Painting pain By design, some things are meant to be oversized, often to make their message unmistakable. An artist may magnify dimensions to convey strongly felt meaning or strongly felt passion. The Statue of Liberty and Michaelangelo's David exemplify both. Known world round, those remarkable examples have attracted millions who have wanted to see them up close. As one who has seen both, I can vouch for the fact that seeing them made my trips worthwhile.
How often have I said that? Fortunately, for me, many times. All over the world, I've been places I will never forget. Going somewhere else to see something spectacular is what I've been doing most of my adult life. Often I've written stories about those visits, stories that have made even me, the writer, want to return.
Now I want to write about a place I won't have to go back to. The reason? I'm already there. Right here, in Danville, VA. What's there to see here, other than my Dad's spectacular hand made stained glass windows that grace the front of our 130 year old Temple Beth Sholom? Surprisingly, the answer has to do with something I discovered in a building just up the street.
“Why are they so big?” I'd been wanting to ask about the 11' X 6' paintings since I'd first seen them, almost a month before. Each was similar to the others in what appeared to be a series of abstract designs; they were huge and passionate. Were the pieces impressionistic? I wanted to ask that too because I sensed they meant something I was missing.
“I painted them about ten years ago,” said Wayne, the artist from Brooklyn who has, in little more than a year, transformed Danville's ancient Army-Navy store into an art gallery that highbrows in Soho would envy. Along most of one wall that spans at least 80' are the huge canvases I'd puzzled over ever since I'd first seen them. Little did I realize that Wayne was giving me a clue as to what they represented when he mentioned the time they were painted.
I studied them closely, again, as I had dozens of times before. Colors of each piece varied; the orientation of each canvas was vertical. Streams of paint seemed to rain down each image as if washing away blurred but rectangular shapes in the middle of each piece. At the bottoms were collections of colors in a heap almost, a pile of what an artist might have represented as emotion.
I had to know. “Why so many? Why so big?” I asked Wayne. Indeed, I was perplexed in a good way on that bright summer afternoon. I was on my way to the driving range to hit golf balls.
Usually jovial, my neighbor's voice registered a serious note. “Right after 9/11, I painted these.” He may have added, “I had to,” but I'm not sure. Shocked from his terse explanation, I stood in awe as the images jumped out at me with the vibrancy of a suddenly added dimension.
I didn't want to leave, couldn't resist going back to sense and feel the collection as if for the first time. I gasped when I said, “There they are, the towers!” They'd been there all along, trembling and shaking, their flecks of painted energy cascading in brutal rainbows. “I didn't know,” I whispered.
Parts of me felt like kneeling or praying or screaming or crying. Memories of my urge ten years ago to go to the site, to be there to deposit my grief and ground it in the reality of that gruesome tragedy returned. I went to Manhattan; for hours, I circled what has come to be known as Ground Zero just to see it more clearly, to get close enough to connect with a loss whose enormity had swallowed every emotion I had involuntarily expressed.
In front of me was the language of that emotion, its painted version that my words were wont to convey. Could they? Did the poems I had written about 9/11 convey the jolt and the hurt and the agony of Wayne's monumental paintings? When he asked me to recite my poetry at his grand opening, I felt his request pull me from the pieces that had held me. “Will you?” he asked again. “It's the Friday before 9/11.”
“Yes,” I wanted to say, still feeling shaky, although I felt my poems were too small to compliment his massive statement. Eventually I told Wayne I'd be honored to do that.
But I didn't tell him I wanted to somehow walk into one of his paintings, wanted to catch that tiny line on the side of one of the vertical shapes, a line that I now recognized as a falling body I wanted to save
from the soot and blood covered sidewalk where Wayne's picture stopped.
“How much are they?” I asked, almost hoping the price would be too high for any of them to be sold, for any of them to leave what had suddenly become a memorial I did not want to walk away from.
Was there reluctance in his voice when he answered? Had he too questioned whether he could part with any of them? Were they no less sacred than anything Michaelangelo had painted? Any less moving?
“$2500.” His answer sounded more like a question, as if I'd asked him to set a value on the purchase of a beat of someone's heart. Or three thousand beats.
I can't believe they're here, on display, in Danville, where so few things are ever so oversized.
B. Koplen 8/10/11