Fiction

Last Lesson with the Lotus Painter

Credit: AnhTuan Le via flickr.com

During my last lesson with the lotus painter, the asphalt road in front of her studio glistened nigh-metallic under the sun. The air was not air so much as it was an incredibly dense state of matter in between liquid and gas that bordered on defying the laws of physics. My shirt had already begun to stick to my back by the time I had reached the gate to her studio. It was high summer, my last one in Saigon, and it was ending soon. Well, in Saigon, it pretty much is always summer, but in less than a month I was going away, off to somewhere else, where summer wasn’t so everlasting. My last day with the lotus painter was part of the farewell process.

I pulled on the rope attached to the bell in front of her gate and waited. Even this was hot to the touch, and my hair felt as if it would catch on fire if I stood under the sun for much longer. Two flowering bushes skirted the gate, one on the left and another on the right, their leaves leathery-green and shiny, the flowers plump and bright pink. Potted plants, some of them in makeshift pots made from haphazardly-cut bottoms of water bottles, were placed on the ground directly in front of the bushes. These, too, seemed to glitter in the heat. Looking at them, I became hyper aware of the beads of sweat that had begun to transpire and drip down not just on my face but also my neck.

Promptly, the lotus painter’s assistant, a younger woman who accompanied the lotus painter, and whose hair was always neatly tied up in a bun, unlatched the lock on the gate and welcomed me inside.

The lotus painter’s studio is very small. It also isn’t just a studio. Once you opened the gate, you are also inside her home: what was probably supposed to be a front garage was converted into a cramped–but at the end of the day effective — nine meters squared space for her students to work on their paintings. To the right of this space, against a nondescript beige wall, are shelves containing various students’ oil paint sets, paint brushes, sculpted busts in varying degrees of completion, palettes, and sketching pencils, all musty with use and flecked with remnants of paint. To the left is a glass-top table where the painter places whatever she wanted you to paint on that day — usually flowers or, as in this case, fruit. I had been painting, with oil paints, the fruits she had set down on the table the day before: a few mangosteen, an avocado and some other tropical fruits for which I know the Filipino words and some of the Vietnamese, and certainly not the English.

During that last lesson, I was all alone with the lotus painter and her assistant. I didn’t speak much Vietnamese, the lotus painter didn’t speak much English, and her assistant spoke none, but we managed. Perhaps when it comes to art, you only needed the bare minimum of words to get your point across.

Above the remodeled front garage-turned-mini studio is a heavily scratched corrugated translucent roof through which, on a rainy day, you could see and hear the rain violently pummeling it. And ahead, of course, is the lotus painter’s dimly lit living room where, on the last day I met her, she was sat working on a watercolor painting of lotuses on silk, one she had started the week before.

The walls of her living room, indeed the entire first floor, are replete with paintings of her lotuses of different sizes, shapes, colors, multitudes, and stages of decay. Some bright pink and in full bloom, others brown and dead, others spilling seeds onto wanting mud. Some in recognizable Saigon ponds or rivers, others against abstract washed-out backgrounds that bore no sense of time or place. Some even have real gold worked into the silk; others still had pencil marks faintly visible under the thinly applied paint. Yet for all their differences, these lotus paintings all shared one thing in common: the lotus painter’s distinct style. All her paintings displayed an exacting intricacy and precision that the brushstrokes on each little vein on every leaf exhibited.

The centers of lotuses were meticulously dotted with seed, every tiny petal given just as much attention and care as the outer, larger petals. And yet at the same time, the flowing, easy way the lotuses sprawled all over the spaces of her paintings, the tranquil yet changing waters in which they resided, the green roots, stalks and stems which bent and twisted every which way, all of this betrayed something lush and organic.

It wasn’t really just ornamentation, what the painter was doing; it was also an exercise in articulating life.

Her trembling, aging hands threatened to unravel all of that.

