THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 7 NUMBER 1
HONG KHAC KIM MAI
“What a masterpiece!” Cried out a voice.
Startled, Nam turned around. In front of him was a young woman with a beautiful, radiant smile. Nam had seen her a few times walking in the park where he used to come every weekend to paint.
Putting his freshly cleaned brushes in a bag, Nam said, “Thank you for the compliment.”
The woman hesitated but the words slipped out of her mouth, “You really are a talented painter!”
Nam was lost for a second; he was not sure how to answer her. Yet the woman continued to talk passionately, “There is absolutely no difference between the scenery Mother Nature provides, and the one in your painting. Wow! The leaves on those branches, green-yellow and orange-red, those colors of late autumn, you have brought them so skillfully into the canvas. Look at how similar those marvelous slabs of stone bathing in calm water are to pools of gleaming sunshine! And at how lively that little rippling stream is curving away …”
Nam smiled and interrupted her, “Thank you again. The lively state you just mentioned is not really true. Look, anytime a breeze wafted, the leaves on those branches rustled, but the ones on my canvas are motionless. Therefore, a painting that draws upon any real object or scenery, no matter how much people like it, is just a duplication. The painting becomes something similar to life, but not real-as-life.”
With her fingers intertwined in front of her chest, she nodded. “I agree. The painting, similar to life, is indeed a product of studied skills. It demands a remarkable command of techniques, of colors blending in good harmony, and of structure well disposed. Also, for the painting to be soulful, lighting placed in correct places is very important. To attain all these is not easy... But for painting to be real-as-life! How can we realize something like that? Is it too visionary? How does one make the leaves in the canvas tremble each time there is a breeze? You must be joking, aren’t you?”
“As a matter of fact, the question of whether it is too visionary or not, is up to the person’s ability to reason and to perceive. However, I think there is nothing that man cannot do. The issue is how to reach that goal. Piles of untangled threads are ahead of me, and I keep struggling in vain to locate the starting point.”
“Ah, you are so hard on yourself. You are too ambitious. I have the impression that you are not happy with your recent artwork?”
As if she had touched his deep secret, Nam sighed. “Yes, you’re right. For a long time now, I have not been satisfied with anything I have done…Every time I finished a piece of artwork, I often feel irritated…”
Suddenly, Nam moaned, “Why? Why! God, I have asked myself this question a thousand times, and I never can answer it…”
Smiling, the woman lowered her voice, “I think your paintings will be appreciated by many people, because the colors you put together are so well coordinated and vivid.”
On hearing these words, Nam burst out laughing. He said that he wanted to give her the painting he had freshly finished.
The woman’s eyes widened in surprise, and she gasped, “How can it be? I can’t accept such a gift…”
With a hearty voice, Nam said, “You are not the first person to whom I have given away a painting. If you like it, please take it. Since you regard my painting as a worthy object, I am very touched.”
The sun disappeared long ago, but Nam still stayed in the park, sitting on a bench. At this moment of the day, there were a very few people around. The hush of the night and the cool air of autumn made Nam feel in good spirits. During weekdays, to earn a humble living, Nam had to work part-time for a company in town. His spare time and weekends were the moments when he could devote himself totally to his passion of painting.
Nam leaned back and kept his eyes tightly closed. A great number of colors, one after another, came from nowhere and danced in his mind. Amid them appeared the amiable smile of the lady he met earlier…Very clearly, her kind words rang in his ears, and the image of her holding the painting gripped his heart. This was neither the first time he heard people complimenting him, nor the first time he had given away his paintings to strangers because of their appreciation. If others happened to dislike his artwork, or if they did not want to take them home, he would throw the works away, as he had done so many times in the last few years.
He sighed. Why should he keep artwork that did not completely satisfy him?
Nam tiredly put all his tools into the trunk of his old car, and got ready to go home. From far away, a small car rolled toward him. Its headlights glared and irritated Nam’s eyes. The car slowed down and the pretty face of the woman he met earlier stuck out of the window.
“Oh! Mister Artist, I forgot to ask for your name!” she cheerfully said.
Nam politely smiled. He took a business card from his wallet and gave it to her. The young woman held the small card in her hand. She glanced at the lines printed on it, and she said earnestly, “I hope that you will be satisfied with your new painting projects.”
“My painting projects?”
“Yeah! Your upcoming creations,” she answered.
Creations! Creations! In a flash, these words somehow seemed to reverberate in the dark, immense sky. They carried an inscrutable power; they thundered in Nam’s mind so loudly that he felt dizzy. His ears felt full to bursting. His vision blurred. He was speechless.
Miraculously, this word came clearly as a revelation, a key that began the initial opening of his spirit. Nam felt a tremendous surge of energy flowing within his body. This compelling force was hard to describe, because he had never experienced anything like it. Nevertheless, he felt so comfortable, so good, so happy, and so inspired.
