“This is Ella Marie, your subject,” Cecile Harnett announces as she enters. The child half-curtsies and mumbles what I take to be a greeting.
Ella Marie has been ushered into my studio with a push at her back, and I see a cloth bag of what her mother calls accouterments held snug against an expensive navy purse. A vase of brilliant flowers leans in the crook of one arm. The vase shimmies perilously in the pull of gravity so I offer to take the vase and look for a spot to set it. A teetering pile on my desk is shoved aside to free up a couple bare inches.
“For you. Or for the portrait, your call.”
Her young daughter peeks around her elbow, then steps apart from her and she takes in the studio, arms crooked behind her back.
She looks around, her freed hand smoothing feathery champagne bangs from her forehead, lips in a straight line as if trying to not leak a sigh of distaste. I admit my studio does not reflect a rising artist. More a cultural dilettante who likes making messes in an overcrowded attic space. I know at first glance my planned Blue Studio didn’t inspire confidence in others as much as it did myself. But I liked the sad little bungalow with large garage–a garage that became a two story art space. Of course, it’s been shined up since then. A lot of business has increased for me within four years in this touristy village. Thus, the trying customer with her lovely but bored and bland (might be overreacting to such even features, the blank stare) daughter.
“Gretchen says you’re as good as it gets here, Tessa, and we sure need a good portraitist since Harold Zimpter left. Though how anyone could aspire to take his place is stretching credulity. He was the creme de la creme and so enchanting one wanted to sit for him just to listen to him rattle on about his world travels and arcane interests.”
She lifts her right eyebrow at me, a delicate feather glued upon her vast forehead. We have already discussed what is desired, agreed on the price, the rapid timeline. I think she is waiting for a response, like noting how I studied in Paris (did not) or that I am an avid admirer of Zimpter’s work (though old school conventional, he has his strengths). I had expected a few pretenses but not this much. Her daughter looks at the floor, as if drawn to the cracks in the reclaimed pine floorboards I used, then nudges the toe of one of her black Mary Jane shoes into a wiser crack.
I take a diversionary route.”Yes, he is well known though paints far less now he’s ninety. Gretchen has commissioned three paintings of various sorts. But today I’m looking forward to painting Ella Marie.”
I get down on a bended knee and murmur, “Hello, Ella Marie, new to this painting business, I guess?”
Not how I usually greet children. Even if disgruntled by the whole business, they are often eager to chat and poke about. Some even pose from the start, as if coached by parents or believe they’re dazzling and desire my certain appreciation, as well. Ella Marie just glances at me so quickly that I suspect she is just be blinking in the bright, paint-imbued atmosphere.
“I’m not too certain she returns that feeling. But it must be done. She’s seven and her grandparents have wanted a portrait at least a couple of years– for their gallery, as they call it, a long, broad hallway where they hang family portraiture.”
“So you said, and I’m glad to oblige.” I stand up and let Ella Marie’s shoe explore more cracks. Her eyes follow me ever so little. “You brought some items, I see?”
“Ah, yes, to help things go right and rosy.”
She isn’t kidding. She opens the bag and pulls out a circlet of realistic white roses; a necklace in a pretty turquoise box that when opened reveals a simple open silver star on a fine chain (“A Tiffany’s trinket, yes”); a headband made of ivory lace and one tiny pink rosebud; and a dress that looks more like a miniature plum colored evening gown than a child’s tog. There is also a pair of white gloves. I am borderline appalled but smile and wait to hear what she says. Ella Marie is perusing the pile son my desk but shoots her mother a look that indicates she may not be so thrilled, either.
“Just ideas. Mama loves roses and they’re more formal so those are a must whichever we use. The dress was handmade for this. But I don’t want her too overly adorned. Shall we get started, then?”
I’m thinking that the child looks fine as she is, in dark green paisley slacks and a white blouse. I direct them to a corner and a quadruple-fold screen that I made, more comfortable a change area than my cramped bathroom.
When Ella Marie emerges, she says nothing, still is taken with the floor and its cracks. There is no doubt she wears an elegant, expensive dress. She steps cautiously into a swath of early morning rays thrown across the floor. My eyes catch hers, which sparkle in the light, and I see her running across an open field, barefooted, golden curls flying, her face wreathed in smiles and honeyed sunshine, arms swinging for joy.
