The little girl made the painting, it was said, over the course of two days. The story went that her parents locked her in a room and didn’t let her come out until it was done. No food. No water. For two days. Some townspeople said there was a light on in the room. How else could little Diana see what she was doing? Others said the parents kept her in total darkness and that’s how the painting acquired its mystical qualities. The more cynical-minded of our town believed the parents made the painting themselves, then claimed their daughter had painted it to falsely infuse the work with a child’s purity, the goal being to convince the viewer that it was a product of a mind and heart untainted by the evils of culture and society. Of course, no one really knew what went on in that room. The select few who saw the painting were left to speculate as to how it was created and who had created it. Only years later would I see for myself the truth behind the painting.
I was sixteen that spring. My boyfriend, Preston, and I were both enthralled with the idea of becoming artists. At the risk of sounding arrogant, we were the most talented and committed of Miss Crystal’s students. This was Dresden, however, a town of just ten thousand that floated adrift among the waves of rocky buttes in Western Nebraska. To say we were our community’s most talented artists was, in the grand scheme of things, not saying much. Nevertheless, I was deeply invested in painting landscapes, doing my best to copy the style of Van Gogh’s Wheat Field series and apply it to the environs surrounding Dresden. Preston, on the other hand, was going the abstract expressionist route, splashing paint to canvas like a wet dog drying itself.
Like typical teenagers, we feigned with all our hearts the wild emotions of tortured artists, me channeling the madness of Van Gogh as he studied the countryside from his bedroom at Saint Paul asylum, Preston conjuring the tornado of aggression and passion swirling within the fiery soul of Jackson Pollock. In reality, we were middle class boys whose parents still did our laundry, cooked us supper every night, and gave us a weekly allowance so that we could see movies or go out to eat. Perhaps our greatest creative achievement was convincing ourselves we were in any way tortured.
Preston and I were seated at the school lunch table when the news of Diana Santos’s painting reached our ears. Of course, we didn’t know then who’d made the painting. Apparently, Constance Benson, who sold Mary Kay door-to-door, was shown the painting by Mrs. Santos on a routine sales visit.
“The painting was sitting on an easel in the living room, but it was veiled in cloth,” said Carter Benson, our friend and Constance’s son. “Mrs. Santos didn’t say how she had acquired the painting, only that it was the work of some unknown artistic genius. She told my mother that once the world got a look at the painting, this artist would surely join the ranks of Da Vinci, Monet, and the like.”
Preston and I looked at one another. As far as we knew, Mrs. Santos was a dental hygienist, while Mr. Santos owned a roofing company. They were originally from Brazil, though aside from their last name, they looked and sounded like everyone else in Dresden – which is to say, like white Midwesterners.
“So what happened?” asked Preston. “Did Mrs. Santos show your mother the painting?” Carter nodded. “My mother said it was the most amazing painting she’d ever seen.”
I resisted the urge to scoff. “Did she take a picture?” I asked.
Carter’s eyes got wide. “No. She wasn’t allowed to use her phone. Mrs. Santos has strict rules about that.”
I exchanged a glance with Preston. I wanted to roll my eyes, but I could tell Preston was intrigued, so I kept an even keel.
“Did your mother say what the painting looked like?” Preston asked.
Carter shook his head. “My mom said she can’t describe it. She says you just have to see it.”
I waited for Carter to say more. When he didn’t, I scowled. “That’s it?” I asked. “That’s all your mother said?”
“There was one more thing,” Carter said. “Mrs. Santos only let my mother look at the painting for a short amount of time. Maybe only ten seconds.”
“Ten seconds?” I said, appalled. “Why so short?”
Carter shrugged. “I don’t know. But my mother said it was the most amazing ten seconds of her life.”
I was speechless, but not because I was in awe. Rather, I found the whole thing absurd. Preston, on the other hand, had a misty look in his eyes. He was taken with the idea of this painting. I could see him trying to picture it. Already, it held a certain esteem in his mind.
“That’s so weird,” said Preston dreamily.