Nam stood up straight. His eyes were shut tight. He joined his hands in front of his chest for a moment. He held them up, as if ready to embrace something. He seemed to be waiting to receive a heavenly response. The energy moved quickly from left to right, from the bottom up. When it reached the tip of his nose, its heat diminished. At this moment, Nam perceived an extremely luminous and dazzling ray of light. This light ray converged between his eyebrows, and hit him in full force. It was like a headlight that shined into every chamber of his mind. It was like a torch that illuminated every cell in his cave of knowledge. Nam sunk into the deep hollow of a dream-like state.
Creativity! Oh yes, the artist cannot be a ruminant. The artist must not mimic the reproductive job, as done by merchants. The mission of the artist is to create. It is he who supposes to strike out the road leading to new horizons. It is he who makes the Garden of Wonders bloom with new flowers.
Nam discovered that he had carried this enormous yearning in his heart for a long time. His desire for satisfaction was floating like an empty bottle on the immense ocean. It kept floating, floating to nowhere. But today, it had found a place to land. In Nam, an unexplored field was ready to be cultivated. In him, the promise of an abundant harvest was at hand.
Was Nam too optimistic?
In happiness, Nam also found himself in a state of anxiety. For him, Art was vastly vague, and the artist’s vision was different from the vision of others. The perceptions and judgments of mankind were shaped by measurements and patterns. People usually criticized others based on existing formulas and principles. Many celebrities, or individuals in authority, granted themselves the right to evaluate other people’s works; their judgments were sometimes very strict, sometimes very unfair. Often works of art impregnated with creativity were rejected, ridiculed, or dismissed during their first moments of life. But the past had proven that artists were years ahead of many people on the path to the aesthetic realization. Therefore, the journey of an artist was often quite lonely, because where would one find a soul with the same vision?
If Nam were not optimistic or self-confident, perhaps he might find himself stepping in the same place forever. He would, in chagrin, torment himself each time he finished a painting and would never be satisfied.
Why did he have to care about people’s criticisms, and, in so doing, dare not to strive on his own terms for what he desired most?
Nam was like an artist who had been in a deep sleep, who had buried his noble duty of creating Art. He had just been awakened. He stretched himself as if to emancipate his subconscious. He needed to free himself from everything.
In the darkness of nightfall in the park, Nam staggered forward drunkenly. He was inebriated with his dream, a glorious vision that he would make come true…
Nam stood a long time in front of a canvas. What subject was he going to draw?
He watched through his door the living montage of a child playing with water splashed from a fountain. How beautiful it was! But Nam did not like the idea of copying it and framing it into the formatted canvas. The photographer, with his digital camera, could do the job easily in a few seconds.
He recalled the smile of the lady he met more than three months ago at the park. What a strange smile! Her lips were crooked. Slightly crooked, just enough to show her charming teeth. No, no! Nam refused to draw this image from memory. Though her hair waving in the sunset was very poetic, Nam did not want to illustrate it. That kind of work was now history.
He imagined the greenish rice paddies of his fatherland. Soft stalks of rice laid down flat on the muddy water each time there was a breeze. Country girls marched in cadence along the embankments and on their shoulders bamboo poles holding a basket at each end. The boy herder hurried his water buffalo home.
His imagination showed him the picturesque scenery of banana trees and a graceful bamboo forest; then a landscape of bushy exotic flowers, trellis of climbing greens next to thatched cottages of the countryside.
His imagination showed him a picture of a mysterious pagoda with an old meditating monk seeking enlightenment. Oh yes, the picture would be perfect with the presence of man, scenery, and spirit. What texture should I use to detail on the canvas everything accordingly and harmoniously? What colors should I choose to express the monk in deep thought, looking so immovable outside, but not so imperturbable inside? And enlightenment itself! How shall I show the miraculous ascending fog or the aura around the monk, or his attainment of Nirvana where he wished to ascend?”
No, Nam did not want to put his imagination onto the canvas. When imagining, the artist usually has to exercise the power of his mind, envisioning everything ahead of time, as he would wish it. Therefore, he becomes the master of his plan. The artist concocts that imaginative picture logically and skillfully in his head, and then translates it into marks on the canvas. This is not an act of creativity, but more an elaboration and evolution of thought. It is a representation of an artistic project already set in the mind. No matter how perfect the formation of that “image” becomes in reality, it is still related to this individual’s knowledge and experiences during life. Old ideas are renewed, which is like warming another bottle of rice wine, and not the creation of a brand new exceptional beverage.
Realization of an aspiring project is to bring to life seeds of ideas already germinating in the subconscious, and to nurture them when time permits.
Creation is to invent something completely new that no one has ever known, seen, touched, or heard, including the artist himself.
Nam scratched his head and pounded his chest, perspiration dotting his forehead. Creativity! God, where can I find the keys to break out of this vicious cycle and to open the flow of Inspiration?
