“Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and can never be fathomed, for God gives us nothing but riddles.”Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
I will actually be publishing this in the very near future, (possibly) with hardcover first editions available for sale to support my continued literary and visual arts practices. Here is an excerpt, which is chapter one of book two. Interested persons may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The room was dark, and a woman’s face was softly illuminated as she viewed one of the paintings on the wall, one of the few light sources hanging above. Meanwhile, O’Donnell watched her from the shadows as she assessed his work. He had designed the space to feel as if one were in the zoo, in the reptile section with little terrariums along the walls. Most people only saw the orchids. They did not ponder the pairing of the paintings with the songs wafting throughout the gallery as if they were simple lullabies and accompaniments. “Yes”, O’Donnell thought to himself, “the majority of these spectators have only superficially penetrated beyond the surface of my Orchidstra.”
The spectacle had extended into the streets for days prior to the opening. Streets had been adorned with living orchids scattered within the trees along the sidewalks and within the parks. People had been stealing them and there were reports of people making runs upon the florists, angrily demanding one for their own home. That afternoon, while O’Donnell was driving to the gallery, an economics professor had jokingly compared the emerging orchid bubble to the tulip bubble on the radio, highlighting it instead as a floral market success, at least for now. O’Donnell appreciated the warning. He knew that all trends come as waves, that when one creates a big wave, they get to ride it, but he recognized that the momentum of the orchid boom was a temporary phenomenon. He had been in the game for quite a while at this point and this was by far the most intricate and exciting of the effects that he had produced. His work was animating people throughout the city, going so far as to pique the interest of economists, a feat that he had never imagined accomplishing.
The woman was now slowly and ever so slightly shaking her head in delight. “Mmm… It’s so graceful”, the woman said softly, yet still audibly above the faint music of the orchid mantis’s haunting call. Each painting emitted a unique song from the mantis hidden within. They were eerie sirens’ calls, beckoning the spectators to approach their lairs, their illuminated flowers like lights in the deep sea, their melodies like the scent of nectar calling from a carnivorous plant. Meanwhile, the woman seemed to only perceive the flower, its delicate petals and vibrant glow amidst the shadowy sanctuary of pigment. “At the end of the day, not everyone will understand the artist”, O’Donnell reminded himself. Thus, he stepped closer, prepared to begin the mating dance.
The woman was slightly startled as O’Donnell emerged from the shadows to stand at her side. She jumped ever so slightly, emitted a quiet “oh”, and smiled quickly in his direction before returning to behold the painting. Only a moment later though, she did a double take. She was suddenly looking back at him and was clearly on the verge of asking the question. It took a moment for her to feel confident and O’Donnell continued to look forward at the painting, watching her through his peripheral vision, knowing the words that were coming next.
“Are… Are you the artist?”, she questioned, looking at him intently now.
“Yes, Thomas O’Donnell. It’s a pleasure. May I ask your name?”
“Louise Strunk. The pleasure is all mine. I quite admire the collection. I have actually read some of your work as well. It is truly a pleasure to actually meet you Mr. O’Donnell. You know, The Precedent is one of my favorite novels, to be honest, from the last decade. It was so unprecedented!”, and with that she laughed gently, covering her mouth with her left hand to muffle her self-induced joy. Meanwhile, O’Donnell did his best to keep from scoffing, laughing, or reacting at all. He blinked and breathed in through his nose to accomplish the feat as the muscles in his jaw and chest tightened; the pressure was sudden, sound and a smile surging upward from deep within him, attempting to breach the surface, yet he managed to suppress them. Then, moments later, Ms. Strunk continued, “Tell me, Mr. O’Donnell, where do you find the inspiration for all of this?”
