THE ART COTTAGE
by Sasha Chinnaya
I walk through the streets of my city and see a thousand different worlds of art living and breathing. The traffic is a great blur of color that looks not so different from watercolor leaking with bliss onto a blank slip of paper. It zooms past with an energy I feel I’ve lost. I feel the rush of the wind against my cheeks. Cold as it is, it’s a welcome for my body has grown lonely and dry to routine. The leaves rustle about, flying through my hair and adding some color to this pale landscape.
The pavement is still wet from an early morning of rain. It’s been beaten and marked with footprints. A thousand souls have wandered here and I am just one more today.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!” A tousling scream breaks straight through the air.
It’s coming from down the block. From the swift glimpse I catch, I see a child stomping about, throwing his backpack away with such revolt. His poor mother is a woman that has no time for tantrums. She is pushed to her limit with bags hanging off her arms like heavy ropes trying to break through skin. The sacrifices of adulthood are ripe on her face. She doesn’t look that old and yet she has a child. A great and terrifying ball of energy that will never let her rest again, but that she would probably not be able to find a moment’s happiness without anymore.
This woman keeps resisting the pathway to aggression. She closes her eyes so calmly, so perfectly balancing authority with understanding. I see and respect the way she breathes deeply and then grabs her child’s small arm with ease. She picks him off the floor gently and then swings him to a corner of the sidewalk.
“Nooooo!!! I don’t want to. I don’t want to. I want to go back home!!!” The child wails on like a broken toy.
His wriggling movements push the woman to get more serious. The sympathetic smile drains from her face and is replaced by a stern, processing look.
“Stop.” She says the word once, but the sudden drop of it feels like a red light in the midst of racing traffic.
Her eyes stare down the child. She drops her Trader Joes bags and towers over the boy.
“I…I didn’t…” He stutters in speech and quivers out of guilt.
“I don’t want to hear another word out of you until we reach Grandma’s. Anything, even so much as a mumble Daniel, and I swear you aren’t getting dessert. None.” She raises a jar of cookie butter.
The swirls of light and dark brown are inviting and nostalgic. I can almost taste it on a slice of bread. I would spread it thick and munch on the creamy goodness as I studied notes for school. It only took a taste to give me a break and the older I get I realize how much I need breaks.
The woman shoves the jar back into the bag and both I and the child sigh. The boy does not say another word as he pulls the straps of his bag back on in surrender. The Jansport item now seems like a great weight upon him and I feel bad. I don’t know why because the torment of school is a trial we must all pass. It’s inevitable and insufferable, but that’s the way life is right? We must surrender to reality and compromise. Only, something about that truth seems more like a legend made to scare us. I don’t know why, but I can’t entirely accept it. I’ve always wanted more.
They walk past me, our legs brushing against one another as they rush to catch their train. The boy isn’t walking as fast his mother though. He is staring up at the sky. His bright blue ocean eyes are wide of wonder and gleaming with a thirst for adventure. It is a pity that these eyes should enter into the claustrophobic space of the subway. They weren’t made to be contained or masked. They exist to roam and always be free.
As I stare into their sharp glint against the afternoon sun, I know this kid sees the world differently than the rest. There are few that take the time to even have a unique perspective of the world around them. Everyone is so wrapped up in a draining schedule. These eyes should escape into the vast avenues of the city where something different awaits on every block. If they don’t soar, their light will dim and the clear blue will only look gray.
I remember what it was like to take the train with my mom to the city in the mornings. I was just a kid, but everything was an adventure for me as well. There was the view of the buildings overlooking the ocean as we passed the bridge. It was exhausting and enticing. The scent of hot dogs lingered in the air like a special perfume you had to bathe in. The smoke could fill your lungs to suffocation, but even then there was an intrigue to the unpredictability. To be a child running loose in this chaotic oasis of bright lights and gripping noises was and is a gift.