He was right. It was weird. And it got even weirder when Mrs. Santos made it known that others could view the painting for thirty seconds at a time, but only after paying a fee of five hundred dollars. Most people around town rightfully laughed at what was surely a stunt on the part of Mrs. Santos. Yet a sizable contingent also wondered: could a work of art really be so spectacular as to merit a five-hundred dollar glimpsing fee? To which Constance Benson insisted five hundred dollars was a bargain to gaze upon such lovely art for thirty seconds, and that if she had that kind of money to spend, she’d do so in a heartbeat for thirty additional seconds with the painting.
As it happened, a man named Albert Hagerman did have that kind of money. Albert was a retired lawyer who fancied himself cultured, which by the standards of Dresden meant that he was conversational in French and had been to New York. He paid the five hundred dollar fee and was granted the chance to view the mysterious painting – though he had to surrender his phone at the door and endure a full-body patdown courtesy of Mr. Santos. These measures were taken to ensure Albert carried no secret device with which to photograph the work. A few people watched from the street, waiting eagerly to witness his response. Albert Hagerman was in the Santos’s house no more than two minutes. Yet when he came out the front door, he was a changed man.
“My eyes have been opened,” he told the group gathered at the sidewalk. When asked to describe the work, Albert Hagerman could only shake his head in awe. “It is a masterpiece created by a true artistic genius,” he said.
That did it. The floodgates opened. Within a week, the list of people who had seen the painting grew to a dozen, then two. The reaction to the painting was universal and invariable: it was a masterpiece of breathtaking beauty, a staggering work of monumental genius – indeed, no superlatives could do it justice, no exaggeration too extreme. The only thing that couldn’t be achieved was a description of the painting beyond the vaguest terms – this on account of the Santos’s careful measures in preventing any photos being taken of the work.
Still, people tried. “So full of color,” they said. Or: “a feast for the eyes.” Another oft repeated phrase: “a perfect symmetry of form and function.” The incredible thing to me was that the people who hadn’t seen the painting bought the opinions of those who had hook, line, and sinker. Without having laid eyes upon it, they believed in its grandeur and beauty. Without directly experiencing the painting, they professed its magnificence. It was like the ones who hadn’t seen the painting thought that if they revered it to the same degree as those who had, they, too, might taste its sacred nectar.
I confess to feeling immense jealousy towards the mysterious painting, for I believed that if anyone’s art should be the talk of the town, it ought to be mine. “A young Van Gogh in the making,” I wanted them to say of me. “A prodigy fit for the galleries of Paris and New York and Vienna.” When I told Preston of my feelings, he laughed at me.
“You think your work is on par with the painting?” he scoffed.
That was another thing that annoyed me: the work had no title. It was just called “the painting,” as if there were no other paintings that mattered.
“It’s possible my work is comparable,” I said defensively. “I wouldn’t know because I haven’t seen it. Have you?”
“You know I haven’t,” Preston replied. “But look at the amount of attention the work is receiving. That can’t be by accident. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
I frowned at him. “Since when do you speak in maxims?”
A short while later, Mrs. Santos increased the price of seeing the painting from five hundred dollars to one thousand. This put an end to anyone in Dresden being able to afford admission. No matter. Word spread beyond the city limits, and soon, visitors from as far east as Omaha and as far west as Denver were driving into our little town to glimpse what was being called “one of the greatest works of the 21st Century.”
I tried my best to ignore the constant noise and attention surrounding the painting. Instead, I drove my car into the tawny countryside and painted en plein air, as if I were Monet at my garden in Giverny. I studied the golden plains and rocky buttes, then painted quickly and aggressively in an attempt to capture, before the oils dried, the sunlight in its precise luminosity and the cloud shadows at their exact angles. I showed these paintings to Preston, who nodded and said, “Those are good.” I hated his reaction. I wanted him to be awed – or at least pretend to be. But the painting in the Santos’s living room rendered any work of mine a moot point.
I took the paintings to Miss Crystal, our high school art teacher. She was an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, with straight brown hair, black-rimmed cat eyeglasses, and a penchant for pastel-colored overalls with a matching beret. School had just let out for the day, and I had my dozen or so canvases laid out across the tables in the art room.
“Hm,” said Miss Crystal, pacing slowly about the room, surveying my landscapes. “I can definitely see Van Gogh in your skies and clouds. And I suppose there’s some Monet in the fields and rocks. Maybe a little Cézanne in the hills on that one.”