O’Donnell responded softly, taking Ms. Strunk on a very brief guided tour of how he would like people to believe it all works, “I meditate and visions come to me. I look within and I seek to present my world to you, to give it life and to give you beauty. The orchids… they came to me in a vision, and I could hear these songs. I knew that I had to seek them out.” He turned then to look into the painting once more. “This particular collection of orchids belongs to a charming couple on the outskirts of town. I had to search for weeks to find somewhere that existed between my vision and a realistic source for still life painting. I transformed them though, marrying them to the vision”, he elaborated. The statement was primarily true. It had taken a long time to find a large enough collection to use as the foundation while painting. However, where he had gone to seek inspiration was another story altogether.
“You know, Mr. O’Donnell, this collection reminds me very much of the work of Helen Lov. Have you drawn any inspiration from her? Are you familiar?”, she questioned.
O’Donnell’s face was somewhat puzzled now, “no… and yes… I am familiar”, he responded, somewhat amused. “She’s quite lovely and I do admire her work. The fuchsia collection from last year was quite stunning”, he added before questioning, “I take it, Ms. Strunk, that you might be a collector of flowers?”
“Why yes, I am quite partial to them…”, she mused before looking back at him intently. “Who have you derived inspiration from, if you don’t mind my asking”, she pressed further, her eyes narrowing inquisitively.
“I do not adapt the work of others. I create only original art that springs from within me”, he responded immediately and coolly; it was now, two decades into his career, a well-rehearsed reflex.
“Ah I see”, she responded, absorbing the words, processing them, imagining what they might actually signify. “To be inside your mind Mr. O’Donnell, I can only imagine what it must look like”, she said then, returning her gaze to the painting. “If this collection is any indication, it must feature some truly fantastic places, a paradise. Thank you for this little slice of your heaven, Mr. O’Donnell”, she said before slipping back into the shadows.
O’Donnell followed suit, similarly dipping back into the shade. Once amidst the shadows, he began scanning the gallery as he moved through the dimly lit chamber. He could see the forms of people moving as silhouettes around him, the gentle glow of the spectators viewing his collection along the wall, and, as he looked to the right, a crowd congregating within the adjacent room that housed the collection’s centerpiece. Thus, he began moving toward it, a separate room within which one significantly larger piece was hanging. However, as he approached the entryway, he captured a whiff of a new scent as a woman passed before him, emerging from the crowded room. Alarmed and sensing danger, O’Donnell quickly stepped backward, watching as she began to peruse the main gallery.
There was also a game amongst friends taking place this evening. How many people were playing no one was quite sure—everyone wears perfume. However, those who knew were aware that at least one person in the gallery was wearing a unique perfume that one of O’Donnell’s friends had designed especially for the occasion. If she touched you, and you spoke to her, you had to leave the gallery. The mission was to survive to attend the afterparty. It was nascent, but they imagined it as an extension of the art that would similarly spill out into the city as the scent of the orchid mantis’s pheromone began to diffuse from the epicenter of her birth. One would have to learn the scent from watching the others fall, remembering what they had smelled if they were present before one of the players was eliminated. One could also learn the safe scents. Thus, people’s first moves were wary, and one could clearly discern who was playing at first within the initial reception hall; they appeared anxious and antisocial until they started building networks with which to enter the gallery and travel like little bubbles.
Thus, O’Donnell began to follow her, the woman whose scent had captured his attention and induced fear. He wondered whether he might have already located the orchid mantis lurking within his exhibition. The paintings were spaced such that the songs within the main hall were discrete. Where one ended another began. Watching from the shadows, he observed as the woman approached a man admiring another of his pieces within the main chamber of the gallery. She touched his shoulder and the man looked over to her with a nod. They might be lovers O’Donnell thought, but were they playing the game? One could not be sure who exactly was actually playing, after all. Then they began to speak, and the man remained in competition, if he was actually playing. Relieved and disappointed, O’Donnell studied the woman’s face, eliminating yet another suspect, before continuing toward his favorite piece in the adjacent room, Daedalian Honesty.