Nam threw his brush aside and walked away…
Many months went by and Nam lived in restlessness and agony because he found no way out of the labyrinth. He was determined to not repeat the way he painted in the past, and he was driven to pursue his goal to the end. But the path to a new idea was so uncertain, since the human capability to liberate the brain was very limited.…
Nam was always in a state of doubt. He endeavored to climb to the next step, but his spirit seemed too foolish and would not cooperate with the cry of his heart.
“Keep seeking and you will find. Keep knocking and the door will open…” Who had said that?
There were a million times that Nam did look, only to find nothing. A million knocks! And doors still closed tight. Faith he had aplenty. Of confidence, a full heart. But like a circle, everything seemed go back to where it started, he thought bitterly.
There were so many afternoons that Nam spent driving to the countryside, parking his car in a certain desolate area. There, he felt more relaxed and peaceful. Leaving the car and all anxieties behind, he walked miles and miles straight ahead without looking around, without a thought in his head. Nam wished to erase that thing in him called knowledge. He wanted to empty his brain, for it to be like a blank sheet of paper, and for Nam to begin anew…
Nam stood in front of the canvas. He held a brush in one hand, a tube of paint in the other. All preceding accustomed ideas and previous clichés were forgotten. There was nothing in his head. He had already decided that the job of constructing a painting was no longer his, but a job for the God of Creativity. Let Creativity create itself, and invention will be manifested to its best. Nam’s body, Nam’s hands…they were just tools like the canvas, or the easel, or the brushes, or the paints. The only difference between them was the nervous system in his body that monitored his hands, to function in gathering all necessary materials to structure a painting. This necessary determination was not under Nam’s control. It arose according to Creativity’s needs. No subject. No evaluation. No need for concern. His physical body was a robot. His soul was definitely the artist. In such a position, Nam lifted his hand and proceeded…
The strokes of color were applied one after another on the canvas. They blended into each other, and did not show any particular shape. Once Nam’s hands were tired of the job, he quit. He stepped back. He burst into sarcastic laughter and shook his head. Was it a painting? Ha! If it were a painting, then it was done by someone who knew nothing about the techniques of the visual art, or, even worse, it looked like a crazy person painted it! Nam felt so disappointed that he threw his brush and walked away for lunch….
When Nam came back, he stood pensively; trying not to use reason, he quietly observed the unfinished picture that he left earlier. Astonishingly, those curious colorful paint strokes blended into each other magnificently. They did not follow any discipline. They were totally free, wild. They were cross-marked, childishly… But, please look, they seemed to change their shapes and composition differently depending where Nam stood. What a dramatic transformation! The more Nam looked at the freshly painted canvas, the more he felt ecstatically passionate. It was the passion of a person who went from discovery to discovery. ..Visions of newly found imageries led Nam to add his final touch.
He entitled his new painting, “Diversities”.
That was the first painting Nam achieved with his break-through process of creativity.
Being freed from ego, Nam’s body worked independently of his mind during the painting process. The artist in him had changed miraculously. For each piece, Nam did not exercise the same technique. In the beginning, Nam used brushes to paint. Later, he switched to knives. At times his fingertips replaced brushes and knives to become extraordinary tools. The type of media was also randomly chosen. It was not necessary to use a such and such material, or a particular brand name product, or a concoction of a formulated mixture. Creativity, by its nature, possessed its own color, its own technique, and its own judgment. It bypassed all existing standards; it did not care about rigid rules made up by life. Creativity, in action, burst out great unexpected ideas, which erupted with spontaneous and vivid metamorphosis, from outline to structure. Therefore, it skipped the conception period, and excelled beyond measure.
When inspiration came, Nam was unable to control himself. He worked continuously without breaks. There were days and nights when he stayed awake without fatigue. When hunger stroked, he ate while watching the painting closely. Through the mystical colors, his eyes visualized some vague initial imagery. He then pursued these images to give them form. The painting became amazingly versatile because its perspective was comprised of many interesting and strange facets… it had an odd quality, a silent voice, and carried within it music. The artwork transmitted to its viewers ecstatic vibrations, allowing them to discover within themselves strong emotions of desire, of unrealized wishes, of sorrow, and of hope…its characteristics fluctuated fluidly because it depended upon the viewer’s personality, point of view, and experience. The viewer’s shifting mood made the artwork become real-as-life, a breathing and living being. The painting was therefore not only an object of art to please the eyes, but also it hinted notes of music that formed a melody on your tongue; it could be read, and gave you joy in each discovery; it could be heard as the voice of your deepest self, urging you to acknowledge the infinite power of your own imagination.
It can be said that creativity is a string of beads of newness. Each bead represents newness, and each one is newer than the last. In this way, it goes on endlessly, as life continues its course.
The man who just stepped in the door introduced himself as an art dealer from New York. He was very tall with deep green eyes, a receding chin, and very thin lips. He spoke English with an accent. He was an Irish-American.
The art dealer gazed a long time at each of Nam’s paintings. At times, he nodded his head, or held his chin in a pensive mode.
