Reception (a short story)

A pause, a proffered feint of a reply to his question and she was gone. Lateralled through a young family of five, reaching through the chill charged April afternoon air toward the door of the gallery and the soft glow within. She was agile for 75. Her low centre of gravity helped, and those short tenacious steps. He followed, smiling apologetically to those she’d run over. “Sorry. She’s not feeling well,” he improvised, trying to follow her while giving the flustered pedestrians a wide berth. Why he felt the need to explain, let alone lie away the sudden escape of his mother, he could not tell. Perhaps it was because he did not like forceful people, and he was feeling guilty.

Perhaps he was pushing her too hard, he thought, as he entered Hagar Gallery.

She’d always loved craft sales, flea markets and boutiques, but he was pretty sure she’d never been in a Fine Art Gallery. She preferred Robert Bateman’s photo-realistic depictions of nature’s creatures or her father’s nostalgic Irish landscapes and portraits of JFK, paintings created from Life magazine profiles of the first Irish Catholic President of the United States or from small photographs sent from relatives in the old country. He remembered bow-backed bridges and meandering rivers running through supersaturated fields. And cottages. There were always stone cottages with thatched roofs by the rivers. And inside those cottages (though not visible in the paintings)–kids, his Mom the eldest of seven. Or was it eight? And wide-eyed no-doubt-apocryphal stories of rats suckling nursing mothers in their sleep. And a courageous move to Canada in ’55 to begin life anew.

It was busy in the gallery, and he was somewhat comforted by Regina Spektor’s Human of the Year playing from ceiling-mounted speakers. They were just in time for a formal reception. Instantiation was artist Joanne Currie’s breakout show and today was her opening. Her media, oils and found objects from nature, mostly branches and twigs, on six to eight foot wide horizontal canvases. The studio gallery, with three linked rooms, each about sixteen by sixteen, wasn’t large enough to do the works justice. They’d had to stack some complementary images to fit them in. The show had attracted an eager and animated crowd, a diverse mix of the young and old, skinny jeans, sports jackets, a few ties and lots of hats and pashminas.

His mother had retreated inside, but he stayed in the doorway to read Currie’s artist statement printed on a bright white lacquered board set on a wooden easel. He got a kick out of artists’ manifestoes, and he often wondered what came first, the declaration of intent or the act of art. He preferred the more poetic statements, those that touted the creative imperative, for he believed in his essential need to create, in his case, to write. He wanted to believe that the intention preceded the works, that the works were guided by a purpose, but he also acknowledged the role of serendipity in art, so he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted. He knew that he disliked the ones that read like reconstituted mission statements, tired tropes wordsmithed into bluesky ambiguity.

This one he liked. It spoke to something about the CAPTURE of a MOMENT, canvasses FRAMED in the COMPRESSION of the MOMENT, a freezing of TIME. Each painting depicted a scene first captured by CAMERA while driving at HIGH SPEED past its SUBJECT, the camera shutter speed set too slow to render the scene with any degree of clarity. The images were as much about PERCEPTION and the PERCEIVER as they were about the moment and the colourful stretched and BLURRED images.

He glanced at Currie’s head and shoulder photo and biography. She was in her 30s, blonde, with shimmering bright eyes and a matching smile. She was Guelph-based and she had stayed close to home for her BA (Guelph) and her MFA (Toronto). She’d had five or six solo exhibitions, a dozen group exhibitions and a few residencies, the most recent eighteen months ago at the Klondike Centre for the Arts in Dawson City.

He read about Currie’s artistic process, the time required to render the INSTANTIATION, to UNPACK the moment, REPURPOSE it. Arm’s length clarity. A philosophical nod to Aristotle’s Instantiation Principle that states that there can be no uninstantiated or unexemplified properties. Is it possible for a property to exist that is not had by some object. If all red objects were to suddenly vanish, would not the property of being red go out of existence? This idea reminded him of a recent RadioLab podcast on colour, on how long it took us to discover blueness. Something to do with the need to recreate the colour and use it before we could perceive it. Like the past thirty years, his mother on the west coast of Vancouver Island while he and his wife had raised their family here in Southern Ontario. Exemplified and unexemplified properties of family and motherhood, guilt and distance. The artist had added properties to her stills, imbuing them with motion, movement, speed and direction, vectors of perception.