The room was dangerous. Whoever it was, O’Donnell realized, she had to be a skilled hunter. She might tap him at any moment, the still unknown scent heralding her arrival masked within the subtly aromatic and more dense collection of spectators. Then, as he walked deeper into the room, a polyphonous chorus of the mantises’ calls echoed gently, growing as one approached their enclosure within the frame. Together they produced an alluring harmony and O’Donnell thought at that moment that his friend who had composed the music had truly outdone herself. Now experiencing it all in the proper context, amidst the symphony of scents within the gathering of shadows, he thought to himself, “Yes, true beauty is like an orchid mantis…”
It was then that a man gently touched his arm, startling him. “Oh, don’t worry Thomas, it’s just me”, his acquaintance Alex assured him, whispering and beaming with an unseen smile, proud to have terrified O’Donnell.
“I see that she hasn’t gotten to you yet Alex. I was growing worried. I already see so few familiar faces”, O’Donnell said, looking around and toward the visible persons closer to the painting, his heart having returned to normal after the quick jolt that Alex had induced.
“Charlotte did that to me earlier. Damn near made me shriek out loud out in the main hall”, Alex mentioned while laughing. “I figured with her being so close to you that you would have made her the mantis”, he said before more playfully adding, “sneaking around in the darkness, hunting your prey for you.”
Suddenly quite interested, O’Donnell responded, “Interesting… I left it all up to her actually. I thought that she might have chosen herself. This is good to know… very good to know”, he said chuckling for a moment before adding, “I can stop avoiding her now.” He hoped at that moment that she actually had been hunting his prey for him and that her mating dances on his behalf had been more successful than his own so far.
“Say, Thomas… the frames, why so dark? It’s all so dark…”, Alex questioned a moment later. The frames were a deep, reddish acacia against the black walls. One might have expected a lighter wood that would pop a bit more in contrast to the shadows within the frames as well as the surrounding gallery.
“Ah yes… the acacia… well first, I imagine the buyers hanging them in well-lit rooms, but the darkness works for me, you know…”, he responded, smirking invisibly amidst the shadows, his smile keenly felt to himself. He paused for a minute then, as if lost in thought, drawing upon a distant memory. “That, and there’s also something quite beautiful about acacia…” he said, pausing, and then adding somewhat wistfully, “beauty rising from the desert…”
It was then that Alex sensed a change. He began to wonder what might have suddenly caused the strange shift in O’Donnell’s demeanor. He sounded as if he had suddenly travelled somewhere profoundly within or perhaps distant, detached, melancholic.
“Hmm”, was Alex’s response, quite certain that he had sensed something odd, but not quite sure that he should pry. “Well, you should be out selling yourself, shouldn’t you?”, Alex questioned wittily. “I’ll leave you to it”, and with that Alex drifted into the current of shadows mulling about the gallery.
Suddenly alone again amidst the crowd once more, O’Donnell approached the painting. It was much larger than the others, taller than him actually, depicting multiple orchids gently glowing amidst their endarkened habitat. Dark green and brown faded into the darker shadows beyond which there were also subtle details that most probably overlooked, elusive eyes peering back upon the beholder from the depths of the painting itself. Nature was presenting the beholder with her twin beauties, her orchids and her orchid mantises, seeking to be accepted as a whole.
The other spectators, the fear of the lurking mantis, and the drive to make a sale briefly faded away as O’Donnell experienced a moment of atonement with his art. He was suddenly back within the greenhouse once more; he could feel the humidity of the air within, the smell of the moss and the soil, earthy and raw. However, he gradually returned to the space and began to look upon the others admiring his work, wondering where the paintings transported them if not to the place where he had created them.
His mind continued to wander as he found himself immersed within the hushed conversations of others. Their murmurs were unintelligible though, unless one got very close. Thus, he had to imagine their conversations and he found himself wondering who else might be anxious about the lurking mantis. People expected the orchid mantis to smell floral and sweet. “Might she have become more akin to the substrate within the sanctuary or perhaps donned a leathery scent?”, he questioned himself. O’Donnell smiled at the thought before stepping back deeper into the crowd, still in the dark as to how his own creation might have manifested itself.