He said that his friends were talking about Nam with admiration; that was the reason he had come to visit him, because of curiosity. He mentioned that he was willing to do some business with Nam. He showed Nam a van loaded with artwork that he recently bought from many local painters at very reasonable prices, no more than five hundred dollars each.
Nam did not feel sympathy for the dealer. However, because of his experience and knowledge of the art world, Nam was curious to know how the art dealer regarded his works.
The man pointed at a painting entitled “No Apples.” In it was a young woman with a dreamy face; her body was partially nude. She was lifting up her arms, palms facing outwards. Under a sky of green leaves, her arms were opened wide as in an embrace, reflecting her zest for life. In her reflected beams of hope. In her reflected passion, and tolerance… The art dealer questioned the title, he had found nothing related to it in the content of the artwork.
“Why not?” Nam asked. He explained, “That woman is Eve. In many people’s mind, Eve was sinful. In this canvas, I painted her as she was before the apple legend, a time when she was extremely pure. She represents women of all ages on Earth...Sin is an act of wrongdoing committed by individuals; then, why did the whole community have to bear the blame for it?” “No Apples” revealed a cry, a protest.
The art dealer was astounded; he rolled his eyes and stood thoughtfully for a moment.
The piece that the dealer liked the most was the one entitled “Unlimited Prosperity”. He offered to buy it for two thousand dollars. Nam shook his head. He increased it a couple thousand dollars more. Nam still said no. He continued to offer more and more money, and finally stopped at twenty thousand dollars. Nam kept shaking his head.
The dealer was furious. He said, “As an unknown painter, how could you ask for more money than that?”
He explained that he had bought and sold art works for many years in New York. He had a huge list of buyers. Many of his clients belonged to the high-class society. Some of them were so wealthy that they did not see the difference between one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand dollars. They could easily afford to pay millions of dollars for something that interested them.
He tried to convince Nam to sell his artwork and not keep them. “Artists are human beings who needed material things to survive. Art is noble but Art has to serve people. First of all, it needs to feed the person who creates it before it serves the public.” He coached Nam: “You need to build a reputation. Sell this artwork now, and later you will make another one, that’s easy….”
Nam shook his head as usual. He knew very well that he was not a machine. Each of his artwork was unique. He had no ability to duplicate his own work. His painting was as priceless as his own child. Who had the heart to sell his child? It was Nam who was willing to serve Art and rise with it, and he accepted the fact that Art did not serve him for his daily bread and butter.
In the dealer’s eyes, this was nothing new; there was nothing strange in Nam’s attitude. In his business, he often had conflicts with talented, eccentric artists. Most of them were very arrogant and thought that their products were unique, second to none. “Well, that is the common craziness of someone who is capable of doing extraordinary things, I guess…” the dealer told himself.
He understood the case so well and knew that he would be patient. Handing to Nam his business card, the art dealer hoped that Nam would change his mind one day. Patting Nam’s shoulder, he told him in a friendly voice, “You are exceptional! I enjoyed your paintings very much, and I really admire you.”
As he walked to the door, he turned his head and said, “My friend, please always keep in mind that you should not sell your works too cheaply. You name the price and people will follow…”
Nam nodded his head with gratitude.
The New-Face-and-Space Gallery was located at Alberta Street, a neighborhood full of not-so-fancy houses in the northeast area of the city. A decade ago, decent people did not dare to come here because it was a place where notorious gangs gathered on a regular basis. When darkness fell, prostitutes lined up on every corner of the streets to look for customers. Shootings occurred almost daily, and unsolved crimes were numerous. The majority of its residents were African-American and new immigrants, because housing was extremely cheap. Soon many local artists who had recently lost their spots at a downtown quarter settled themselves in this affordable northeast neighborhood.
With the presence of so many artists’ studios, the businesses on Alberta Street became amazingly prosperous. Buildings with tin roofs, and formerly dirty large warehouses were renovated nicely. Traces of multicolor graffiti and holes from countless bullet marks disappeared. On the surface, people saw new layers of paints with fashionable colors and signs carrying interesting names. Restaurants, espresso huts, and numerous retail businesses existed side-by-side, up and down the street. Galleries, selling a variety of artwork, sprouted like mushrooms in season.
Louis, the owner of the New-Face-and-Space gallery was in his forties, a black man. Although his clothes were clean and his hair well groomed, he could not hide his face, gaunt due to lack of sleep. He studied the five works of art that Nam brought in as samples. He rubbed his hands to express his satisfaction with the way Nam had built his paintings. He muttered pleasantly that in Nam’s works, there were many interesting things that he had never seen before. He remarked that some acrylic folding lines in one artwork looked fantastic. Very humbly, Nam expressed his wish that his artwork be exhibited in the upcoming art festival. The gallery owner laughed heartily and said that he would be pleased to do so.