I couldn’t tell if these were compliments or merely observations. “Do you like them?” I asked.
“Well, I think they don’t know what they want to be. Not yet. I see a young artist searching for his voice.” Then, with no segue, Miss Crystal turned from the paintings and looked at me. “Say, Christopher, have you seen the Santos painting?”
I shook my head. “I can’t afford to pay a thousand dollars to see a painting for thirty seconds.”
Miss Crystal nodded. “Me, neither. But I think I’m going to anyway.”
Interest grew in the painting. People came from Kansas City, Minneapolis, and Des Moines. They came from Boise, Billings, and Cheyenne. Some left the Santos house with tears in their eyes, claiming to have seen the face of God in the canvas. Others spoke of having a spiritual, out-of-body experience for the thirty seconds in which they stood face-to-face with the work. It was all incredibly depressing for an aspiring artist who happened to inhabit the same town as this mysterious and enigmatic masterpiece. What was even more disheartening was the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, still only a handful of people had actually seen the work, and yet its shadow loomed large over Dresden, blotting out anything else that might detract attention from it.
I experienced a brief surge of delight, however, when a man from Salt Lake City said that he “didn’t find the painting all that impressive.” And my spirits soared when an art critic from Phoenix said the painting “lacked any evidence of coherence.” Of course, this critic also stated that having just thirty seconds to view it was “not adequate time to thoroughly evaluate any work of art.” Despite these critiques, however, the overwhelming consensus stood: the Santos painting was sublime. And the buzz exploded into full-blown mania when Mrs. Santos made the unexpected decision to reveal the identity of the artist.
It was none other than her six-year-old daughter, Diana.
Diana Santos was, as my mother liked to say, a doll: curly brown hair, emerald green eyes, freckles on her cheeks, a button for a nose. I have it on good authority that Diana was sweet, good-natured, and well-behaved. That good authority was, as it happened, my own mother, who taught kindergarten at Dresden Elementary. Diana was my mother’s student that spring, and when Mrs. Santos made it known that her daughter had authored the painting, my mother’s response was unequivocal.
“I’m not one bit surprised,” she said at supper that night. “That little girl is a prodigy. I heard her play the piano a few weeks ago, and let me tell you, I thought Mozart himself was at the keys.”
“But this is a painting we’re talking about,” I countered.
My mother shrugged. “Painting. Music. It’s all the same to an artist.”
“No, it’s not,” I said defensively. “Painting and music are two completely different artforms. How can you even say that?”
“Hey, watch your tone,” my father scolded.
“Sorry,” I said, setting my fork down. I hung my head, my cheeks ablaze with embarrassment at being jealous of a six-year-old.
My mother reached across the table and patted my hand. “Christopher, your art teacher told me about your paintings before she left.”
I looked up at my mother. “You mean my landscapes?”
My mother nodded. “She said she saw real potential in them.”
My heart leapt. But I wanted more. “That’s all she said? That she saw potential?”
“Well, yes, honey, that’s all she said. But isn’t that wonderful? She’s an art teacher. She knows what she’s talking about.”
I pulled my hand out from under my mother’s. From where I was sitting, no one knew what they were talking about. People were gushing over a painting they hadn’t seen. They worshiped a thing they’d only heard of rather than felt or experienced. From where I was sitting, people were sheep.
“You know, Miss Crystal left because she saw the painting,” I said.
My mother raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“She told the class that if a six-year-old could make art that amazing, there was no point in the rest of us even trying.”
My mother frowned. “Miss Crystal said that?”
“Oh, honey. Don’t let it get you down. You’re very talented.”
My father took a drink of his milk. He set the glass down and said, “Can I just say something? I think Miss Crystal has a point. You see, son, art just isn’t a safe bet. There’s no guarantee of success. One day Da Vinci is the greatest painter the world has ever seen. The next day it’s a six-year-old.”
I furrowed my brow. “What are you saying, Dad?”
“I’m saying you should think about going into something other than art,” he said. “Like engineering. Now there’s a good career. You make great money. You get to live –
“I hate math,” I said. “I hate science. I hate everything except art. All I want to do is be an artist. Why can’t you support me in that?”
My father leaned back in his chair and chuckled. “I can support you,” he said, “but not financially.”
