We once saw a painter paint. He was a skinny man with cheekbones that trapped light and a faraway, haunted look. The type of look artists wear to give the impression of being unearthly. That they are not from here, merely passing through with their gift.
Anyway, this particular painter never allowed anyone to watch him paint but after a month of begging he let us in but with strict instructions; not a word. Not a question. No touching anything – including him. And no standing in his light.
He wore old jeans and an apron over a long black cotton shirt. He started painting at 7am in a wooden shed where he lived. His dog, a shaggy beast called Shaggy napped at his bare feet. He worked with no music, the door closing out the outside world. He sat on a stool, surrounded by paint and brushes and a pencil stuck behind his ear like a carpenter. He looked tortured, even in pain, as he painted. Every stroke on the canvas seemed to scratch his soul, revealing bits of him in colour. We sat still, watching this theater of anguish and beauty wondering if it was magic or masochism. It was both beautiful and sardonic to watch, like watching a cow give birth.
He painted for four hours only taking sips from his water, his back as straight as a road to heaven. Even though his face was placid with stoicism his eyes burned like a lantern in deep unyielding darkness. When he was done he cleaned his brushes silently and washed his bony hands from a bucket then hang is apron on a hook before slipping out the shed without looking at the painting or asking us what we felt about it.
And so sometimes when you see a painting like this, when you sit and eat under it or just gaze at it, you wonder about the artist and all the demons and angels he left on it. Quite often we understand the painting less than we understand the artist. And that’s okay. Art isn’t meant to be understood, it’s meant to provoke, intrigue or even puzzle. Just like the artist’s cheekbones.