Conditions and terms of an agreement between the gallery owner and the consigner were discussed as usual. When approaching the commission part, the black man’s face beamed. But his smile disappeared when Nam showed him the prices he wanted to sell his paintings for.
The man said angrily, “My God! Who you think you are to sell these paintings for millions of dollars? Man, are you that crazy? Do you know Thomas Kinkade? He is a famous painter, and he does not ask the prices you do. What makes you that silly? You are just a deadbeat unknown artist…”
In a conciliatory posture, Nam replied, “As I understand it, everyone on Earth has to start as an unknown person in his debut, and I am no exception. The issue is whether my artwork will be appreciated or not. That is the point, for an artist to be recognized for his art.”
Louis scratched his head. He said, “First of all, you should know that I have opened a business to make money. If my goods are selling well, that’s good. The word 'exhibition' sounds nice and pleasant to the ear; however, the bottom line is money, money, and money…. Why should I display your stuff just for fun? I must keep this business alive; I have a pile of bills to pay…”
He tapped his hand on his belly and continued, “The truth is, this stomach has gone hungry many times. To be an art dealer in this poor neighborhood is miserable. Happy days are only the days of festivals. Once in a while, I baby-sit the neighbor’s kids to survive. I know that you are in no better shoes than I am. I suggest to you to start selling your products for two to three hundred dollars each, so that people can afford to buy them. Once the market for your artwork is booming and your name reaches more people, you can set the prices a little bit higher. You know, you should climb the ladder one step at a time.”
Like a dancing rapper, as he talked, he broke into a little dance. He bent himself slightly and marched forward one step at a time with knees high and arms moving along. “The slower you go the more stable you are on your feet. Understand?”
To show the gallery owner his appreciation and understanding, Nam offered to pay him some rent for the exhibition time. But lowering the selling prices of his artwork was not possible. Nam told Louis that he harbored resentment against society for its injustices toward artists. During their lifetime, their artwork are often not welcomed or appreciated. Merchants, under many guises and ploys, usually try to make a big profit on paintings they buy, leaving to the artists just barely the cost of the materials used. Gallery owners are hard on emerging artists; they regularly treat the latter with a half-interested attitude. If there happens to be an exhibition or show, participation is treated as a great favor. To be presented in public, an artist has to learn the art of bending to the lowest level; in doing so, he needs to swallow his pride. Many artists live in misery. Because of their poverty, people often misjudge them.
Nam’s voice became more and more insistent. He brought up the case of the prominent artist Frida Kahlo. During her lifetime, her paintings were almost worthless. Kahlo lived her life under the shadow of her husband, Diego Rivera. It took more than seventy years for her works to be recognized and honored. Nowadays, when her paintings are sold for five million dollars each, Kahlo is a ghost! Was that ghost floating next to her beloved paintings, waiting for her day of glory? Was she happy with the late accolades she received? Seventy years was surely long enough for another life!
Artists toiled their entire lives to create art, but who actually profits?
Looking stern, Nam spoke with a sharp edge to his voice, “Oh yeah, I am a rebel artist. I want to break the chains to change traditions…Up to now, all deceased and living artists are victims…I wish to reap my crop from all the seeds I have sowed. How much I wish to taste the flavor of glory when I am still alive. One day, when I am no longer in this world, what good would it bring me for you people to tell stories, honoring me and making money off me? What nonsense!”
Louis stared at Nam. The face of this artist was wrinkled in pain as he poured out his soul. Louis put his hand on Nam’s shoulder and said, “Does it mean that you will not sell these paintings if you do not get the prices you want?”
Imperturbably, Nam responded, “You are absolutely right.”
Louis burst out in resonant laughter. Conviction was written on his face. He proclaimed loudly, “Doggone it! I definitely like your positive attitude. Man, I can do the same thing too!... I will let you exhibit your artwork this time, with no rent.”
As if to console himself, he joked, “I should admit that I find your paintings very interesting…. Who knows? As a matter of fact, since there is a crazy artist like you and a crazy art dealer like me, it is very possible that there will be a crazy buyer somewhere who will spend millions to buy a product by an unknown painter, too. Hahaha!.. We will split fifty-fifty, won’t we?”
Hundreds of people from all over the city came in crowds to Alberta Street. From the beginning to the street, more than fifty galleries opened their doors for shows. A large variety of artwork with all kinds of techniques, all kinds of colors, was presented. Some paintings showed delightful angelic images of dreams, contrasting to others full of extraordinary odd characters from outer space, or devils in their rage. Other paintings expressed inner feelings through the presentation of a number of vibrant colors. These colors, in stark contrast to each other, irritated people’s eyes at first; but they did carry new and interesting traits. There were paintings created with extremely delicate touch, while others exhibited unexpected simplicity showing just a few straight lines on a dark, monochrome canvas. The very odd ones had human beings’ legs and arms upside down and eyes, nose, mouth that were not at their normal places. Taking advantage of new technology, some artists had used computers to create beautiful digital images… Mankind was so rich in imagination that showed a great abundance and diversity in Art. If there ever were a contest, it would be hard to judge fairly because each work had its own pride and value.
