May 14, 2015

Talking to Strangers: An Artist’s Love.

Marek Lenik/Flickr

“Painters see the world through colors
and buy frames for the beautiful world they see
Writers see the world through words
and hear love stories all around them.”
~ Carmelene Siani


I was working the front desk in my antique shop when a customer came up with an ornate picture frame in his hands.

He remarked on the intricacy of the workmanship, and I told him that I thought it had been made in Italy.

Sure enough, when we turned the frame over, I had remembered correctly. There was a signature in black ink and the word “Italy” on the back of the frame.

I told him I was Italian and that I had a fetish for inventory made in Italy. It turned out he was Italian, too. In fact, he had lived there for a while and wanted the frame for an old picture he had painted while he was there.

“Have you ever been there—to Italy?” he asked as I wrote up the ticket. He’d only been there once when, many years before, he’d gone to a small village in Southern Italy and stayed with two great aunts. They lived in an old pensione that had a spare bedroom overlooking the piazza and, because he was a portrait artist just graduated from college, he had gone there to find relatives whose portraits he could paint.

But that’s not the way it worked out.

“It was like I was in a spell,” he said. “The colors, the fragrances, the art.” He was enchanted by the surroundings and would walk the streets of the village with his canvas and paints on his back, getting up at dawn and painting all day until there was no more light.

He laughingly told me that he painted domes and rooftops, doorways and alleyways, even the post office, adding that he couldn’t stop painting what was around him, he was obsessed with it.

“I felt the buildings come alive under my brush,” he remarked, and once he began painting them he never thought of painting a portrait again. For the first time in all of his studying, instead of painting people he painted buildings. It was as if the buildings of that beautiful village had become people to him.

At dusk, when he would get back to his room, there would be a bottle of homemade wine, a loaf of bread with cheese and a bowl of fresh figs waiting on the table for him. He didn’t remember eating anything else the entire three months he was there. In fact, he didn’t know if he would have eaten at all if his great aunts hadn’t left that food out for him.

“I was too much in love with painting to eat,” he said.

On his way out of the shop he walked over to the exit and stood for a moment with his hand on the door knob. And then, as if he was coming back to reality, shook his head and apologized for taking up so much of my time.

“I guess it’s just an artist’s story,” he said, shrugging.

“No, no, no.” I countered and told him I appreciated hearing his story. “But,” I added, “I wouldn’t call it an artist’s story.”

“Interesting,” he said. “What would you call it?”

“I’d call it a love story.”

“What makes you say that?” he asked.

“I’m a writer,” I said, “I can tell a love story when I hear it.”

As it turned out, there was, in fact, more to his story.

One afternoon, while he was walking the streets of the village in search of a scene to paint, he saw a young woman sitting alone at a café table.

“I’ll never forget it,” he told me. “She had yellow hair and was wearing a white dress that stood out among all the colors around her. I didn’t know what it was about her, but I just knew I had to paint her.”

He did paint her. And while painting her, understood why he’d had such a feeling about her.

“From looking at her while I painted her, I could see right into her. I knew who she was and I knew I wanted her to be my wife.”

The young woman in the white dress was an American from Tucson and the artist did marry her. They moved to Tucson to live and had two children, a son and a daughter.

“Painting her changed your life,” I remarked.

“Yes, it did,” he whispered. “To think, I almost didn’t do it. But something in me just ‘saw’ her and—it was as if I couldn’t not paint her.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “I’m so glad I did,” his voice almost choking. “I’m so glad I did.”

He showed me the picture on his phone. It was the portrait of a beautiful woman with yellow hair wearing a white dress.

“She died a year ago,” he said. “From a brain tumor.”

I waited.

“But,” he added, tapping his finger on his phone, “she’s not really gone. I still have her. She’s right here.”


Relephant Read:

Talking to Strangers: Sometimes, the Unspoken Story is more Important.


Author: Carmelene Siani

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Marek Lenik/Flickr

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