With the knowledge that Diana Santos had created the painting, art critics poured in from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and yes, even New York. The discourse centered on Diana’s innocence and purity – the two qualities many identified as the source of her genius. I rolled my eyes at such statements, bemoaning privately that ignorance had suddenly been morphed into a virtue. It floored me, the lies these critics told themselves. How could little Diana be said to be a genius if she didn’t understand the conventions she was allegedly subverting? How could she “move art forward,” as one sycophant put it, if she hadn’t a clue as to what had come before? It seemed to me Diana’s “achievement” was the result of dumb luck, in which case we ought to be exalting the winners of Nebraska Powerball as geniuses rather than lucky schmucks.
There was one indication that things weren’t quite as they seemed, though no one save for myself took notice. Even the art critics themselves, whose whole profession was based on describing art, largely failed at construing a visual approximation of the work. What’s more, in what limited descriptions they could offer, details contradicted one another. One critic spoke of a neon eye gazing back at her from the canvas. Another wrote that the painting was like “a great orange ball of burning gas,” while a different critic described the “figures” in the painting as “roughly square-shaped,” while yet another spoke of triangles predominating, “as if to suggest a kind of trinity.” No one, it seemed, thought to ask of these critics: well, which one is it? Circles, squares, or triangles? And then there was the male critic from New York, whose voice carried the weight of ten critics from anywhere else. He wrote that “shades of gray and black predominate the crisscrossing lines of paint, like an infinite neural network with no beginning and no end.” Rather than suggest something amiss, all these conflicting accounts were instead taken as further evidence of the painting’s multifaceted brilliance. After all, great works of art are often many different things to many different people.
As the painting’s stature gained national prominence, my self-esteem plummeted. I grew more and more desperate to produce something of equal merit. I skipped school and drove to the country to paint. I experimented with color, adopting a Fauvist approach. I disregarded the tawny natural colors of the plains and instead painted wild, expressive swaths of bright yellow grass and lime green rocks before a hot pink sky. I added surreal touches: an umbrella for a tree, a clock for a sun, and a herd of humans grazing while bipedal cattle looked on.
The results were a hurried and jumbled, albeit striking, mess. None of it grabbed the eye and said: Look, this is beautiful! This is profound! My work stank of insecurity and fraud, of try-hard desperation.
I was rapidly approaching a breaking point. I barely saw Preston anymore. All I cared about was painting. When he asked me about this one day at our lockers, I got defensive.
“So what?” I said. “I’m an artist. I make art. When’s the last time you painted?”
Preston frowned. “Don’t get so mad, Christopher. I’m just saying we haven’t gone on a date in over a month. I mean, do you even realize that?”
I didn’t. But I wasn’t going to admit it. “I’ve been working,” I said. “Landscapes.”
“Is that where you go during the day when you skip school?”
I nodded. “That’s right. And I’m adding surrealist elements to the landscapes. And bright, Fauvist colors. You won’t believe it when you see it. People will be talking about my paintings for hundreds of years after I’m gone.”
Preston’s eyes filled with pity. “Christopher, maybe you should talk to someone.”
“I’m talking to you right now.”
“I mean like the school counselor. Someone who can help you with your mental health. Let me ask you something. Are you sleeping much?”
I turned away from Preston. “That’s a ridiculous question,” I said. “I don’t have time for this. I’m going now.”
I walked swiftly down the hallway, pushing past the other students at their lockers. Preston called after me, but I didn’t turn around.
I walked out of the high school that day and, rather than returning home, found myself standing outside the elementary school, peering into my mother’s classroom and studying little Diana Santos. I wanted to see evidence of her genius – whatever that would look like in a six-year-old. Maybe she’d sit with her legs crossed like an adult. Maybe she’d rest her chin on her fist and think. Or, more to the point, maybe she’d draw something.
But no. She looked and acted like all the others. She was a normal kid, laughing and fidgeting and struggling to sit still. She recited vowel sounds with the class. She raised her hand during a sight word activity. The word, ironically, was art. Diana seemed happy, and as much as I wanted to despise her for usurping my self-identified title as Dresden’s greatest living artist, I couldn’t help but like her. The critics were right: she was innocent. She was pure, in the way that all children are. In the way that they gleefully inhabit this moment and no other. In the way that for them, the now is eternal. Diana hadn’t lost that yet. Whereas I, even at sixteen, had long since discarded the present. Everything was about the past or the future, about where I was going or where I had been.