There were bountiful displays of endowments of the mind and it was difficult to enjoy all of them in such a crowded and noisy environment. People browsed the galleries like they were window shopping in a mall. They glanced at everything, with a just-looking attitude, and not fully appreciating Art. As a result, business was negligible at many galleries.
But anyone who chanced to step in the New-Face-and-Space gallery stayed there a long time. First, it was due to the solemn atmosphere of the place, and secondly, it was the enormous price attached to each masterpiece. People were willing to spend time observing and studying the pieces. They tried curiously to figure out why those paintings cost a fortune. The prices ranged from five hundred thousand dollars to five million dollars!
The exhibition room was huge. Under a well-arranged lighting system with special small bulbs, the paintings seemed to rise, seemed to brighten up, seemed to welcome everybody with a warm glow. More than sixty works of art created by the artist Pham Ky Nam spread a wonderful spirit that moved people’s heart.
The artist stood at a corner of the gallery. He silently watched the public in the room. There were whispers. Fingers pointed. There were half-closed eyes as if the viewer was in a dream state.…
A young blonde woman wiped her tears and laid her head on her boyfriend’s shoulder. The man put his arm around his lover’s waist, and asked what made her cry. Pointing at the painting titled “No Apples”, she said with a sniff, “Darling, am I that woman in the canvas? She is so wonderful. I feel my soul flying in the air…”
An Oriental man, his chin cupped in his hand, studied attentively, unblinking, a painting titled “Hope Never Dies”. A bright yellow globe floated in the stormy ocean. Turbulent waves, merciless whirlwinds were attacking it incessantly, but the globe was still afloat, thanks to a tiny fragile feather that kept it lifted up at all times….
An elderly couple with gray hair stood for more than fifteen minutes in front of the painting titled “Unlimited Prosperity”. They did not bother to move on to other artwork. The man changed his posture many times; his head kept bending to observe the painting in many angles. The wife seemed to be in great excitement as she leaned toward her husband, and whispered some words. The latter nodded his head, his eyes still glued to the images he saw in the painting. They looked like a happy couple.
Nam approached them. He introduced himself as the author of all the artwork exhibited in the gallery. He offered to answer their questions, if any. The man cleared his throat, and then said, “The texture of this painting is very special. There is something in there that draws me into it and makes me feel attached to it. I sense joy, happiness, and my spirit is being inexplicably lifted up. I enjoy it very much. But I cannot understand… I have no doubt that the painting is very interesting; it is remarkably beautiful and it is rare. However, what makes it so pricey? Is it worth five million dollars?”
Nam smiled. He spoke slowly, “Well, I would like to ask you to just use your imagination for a moment… Assume that I am presenting you with a bucket. Yes, a bucket full of diamonds. They weigh five carats each. How do you react to that tremendous wealth?”
The man and woman, puzzled, did not know how to answer his question. Nam stared at them for a moment, and continued, “Isn’t it true that your reaction would be something like this?”
As he finished his words, Nam widened his eyes. His mouth opened in amazement. His arms rose up to the level of his shoulders, and they stayed there as if frozen.
The woman nodded her head repeatedly, “Yes! Exactly!”
Nam immediately raised his finger and happily said, “That’s it! When you first saw this painting, your reaction was definitely like the gestures I just demonstrated… Please read carefully the words written below the painting. It expresses the spirit of the artwork.”
The old man bent himself forward; and he read each syllable slowly: UN-LI-MI-TED, PROS-PE-RI-TY. He asked Nam why the artwork bore that name.
Nam asked back, “Do both of you see countless diamonds that are scintillating in there?”
The woman observed knife marks that gave faceted dimensions to the painting, as if in cuts of the most precious gems, and she murmured, “Oh yes, there are so many diamonds…”
“Both of you, please bend your head a little bit and you will see numerous gold, silver and bronze medallions.”
“Oh yes, my God! Why, so many medallions!”
“Step back a little, and do you not see mountains of gold and mines of silver that instantly appear and disappear?”
Rubbing his eyes, the man nodded his head. “That is right. Amazing! Before this, I just saw a big canvas with some mystical colors. Now, as you pointed out, I discover within it so many hidden treasures. Ah, they all hide in the depth of that painting…”
“Of course, people usually conceal their fortunes in secret places. If not, the thieves would rob them,” Nam joked. “Well, you guys should look for more stuff. Do you see a bouquet of blooming roses? Ah, la vie en rose! Yes, diamonds stand for being in an eminent environment of richness and nobility. Gold and silver stand for wealth. Medallions stand for honor. Blooming roses stand for infinite happiness… That is absolutely unlimited prosperity, isn’t it? You bring home an enormous treasure, and you only pay five million dollars! I think it is a very good deal…”
“Yes! Yes! It is a good deal for something that is so fantastic. However, where will we find the money to buy it?”