He understood the concussions of his mother’s separation and divorce, the forces that drove her as far west as she could get without swimming with the killer whales in the Pacific. He’d been eighteen when she left. His father moved back into the family house to allow him and his brother to finish high school. He’d spent three summers on the island with her, earning good money in the lumber town’s cedar mills before they’d closed down.

A young waiter offered him tea, which he accepted, adding some milk to the cup. He thanked him with a mute smile.

He read on. A final plea by the artist for a disconnect from the Pedal to the Metal life. An appeal to disconnect and slow down and look. Zoom Zoom past autumn splendour. He’d done his fair share of it. Zoom Zoom over the Escarpment en route to holiday dinners or birthday events at one or other of his wife’s relatives’ homes. Zoom Zoom across a Canada perceived in flashes of memory, viewed from a trailer, the last time he’d been to B.C. in the thirty years she’d lived out there. It’s simple enough, he thought–to delve into time’s dimensions and get overwhelmed by its seeming contradictions. It’s lapses and rushes.

The artist’s postscript made him laugh. “No speed limits were violated in the creation of this art!” He liked her attitude.

He gazed into the rear of the gallery to see if it provided any back door escape for his mother. He could see none. He’d last spotted her by the coffee and treats–oversized ginger crackle cookies and pint-sized one bite buttertarts. He caught a flash of the maroon of her coat. She had taken it off and she was passing it to the outstretched arms of a smiling woman, the only person wearing a name tag. It was Currie, the artist. He’d always admired how his mother could warm to people at once. How they’d warm to her. She could spark up a conversation in an instant, whereas he’d let the fear of saying the right and clever thing cow him into avoiding a potentially awkward conversation.

He set his tea on a black cruiser table and shrugged off his coat, hanging it up behind the gallery door and returning to his tea. He was uncertain whether to approach while she was engaged in the conversation with the artist, or to just wait her out. She hadn’t looked his way, but he knew that she knew that he was there, guarding the front door. He was curious, so he circled by the rapidly disappearing buttertarts and angled into her vicinity to listen in on her conversation.

It was no surprise that they were already on a first name basis when he got close enough to hear them above the animated chatter of the crowd. He stood with his back to them, admiring a painting with an uncharacteristic verticality to it. He leaned in closer to view its title, Autumn Swell.

“It must be lovely out there. I imagine you’ve got blossoms already,” Currie said.

“Oh dear, yes. Weeks now. Have you been?”

“A few times, yes. Very inspirational for a painter. I’ve had two exhibitions of pieces painted in Kelowna.”

“Kelowna is lovely.  It’s beautiful inland. My sister’s daughters live there. She visits them all the time. God’s country, “but I prefer the Island.

“I’ve never made it as far as the island. One day I’d love to take the ferry to Nanaimo and visit Victoria and Butchart Gardens. Maybe one day…”

“I’m not saying I’ll enjoy it. And I won’t stand the long winters. I’m too old for winter. I have sisters and a brother on the island and they said they’ll have me two or three months a year. To get through the winter. I have my friends out there. We meet at the local McDonald’s for our coffees in the mornings. Winters here seem to go on forever. It’s April and there’s still ice and snow in the ditches. It’s depressing, and I can’t drive in it any more. ”

He smiled and moved away, switching places with a young woman to view another pair of images. He’d heard enough. He knew her answer, and he was pleased. He suspected that she knew he was listening and that this was the only answer he was going to receive from her that day.

Bringing her home was for the best. He’d made his most persuasive case on their walk downtown. He knew it was asking a lot of her.

He popped his buttertart, gulped his tea and gazed into the stretched canvas of another image, Through the Trees. He marvelled at how masterfully Currie had painted the dark swathes of blurry forest foregrounding the sharper lighted windows of the place within. How do you paint clarity behind the blur? he wondered. What was clearer to him was imagining driving the road and looking to the right to view that scene, unpacking the end of a long day, decelerating to turn into the narrow driveway that tracked back into the woods toward a feeling of lightness and clarity.