That’s what little Diana had that I didn’t, and it made all the difference.
Just before the fall, an amazing thing happened. People in Dresden who remember it still puzzle over why. I know the truth now, and in knowing, better understand the bafflement.
A famous Hollywood power couple got word of the painting. Both were rich to an absurd degree, and together, their wealth was obscene. They flew on their private jet to little Dresden, landing – I kid you not – on a stretch of empty highway leading into town. We all gathered around the Santos house to watch as our mayor, Douglas Broussard, pulled his modest sedan into the Santos driveway. The couple were in the backseat. They climbed out of the car. They were in their sixties now, and they looked much older in person than in their most recent films. Still, we cheered. The couple smiled and waved at the adoring crowd. Mayor Broussard ushered them up the walk to the Santos’s front door, where they were shown in.
We waited. Whereas all previous visitors spent at most two to three minutes inside the house, the acting couple were in there for ten. Naturally, we wondered what it could be. Were the Santoses allowing the couple extra viewing time? Perhaps they were having their pictures taken with the stars to commemorate the moment?
At the ten-minute mark, the couple emerged from inside the house. Both were wiping tears from their eyes. We cheered, but this time, they didn’t acknowledge us. They hurried to Mayor Broussard’s sedan and climbed inside. He drove them back to the highway at the edge of town, and the plane took off. That was it. The couple had come and gone, having been in Dresden a total of twenty minutes.
Only later would we learn why the couple were in the house an extra seven minutes. They spoke of it afterward in an interview after Mrs. Santos died. The couple offered to buy the painting, right there on the spot, for ten million dollars. When Mrs. Santos refused, the couple offered twenty. Mrs. Santos declined, and the couple offered thirty. Then forty. And finally, fifty. Fifty million dollars for a painting made by a six-year-old. And Mrs. Santos refused. The couple begged her, but she still refused. They left the house weeping, so moved by the painting’s beauty and so crushed by Mrs. Santos’s refusal to sell it.
And then, the very next day, Mrs. Santos swallowed the barrel of a shotgun and pulled the trigger.
The response, as you might expect, was one of shock, horror, and grief. It didn’t make sense. A mother whose prodigious six-year-old captured the art world by storm suddenly takes her own life? No one knew what to make of it.
There was no funeral. Instead, Mr. Santos promptly put the house on the market and, along with little Diana, left town. No one knew where. Movers came and took the possessions away – presumably to wherever Mr. Santos had taken refuge. We watched eagerly as the movers hauled the house’s contents into the truck, hoping to glimpse the painting. But no one did. The movers were gone within three hours, and that was that.
A week later, the Santos’s realtor held an open house, which the town of Dresden attended as if the Rolling Stones were playing a show. My mother and I toured the house thoroughly, which took over an hour due to the wall-to-wall presence of curious onlookers. But the house was completely empty. There was no sign of the painting.
As horrified as we all were, we didn’t yet know of the acting couple’s fifty-million-dollar offer to purchase the work. That would come a few weeks later when they gave an interview with one of the entertainment networks. The couple’s revelation of their astounding offer spawned a collective effort among those in Dresden who had seen the painting to recreate it, however crudely. But this quickly proved fruitless, for like the accounts of the critics, the lucky townspeople who’d seen the Santos painting also had different recollections of its appearance.
I saw some of the drawings made by the committee. Most were indecipherable scribbles. Some contained squares and triangles. And one vaguely resembled an eye. But that was as far as it went. The committee disbanded.
That was when rumors began of the Santos parents being monsters of a kind who locked their little girl in a room, starving her and frightening her into creating great art. Like most rumors, these were almost certainly false. I didn’t pay them any credence.
A beloved celebrity died. A scandal erupted in the office of a national senator. A new smartphone was released, its camera more powerful than any previously seen on the market.
The world moved on, and the painting quickly faded into the blurry recesses of memory.
