Paint Me

An after-hours trip to an art gallery sets an odd sequence of events in motion in this evocative short story.

Image Credit: 
© 2011 Sam Slattery / Used With Permission

There’s something magical about breaking into a gallery at night. I don’t like crowds, but I love art, so over the years I’ve discovered the best time to visit a gallery is at night.

This isn’t a story about breaking into a gallery, it’s a story about what happens after breaking in.

This night I’d been in the gallery for all of three minutes, perfectly alone while the night watchmen take their nap in the security rooms when I began to hear scuffling.

The gallery was empty, but sure enough behind the wall, in one of the exhibition rooms, there was the distinct sound of someone moving.

Naturally, this piqued my interest. Was there another late night intruder pondering the works, or was it just the sound of the building, wires and fans buzzing? I decided to explore and made my way around to the source of the noise.

When a gallery brings in a new exhibition, it’s not uncommon to close off a room while the preparation is taking place. This seemed to be the case, judging by the tarpaulin hung over the entrance archway, affixed with masking tape.

I peeled back the tape and slid through the narrow opening as the sheet swung away from the wall.

The room was filled with paintings, created by masters in centuries past, lining the three sides of the room, but, in the centre was the marquee attraction, the one work they hoped would draw the crowds.

Covered in white cloth, leaving only the podium and plaque free from obstruction, I had to see what the fuss would be about.

I crept my way along the exhibition, focused in on this target, and reaching out a tentative hand I grabbed the sheet and pulled with a flourish, the magician’s reveal.

Under the crude covering had been a statue of a woman of transfixing beauty. I averted my gaze for the briefest of moments, to the bronze plaque affixed to the pedestal, hoping for some name.

“A vision in white marble.” Truth in advertising, ladies and gentleman.

I once more met her solid gaze, and began to give her the once over, slowly circling the figure, admiring the handiwork, the fortitude and talent to have created something so perfect.

It wasn’t until the third pass round I noticed the one blemish. Across the left arm, outstretched with dainty fingers, someone had smeared paint, a rainbow colour burst across the forearm of the figure.

I reached out, to check if the paint was wet, a recent work of vandalism, a tragedy of transport, or maybe an intrinsic statement on the design.

I was millimetres from feeling the paint when the statue gasped, and her other hand darted to protect the paint.

“Don’t, it isn’t yours.”

I was stunned, not that the statue was talking to me, but rather to hear another voice in the still of the museum, and I stumbled out an apology, “I’m sorry, it’s just out of place.”

Me and the statue began to converse, I asked her what the paint was, and she explained to me, hurriedly, like a guilty child, that it was her artwork.

She had added the colour to herself, to define part of her identity.

“A statue, is the host to someone else’s message,” she offered me, “but, I don’t get to decide what I say.”

“But why paint on yourself?” I was beginning to grasp the absurdity of the moment, engaging a marble statue in conversation.

“It’s the only place people would notice it, I have no other canvas.”

“Paint me.” The words fell out of my mouth before I could analyse what I was saying.

She hesitated, for the briefest of instances, before producing a fine paintbrush.

The tip was already wet, and dutifully I rolled up my sleeve, presenting my arm as her new canvas.

Slowly, the fibres moved against my skin, each stroke gentle but with purpose, elegantly curving across the surface. By the time she had finished, she had covered most of the visible skin in an assortment of colours. It occurred to me she had never changed paint brushes or dipped into any reservoir of pigment.

I turned the arm back towards myself, excited to see what had been crafted across me.

Against the backdrop of a rising sun, the words “Thank you, please stay.”

I looked at the window, and surely enough I saw the sun begin to peer over the horizon, in the distance.

I had to leave sometime soon, but I found that as I thought about turning and running to the bathrooms to hide while the gallery opened, I was instead climbing aboard the pedestal, curling around her feet, like a cat at the fireplace. Her skin was not so cold, and I began to close my eyes. I knew where I was needed and so I stayed.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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