His mother shows no empathy for that sort of romantic mindset though and I feel the woman’s sharp push as she knocks my shoulder roughly and unapologetically. All the while, she grasps onto her son’s shirt. I don’t feel offended at her lack of politeness. She is like all the rest, in a rush to get somewhere.
I take a moment to breathe, just breathe in this crisp, chill autumn day in the city. Sometimes I forget how beautiful it can be, how spontaneous it still is and that is due to the bitterness of a routine life. Each planned minute kills my excitement to live in the moment and to find the creative fire out of the ordinary embers of a day. Though, in this moment, as I take a last sip from my coffee and close my eyes, I can feel everything moving about. The wind touches my body like the familiar, welcoming arms of a loved one. The light rays of a setting sun peak through the sky and find my cold, tired skin. The buses honk, the stream of voices muddle together and even from a distance, I hear the melancholic notes of a band playing in the park. I am honored to be a part of this mobile art.
Though, time has a way of willing us back into the bustle. I awake from my slumber of city bliss when a stranger throws curses my way. They push me to the sidewalk and I get jabbed by a long umbrella sticking out of someone’s purse. The pain throbs in my rib and I put my head down in shame. I retain that chaotic, fast moving flow by scampering down the subway steps and keeping out of everyone’s way. Simply walking can become such an obstacle coarse down here.
I’m meeting with an old friend today. We take the F together whenever we can and our subway rides are never boring. They’re filled with intriguing conversations and sarcastic banter, mostly on Josh’s part. I was lucky enough to get off a few minutes early from work today and I’m thrilled to see him. It hasn’t even been months since our last encounter at a café in Brooklyn. We sat for hours talking about graduation and how quickly our lives have been changing. I miss him already though…
It’s strange, but there are just those people in our lives that understand who we are without us even having to explain a single thing. They just know our minds as well as the architecture of their own home. They get the quirky sense of humor, the random aspects of personality that the rest of the world are not sure what to make of.
Josh Dweller is one of those people so special to me. We aren’t exactly alike and at times we bicker, but our differences have always been a good reason why we work so well as friends. We help each other see the world as vastly as it is, not just how we’ve trained our minds to comprehend it. We remind each other that cynicism needs optimism and vice versa.
He is wearing his favorite black T-shirt with the band the Clash spread across in a smoky white font. He pulls me in for a nice, long hug. It’s the kind where your back gets stroked and you smell that musky cologne still wet on your friend’s neck. You feel their hair strands tickle your face and the temperature of their skin mixes so well with your own. This hug was the comfort I needed.
“How are you my love?” He asks in that honest, effortless way that shows me he really does care how I feel.
“Fine. And you?”
“Tired.” We both chuckle heartily and then sigh because for being only 21 we sound like old people already. How drained from the pointless hours of labor and dull routine we’ve become.
We get on the train and I can’t fight back the urge to say more. Normally, I would’ve liked to discuss a topic that had nothing to do with work, but I couldn’t keep the misery at bay. It started to overflow in jumbled up words.
“I just never thought I was going to work in an office you know?” I complain.
Lately, every thought I’ve had has been a complaint. This pessimism is so foreign to my usual romantic mindset. It annoys me so I can’t even imagine how the people in my life take it. They must be so sick to death of it and me, but I guess that’s what happens when you aren’t living the life you want. We become transparent ghosts of the dreams that we thought would always have a steady pulse.
“Every job is an office job.” Josh states this simple phrase so casually that he makes me feel dumb for not understanding it better.
The way he lets the words fall out like they’re already facts that we all need to accept, scares me. He is judging me for not knowing this fact. I can see it in his eyes, brown but not warm as they once were. They’re dark and gleaming like pools of sinister misery where all the lost hopes of the world dwell.
“Oh, well…” I try to salvage my argument, but I didn’t realize I even had to make an argument with Josh.
I thought that, at least concerning this area of life, we were on the same page. Now, I fear he’s a chapter in advance and I don’t like this sour twist the story has taken. It makes me think the ending will be more a tragedy than one with the solace of epiphany.
“Do you mean field work then?” He tries to be more understanding.
