Unpublished Excerp from Living on Air, by Anna Shapiro © Soho, 2006
“You’re trying to do class-artist art,” the scathing Philip said to her one day as she labored over an etching, to which she was adding ever more fuss and flurry. He was a plump boy with white skin and sharply defined red lips, who continually tossed too-long greasy bangs off his forehead. “That has nothing to do with art .” The most obnoxious boy at school, and he was speaking her language. (Obnoxious, but people enjoyed his blatant dare to them to dislike him, and liked him for it.)
Weesie had just put aside a portrait. Her attempts at naturalistic representation were so bad she felt they pointed at her and said, You are a terrible person. You are terrible for creating us. “You know so much about art. I don’t get it,” Philip said, continuing to watch the finicky doodling. He had applied pieces of fabric to his etching plate and peeled them off again, leaving the imprint of their varied weaves.
“Could I try that?” said Weesie. “No! Why should I give my ideas to you?” he said, pushing up his glasses and tossing the pesky bangs. Then he looked up and smiled as if he’d done her a favor. She had to laugh. He looked more pleased than ever and went back to his work, removing a scrap of burlap with a bravura air. “Ah. A masterpiece,” he pronounced, looking at the sticky brown plate whose outcome was yet to be seen. “You know what you should do?” he said. “Just scratch out what you’re doing. Just scratch it out. That’s what abstraction is. Taking something and refining it to its essentials. Not that there are any essentials in that mess,” he added. Without looking down, she began viciously scratching at her drawing. He smirked. “You might vary the texture,” he advised her.
Weesie and Philip leaned over the acid bath companionably, watching the lines of bubbles eat away where the zinc had been exposed. The bubbles looked like the ones that formed on your skin if you stayed in the tub long enough. Philip removed his plate and put some more brown sticky stuff in spots; those spots would be less deeply etched than the others. “It’s an exercise in corrosion,” he said—something he knew more about than most people. “Process. Process. That’s the whole thing. Process, not product. To involve the viewer in the process, to expose the process so that people can like get into it. Action painting. Yeah!” he said, swooping his zinc plate back in with an endangering splash. “Philip!” He giggled. “That’s acid . You could have gotten my eye .” “Sorry, sorry. Sorry, sorry.” Flamboyantly gay, he mashed his greasy glasses up his nose with his square white hand and grinned at her. The smell of acid prickled on the nostrils like bleach.
They got to oils at last. Weesie quickly developed an accustomed spot before the easel. Within a few weeks, students sat around kibbitzing--watching. “ You are just an artist. I am an artiste,” said Philip to Weesie, pushing his greasy glasses up his little nose with a harsh movement and a smile on his lips, sharply red on his dead-white face. He tossed his bangs off the lenses and made himself more comfortable on the paint-stained counter, where he lounged like a portrait of an odalisque, though an odalisque in the east coast prep school uniform of tweed jacket, oxford shirt, and jeans.
A girl with the oversensitive face of one who cultivates melancholy kicked his work-booted foot with her ballet pumps. “Oo, that’s a tough answer,” Philip continued. “Yeah, now I really feel untalented.” “Up yours, Philip,” said the girl, without energy, evidently accustomed or resigned to his jibes. Another boy, with the refined, good-humored face and curly hair of an archetype that could be labeled “Sensitive intellectual cosmopolitan,” scratched away at an etching plate. He looked up at Philip and the girl who wore her gloom as an attraction. “You two -- you should be in vaudeville.”
The pair were always at loggerheads in the art room. She did traditional, representational work, very pretty--“decorative,” as Philip liked to say, scathingly. He did slabby, drippy abstractions, as messy as his flapping shirttails and the unwashed bangs that swung down to the tip of his nose. “Me, maybe,” said Philip, the critic, “but who would want her ?” “Jesus, Philip,” said a lanky girl in workboots. She was drawing him and either making him unrecognizably handsome or erasing that and having his chin come out grotesque when she tried to show the puff of fat underneath. “You should just be put away.” He grinned happily, as if he’d been paid a compliment, and pushed the glasses up again, tossing aside the bangs that had grown over his eyes. “Now, Weesie here--” “--Louise,” corrected the refined, good-humored boy, his cheeks pursing with suppressed laughter. Weesie had recently taken to asking people to use her real name. “ Louise -- has obviously looked at art. Looked and actually seen , unlike you bozos.” A kind of private smile appeared on almost every face at this insult, as if it were a love pat. “Oi oi oi ,” Weesie singsonged, continuing to wield her brush. “With friends like you, dahling . . .” She paused to study the effect of her marks, without turning around. “Oh, you mean just because she’s doing abstractions ,” said the melancholy girl, rolling her eyes. “Yes, just because she’s doing abstractions! That’s more than you could do. You’d want to put in flowers or some maiden in a dress . “Aw,” he said, “now I’ve made her cry.” The oversensitive girl blinked rapidly but said, “How could anyone take you seriously enough to make them cry?” Shortly thereafter, she slipped off the drawing table’s Jackson Pollock surface and slid from the art room.
Weesie sighed and stepped back for a better view of her creation. Bumping into a piece of furniture, she glanced behind her. “Jesus, don’t all watch me or anything,” she said, seeing that no one was doing their own work. “We just can’t help but be in awe of your artistic prowess,” said Philip. A rare serious note came into his voice. “Really. That looks like a real painting. A painting by an adult. Not like the amateur shit that’s all you see around here, with all their adolescent emotion . That’s a real painting,” he repeated. “It’s about --form.” He purled a plump but surprisingly manly white hand through the air. Weesie looked behind her toward his seal-like shape, stretched on one elbow along the counter, and went back to her work. “No no no no no!” he cried as she added three red dabs to her composition in blue, gray, and white. “Aah,” he said, sitting up and clutching his heart. She didn’t respond. He sighed. “Oh. All right.”
A teacher who had an office on this barn hallway leaned in, swiveled his head around, switched on the overhead lights, and withdrew. “Narc,” said the limp, unpretending, good-natured boy, of whom almost everyone felt protectively fond. “Yeah, just checking up,” said the lanky girl, “Never know what students might get up to if you leave them alone together.” “We might make art or something,” said the good-natured boy, including everyone. The fluorescent lights snapped. One of them flickered like lightning for a minute and then steadied, buzzing, like a rebuke to them for being inside while it was still light. A harsh atmosphere, like a hospital waiting room in the middle of the night, took over the studio despite its skylight. Someone switched the lights off again, zapping it. “Thank you !” said several. Thereafter, the only sound was the scratchings and scrapings of their industry.