‘Xin chào bà,’ came my customary greeting to the painter, which, at the time, I didn’t really realise was going to be the last. It took about three seconds for her to turn her head from her work to smile at me and greet back. Her eyeglasses, set slightly askew and a bit too low down her nose, gleamed with a white glow, reflecting the sunlight from outside that had filtered through the iron bars at the top of the gate.

The lotus painter had a quiet, sage look about her that would be underestimated by a casual onlooker. I’ve never met her outside her studio, but I know that if I hadn’t met her before, and I had bumped into her on the street, possibly carrying her fruits, “prolific artist” wasn’t going to be the first thing that would come to mind. She wore loose-fitting dusters, nondescript ones with typical dyed cotton fabrics that any elderly lady would wear, but, upon closer inspection, reminded me of the ones my great-grandmother, a trained seamstress, used to wear. They look as if she’d sewn the dusters herself, with much skill. Her hair, mostly silver with a few black strands rebelliously peeping out, was short and only reached to her ears, yet she still wore a black plastic headband to push it back, similar to the ones I used to wear when I was in primary school. She wore well-worn slippers, the soles caked with dust. Most striking, I thought, were her hands. She kept her nails manicured, and so they had the deceiving appearance of complacency, of idleness that so many erroneously attribute to old age.

Xin chào.’ She greeted back in her typical brief, straightforward, though not cold, manner of speaking. I don’t think she realized it would be the last time she was going to say that to me, either. Then she quickly returned to her work.

Noting this unspoken sense of industriousness that she wished to pursue, I obediently sat down on the plastic stool in front of the canvas I was working on. I set out my paints and brushes and refilled my can with turpentine, put on my apron. All of this preparation seemed to take a languorous length of time; such was the dulling effect of the heat on the senses. I took an age to take my palette, which by then was a conglomeration of multiple big bangs of assorted color combinations and paint thicknesses from the day before. Then I started to continue painting the fruits.

The lotus painter continues to be extremely prolific. It’s said she’s painted over a thousand paintings, most of them already sold in private collections or in numerous exhibitions all over the world, but because her living room itself was covered with so much of her own work hung on the walls, one would get the impression that she reclusively keeps her paintings to herself, as some painters do. Not so with her. She’s always producing so much work, always sending them off somewhere else. Sometimes she herself would be away for days or even weeks at a time, off to some exhibit in some distant corner of the earth far from her cosy little Saigon studio. That’s the thing with the lotus painter; she never stops working. It may be midnight in Saigon right now, but I can assure you she is working on a lotus painting or two.

Before coming under the tutelage of the lotus painter, I had never used oil paints. Indeed, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do whenever I painted. I didn’t really know how to control the amount of thinner used, how to communicate what I saw on a blank canvas, how to replicate light. I painted with the haphazard, directionless manner of the haphazard, directionless 18-year-old I was. But in the short month that I had been learning from her, oil paints very quickly became my favorite medium; through them I discovered a mode of expression I previously hadn’t been able to explore, that which I never knew I wanted until then.

In her studio, the lotus painter would come to check on me periodically to observe my progress. She curated my use of texture, my sense of perspective, the way I suggested light in the painting, my color mixing, how much thinner I was using, the works. I came to use oil paints the way she did, came to see lighting and color the way she did. It was disquieting at first, to be so taken by one particular style, to be under the influence of one person, but perhaps that was just exactly what I needed for my art at the time.

But on that last day, she didn’t check up on me at all; that day, she was engrossed in her watercolor silk painting.

“Come here,” she commanded, breaking the silence around half an hour in, gesturing to the silk painting she was working on. “Take a look.”

On my way to her painting, I brushed against a vase of dead lotuses that were spray-painted gold. Thankfully, I hadn’t knocked the whole vase over, but one of the stalks of the dead lotus heads snapped and fell to the floor.

Xin lỗi,’ I stuttered, and I could feel my cheeks turning the color of the plump flowers outside her studio, as I stooped down to pick up the dead lotus head. The assistant then came to me, gently taking the decapitated lotus from my hands, smiling to reassure me that it was OK. Nevertheless, my hands were trembling when I looked back up at the painter.

