the auditorium, sipping my spiked coffee.
To further my independent study, I made a clay sculpture of a model. I tried to find the MVT in the model’s pose, but there was no MVT. She was good at holding still. I could, however, give my sculpture some CMP. I hoped that when I was finished, my piece would have lots of IMP.
Using my fingers and a tiny spatula, I completed a clay likeness of the model’s body, down to her fingers and toes. Later, I made a plaster cast. The clay version was destroyed in the process, but the plaster product was smooth and perfect.
I put the plaster figure on my studio’s windowsill and set up a canvas on the easel. I used a knife to press paint onto the canvas. I smoothed out thick areas and defined edges with the blade. I was happy with the result: an image of a white figure against a dark, leafy background.
When my elderly professor came for a critique, he pointed at the figure’s legs. There was a space where the knees were bent. “What is that shape?” he asked. “A pair of lips?”
“No,” I said, “They’re legs, bent at the knee.”
“I see a pair of lips,” he said.
Later, I studied my painting’s MVT and CMP. I could see that these elements weren’t coming together for a satisfying IMP.
I took a large canvas, drew on it with pencil, then filled the areas with colors. I used house-painting brushes. When I was finished, the canvas showed an expansive field, a massive hill and an endless sky.
I hung the painting from a nail in a wall. The landscape filled my small studio; it was overwhelming.
The sculpture model came to visit my studio. She was also an art student. She brought a young man who was wearing a suit and tie.
“This is Nilo,” she said. “His family is in the clothing business.”
The two of them sat on my two pieces of sitting furniture, while I stood.
“I see you made a still-life painting of that plaster cast,” the model said. “What is that, a mouth with lips?”
“No,” I said, “Those are legs. Yours.”
“They look like lips,” she said.
I picked up a hat from the table and put it on, then found my stash of fireworks. I tied a string to a bottle rocket and taped the other end of the string to my hat. I lit the fuse, and the rocket hissed out the ivy-framed window. The rocket ripped the hat off my head as it shot over the quad. When the warhead exploded, my hat tumbled from the sky and landed on the grass.
“Good shot!” Nilo said.
I visited the studio of a graduate student and saw that his walls were covered with self-portraits. In each of the portraits, the hair was dark and spiky. The chin was covered with a beard. One eye was open and the other was obscured—it was X’ed out. The facial expressions were intense.
“Why so many self-portraits?” I asked.
“Why not?” he said.
I made some drawings of my own face. I set up a mirror on my worktable and looked into it as I sketched. I clipped part of my hair with a plastic holder and let the rest of my hair hang. I kept my glasses on and stepped away. Then I took my glasses off and got closer—I drew with my nose to the paper. I worked with pencil, charcoal and an eraser. I used my thumb and fingers to smear the carbon and graphite around.
I wondered if my features looked Asian or Caucasian. They could be either, depending on one’s perspective.
I arranged my artworks in my studio for a final critique. I displayed landscapes and still lifes, along with self-portraits. I put up a couple dozen pieces. I left them there for my elderly professor to look at.
I thought I would get a good grade because there was a great variety.
I got a bad grade because, the professor said, I hadn’t selected my best work. “In that painting of the model,” he said, “I still see lips. I don’t see legs. And who is the person in the drawings of faces? I can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl.”
“I can explain,” I said.
“I read your report,” he said. “What do you mean by MVT, CMP and IMP? Are you talking about motor vehicle transportation, a sleepaway camp, and a mischievous child? Did an imp get a driver’s license and go to camp for the summer? Who is this imp, anyway?”
“I’m trying to show movement and composition,” I said, “for maximum impact.”
Before I put my works into storage, I hosted a party in my studio. I brought wine and set up a stereo. A couple of my classmates attended. There was the life model— without Nilo.
To my surprise, the elderly professor also came. He poured himself a glass and said to me, “You know, wine is the drink of the gods, the Greek gods. You should make paintings of the gods. You know, the gods, gamboling on the grass, holding hands, not wearing clothes. That’s what I do. And my paintings sell.”
The model signaled that she wanted to say something to me, and when I went to her, she said, “Don’t ever think of touching me.”
I turned the music louder. Later, I thought, I would light some fireworks. I had another hat. I would let a bottle rocket rip it off my head.