Blank Canvas

January 16, 2009
By Tabitha Hale, Ossipee, NH

Hurry. That’s what my mind told me as I trudged down that God-forsaken street between Main and Seaside. The air was cold, not the sort of cold that numbs, no, this cold bit at you relentlessly, never wavering. It was, without doubt, a terrible day. Most people had had the good sense to stay home. But me? No, poor John Cooper had work that day. Now I found myself walking home from a job I despised, victim of belligerent sea breezes, and—oh, look—stepping in that nice big puddle.
Of course, I expected my walk home to be ghastly—it always was. But, as I turned the corner, my right foot sloshing in my recently soaked shoe, I saw something completely unexpected. A few yards away an old man sat by the roadside on a rickety metal stool, a canvas propped on an easel stood before him. His hands were flailing this way and that, one grasping a paintbrush, the other stroking the air like a musical conductor. Crazy old man, I thought to myself. I don’t know much about painting, so correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t most sane people wait for better weather to paint in?

I’m not sure what drew me over to him, curiosity maybe, but I found myself standing behind the old man. He didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he just continued attacking his work with his old, abused paintbrush, muttering all the while. Seeing a man paint on an awful day like that should have been strange enough in itself, but what really threw me was that the man’s canvas was blank, completely blank. The brush that he made dance over its surface with the passion of Beethoven was clean, colorless. How long had this man been sitting here doing nothing? Was he too confused to understand? My teeth began to chatter. I seriously thought about walking away, going home, getting out of the cold. I couldn’t.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, “what’s that you’re painting?” His wild strokes paused. He turned slowly on his stool and faced me. “Life,” he said reverently, “I am painting life, young man.” His face was so bright it seemed to push away the dreariness around him. He smiled like a proud schoolboy, his lips stretching around toothless jaws, his loose skin bunching into wrinkles, his eyes fixed on nothing—pale, glossy, blind eyes.

My heart skipped a beat. He was blind, a blind artist! What other madness would this day throw at me? Before I could even put together a polite response, the man spun back toward his easel, clearly excited with his new audience. “It’s almost finished,” the old man said, “just a few more strokes!” He knit his eyebrows together, his tongue peeking out from the corner of his mouth like a child trying to focus. The artist ran his hand over the tray holding his paints. There were dozens of them in little glass jars, each one glossed over from the cold. He handled them as if they were priceless treasures and, after touching each one, reached down to dip his brush.

I suddenly knew why his canvas was blank. I knew it the moment he plunged that brush into the jar, a jar that held water for cleaning his brushes, a jar that this man thought was filled with his beautiful paint. Guided by a trained hand, the brush was back to work, filling the page with quick, precise strokes that I had earlier mistaken for raving lunacy. He hummed to himself cheerfully, motionless eyes sparkling with happiness, no doubt imagining his masterpiece. I considered the irony. The blind man was seeing the painting that I, with my perfect vision, could not.

With flair, he added the last invisible stroke. “Done!” the man shouted in reverie. He traced his fingers around the edges of the canvas, as if they could somehow show him what his eyes couldn’t.

“It’s lovely,” I said, unable to tell the poor man that he hadn’t painted anything.

“You like it,” the man asked. His face lit up as if I had handed him an award. “Would you like to buy it?”

My heart panged with guilt. What was I supposed to do? What if I said no and the man tried to sell it to someone else, someone in hurry, trying to get home, frustrated—they wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t realize that he had sat out in the cold for who knows how long, thinking he had painted the next Mona Lisa.

“You worked…very hard on it,” I said, “You should keep it.”

The artist chuckled, bracing his hands on his knees. “Young man,” he said, “paintings aren’t for the blind. This painting deserves to be looked at, to inspire.”

There was that guilt again. To settle my conscience, I agreed to buy his painting. I held it under my arm and continued home. I walked quickly, suddenly noticing how cold it was again. That’s when something happened that could only be a miracle in that gloomy, overcast sea town: the sun broke free from the clouds. The streets lit up, puddles blinded me with their sparkle, and people hurrying from place to place paused and looked around in surprise.

I felt something tickle my hand where I was holding the painting. I held it out in front of me and nearly fell over. The moment the sunlight touched that plain white surface, it exploded into tiny pieces of glittering color. The canvas was suddenly swirling with reds, blues, yellows, greens, purples—every shade of every color I had ever seen. They danced around each other, collided, blended, as if the old man was still there, conducting their symphony with his brush.

I touched the canvas and felt the paint move under my fingers like a living thing. I felt it’s heartbeat through its swirling, tuneless waltz. I forgot about my job that I hated, the wind that battered me, and the home that I had been hurrying to. I just stood there transfixed by the magic.

The colors began to form a picture. The purples and greens seeped back and spread out, filling the page. The fleshy tones danced into the center. The grays sat on top like a silvery hat. I started to make out a face, old and withered but smiling, shining like the sun. Then the blues appeared in the eyes and I saw that old blind artist, sitting there in his own painting. He looked right at me, not past me, but right in my eyes. He winked and, though I couldn’t hear it, I saw him chuckling. I imagined the sound. A painted hand appeared and he waved. I smiled. I could hear his words in my head, “Life. I am painting life, young man.”

As quickly as it came, the sun slipped back behind the clouds and the colors on the canvas faded and, with them, the old man. I ran back to try to find him but he was gone—no easel, no rickety stool, no schoolboy smile. The only memory of him was the plain white canvas under my arm.

I still have the painting. It’s hanging on my wall where I know the light will hit it if the sun ever returns. And I’ll keep on waiting so that one day I can see that old man again, the artist who put life inside a blank canvas.

This will certify that the above work is completely original. Tabitha Hale

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