“No. Not exactly…” I try so hard to find the right words to save us from this awkwardness.
Soon, the words will not suffice and the conversation will turn into silence. I don’t want the few minutes we have to be reduced to that.
“I just meant I want to be out and about I guess. I can’t be contained at my desk. I sit there all day and I get lazier and lazier. I’m afraid of the comfort. I feel it won’t challenge me enough and then I’ll just have a comfortable lifestyle, you know?” I ask desperately.
I want to believe that we haven’t changed so much that he no longer understands the trivial struggles I have. Maybe, I’m asking for too much here, but I want him to know that I can’t live life the way it’s set right now forever. I can’t just accept this reality as my eternity. I need someone to know that.
“So you want to do stuff and then come back to your desk? Cause either way, any job you do, you’ll have to sit down at a desk or work in some kind of office.” He refuses to back down from his argument. It’s all in the determined way he stretches out his words and emphasizes each syllable that makes me so frustrated.
“I guess. Yeah.” I surrender my words out of lack for better ones and also because I don’t want to get into an argument about something I don’t entirely understand myself.
“It’s just that my creativity feels a bit stifled when I’m surrounded by paperwork. I need to do something that has meaning.”
Josh chuckles a rugged, sharp laugh that feels like an attack on my blind optimism. How silly a dreamer without proper cause I feel.
“Yeah I wish I had the time to think that way. My folks drilled that fluff out of my head a long time ago. It’s such a privilege to get to create something. I feel lack of opportunity is a big reason why certain people aren’t artistic.”
“Yes. That’s true.” I agree out of lack of a better defense.
I don’t disagree with Josh’s comments, but I can’t fathom how he says the words so casually like they don’t just slice me right open and sink into blood.
Creativity is a privilege and yet it never really just comes easy does it? I feel it fade out of existence in the world each day, slowly and slowly as my work weeks accumulate. I start wondering who that bright eyed, optimist was with her paintbrushes and persistent dreams years ago. I can’t find her when I stare at my disheveled appearance in the mirror each morning as I get ready for another dull day.
Where did the dreamer go and when exactly was the moment that she disappeared? I used to be so sure of myself and just a year ago, I would’ve shut down Josh’s cynicism with such a passion that he would’ve flinched and immediately exited the train. Today, I am calmer and only listening to what he has to say, processing the strange words that make so little sense to me. I don’t know if that passivity is called maturity or ignorance.
“Alright, it was good to see you again. I’ll give you a call and we can hang out for real another time.” He pats me swiftly across the shoulder and then skitters out through the closing doors.
I can’t believe that’s it? Just like that, he leaves me to the mess of my boiling thoughts. The storm he started is brewing and now he’s just going to get off at his stop and I’ll be the one that’s stuck.
More people rush in. These strangers fill the empty space and I’m too dazed to notice I’m blocking their way. Once again, I’m just here in everyone’s way and the world is moving on. It’s got no place for me.
How is it that I can be so mad at him and at the same time thankful for his practical view of the world? My old friend means well, but his cynicism is not of his own making. He has become a product of the dark world we live in, where creativity barely has room so it dies away slowly. He doesn’t see colors when he looks at a blank canvas. He doesn’t try to ask questions or take the time to ponder a scene as I had this morning. For him and all the rest, it’s a great rush that never ends. Work, eat, sleep and do it all over again. This frantic, thoughtless cycle that is done with nothing but the drive of making money. What a cruel way to kill ourselves and submit to conformity.
Shit. The numbers 169 pass my eyes as the train speeds off to its next destination. I was supposed to get off at Kew Gardens. My mind’s wandering has gone too far this time and I start thinking that maybe the world is right. I need to get my shit together. I need to have a plan. I need to think practically. Right now, though, there is nothing to do other than to face my new reality. The doors open and I step out onto the platform of the 179th street station.
