I’ll start off by saying I had nothing to lose.
Although, I have to admit, I didn’t have much to gain by what I did, especially in terms of the money. I still had to give lessons at the senior center and make those lousy copies of Impressionist paintings for tourists to buy.
I suppose I did it because I wanted something to show for the thirty years—longer than I had lived in my homeland—that I had been here in America. Something that was properly appreciated, even if someone else got all the credit.
Thankfully, my wife was not around to see what I had done. I don’t think she would have approved of my actions, though not for the right reason. “You’d probably make more money collecting plastic bottles,” she would have said. I don’t think she would have really wanted me to be one of those Chinese people shuffling down the street in their canvas shoes, backs bent nearly double underneath clear sacks of plastic picked out of other people’s trash, like hermit crabs with iridescent shells spat up from some otherworldly sea. I’m still a few years and ounces of pride away from that.
Although I don’t know how much pride there is what I do to earn a living. Every week, at the Chinese Baptist Church senior center in Flushing, Queens, I take people in their sixties and seventies through the paces of drawing an apple, a teacup, a potted plant. It feels like they have already moved into another plane of time, where seconds are minutes. I’m sure my hour-long lesson feels like an entire week. A man guides his brush of yellow paint across canvas with the speed of a midsummer’s day, while a woman piles pigment onto her palette as though building a monument.
There’s a widow who has her eye on me, despite being at least fifteen years my senior. “Master Liu,” she’ll quaver, “how can we make the apple look like it’s not floating in midair?”
Perspective, I tell her. If everything else—the shadow on the tabletop, the wall in the background—looks as it should, then so does the object in the middle, even if it is flawed.
The widow, who is about as misshapen as the apple she has painted, steps back to look at her work. I wonder what she sees. A round sphere? The perfect apple in her mind’s eye?
It’s in these times that I miss my wife the most. Especially in light of the widow’s subtle flirting, although come to think of it, the age difference is the least objectionable aspect. After all, I am fifteen years older than my wife; when we met, I must have seemed like a geriatric. I didn’t have a tragic story about a divorce or a dead first wife or even children. I was just a painter, and for many years my bedfellow had been mediocrity.
I wish I could have told my wife about the first time I met the gallery owner. It was on a perfect summer day, when the tourists were out in force, streaming past my stall on the sidewalk just south of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, chattering in a thousand different languages. Occasionally a school group would straggle past, the uniformed children energetically swatting each other with their notebooks.
Then I saw the woman standing to the side, appraising my display of knockoffs of Monet, Pissarro, and Sisley. I knew she wasn’t a tourist. For one thing, she was by herself. She wasn’t one of those women determined to expose her family to art and culture, followed by a hulking bear of a husband and teenaged children in Converse sneakers who’d rather be in Times Square (although they could meet some of my immigrant street-art brethren there, as well).
No, she was a local, probably in her late fifties or early sixties, although well-preserved in the way city women over a certain age are. I could see all the signs: a glossy shoulder-length bob, too-red lipstick that matched the shade of her manicured nails, possibly a face-lift. So as to better look at my work, she had put on reader glasses with geometric frames. I am sure the word she would have used to describe them, as I had overhead women of that age group describe colorful jewelry at the craft fairs where I sometimes sold my work, was “funky.”
She looked at me over the rims of her own funky glasses and asked, “Do you paint these yourself?”
“Yes, Madame,” I said, getting up from my camp stool.
“They’re very good.”
I looked at my paintings as if with a new eye. They were all eight inches by twelve inches, so that I could fit a maximum of twenty paintings onto the wire scaffolding that enclosed my small patch of territory on the sidewalk. One entire panel was devoted to Monet, this being the artist most people recognized from being reproduced on mugs, tote bags, and mouse pads. I had copies of his greatest hits: the bridge at Giverny, the Houses of Parliament at sunset, the garden at Argenteuil, the water lilies, the haystacks. The trick in repeating these paintings and not getting bored was to look at them as something else. For instance, whenever I painted the haystacks, I thought of corn muffins. I was much more interested in them this way, not to mention hungry.
“How much do you sell them for?” the woman asked.
I made a mental calculation. I hadn’t thought she looked like someone interested in buying a painting—usually those people were tourists who had just gotten out of the museum, spied a copy of a painting they had seen in real life, and wanted to take home a souvenir—but perhaps I had been mistaken. Maybe she wanted a little picture to adorn an office wall, or to hang in her bathroom over the toilet.
“For you, Madame, only fifty dollars,” I said grandly.
“Fifty?” She frowned. “For fifty I would expect something larger. I really need something larger.”
My perception of her changed. Maybe she was an interior decorator, looking for a painting for a client’s wall or a doctor’s waiting room. This could mean several hundred dollars.
“I have larger paintings in my studio,” I said.
Her eyebrows lifted slightly at this, as if she was surprised to hear that I had a studio. True, it was only my garage, but that was where I kept and did my real work, not out here on the street.
“I also work on commission,” I added.
“Perhaps,” she said, “I could come visit your studio? You see, I don’t really know what kind of painting I want yet. But it has to be big. Imposing. You know what I mean.”
I didn’t, and readjusted my impression of her yet again. So she wasn’t working for a client. Could it be that she was a true art appreciator who wanted a painting for herself, not at another’s direction or simply to fill a physical space? This could be interesting indeed.
“Of course,” I replied. I wrote my address on the back of a blank receipt slip and handed it to her. “This is the location of my studio and my contact information. You are free to come by any time you like.”
“Queens?” The slightest curl of her lip. Obviously someone who lived in Manhattan.
“It is close to the seven train. My name is Liu. I am at your service.” I bowed like the old-fashioned mandarin I must have appeared to her, despite the fact that I was wearing paint-spattered work clothes.
“I’ll call you if I’m interested.” She handed me a business card, although it had been clear by her words that she would contact me and not vice versa.
After enough time had passed for her to walk a block or so away, I looked at what she had pressed in my hand. A piece of plain white cardstock that bore the words Caroline Lowry, Owner, Lowry Gallery. The address was in Chelsea. I flipped the card over to its blank side and back again, half-expecting the words to have disappeared like invisible ink. But no, Caroline Lowry stayed put. Could it be that finally, after thirty years, just when I was ready to give up, a gallery was interested in my work?
I should have known that no real gallery owner would have been convinced of my talent from seeing a few knockoff paintings sold on the street, but at that point in time I could have believed anything. As I said before, I had nothing to lose.