Her mother beams with inordinate pride but the girl I envision is not at all this fake princess before me.
I can hear Cecile sigh as she taps on her phone. I start a quick sketch on the canvass, looking at her daughter off and on. Ella Marie is sitting dutifully before me in a wicker chair, feet set upon a matching footstool, her face half-sunlit and turned toward me. If there was more time, I would have just sketched over a couple sittings, then begun the painting but no, the Harness family wants this before Christmas rush begins. I happen to have a loose hour here and there twice a week if I cram more into the rest of the time. It may have been a mistake. A painting can take months, of course, but at times a small portrait comes to me fast and furious and can turn out as well or better as the more painstaking ones. With acrylics, I work fast, anyway; they dry quickly.
“So what motivated you to move to Greenpointe, Tessa?”
I do not like to talk on and on so offer a usual line. “Got tired of the city like most who move here.”
“I’m told your father grew up here, that grey rambling house on the western shore? I suppose you visited here years later. Was he also an artist?”
“Advertising,”I mumble, then clamped lips shut. Enough; I have work to do. “I’m sorry, I need calm my mind, concentrate.”
Another long sigh, nearly a whistle of restless annoyance. “I think I’ll get a coffee and scone down the block. Okay, Ella Marie? Back in an hour, is that okay?”
We both nod, the child giving a prim wave, and Cecile leaves with designer bag in tow, her Sperry Topsiders thumping on each step as she navigates the steep stairs.
Ella Marie, taking after her mother, lets go a rush of air that is surprising considering her stature.
“I don’t want to do this, you know.” She doesn’t change her posture, just speaks quietly but with certainty.
“I can see that nor am I surprised, most kids do not.”
“You can tell? Mom says smile, make things work.”
“I can see you are bored and annoyed and uncomfortable in that fancy dress.”
Ella Marie grimly stretches her lips into a disgruntled curve that states agreement. Looks straight at me until I look back “Did you ever have to do this?”
“No. I always had to draw for adults.”
She thinks about that as I sketch quickly now, pencil seeking her personality, lightly trying it on canvas. She bristles with energy, but softly, perhaps told a million times to take it down a notch and trained in absolute manners. She is a child doomed to perfection-seeking unless she can find a way to wiggle past all that until she finds herself.
Wait, I think, she is only seven. And a half, as she pointed out recently.
“I said I’d only do it if she let me ride the horse next door, Ms. Gretchen’s horse.”
I draw the light fluff of curls that spiral around her chin as she speaks, catch the loose-limbed ease she displays as she relaxes, small shoulders squared with a quiet confidence.
“She agreed, I guess.”
Ella Marie bounces twice, arms up as she raises her fists into a victory punch. “Yes! I take a first lesson tomorrow with Hanna, her teenager.”
There it is, there’s the kid who will try her hardest to find the paths into woods and hills with their wild beauties, the stream full of frogs and salamanders and squishy mud where bloodsuckers may lie in wait but she’ll take that chance. At least I imagine.
The sketch feels more right than wrong and I announce to her that after a few tweaks we will start painting at the next session. I am finding her easy to recreate on paper.
“But what about this dress? Any chance your mom could pick something else?”
She shakes her head. “Oh no, this is what Grandmother and Grandfather would like the best.”
“Okay, then, we’ll do the best we can with what we have, right?”
She giggles, a silvery chime floating in my studio. “Right, Miss Tessa.”
The next weeks Cecile is either on the phone and pacing as she discusses apparent re-decorating plans with controlled irritation, or she is anxious to be released from quiet waiting and so exits to the coffee shop as I work. She has asked twice to see the painting, but I never show a painting in progress, despite it being commissioned. Not until I decide it is developing well, at the least. No sense distressing those who know nothing of portraiture.
Ella Marie seems assured that whatever I do is fine.
“I like how you dance a little with your paintbrushes. I like the smell of things up here. Can I see it this time?”
“No, not til it’s done. It won’t be a good surprise until it is finished.”
“What if Mom doesn’t like it?”
“Then I won’t get paid–or paid well.”
“That’s not good.” She frowns and a subtle fierceness leaks out, despite the plum dress and the lacy headband her mother chose. “You’re a nice lady. You’re a special painter, no one can decide any different.” She clasps her hands, shakes them once for emphasis.