I don’t know what urges me to exit the station rather than catch another train to get home. It’s already 6 in the afternoon and I’m hungry and I need to run a shitload of errands before I sink into my bed and fall asleep. I know all of this information and yet it just doesn’t process to my body. It’s like my legs have minds of their own and they are leading me to another home. A forgotten home that is pretty much ancient by now.
That blue and gold sign stands proudly with the Fleur-de-lis symbol. My high school is still the same tall, rich structure that reminds me of a castle. I pass the black gates and sigh at the chains pulled over the side entrance I had always gone through. I climb the high, never ending hill that used to be such a struggle during gym class. I don’t wait for anyone to tell me it’s too late or to shoo me away. I run toward the cottage, the one place I always could count on for comfort in my youth.
The door swings open so easily when I push it. I wish life could happen as easily too. I flick on the lights and have my moment of nostalgia. The room is full of pictures hanging on the walls. There are so many designs celebrating fall and every direction I look has a brilliant splash of color. I even see the Elvis Presley and James Dean posters that my teacher used to hang up out of love and inspiration. I wish she were here right now so I could just hear her beautiful words. Draw what you see. They were never too complicated, but they always did the trick at bringing out the best art and encouraging us to have fun with it no matter what.
I miss the stools with their cold steel against my restless legs. It only took a swift turn to catch a bit of the rays peeping in from the windows. The music would rise high because there weren’t any rules. We were free and happy, away from the world’s sharp cynicism. You didn’t have to like everyone to get along. You didn’t have to hate them to pick a fight. Our emotions drove forward, untamed and curved like my hair when I didn’t care to brush it. I was happy for just those 45 minutes each day of the week in art class.
This cottage was another home. It was my humble bit of solitude away from home and from school. It was my sacred whisper of inspiration in the times when life simply did not make any sense. I didn’t understand who I was as I sat in class and failed at just about everything. I didn’t know who I was at home when even the ones I loved failed to understand what I felt. Maybe the fault was mine for not being able to convey well enough as well.
Though, with just a couple of Prisma colored pencils and some Canson paper, I could express what words failed to tell. I’d sketch and erase a million times over, but it didn’t matter. I kept creating without feeling any pressure to be talented or to actually do something with my pieces. It was never about that.
It was all just raw emotion flowing out of me so naturally, so intricately. I loved every second I would spend staring at a picture of a face or a landscape and then trying to capture all those details onto a sheet of paper.
The cool thing that everyone else seemed to forget, was that drawing out an image was not really about exact precision. It wasn’t about copying it. If that was the case, why not trace it and be done? Save yourself from the shreds of dirty pink eraser flaking on the page and the thought of minutes wasted on something that still wasn’t good enough.
No, the point of drawing was to express how you saw the world. Everyone sees things differently and in it’s most profound and simplistic sense, drawing was for me about expressing to the world who I was as an individual. Not as a high school student. Not as a girl. Not as a person with brown skin. Not as anything other than what I felt and most of the time in my youth, I felt lost. That is a feeling people are always telling me to hide in some way, shape or form. Yet, I feel it now stronger then I felt it before.
So, I turn off my rambling mind and grab a piece of plain white canson paper. It’s the rough kind with a bit of texture. I always did like that type of paper better than the smooth and glossy. There are so many supplies lining up the shelves, but I go straight for the blue pack of pastels. I open it and feel a wave of euphoria move through me as I stare at all the different colors. I don’t even bother sketching too much of an outline. I draw the simple curve of a vase I see on the table. Then, I gently take one of the golden yellow chalks and run it near my line. As my fingers touch that smooth, powdery chalk, I feel I’m where I should’ve been all along. I press down on the paper and smile as the first streak is made. I add other colors and make sure each one blends, but not too much. Everyone used to take their hands and rub the pastels together way too much in art class. I always preferred to leave the image a little more rough so you could see the highlights and the contrast. Life is like that too. It’s never just one thing or another. It’s full of contrasts and ups and downs and all of it should be honored as being real and authentic.