As easygoing as he was, Nam said, “Well, if you can not afford to buy my painting, why don’t I let you touch it? Is that fair?”
They eagerly and impetuously replied, “That’s good enough!”
The old couple went near the painting “Unlimited Prosperity”. Each of them took Nam’s offer seriously and, as they lightly touched the images on the canvas, their faces showed great satisfaction. All the men and women present in the gallery requested Nam to grant them the same opportunity. From nowhere, people in waves kept coming in. Forming a long line, they snaked forward to touch that specific work, even though most of them did not hear the conversation between Nam and the old couple. They mimicked the gestures of others without questioning.
The owner of the Face-and-Space gallery stood speechless and motionless for a moment. He never saw a strange situation like this before. He then furrowed his eyebrows in wonder. He shook his head. He muttered to himself, “It’s unbelievable that this Earth has so many people who lose their mind nowadays…”
On the very first day, the gallery had attracted a huge crowd. But over the next few days, it was so quiet. Louis was terribly sad. The exhibition would be ending in one hour and he had sold nothing.
Louis’s stomach ached when he remembered his spontaneous, excited offer of free rent to Nam, while bills kept piling up on his desk every day. He felt very uncomfortable each time Nam reminded him of the spectacular scene of people lining up to touch his painting. Nam seemed to enjoy this very much. There was no doubt that this guy was very eloquent. Whoa! His tongue was as smooth as if it were covered with grease, as sweet as sugar, and people easily accepted whatever he said. His artwork was strangely magnetic, too. That night, it appeared that everyone was fascinated with what they saw.
Louis walked tiredly up and down the room. He reminded Nam to immediately remove all his paintings when the exhibition was over, because Louis had already invited another group of painters to display their works the next day. Nam nodded without a word. He understood Louis’s concern. This guy looked at painting as a job to earn a living; he was not an artist who regarded painting as a noble and destined obligation. Louis was in business, so gain and loss should be considered seriously. There was absolutely nothing wrong with this attitude because each individual had his own imperatives. No one was completely wrong. No one was completely right.
Suddenly, a group of strangers walked in, and their presence interrupted Nam’s thoughts. They all were very well dressed, with suit and ties. They said that they had just participated in the inauguration of a charity organization nearby. Before they headed home, they wanted to pay a visit to the neighborhood. They wished to know the living condition of local artists.
Louis greeted the crowd with generosity and invited them inside. Talking about the Alberta neighborhood was something Louis really enjoyed doing. Louis was born and raised there. He was extremely proud that, not only his black community, but also Alberta, had become a cultural and artistic center of the city.
Leaving Louis to brag about his neighborhood, Nam followed the footsteps of another visitor who showed more interest in the surrounding art than the lecture. He quietly observed every change of expression on this man’s face, when the latter moved from one painting to another. The man looked solemn.
When facing the artwork entitled “Unlimited Prosperity”, the visitor could not hide his emotions. He looked at it attentively and raised his eyebrows. Was it deja vu? The more he looked at it, the more he found it so astutely familiar. He squeezed his forehead. He tightened his lips. He crossed his arms in front of him and then dropped them down. Finally, he walked to the next painting, only to go back immediately to the previous one. What made him so attached to it? He heard an inner voice saying that the piece was made for him. It must be his. Yes, it had to be his.
The visitor turned around. Without hesitation, Nam said, half jokingly, that the painting had indeed been longing for its owner for quite a long time. The visitor smiled gently, saying nothing…
Louis was trembling as if he were in the middle of a fever. In his hands was a check for five million dollars that he just received moments ago. The number five followed by six zeros and the line “five million dollars” in writing danced in front of him. Louis suddenly burst out crying. He could not believe that he had become a millionaire at last. He moaned, “Oh my blessed God! Oh my dear Nam!”
Nam leaned his head back on the sofa, his eyes still on the television set. In the last few days, in daily news, all the TV channels and all the newspapers worldwide repeated a recent hot event. In all history of the visual art, it was the first time that an unknown living painter, Pham Ky Nam, had broken a record. One of his paintings had sold for five million dollars!
Nam recalled an article he had read yesterday in the New York Times. The buyer of the painting “Unlimited Prosperity” claimed that he felt lucky to own a piece of valuable artwork. He was asked what made him purchase a painting created by an unknown artist for a tremendous amount of money, and why did he consider that painting a treasure? The man answered that he did not care where the artist’s reputation stood in society. For him, the substance of the work counted most.
Yes, for him, it was absolutely a treasure. He said that the painting contained a very rich depth within. He could not go further in details. However, he was pleased to share with the public some pleasant and interesting things. For instance, when he first “met” the painting on Alberta Street, it identified him instantly. He had a vision of several gates opening widely to invite him to enter. A giant castle with many windows suddenly appeared before him. As soon as he pointed his finger at a window, a sea of wealth poured into that window continuously. Money from all over the world was flowing nonstop into the castle.
