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The Art Contest

December 27th, 2004

I’m in an art studio, hunched over a creamy-white sheet of paper with a charcoal pencil clutched in my fist, sketching furiously. A contest. The challenge: to create some kind of fantastical landscape, to outline a fictional space in the greatest possible detail. I am supremely doubtful of my ability. I am rushing, full of nerves and jitters and not much else. Yet I have an idea…a good idea, a great idea, though one as usual I find myself utterly unskilled to bring to fruition.

I follow my traditional style: sketch lightly, add atmospheric shading to conceal unattractive mistakes. I draw like a blind man–holding the pencil out ever so tentatively and advancing as slowly as possible, reaching the boundary I was looking for, the true line that defines some tiny piece of the thing in my head, by dumb inevitability.

Thus on the page a hall takes shape: a series of peaked arches rising out of graphite mist, creating a vault whose line undulates in a periodic pattern. It is…a gallery, formless, lacking surroundings, lacking even exterior…reachable, like the west end of Narnia, the fairy mists, and the Desert of Nod itself, only by passages whose end and beginning are never noticed until it’s too late.

And what works hang in this half-imagined hall? Art to surpass that of the rivals who sit at my elbows, of that you may be sure–at least, if my mind could be allowed to create them without the limit of my hand. But the mists and the point of view obscure them, I rationalize. It isn’t my lack of skill that holds me back, but perspective, the edges of the canvas beyond which I cannot create. Here, on the scored black studio countertop, with its back to the vaulted wall, hangs an oil of a mikado in crimson dancing in a swirl of cloaks with a geisha in white who he loves but is dead. There, around that misty corner, waits the portrait of the prison of pining love–and beyond that, beyond the place where the gallery becomes a hostile wilderness of wind and angular mountains waiting to rend what you let fall, lies the greatest work of all, whose wonder could draw out your soul from your chest like smoke drawn into a vaccum cleaner nozzle and hold it there to make its artistry seem greater still.

But the time for preparation is elapsed; the chance is lost. The bell rings, the judges approach. The contest is over. Or is it? I turn, ashamed of my work, to welcome them, and it becomes clear there is more to this contest than I imagined.

I know my judges. They are my mother; my aunts; my cousin Jacky, grown older than me, her red curls bright and wild, her discrepant-colored eyes gleaming with wisdom she does not possess. These are people whose judgment I actually value…in other things than art.

“Come,” I say. “Let me show you my gallery.”

I gesture welcomingly, turn, and draw them with me in through the charcoal dust and solid white beneath it to a gray gallery, damp and cool with unseen mist, draped in heavy velvet. There are holes in it; you can see the paper and the pencil strokes beneath, but it is more real than I had hoped.

I lead them like a tour guide, like a damned Virgil through the awful Goya gallery of my unconscious. I show them the Mikado, the Heart Imprisoned. They comment, criticize, taking notes and conferring quietly among themselves. I fear they do not understand. I try to explain magic realism, the incredible feat that is bringing fiction into life, and stumble as I speak upon the fact that I have here actually achieved it. My feet know every crack and tilt of these gray tiles…beyond the velvet curtain where I lay my hand is a doorway…beyond it is the jagged mountain wilderness.

“But this is just the beginning,” I warn, and sweep back the drapes.

The landscape consumes the gallery in an instant. In a moment there is only the door behind us, then not even that. We stand on a windswept path along a ridge where nothing grows, with peaks like broken glass or knives all around. It is cold. The stone is marbled red and black and cream, volcanic ash melted and suddenly cooled into alien patterns that cut into hands when you look for a handhold if you aren’t careful.

The judges are speechless. I tell them of the cave where the great work waits. I point along the horizon to a dark spot a few hundred yards along the trail. “Hurry,” I say.

They hurry, with me now following behind, no longer afraid they will reject me, but now afraid this hostile place will eat them, hurt them, sweep them away. But we progress safely, hunched like the Mystics on their way to the Castle of the Skeksis, like the desert people of Arrakis hunting the worm.

“There is one other thing,” I add suddenly, remembering. “No one can see the great work in human form. It will change us as we approach…into bears.”

And it happens. One at a time they turn into giant, brown stuffed teddy bears with sewn-on scratched glass eyes, and struggle clumsily in single file on towards the dark opening in the cliff above, whose shadows grow as we approach, where waits the greatest work of art that mind has ever known. I watch Jacky change. Her glass eyes are still the same brown and green. Then I begin to turn myself. It happens so quickly I haven’t time to understand it, to think or embrace it or resist.

I am made of fluff and threadbare corduroy. I have no fingers or toes or knees. I am so light…the wind tears at me, a hundred times stronger now that I am become but a toy with feelings. I fall among the rocks, seeking cover, and gaze upward at the shadow that is growing just as if I were still moving towards it, blotting out the sharp lines of the rocks with chalky tendrils, like charcoal…

In spite of all my desperate clinging to the dream, to the stone, my unbelievably passionate wish to see what’s in that cave, what I know I should know is the most beautiful and breathtaking thing I or they will ever see, but I don’t remember…the light of the page burns through everything, and I awake.

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