As I sit here, I am in awe. At how everything I need to say just comes out. It’s like my insides are spilling out onto the canvas. It doesn’t struggle. It just flows right out of me onto this canvas and somehow becomes art. I don’t call it art though and I don’t get how the rest of the world does either. To me, it’s emotion. Simply put, it’s emotion that has been physicalized and set free into the world. It’s rough, raw moving emotion that I have little control over but that exists nonetheless.
Every emotion, good and bad and in between, are right here in the streaks and hues. This small amateur piece of artwork tells the story of all the little parts of me I don’t know how to categorize and simplify for the world.
Oh why are we all so fucking scared of a little emotion? Why must it drive us mad to the point where we need to suppress it, push it down and pretend it does not drive us so much in this world. Emotion is not specific to one gender. It’s specific to humanity and it strikes me bitter that the world still has not learned that lesson. It’s age old, practically written into sacred scripture but I guess not everyone sees it as I do.
These days it feels like everyone has an opinion on what it means to be an artist, what I should be creating, how I should do it and how fast… I miss the simpler approach. Draw what you see. Yes, I will never ever stop doing that because to me that is the only way to live my life. I can only create and keep telling the world that I am here to stay. I am me, the me that I chose when the world tried to pull me into a million different shapes.
My mind goes back to Josh’s words. It’s such a privilege to get to create something. He isn’t wrong, but I feel his statement is half-baked.It is a privilege to create, but it’s a privilege you have to fight for. The fight never gets easier and the world will always try to tell you who you are before you’ve decided for yourself. It’s far more difficult a task to do the thing you love because then you’ve got everything to lose. But if I could do it all over, I’d make the same mistakes. I’d take everyone’s judgment and keep on going.
I close my eyes and let tears fill out on the barren canvas of my skin. I’ll walk out of here in a few minutes. I’ll tidy up the room, put away the tools and it’ll be like nothing ever happened. The rest of the world will not know. They won’t care and tomorrow I’ll return to work where no one knows who I am. No one cares to know because we’re all too busy with our important paperwork. Numbers and names strain our eyes, but not images. No voice of an individual glowing strong with conviction. Here, in exactly 30 minutes I have found myself in a way I never could when I’m surrounded by the paperwork.
I throw my hands up in the air and scream with joy, dancing to the music playing on the small radio and feeling, feeling everything happen all at once. I did it. Today, I created something. It wasn’t a masterpiece and it’s not going to win any awards. No one might see it, but I sat down and drew as passionately and vigorously as I used to. Today I was not lazy like the rest of the world. Today, I was an artist and I am so fucking proud of just that! There was no toning down nor thinking practically. I just acted off of raw emotion and it was incredible.
I dance for a good set of minutes before the little bell on the door rings. That familiar cold gust of wind sweeps into my sweater. It disrupts the private space and a few young girls walk in. They’ve got those same paper portfolios I used to lug about when I was their age. Their eyes are filled with a familiar wonder and a natural instinct to create whatever they want.
“Uh…. Are you a teacher miss?” One of the braver girls asks.
I laugh a strong, ruffling giggle. I haven’t laughed this way in quiet some time. My whole body feels that sensation of happiness that we too often take for granted. It takes the girls by surprise and out of the corner of my squinted eyes, I catch a glimpse of them moving back.
“Sorry, no I’m not a teacher darling. I’m just a…” I couldn’t think of the right word just then to describe what I was or why I was here.
“An artist.” One of the girls stood looking over my piece on the counter.
She said it once and so casually, but the words did fit like a puzzle piece I had been missing all this while.
“Yes that is who I am.”
About the Author:
Sasha Chinnaya is a recent graduate from St. John’s University with a bachelors degree in English. Previously, she had another one of her short stories published in her school’s Literary and Arts Magazine (Sequoya 2016 issue). She is also a film reviewer for an online magazine called Monologue Blogger where she reviews a wide variety of short films. She also has a passion for drawing and has an instagram account featuring some of her artwork (madetowashaway). Her aspirations for the future are to continue doing as many of the creative things she loves while also challenging her abilities.