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Peter Cooper

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Books by Peter Cooper
Measure of Downcast in Her Eyes
By Peter Cooper
Friday, September 19, 2003

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She teaches during the day and paints at night, but when her paintings refuse to look her in the eye, she has to make some decisions.

Art is a difficult proposition. There's nothing down on one knee about it. And there are things found only in art and life that are difficult to come face to face with; like art and life.

Grace taught art appreciation courses to grade-schoolers in a small town. At home, she taught her small children life appreciation. The little boy, Danny, and smaller girl, Corinne, would look up at her with great big eyes, and she would have to look away.

She told her closest friend, Joyce, that she could never become a great artist in her own eyes because she filled up too easily, panicked by a fear of drowning in emotion. Joyce had some clear and simple advice for Grace:

"Learn how to swim."

Grace took Joyce's advice and began a series of women's portraits in oil, conjuring her subjects in her mind. She worked at night in a tiny attic studio, after the children were snuggled into their beds. The artificial light of the small room cast a harsh glare over the canvas and the small window was so far away the fumes hovered around her like an obstinate cloud. Grace could have moved closer to the open window, but that would have meant moving away from the light. Without a compromise, Grace chose the light.

The women she painted were both unimportant and very important to her. At one time or another, they had served as a backdrop for her development as a person. Mrs. Jackson worked in a grocery store Grace used to pass as a child on her way to school. Remy White was the black woman who taught her the important lessons of the fourth grade. Emily Pickens was her best friend in high school. Emily's beauty was legend in their town and she married far above her family's ordinary standing.

Now, Emily's face gave her more trouble than any of the others. Try as she did, Grace could not recreate that legendary beauty. One element or another eluded her every effort. In the end, Grace questioned her friendship, which obviously proved flawed by her inability to accurately portray her best friend's finest quality.

Each of the women in the series was completely different, but under her attic scrutiny they became alarmingly similar. And it was more than the fact that none of the women looked directly back at the artist; all with their eyes downcast. It was more than the artificial light, more than the fact that she was always high from the fumes as she worked halfway into the night.

And while she couldn't put her finger on the process, Grace had a sneaking suspicion the problem had less to do with them and more to do with her. But which her? The her that knew each of the women? Or the her that had grown from their acquaintance? Or was there another her she still hadn't realized yet?

Grace's musings were cutting into her painting time, so she stopped thinking and just painted: Hazel Courtney, Martha Blanks, Louella James, the wife of the parson; Penny Davidson.

After eight months she grew tired of women's faces and tried to paint a man. The face that appeared on the canvas was that of Alan Devereaux, a gay friend from College who was currently living in Atlanta. But Grace became confused midway through the painting and put the canvas behind some old ones in back of the easel.

She had had trouble with the nose and mouth and couldn't get his eyes to look down in his imaginary lap. Instead, his eyes stared straight out at her, without accusation, almost with a simple wonder, as if to say, "Why did you pick me, of all men?"

The next five women were unknown to Grace. Perhaps they had been passing strangers whose features had stuck in her mind. Another thought was less comforting. What if this new series were friends she had forgotten, whose insignificance lay in some oversight on her part. But, just where did the artist's responsibility lie? What aspect of Alan Devereaux's personality held fast against her artist's inability to look her creations in the eye?

Paint. Paint. Don't answer any questions, just paint.

She did six more women before attempting another man. This time she broke another pattern. The man Grace painted, Iver Kroll, was the principal at the school where she taught. Unlike her distant friends and strangers, she saw him every day, though they only communicated as teacher and administrator.

Like Alan's, Iver's eyes too, refused to lower, and Grace was determined not to let this obstinacy stop her from finishing. During the two weeks it took her to finish the portrait, she found herself staring at him in school whenever they met, attempting to fathom every secret fold in his face. Several times he noticed her attention and Grace rewarded him with a sharp blush.

One night at a school mixer, she found herself standing next to him. The children were doing their best to act in an adult manner, though they remained segregated on either side of the gymnasium according to the safety of their gender.

Iver leaned over during a loud song and whispered, "How about a drink afterward? I think it's the least we deserve after this."

After Grace's husband left her and the children, she vowed never to take up with another man. But she did owe Iver something for painting his face, and he was, after all, safely married. What harm could there be, she thought as she nodded her assent.

They drove ten miles out of town to a small bar surrounded by trees. There was a patio overlooking a dark lagoon, and they sipped their drinks, occasionally swatting away the mosquitoes.

As they communed in uncomfortable silence, Grace discovered complex areas of flesh within his face that she had never noticed before. A slight puffiness beneath his left eye that was missing from below the right. His jowls were more pronounced than she had anticipated, and a slight scar darted almost invisibly across his forehead.

While she scanned his features, his eyes bore through her. There was no escaping them. They were a man's eyes; penetrating and unafraid. Grace caught herself. Unafraid? Her husband had been a drunkard and unemployable, yet he had the same intensity to his gaze. Alan Devereaux. Surely, Alan must have known fear as a gay man in the South, but even he was able to look her straight in the eye.

Grace shivered uncontrollably and Iver mistook it for chill. He suggested he drive her home as they had already finished four drinks. She nodded, rising. When they reached her house, he checked the mirror before slowing to the curb. Then he smiled and reached across to open her door from the inside. Holding her prisoner with his arm, he looked up at her with a fixed gaze.

"Why don't we do this again some time?"

"That would be nice." Grace said flatly. Ordinarily she would have demurred, but felt she might need to explore this question of this fear concept further.

