Beyond the Grain

saint john

The art affected me almost instantly. We went to the gallery to support Adrienne, a Toronto-based artist who was exhibiting the work she completed after spending a few months in Syracuse, New York. She left to take part in the artist residency program and came back with a large body of work, most were pieces painted on wood bearing feminist and lesbian messaging, the lines in some designed to look like vaginas. Some of the pieces were colourful and abstract, while others were subdued and sad, exuding a feeling of loneliness and loss.

It was the latter that inspired us to buy a piece, our first real art. As we stood in the gallery two summers ago tipsy off complimentary wine, another friend offered to give us a tour. She was familiar with the work and had a way of describing the paintings in a manner that made you fall in love with each one. Not that the work wasn’t great in and of itself, but the stories played a quintessential role in our decision to buy the art. There were these intricate details behind each of the works that resonated deep within me. Story after story, I felt myself admiring each piece in a new way.

But when we came to the one we would buy something stopped both of us. The piece contains five pieces of wood, each one found somewhere in Syracuse, assembled in such a fashion to create one larger work. At first glance, all you see if the five pieces of wood, but upon further inspection it is clear the grain is actually painted on and stained. It is a work of five paintings of wood, painted on wood, against the grain. It is an illusion and a lie. It is control and chaos. It is beautiful and dark. It is haunting.

I loved it before I knew the story, but I loved it after I knew the story more. Adrienne felt a deep isolation in Syracuse. A college town, she was there on off months when almost everything was closed and no one was around. The town, my friend described, was broken and lonely, a series of abandoned homes with nobody to love them. Adrienne was staying in a room in a house that was shoddy at best. One night, she noticed a perplexing repair. It was painted wood, maybe along a floorboard, but whoever painted it had done so against the grain. Adrienne couldn’t understand why someone would do that; make such an obvious mistake. She felt like it summed up her trip perfectly.

TJ and I had just returned from a trip our selves. We had left Toronto for Saint John, New Brunswick in a hurry upon news that a dear friend of mine had been in a horrible accident. The ATV she was a passenger on had flipped and landed on top of her, crushing her beneath it. She was alive, but the accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. When I heard the news I was devastated. I could not stop crying and I called everyone in tears, TJ, my mother. It was hard for me to breathe. Shyla and I had been friends since middle school and she was like a sister to me. I felt like I was mourning her. I felt like she was dead. The news hit me so hard I had to keep reminding myself that she was alive.

Seeing her meant going to Saint John, a town that sounds to be much like Syracuse. On the way to New Brunswick we got delayed at the airport in Montreal. I cried into TJ’s lap for what felt like hours, devastated that we would arrive in Saint John too late to visit Shyla in the hospital. I hated the airline. I hated the feeling I felt in my stomach, this horrible knot of despair that turned and coiled until I felt so sick inside I thought I could die.

By the time we made it to Saint John it was pouring rain and midnight. The cab driver asked what we were doing in town and when we told him, he already knew of the accident. It had been all over the news. The scenario of seeing her in the hospital played out in my head over and over like a broken film reel with missing frames. The emotions were so strong they overrode the images. I couldn’t see her smiling in my visions. I couldn’t see me smiling in my visions. I saw only unparalleled sadness. I felt this sense of complete and utter loss even though she was alive.

Visiting hours were over and so TJ and I had little else to do but waste time in Saint John until we could see her in the morning. We grabbed an umbrella and decided to check out area. It was so late and we were exhausted, but we thought we’d better grab a drink somewhere down by the water and experience a taste of the town while we were there. We were also hungry, but nothing was open. Saint John is a port town, a place for cruise ships to stop through. But it felt like a ghost town, the rain sinking inside our bones and forcing us to confront the shiver we felt inside.

We weren’t able to see Shyla in the morning. She had a rough night and barely slept, finally resting her eyes some time after the sun had come up. So TJ and I decided to explore Saint John in the daytime. Even in the sunlight, the town felt desperate. The buildings and houses were so old and evidence of a fire that wiped out half the town many years before still remained. Nobody was around. In a coin and collectibles shop, old men talked about wars of the past. We walked down streets that were so empty we could hear our footsteps on concrete. It was a place without many sounds. As a city girl used to the noise of the streets, the silence disturbed me. I don’t remember hearing any birds.

When we finally saw Shyla, the experience was hardly the depressing scene I had been imagining and instead she possessed this unworldly acceptance of the accident, of her fate. I never saw her cry and she never once looked like she might. Everyone else, including me, was a total mess, but Shyla was calm. She knew something we didn’t yet. She knew that everything, including her, would be okay.

Back at the gallery, our experience in Saint John still haunted us. While our visits with Shyla turned out to be beautiful, the town itself had left scars on our souls. It felt like the painting knew this, that it recognized this inherent confusion, this suffering and intensity that we had experienced in the days leading up to our visit to Saint John, and the kaleidoscope of emotions that came with it. Some people don’t understand why we purchased art that reminds us of something so depressing, but the work continues to speak to us each day, forever its meaning just slightly evolving. These days when I look at it, it reminds me not to take things for granted, that everything can be taken away from you. Whether it’s in a minute or gradually over the span of a few months, you can lose things you never knew you could lose.

But more importantly, it tells of the power of turning something painful into something meaningful, and of seeing the beauty beyond the grain. It inspires me. It reminds me that everything is going to be okay.

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