Preston and I broke up shortly after graduating high school. I attended college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. For the first year, much to the chagrin of my father, I majored in art. But my passion for painting waned. Perhaps I needed an adversary like the Santos painting to ignite my creative fire. Or perhaps I realized I simply wasn’t good enough to become an artist, or not willing to put in the work to become good enough. Regardless of the reasons, and much to my father’s delight, I changed my major to marketing and graphic design.
I dated casually, carrying on little three-month, mostly physical flings before parting ways. I even slept with a football player once, though he made me promise never to reveal this fact. That was fine with me. He had a body like a sculpture.
I smoked pot for a while, even briefly began to paint again after more than a year break. But this didn’t last. Marijuana alone isn’t a sustainable source of artistic inspiration, and the gnawing feeling of inadequacy came quickly this time. I set down the brush for good, accepting the fact I wasn’t an artist, just an ordinary guy.
I graduated on time and got a job at a marketing agency in Omaha. I moved to the city and, for about five years, led the glamorous life of an urban yuppie. I rented a downtown loft apartment. I went for drinks with colleagues at swanky martini bars and jazz lounges. I regularly attended the symphony at the performing arts center and Broadway musicals at the Orpheum. And while I may have thrown in the towel on becoming an artist, my interest in and passion for art remained. I became a member of the Joslyn Museum and Durham Museum. I attended their new exhibitions and listened to the talks given by visiting artists. It was at one of these talks that I met Juan.
He was a year younger than me, and he worked as a mortgage broker for a large bank. He was gorgeous, with jet-black hair worn in a clean fade, coffee-brown eyes, and long, fluttery eyelashes that drove me absolutely wild. We dated and quickly fell in love. Within a year, we were married. While we both eventually wanted to buy a house and start a family, we decided that we’d live the first few years of our marriage in much the same way we’d been living: going to shows, getting drinks and dining with friends, dancing in the nightclubs – in short, enjoying being together.
As our first anniversary approached, Juan and I discussed what we wanted to do. We quickly settled on a long weekend in New York City. Neither of us had ever been. We were dying to see the Met, the MoMA, and The Lion King on Broadway. So when the time came, we went.
We spent a whole day in the Met, admiring and learning about such fascinating prehistoric and ancient works as the 40,000-year-old indigenous Australian cave paintings, the 16th-Century ivory masks from Nigeria, and the intricate stone-carvings of Hindu gods. We perused the collection of Islamic architecture, textiles, and calligraphy, as well as the Greco-Roman sculptures and Egyptian sarcophagi. That night, we ate at a fancy Mediterranean restaurant on the Upper East Side.
On our second day, we visited the MoMA. I knew going in that I was going to see Van Goghs, Monets, and Pollocks. I half-feared that I would get emotional seeing the works of those whom I once sought to emulate. But any sense of regret or sorrow was vanquished when we came upon Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and felt the inevitable let-down of encountering the actual thing and how it doesn’t match the hyperbolized idea of the thing.
“So, that’s it, huh?” Juan asked as we stood in front of the painting.
“Yep. That’s it,” I replied.
“I guess it’s not bad,” Juan quipped, and we laughed.
I turned to him and said, “You know, I actually wanted to be a painter when I was in high school.”
Juan raised his eyebrows. “Really?” he said.
I nodded. “And Van Gogh was my hero.”
Again, we laughed. Juan asked, “Do you still have the paintings?”
“They’re at my parents house in Dresden, probably stashed in the attic.”
Juan smiled. “Well, I’d love to see them when we go there for Christmas.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” I said.
After the MoMA, we saw a matinee of The Lion King, which, in contrast to The Starry Night, not only met but exceeded our expectations. The costuming alone, to say nothing of the extraordinary performances, was a marvel unto itself. We left the show on a giddy high, walking down the sidewalk hand-in-hand, listing off the innumerable moments of wonder we’d just witnessed.
We were getting hungry, and we had no dinner plans. Instead of getting on our phones and scrolling through yelp reviews to find a place to eat, we decided we’d simply take our chances and wander the streets until we came upon a restaurant that looked good. As it happened, we wandered for two blocks and, rather than finding a restaurant that caught our interest, happened upon an obscure art gallery called The Red Studio.
“Like the Matisse painting,” Juan said.