Safely back in her attic, Grace lined up the portraits of the women from her past and interrogated them unmercifully.

"What are you afraid of?" she said to one.

"What could you possibly have to fear?" she asked of another.

But none of them would meet her glance, and her questions echoed back to her off the walls.

"Mrs. Jackson, you had a successful grocery store. You were secure financially." Grace stated rhetorically.

"Remy White, all the children loved you more than their own parents. Surely, with all that affection. . . ?"

"And you, Emily. You had the lever of beauty and took advantage of the situation. Didn't you marry a rich man? Don't you live in the lap of luxury?"

No answer. Grace got down on her knees and tried to look up into their faces. Even at that acute angle her subjects managed to evade her.

"Hazel, Penny, Courtney, Martha. Louella, you are respected by every woman in the county. Won't you tell me?"

Grace was stopped by her own question. Every "woman" in the county? Could that be it? She looked back at her canvas congregation.

"Is that it? Didn't the men respect you, also?"

Her eyes rested on each of the down turned faces before her. Their individual fears hitched up with the one thing each had to be proud of.

"Mrs. Jackson. You knew you would be respected only as long as your grocery turned a profit, didn't you?"

"And you, Remy White. Did people think that your own children went without love because of your work at the school?"

"Emily, are you afraid that your husband will discard you when your looks fail?"

Grace thought back to her difficulty in recreating that legendary beauty. Her own experience clouded her apprehension of the Emily Pickens of today.

"Louella, how many people lay in wait for your one indiscretion?"

The fear was one of recognition, Grace realized. A man could fail and still be a man. When a woman failed. . . could she still be a woman? What if she succeeded, did she then become a man?

Grace allowed her eyes to roam around the room. The assembly of down turned faces reminded her of a childhood prank. If you looked at the ground long enough, eventually a group of curious people would join in, looking for whatever they imagined to be lost. Grace looked down at her feet in an attempt to find the answers in the floor boards. She saw herself, there with all the others, balanced on the blade of womanhood. One incautious step away from disaster. The blade cut into her feet.

Taking a fresh canvas from the stack, Grace began to pencil in the outline of a face. She worked around the eyes, preferring to deal with them later. The face was familiar, but she couldn't place it exactly.

Halfway through the effort, a voice called out for a drink of water. Wiping her hands on her shirt, Grace went down the stairs and filled a glass. Corinne smiled up at her from a bare semblance of wakefulness. Grace forced herself to look deeply into the large brown eyes. Her daughter dropped her eyes for a moment to drink from the glass, then the eyes reappeared over the rim of the cup.

Grace felt herself begin to fill dangerously with love. Just as she thought it would spill over, a funny thing happened; Corinne began to take back the excess. They sat there for the longest time, trading across an evenly balanced route. Then Corinne's eyes closed dreamily and she slipped back into sleep with a wonderfully satisfied grin.

Drinking the last sip of water, Grace floated back to the attic. Before returning to the unfinished canvas on the easel, she pulled out Alan Devereaux, studying his face. His eyes stared straight out at her, without accusation. She recognized the simple wonder of his look. It came in the form of a question.

"Who the hell wants to be a man?"

A thought came to her, echoing up from the exchange with her daughter. 'Only woman gives life.' Grace looked at the face of the principal. 'Man only takes life, don't forget.'

The silent chorus of women surrounded her, clamoring to be understood at last.

"We bring men into the world."

"We are unwitting accomplices to their betrayals."

"We were given the responsibility of life and then allowed them to misuse that gift."

"Ours is the sin of creation."

Grace painted furiously, no longer concerned with accurate portrayal, concentrating instead on removing, or obscuring the traces of unfortunate shame from the face before her. She finished just before dawn, applying the final touches to the direct, outspoken eyes that stared out from the canvas.

Corinne woke her sometime in the early morning. Sunlight traveled like a runner down the middle of the attic. Her daughter shook her excitedly, and Grace fought through the cobwebs of sleep to catch up to the little girl.

"Mommy, how did you do it?"

"How did I do what?" she asked groggily.

"Paint this picture. Did you use a mirror?"

"What are you talking about, sweetie?"

"This painting. It's you, isn't it?"

Rising stiffly from the corner where she had curled, Grace walked over to the easel, unsure as to whether she wanted to look. The woman in the painting made Alan Devereaux seem insignificant. The insincerity of the principal's eyes became apparent in the natural light of the sun.

"That's you. Isn't it, Mommy?" Corinne clapped her hands gleefully.

Around the room, the other women seemed to huddle defensively. What is the artist's responsibility? To expose the deformities of others while looking for some truth? Display another person's weakness while pretending to have some personal strength? Was that the implication?

"Please tell me I'm right, Mommy. I just know it's you."

Grace felt the blade of womanhood cutting into her feet. At that moment, Danny appeared in the doorway and Corinne ran up to him.

"Look. Mommy's painted a picture of herself."

The boy gazed at the picture steadily. "You're right, sis. It does look a bit like her."

"I knew it! I knew it!" Corinne danced around the room skipping.

"Except for the eyes," Danny said seriously.

Grace felt herself topple disastrously as Danny continued. "They look more like your eyes, sis."

The boy turned and mother and daughter listened to his soft footsteps on the stairs. Grace could see Corinne's confusion without knowing how to repair the little girl's joy. She glanced at her, but the girl dropped her eyes to the floor. The artist in Grace started to measure the downcast in her eyes. She forced herself to stop.

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