I stayed late at work the other day to deal with a couple of breaking news events. The downside to such a decision is that I end up leaving the office wide awake. As an overnighter, this is not a good position to be in at 9 a.m.!
So I decided to run a few errands until my body realized it was time for bed. First stop, the bank. There's an Asian market near my job, and I wanted to stock up on some cooking supplies before catching the train home. But after I left the ATM, I was accosted on the street by a man offering free tickets to a new photography exhibition. I was literally compelled into the building.
I walked into this huge, airy hall and there was Annie Lebovitz, one of my favorite shooters. It was wonderful to see her, and I truly enjoyed walking around the gallery and looking at all the beautiful photographs.
When I reached the Lebovitz collection in the basement, I felt very much at home. So many powerful women were caught in the film's embrace. Staring back at me were people like astronaut Eileen Collins, Senator-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton, singer Courtney Love and Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Ginsberg.
Then I found one picture that took my breath away. I stood in front of it for almost a half hour.
It was called "The Painter."
"The Painter" was so sad and ironic. A modern-day Alice in Wonderland, I walked into the photograph, like it was a passage to another world.
Inside, I see a room, bare and tiny. The wood floor is adorned with scrapes and shuffles. On the left side of the room is an old wall heater. Then a huge, blinded window glows next to it, with what I affectionately call "my light."
You know that moment, usually around 4ish in the winter? Sunlight turns all golden and warm, no matter how cold it is outside. That's my light.
Underneath the window is a lumpy single-sized bed topped by a dark blue coverlet. It is turned inside out, so the pattern can't be seen. Instead you only see the lines of thread stitched in whirls and waves on the top.
To the right is a wooden dresser. There's a dual picture frame open on its surface, but the glare from the window makes the images unviewable. It's almost as if the pictures are not meant to be seen, like the people in them are private memories. Next to the frame is a cup, and inside are the tools of her trade -- two paintbrushes.
Sitting on the bed in the middle of the room is the painter. She is old, but not crinkly. She has a plain face and a sturdy peasant's body, much like my own. Her clothes are functional, but not fashionable, although if you look closely, you'll see she betrays her soul by the paint stains that adorn her shirt.
The irony of the picture is her occupation, her place in the world. This is someone who first imagines, then creates beauty...but the walls of her room are stark and bare. They're even a dingy white, colored yellow by the glow of daytime streaming through the blinds.
Empty. Devoid of life.
Taken as a whole, the picture conveys an intense feeling of solitude and accepted loneliness. Although the room is small and barely furnished, this round, bulky woman appears to be shrunken in a way I alone can understand.
She looks like she's faced tragedy and wound it into a knotted ball of string in the center of her chest. She is the exception to all the rules. She has a dominating spirit and she occasionally seeks out that knot and unwinds it a bit as she paints.
Yet once it has left her body, the result is hard for her to bear, and so she sells her work or gives it away. She knows there are more ideas inside of her, inside her little room, waiting to be tapped.
"The Painter" released something in me. The next thing I knew...I was on the train, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, feverishly writing all of my feelings down in my reporter's notebook.
I never made it to the Asian market.