Evening had begun to set in, but the lights were on in the gallery, and a steady stream of viewers filed in through the storefront. I noticed that on the window, there was a sign that read:
SPECIAL EXHIBITION: There is No Such Thing as Art. And beneath that: Artist Reception tonight @ 6:00 PM.
I checked my phone. It was ten minutes after six. “You want to check it out?” I asked Juan.
“Why not?” he replied.
We made our way into the gallery, intrigued and also a little charmed by our fortuitous timing. There were only about a dozen people inside, half of whom perused the paintings, the other half of whom were gathered at a table near the front, talking to the artist, an attractive young woman with brown hair. She seemed young.
“Hey, Christopher, look at this one,” Juan said, nudging me.
I turned to him and looked at the painting in question, a three-foot by two-foot canvas. I gasped. It was a mess of brushstrokes, lines and splatters. Greens, whites, and blacks. Yet somehow, a neon yellow predominated and formed a large eye that stared back at the viewer. Perhaps I was just seeing things, I told myself.
“Do you like it?” Juan asked.
I found myself nodding. It couldn’t be, but I knew that it was. I approached the painting and looked at the title: Non-Art #1. I turned to the next painting in the series, titled Non-Art #2. It, too, was a mess of splatters and splashes, and yet ghostly lines permeated the chaos, forming interlocking triangles, like the Germanic valknut symbol repeated over and over.
“It can’t be,” I said aloud.
I moved on to the next painting, rudely intruding on the view of the current onlooker. Non-Art #3 was similar to #2, only in this one, the ghostly lines formed squares. The descriptions of the Santos painting ran through my mind, freshly and loudly as if spoken just yesterday. But it was impossible. I said this aloud: “Impossible.”
To which the man whose view I blocked replied, “Yes, it is impossible to see with you standing in the way.”
I turned to the man. “Do you know the name of the artist?”
It was as if time stopped in the moment before he answered. It was as if I heard him say it before he said it.
I nearly fainted. “Thank you,” I said, and made my way to the front of the gallery.
“Christopher?” Juan called behind me, but I didn’t turn back.
I reached the group of wine drinkers gathered around the table at the front of the gallery. Their conversation halted upon my abrupt arrival. I could tell they all knew each other, that they were a “part of the scene,” as people liked to say. But my focus was on her. Up close, I could see just how young she was. It had been what, twelve or thirteen years? She’d be eighteen or nineteen now.
“Yes?” said one of the women. “Can we help you, sir?”
I looked her in the eye. She seemed fearful, like she already knew who I was.
“Diana Santos,” I said. “You’re Diana Santos, correct?”
“From Dresden,” I said.
There was silence. I could feel the others glaring at me, unsure if they should be scared or concerned or just amused. One of them said, “Do you mean the city in Germany? Because Diana is from Connecticut.”
“Dresden, Nebraska,” I said, not taking my eyes off her. “My name is Christopher Walsh. My mother was –
“Gwen Walsh,” Diana said. “My kindergarten teacher.”
My heart jumped into my throat. I couldn’t believe it. It was her.
“That’s right,” I said. “Gwen is my mother.”
The others furrowed their brows. They were confused and annoyed by this sudden connection between the artist and myself, a no-name out-of-towner.
“Come here for a second,” Diana said, gesturing behind her, where there was a bit of open space next to a bathroom.
“Excuse us,” Diana said.
She led me to the open space. She told me that she would speak with me after the reception.
“It should only go until eight,” she said. “Meet me at Jeannine’s at eight-thirty. It’s a coffee shop just up the street. You can’t miss it.”
I told her that I would.
“Okay,” she said. “Now, I think it’s best if you go.”
I made my way past the wine clique and found Juan waiting for me, his face an expression of bafflement.
“What was that about?” he asked.
“Come on,” I said, taking his hand. “I’ll tell you.”
We walked up and down the same block while I told Juan the story. Night had set in, but on this stretch of Manhattan, there was little difference. The city glowed like a giant lamp. Cabs and Uber drivers crawled up and down the streets like herded cattle.
When I finished the tale, which didn’t take as long as I’d thought, Juan had just one question for me.
“Did you see the painting?” he asked.
“No,” I admitted. “I couldn’t afford to. But some of the paintings at the show just now reminded me of how people had described it.” I recalled the words of Preston upon first hearing of the Santos painting, and I echoed them now, “It’s so weird.”