But she hadn’t noticed at all.

“Look, watch, and tell me what you think it is about.”

I looked at the painting, a work in progress of watercolor lotuses painted onto a sheet of silk about three meters across and one meter in height. Like many of the other paintings of lotuses hung on the walls of her studio, her meticulous style was immediately apparent. There were so many lotuses on this work, it was nearly impossible to count them all. They were floating on some unnamed, abstract body of water, subtly hinted at by faint washes of mauve and grey which served as the background. The lotuses themselves hadn’t been finished yet, but one could tell that they were going to be of different sizes, different configurations, different stages of decay.

At that moment, the painter was working on three larger lotuses in the foreground. To the left, a young lotus, not yet bloomed, rosy pink in color. Its petals were bunched up and huddled together, as if too shy to reveal anything to the world. Its stalk was straight and unwavering, yet gave away a sense of stiffness. It seemed content to be on the lily pad it had grown up from and stay there.

The middle one, a lotus in its prime, was vast, with innumerable dark pink, fleshy petals, arranged in concentric fashion. Here the lotus painter’s fine skill was displayed in its full glory; it seemed to jump straight out of the silk sheet, a real live lotus that made you forget about everything else in the painting, made you almost swoon with amazement at the skill it must have taken to paint. And it wasn’t even finished yet.

To the right, a browned, decomposing one with no petals. It wasn’t really strictly a lotus flower anymore, just a dark, drooping stalk at the end of which was the centre seed pod, which was filled with disquieting black holes. Holes from which issued seeds.

I looked at the lotus painter. And then I watched her for a long time practicing her craft. I watched her dip her brush into her watercolors and dish of water, watched her carefully combine colors, watched the way her hands shook, uncontrollably, when she raised her arm to the silk sheet. I watched her struggle to fill in the tinier petals in the center of the middle lotus, watched the way the brushstrokes betrayed her quivering, watched the paint insolently cross the pencil lines they shouldn’t have strayed away from. I wanted to hold her arm, help her straighten it, prop it up and control the errant paint that didn’t want to listen to the artist. But I couldn’t do anything, just stood there, helplessly, stiff as the stalk of the left lotus. The lotus painter didn’t say anything. The room was deathly quiet.

All at once I felt a pang in my stomach, something stronger than hunger, the kind of pang that travels up your throat and threatens to ooze out of your eyes.

She looked up at me expectantly.

“What do you think?”

I had to pretend I didn’t have a massive lump in my throat when I replied, “I think it’s about time.”

She took a long look at her own work and promptly nodded.

All of a sudden, her assistant came rushing into the living room, her face dripping with sweat and her hair wildly poking out of her scalp in tufts. “Grandma, the cooking is burnt!” I caught from what little Vietnamese I could understand and possibly guessed from the smell wafting from the kitchen that only now did I notice.

The lotus painter laughed a rich, blooming laugh.

“That’s alright,” she said in Vietnamese to the assistant. “We have fruit!” She stood up from her stool, half-hobbling to her living room table where she had a basket of the same tropical fruits I was painting. The assistant again came rushing with a chopping board and knife and offered to chop for her, but the lotus painter waved her away and began chopping some of the fruits herself. I didn’t know if I could bring myself to watch her hands again, so I respectfully looked away.

I looked at her half-finished painting, wondered when she would finish it, whether I’d even get to see it finished.

“Would you like some?” she asked when she finished chopping the fruit, and I looked at her handiwork of carefully-sliced fruit faintly shimmering in the dim light, their juices spilling onto the chopping board. I couldn’t really refuse, nor did I want to, and the simple kindness of the lotus painter moved me. “Yes please,” I said meekly.

When the lotus painter raised her head to give me a slice, I happened to see that her eyes were wet, but I pretended I didn’t see it. Then she told me we both better get back to work; there wasn’t much time left.

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