My own tired hand pauses mid-air. The small brush I hold is loaded with delicate, tender pinkness of rose that blooms from the ornate headband set on the canvas. I want to sit across from the girl, tell her how wonderful she is and to not mind the terribly plum dress and all smiling falseness and even impatient, demanding parents.
But she is a client, not my daughter, not even a niece or good friend’s child. She has been here twice a week for nearly four weeks. I have heard her horse stories, her childish gossip, her night dreams of winged horses and pixies that kindly rule the forest, and have seen her wilt as her mother corrects her syntax at such a young age and tidily pulls up each sock before they leave.
I have to wonder if this kid ever gets to scrape her knees or wear battered tennis shoes or use bad grammar. But maybe that will come, it is none of my business, after all.
“Why don’t we take that little rose off your headband? I have a bobby pin to set the flower into your hair. Let me get the mirror.”
We affix the rose into a wave at her temple but it still looks too….theatrical, contrived. I don’t want her to look too “cute,” it doesn’t suit her. She shrugs.
“Next time, I’ll have a wildflower crown for you.”
She shrugs. “I’d like that better but Grandmother…”
I’ve already started two portraits, the other on my own time. I can’t only paint one of Ella Marie in that chair, her Tiffany necklace positioned in the center of her chest, hands folded in her lap. She is a patient model now that we’ve established more of whom she is or may be, a truly free child at heart, an ordinary young wild thing, but she knows she has to get at it in a careful manner. Like horseback riding, which is reportedly going well. The youngster has a knack for it.
“At first I thought I might break my neck, was bouncing way too much. But now I just feel what the horse does and follow along, sort of. It’s not too hard. It’s–“she snaps her fingers and the sharp sound almost rings in my studio–“like, presto changeo! when I get with it. I’m really happy there.”
I laugh for the pleasure of her enthusiasm and she tosses shoulder length curls like a horse tosses its mane, and paws at the ground with one of her Mary Janes.
“School is boring, though. You like school?”
“Art school. Now hold still, chatterbox.”
“Yes, all those paints and things! Okay, we must get it done, huh?”
I wonder how Cecile got so lucky to have this kid and find I am almost bracing for her departure. I’m just the village artist-in-residence, the new portraitist.
When her mother returns, she sneaks a glimpse from the side before I carefully turn the easel aside. Out escapes a sibilant response that, from Cecile, denotes a kind of pleasure.
“Such sweetness and delight, fine work, my dear!”
“Can I see?” Ella Marie asks her blue-grey eyes pleading.
I shake my head. I don’t want her to see, not yet. She puts hands on skinny hips, stands with feet apart in the long velvety dress as if to do battle, but briefly. She returns to a more approved standing position, waiting, as her mother is watching out for bad manners, her glinty eyes narrowed above shining teeth.
After four weeks, the commissioned piece is finished and when Ella Marie arrives we are both quiet. I have set aside two other projects to rush this order and Cecile Harnett will pay extra for that. One will be perky yet radiant, I hope, wedged between the other good looking, well-behaved, precious grandchildren, like trophies gleaming along a special byway of fame–granted, they are the trophies all families love the best. Ella Marie’s determination, her intelligence and burbling delight, her inclination to push a bit beyond boundaries may not be blazing fact to the everyday eye. But I study her and see it, and care enough to strongly hint at it.
The other painting needs more finesse, time to rest. No one will see that one; it stays with me, unknown to even Ella Marie.
“Is the painting going to make them so happy for Christmas?”
“It will, indeed, their lovely wonder girl.”
Ella Marie laughs as if I’m teasing yet maybe she likes the idea.
“Come and see.”
She gets up and very carefully tiptoes over to where I sit on my stool, then covers her eyes. She one by one spreads her fingers and peeks through to view the 15 by 15 inch portrait, now about dry after late night last touches.
“Ohhh.” Her hands drop to her sides. “That’s what it is….yeah, Miss Tessa, that’s sure what they like.”
Her mouth hangs open a little as she breathes and she reaches to touch the colors representing her face, the flowing velvet, the rose on the headband but stops just short of marring the paint.
“So many colors to make up skin…” she whispers. “Look at the little rose, it might open up right there.”
I step away, let her gaze upon her rendered likeness.
Should I show her the other portrait, the one in close-up where she is the girl riding the wind on a galloping horse, face half-turned to the viewer, her curls like streaming ribbons of light, a restless aura of energy on the verge of something even more: the brave future mirrored in her lively eyes and proud stance?