The reporter asked, “Many people said that they saw gems, medallions, precious metals, and roses in the painting. Do you see them?”
“Of course, yes. There are plenty of them in my home. So I was not a bit surprised when I saw them in there.”
“We all know that before you bought the painting, you were, and still are, the richest man on Earth. Do you need to be richer?”
“My own masterpiece, “The Windows,” that I created a few years ago, did bring me unlimited prosperity so far. Why do I need Mr. Pham’s painting to bring me another fortune? As you see, the word Windows ends with an ‘s’; it means that I have numerous more windows to open. All my future jobs will surely not be because of money. My goal is to serve humanity, heading to more fantastic and satisfactory horizons. Many windows of creativity will be widely opened. In the next generations, mankind will rise and keep rising forever to conquer the other spaces. Nowadays, the computer has its magic hands to reach, in the twinkle of an eye, people all over the world. But in the very near future, we will be able to contact, to communicate, to trade, and to cooperate with many extra-terrestrial individuals, especially the ones on the planet of Mars… Ah! I have gone too far; out of subject…Let me go back to the question… I bought Mr. Pham’s painting for… First, I want to show my deep appreciation for him who elucidated so well the word “creativity” through his work. Secondly, I totally agree with his concept; if a creation is capable of responding to and of satisfying mankind’s thirst of new adventures, evidently prosperity will come along with it, unlimited. I am a living example… honor and wealth do not come to me as lottery winnings. They are the rewards for my accomplished creations.”
“So, the painting “Unlimited Prosperity” is an unnecessary object for your wealth?”
“Why is it unnecessary? The painting and I, we were looking for each other to improve upon each other. It will be a link between the arts on Earth and the extraordinary and spectacular ones in the planets that we are going to be friends with. For that reason, it is definitely a treasure…I believe that I am the only one who is capable of keeping it safe. Temporarily, please look at me as a trusted guardian …”
Barbra Winter, the reporter of Channel ABCD News, visited Nam when he was busy reading his emails coming from every corner of the world. After a half hour answering her questions regarding his life, Nam felt exhausted.
Barbra wished to see his paintings. Nam did not feel enthusiastic about the request. However, he led her to his bedroom anyway.
“Oh!” Barbra gasped out loud.
On the four big walls of a good size room, Nam hung side-by-side many of his artwork. Upon entering his bedroom, Nam joked heartily, “There were times I was happy to think that, if one day I fell into a deep sleep and never woke up, people would discover my dead body laying in a forest of artwork. That would be so fantastic…”
The reporter knew how to joke too. She said, “You are really a romantic painter! But to lie in an environment filled with colors like this, do you sometimes feel suffocated?”
Nam laughed easily, “Not at all! Every day, while in bed, I can immerse myself in my own works, and I feel overwhelmed each time I discover a new miraculous image popping out from a such and such painting.”
“It means that your artwork keeps creating continuously?”
“Exactly! They do not make you feel tired of them, because they always produce new impressions for the viewers.”
Barbra posed a question, “What made you price the painting, “Unlimited Prosperity,” at five million dollars? And why did you choose that number?”
“I asked five million dollars to test the power of its spirit, and it worked! It is a challenging number because in the past, only the artwork of artists who have been dead at least 25 years have sold for millions of dollars.”
Barbra asked, “If you knew that the painting “Unlimited Prosperity” has the ability to bring infinite wealth to anybody who owns it, would you keep it for your own sake?”
Nam furrowed his brows. He paused for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was deep with emotions but crisp, “A masterpiece that carries a creative power within itself, once it has been accomplished, no longer belongs to the person who created it. It must be released to the world…”
He was pensive for a while. Then, with a mellow smile, he continued, “It is the same for human beings. Children are parents’ masterpieces, full of creative power. Once these children reached adulthood, they will spread their wings to fly high. And they will create new generations that keep going endlessly.”
Pointing at the many paintings hanging on the walls, he said, “With all of this, I am a prosperous person, am I not?”
“Does it mean that they will bring you a good fortune and a great reputation?”
“They may. However, please keep in mind that an artist feels much more fulfilled in creativity than in being prosperous materially.”
With admiration, Barbra nodded her head. She said, “Mr. Pham, you truly are an artist!”
The evening came fast. Sunset was on its way to leap over the hills. Nam watched the streetlights just illuminated, his hands clasped together. He murmured to himself the old phrase, “Keep seeking and you will find. Keep knocking and the doors will open.”
Yes, I have sought and I have found. I did knock and doors were opened.
Editorial note: Works published in this issue may be simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge Magazine Issue 6 January 2005 (ISSN: 1540-1723).
Copyright © Hong Khac Kim Mai 1999-2005. Nothing in this issue may be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced without the permission of the author/ translator/ artist/ The Writers Post/ and Wordbridge magazine. Creating links to place The Writers Post or any of its pages within other framesets or in other documents is copyright violation, and is not permitted.