Once he was within the main hall again, he quickly encountered Charlotte. “Thomas! Oh Thomas!”, she shouted, having somehow recognized his form from across the room. She was standing in front of one of the paintings, one that he quite admired actually, with an inscrutable looking elderly couple. Their faces appeared to be indifferent, unmoved, and yet there was a gleam of interest in their eyes as he walked closer. “Thomas, I would love to introduce you to the Shattschneiders. We’ve been discussing Orchid #7 for quite some time now”, she added.
“Yes, I was quite surprised when the little scythe popped out at me”, Mr. Shattschneider remarked, “it gave me a little jump.” He paused for a moment then, looking at O’Donnell as if he were assessing him, before saying, “oh well, yes, ah… Jacob Shattschneider, honored to meet you”, he said, extending his hand to shake O’Donnell’s. “And this is my wife, Hannah Shattschneider”, he added as she similarly extended her hand without any intelligible changes in her facial expression.
“Well, it is such a pleasure to meet you both”, O’Donnell said sincerely. Charlotte had disappeared at this point and O’Donnell caught himself before attempting to draw her back into the conversation. He paused for a moment though—Was this the moment? Had the mantis struck?—but no one indicated that he should leave. Thus, he began the dance, “I do quite admire #7. This particular mantis, and I do hope that you will keep this discrete, I found her to be peculiarly difficult to capture. The first ones were too obvious. It took time to achieve the effect so that only the keenest of eyes could detect her. I’m quite impressed to be honest, Jacob. May I call you Jacob?”
“Yes, yes, of course”, Mr. Shattschneider responded.
It was then that O’Donnell looked over to Mrs. Shattschneider. She appeared to be remarkably unimpressed. “What stands out to you?”, O’Donnell questioned, looking directly at her while attempting to provoke some indication about what she might be thinking.
“Mmmm… to me, at first, it’s the composition. The elements are all perfectly arranged, but the shadows also appear deeper. I can feel it pulling me in toward her. I’m quite partial to #9 as well, it’s brighter, but this one has gravity. There’s something to all of them, I’ve seen your work before too…”, she said, trailing off briefly before capturing that which was on the tip of her tongue, “I believe that the word is patina.” She explained it all without a hint of emotion, tilting her head ever so slightly to the right. Meanwhile, Mr. Shattschneider smiled, looking from his wife and then back toward the artist.
O’Donnell remained silent for a moment and nodded gently while still in thought. Then he replied, “I do that… some push and some pull… not everyone feels it though… I’m impressed, and I’m honored…”, he said with a nod and a pause. Returning to thought, pondering her words, one word specifically, he found himself quietly remarking, “patina…” out loud, as if only to himself. It almost made him smile. He caught himself and relaxed for a brief moment after that though. Mrs. Shattschneider’s gaze had returned to the image. Thus, he addressed the husband.
“Jacob, your wife appears to have remarkably refined taste and quite an eye”, O’Donnell stated before looking over toward Mrs. Shattschneider again, capturing her attention, and questioning, “I imagine that you are a painter yourself? You certainly must dabble?”
As she looked back at him, a small smile broke across her face, a mild perturbation that appeared to mask a tiny laugh. It was only for a second though, as if a pebble had broken the surface of a pond.
Yet, she remained there, still and silent for a moment before responding, “Oh no, Mr. O’Donnell, I am merely an admirer”, and smiling once more.
Thank you to my parents, Lynn and Anthony Elliott, and to my family. Additionally, I wish to thank Washington Lawyers for the Arts and the Seattle University Law Clinics who provided pro bono services to verify the legal compliance of the text with regard to intellectual property. Thank You also to all the people who were “art fracked” in the process of this text’s creation, especially Ao5 Gallery in Austin, TX, and the men along the riverside.
Copyright: Thomas Christopher Elliott, 2021