Someday. Not now.
Cecile comes up all out of breath, full of anticipation, and when she takes a long, intense look at her daughter’s portrait, she pulls out her money, counts upon my drawing table more than agreed upon.
“You captured her essence, our Ella Marie, they’ll adore it! I’ll spread the word, Tessa–fantastic work. Now to find just the right frame!”
As they perch on the top of the stairway, Ella Marie looks back, eyes soft but clear. I can see her mind is busy and all that energy is only pausing between one thing and the next. But she runs back and throws her arms around me, grinning up at me.
“Ella Marie, do a proper thank you and let’s move on now!”
I speak up, releasing her. “Ella Marie, you’ve been a wonderful painting subject and kid, thank you for sitting for me. ”
“Tessa, you’re a wonderful painter, thank you for being you, too!”
And she “high fives” me, then leaves with her mother, just like that.
The holidays are upon us in full force and I have a new show at Gina’s Galeria de Arte in the Gaslight District. The other Ella Marie painting is hung with ten others and it is the one attracting most attention. It’s the opening reception and people are drinking and networking and gossiping and I am exhausted as ever by the small talk I must engage in.
Many come up and ask: is that the young Harnett child we all know and how did I capture her that way, did I take photos of her on a horse? It’s so real and yet ethereal… how much do I want for it? Do her parents know yet?
“It is not for sale,” I tell them over and over. The other paintings are good, they are selling well enough but this is exempted. I’m keeping it for one person in case she ever forgets who she is some day.
Then comes little Miss Ella Marie, and she’s pulling at her mother’s purse so in they come. Cecile and husband Thom Harnett hurry forward as they realize now the exhibit is mine. They look for me. I shrink back against a far wall, consider an escape route. I knew they’d see it at some point, I just didn’t think it would be tonight, maybe they’d wander in while holiday shopping one Saturday while I was at Blue Studio, just working.
The three of them meander, the child borderline giddy as she points to the art, her parents perusing each one. And then they’re in front of it, the other one.
“It’s me!” Ella Marie claps her hands and people gather around. “Where’s Tessa? Where is she?”
I slink forward, grasp her proffered hand, then look around at the crowd. Can we not do this another time and place? Can I leave now? Such public attention isn’t good for my stress level but it’s too much to ask; money is necessary so I do these shows.
“This is new and you kept it secret!” she says.
“Secret…” Cecile parrots.
She looks at the painting, then at me and back at the painting. Thom appraises it, zooming in close, pulling back.
“Remarkable. A bit fantastical perhaps, but so remarkably my daughter,” he pronounces.
“What do you think?” I ask Ella Marie.
“I love it, me riding a great horse–how did you do that? It’s really me, Tessa! And you put the daisy crown on me!” She squeals then acts embarrassed and calms herself a bit.
But Cecile slides over with eyes brimming and presses her shoulder against mine a moment before standing apart. She dabs wetness away with a leather gloved finger, quick to avert mascara smears, but still, I feel moved by her open response.
“How much shall I give you for this?”
“Yes,” Thom concurs, stroking his trim salt and pepper beard. “It’s better than the other one, you must know that. It deserves a fine price.”
I let go of her hand, drop to a crouch so I can better speak to her among the holiday gallery trollers. “It was painted for just me at first. Now it is just for you, Ella Marie. No one gets to buy it. Only you can let it go if someday that is what you want to do.”
“Oh…” She places her palm alongside my cheek a moment, then pats my shoulder. “I want it. I will always want it, no one else can have it.” She bends over to whisper, “I want you to see me ride! I’ll ask Mom to call you.”
“I’d like that. And the picture goes home with you after this show ends. I’ll be in touch.”
“Okay, Miss Tessa.” She neatly curtsies, then giggles.
I notice she has on bright red tennis shoes beneath jeans and a blue puffy jacket and am oddly heartened.
We three grownups chat more. They’re so pleased with the new painting, thrilled their daughter may own art by someone who might be famous one day (maybe, not at all likely). And they are congenial because it’s that time of year and they’re suddenly a topic at the event as people come by to congratulate them–and me.
But as they leave, Ella Marie walking with head high between them and each holding a hand, I see more than I did before. I see a family filled with the certainty of love and I’m gratified I can be this close to such a fine thing, even in passing.