'The Struggle' (Todd Whitecastle, 2011)

I suppose you could have called me a struggling artist. I didn’t look like one, exactly. After my father died, he left his house and some of his possessions to me. That surprised me a great deal, given how long I’d been estranged from him, but I wasn’t about to say no to a two-story house with a studio room and a garden large enough to hold a shed. It was perfect for me.

So, for a while, I got on with living in his house, wearing his best suits to parties and of course, devoting a few hours every day to painting. The studio was magnificent. It was on the top floor, about twelve by ten feet with huge windows that took up most of one wall. In the evenings when the sun went away, I lit several lamps and candles and painted in dim candle-light.

The trouble was, my art never came to anything. In some small way, each of my paintings was lacking, and they didn’t sell. This did not bode well for my financial situation. I began to eat cheap, simple food, work longer shifts in the restaurant and paint my friends’ children’s bedrooms for money.

“Thanks, Todd,” they said as I created a border of glittery-winged pixies, “she’s wanted these ever since we watched Peter Pan.”

It was degrading. It was demeaning. Why should I waste my time and effort on this when there had to be a masterpiece in me somewhere? I was sure my paintings were good – not on par with the ones I’d studied in books or examined in various galleries, but still good.

One night I worked long and hard on a painting that I’d begun two days ago. In a desperate bid to make this one more interesting, I mixed sand into the paint, hoping to add texture. It looked awful, and just as I was scraping it off with a knife, the faulty leg of my stool finally gave way and sent me crashing to the floor. Paint spilled from the edge of my easel and landed on my head. Pain shot through my leg.

Once I’d swiped at the stool in frustration, I tried to sit up and saw what the problem was. As I’d fallen, the knife in my hand somehow opened up a section of my thigh, leaving a long gash. It wasn’t terribly deep, and there was no blood, but I would have to clean the wound before I cracked open the First Aid box from downstairs. Bloody paint.

I walked myself carefully to the bathroom and held a flannel under the tap. Biting down on the hand-towel, I dabbed at the wound without looking at it. I didn’t want to see any more than was necessary. However, when I looked down, I noticed that the specks of colour under the skin had not been cleaned away.

Carefully, I pressed down on either side of the wound, opening it up to have a better look. There really was colour under there – a rich, glaucous blue, richer than the paint I had been working with. How the hell had this happened? There was another colour – green this time. Though it hurt to keep probing around the gash, I made out a few shades of green and blue, delicately mingled together by the tiniest brush-strokes, and all just mere millimeters below my skin.

I inhaled sharply and covered my mouth with my hands. There really was a masterpiece in me. But wait a minute – how could that be possible? Anything that colourful, that vibrant, would show through the skin. Wasn’t that how tattoos worked, after all? I didn’t know how to feel about this. All my adult life I’d been trying to create the most wonderful piece of artwork anyone had ever seen, and now it might be here, less than half a centimetre away. Even the small section I’d seen was at a higher standard than anything I’d produced. So what was I to do?

The enormity of returning to my studio for the knife was so unbearable that for a moment, I needed to rest my head against the sink and take deep breaths. Surely I couldn’t... Not even for the best artwork in the world... Surely I couldn’t reveal it in such a brutal manner? And what if I went too far and bled to death?

Well, something had to be done. On the one hand, if I didn’t free this magnificent painting, I might become bankrupt, lose the house and never become a successful artist. On the other hand, if I didn’t treat and dress this wound, it would likely become infected, putting my health at risk and spoiling the picture. No. No, there had to be another way!

And that’s when something sparked in my mind.

Returning to the studio, I righted my stool, sat before the easel and stared at what I’d already created. Then I went downstairs to get something of my father’s.

Many months later, I went to the Enthoven Modern Art gallery for the unveiling of my completed painting. A beautiful and curvy young woman, whom I’d met the week before, was accompanying me, and I was glad to have her. Together we passed through the doors, found our way to the correct floor and approached the exhibition. My painting was behind a velvet curtain, where several important art critics and members of the public had gathered.

“Now will you please tell me what it’s a painting of?” asked my female companion. I grinned. “In a few minutes, you’ll know.”

The owner of the museum hushed the congregation. He gave a short speech about what kind of artist Todd Whitecastle was, how this innovative work gave hints of my own internal struggle and then, finally, the curtain was pulled away. I saw it there, behind glass, as beautiful as it had always been.

“Step aside,” a man said to his wife, pulling her closer to him. “Let the man through.”

I thanked them and brought my wheelchair closer to the painting. For many moments I admired it. Every second of the pain had been worth it to bring this work into existence. If there was ever a good reason for losing a leg, I decided, this was it. The process of tanning my own skin into leather was more difficult than I had expected, but stretched across canvas now, it was very hard to tell that anything untoward had occurred. Of course, the people involved in the painting’s exhibition, along with the museum owner himself, had been told it was ordinary leather.

“When can we expect the next one?” the owner presently asked me.

“Oh, I’m not sure,” I said, wincing. “This one took a lot out of me, you know. But I’m sure there will be others.”

He nodded encouragingly. “Good, good. This one shows promise. It’s almost as good as your father’s work.”

I froze. “My father?”

“Yes. You must have known he was an artist, too?”

“Of course,” I said. “Of course, yes. It was his studio, after all.”

The man peered at me, and then at my companion, who was laughing charmingly at a joke somebody had told her. “Were you close?” he asked.

“Not particularly. I don’t think any of us were.” Something began to stir in the pit of my stomach. “I didn’t even attend the funeral.”

“Well, I would like to offer my deep condolences. I only met him once, a few years ago, but some of his final artworks were gifted to the gallery in his will. Have you seen them?”

My worst fears were confirmed when he took me into the adjacent section of the gallery and presented some of the finest paintings I had seen. He asked my opinion, but I said nothing and wheeled away from him. For the rest of the evening, while people approached me and praised the so-called painting, all I could do was think of the axe in my father’s shed, and wonder who he had trusted to ready his ‘final artworks’ for exhibition.

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