Juan and I arrived first at the coffee shop. Neither of us would sleep that night if we drank coffee that late, so we ordered tea. We found a quiet table in the corner and waited. Diana Santos entered the cafe at exactly 8:30. She didn’t bother ordering anything. She made her way to our table and sat.
“Thank you for meeting me,” she said, looking at me. “And I’m sorry if any of this has made you uncomfortable.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m just very, very curious about…well, about the paintings. And the other painting. The one in your living room all those years ago.”
Diana nodded. “Yes. I understand. Well, there’s no need to wonder anymore. You’ve seen it now.”
I furrowed my brow. “Seen what?”
“What do you mean?”
“Those were it,” Diana said. “At the gallery.”
I glanced at Juan. His eyes were wide. He was as surprised as I was.
“Those were the…” I said. “I mean, I thought it was only one painting.”
Diana shook her head. “It was twelve paintings,” she said. “My mother made twelve paintings.”
“Your mother made those paintings?” I said.
“That’s right,” Diana admitted. “She rotated the paintings between views, so that each person saw something different than the person before. That’s why there were so many conflicting descriptions of it.”
I shook my head. My jaw could have touched the floor. “But I don’t understand,” I said. “Why did she say you painted them?”
“To add to the mystique,” Diana said. “It was all a performance. A concept.”
Diana nodded. “My mother was a failed artist,” she said. “And she always resented that. She thought her own work was great, that she should’ve become famous a long time ago. And she wasn’t well. Mentally, I mean. She couldn’t handle the failure. So she became convinced that art was all a big lie. Not that art doesn’t convey truths or provide joy or provoke emotion. Rather, she believed that the consensus surrounding works universally regarded as masterpieces was, in effect, mass hysteria. People believed the Mona Lisa was beautiful because they’ve been told it was beautiful. And that went for any of the masterpieces. So, she decided to conduct an experiment.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “You’re telling me…”
Diana nodded. “She made those paintings. They’re real. But everything else is pretend. My mother believed that if she could convince people that the painting was a masterpiece before they even viewed it, that’s precisely how they’d see it. And if those people went off and told their friends, it was possible for their friends to become converted, so to speak, before ever having seen the painting.” Diana paused. She looked at the table, a vast distance in her eyes, echoes of the pain from that turbulent time. She took a deep breath and exhaled. Then she looked up and said, “I don’t think my mother ever thought it would reach the point it did. But when those actors offered her fifty million dollars for the painting, she ran to her bedroom and sobbed. Not because she was happy or grateful, but because to her, that offer proved that there was no such thing as art. It was just a game people played. An exercise in faith and apologetics, no different than religion, really. She couldn’t handle it. She couldn’t live in a world where truth was nothing more than the whims and opinions of people with power. So, she ended it.”
A deep sadness came over Diana’s face. Her cheeks turned red. I considered reaching across the table and touching her shoulder or taking her hand, anything to comfort her. Just when I thought a tear would fall from her eyes, she drew a sharp breath and spoke.
“Anyway, I’m selling the paintings now. I mean, they are good, or at least these hipsters from Brooklyn who wished they could afford to live in the East Village think so.”
Juan and I laughed. I was relieved to see Diana show a sense of humor.
“I’m going to use the money for college,” Diana said. “It won’t pay for all of it, but it will pay for some. I want to go into marine biology.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said, meaning it genuinely but hoping I didn’t sound patronizing.
We were silent for a few moments. My mind swirled with memories from those months in Dresden when the eyes of the world were popping out of their sockets to see inside the Santos’s living room. When I skipped school and painted landscapes like a demon. I couldn’t help but smile. Perhaps when Juan and I went back for Christmas, we could concoct an enticing origin story for my paintings that would convince people they were the creation of a true, tortured artistic genius rather than a boy pretending with all his heart to be one.
“I should get going,” Diana said, rising suddenly from her chair. “But thanks for meeting with me.”
“I appreciate you telling me all this,” I said.
Diana nodded. She lingered a moment longer. “There’s one more thing,” she said. “Could you promise not to say anything? You know, about the paintings?”
I smiled and nodded. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Your secret is safe with me.”