Ekphrasis (not to be confused with Catharsis)

Twice I have wandered the solid-color halls of Crystal Bridges—a mostly free art museum in Bentonville, Arkansas—gazing at walls peppered with paintings, sketches, and collages like the glittering gemstone and woven feather earrings clinging to plastic jewelry trees in Macy’s. I drift among the art to appreciate it, to use it as an over-the-counter prescription for my nineteen-year-old college student ailments that come on especially strong in December.

The circumstances of my most recent visit are especially bent against my equanimity and “God is good” mantra. Compounded with the ordinary stress of projects, final papers, and exams that tax more time than is available at the end of the semester, my parents have been trying to sell our house in Colorado and move to my college town in Arkansas for nearly seven months. I had expected to move to Siloam Springs over the summer, to be settled and at home by the time the fall semester began. Consequently, I am paying more room-and-board charges than I had anticipated for this school year. In November, I slid my Chevy Colorado into the right-side cement guardrail of highway 412 with metal-crunching force during the first ice storm of the season. Now, my roommate and I are both car-less, and our campus is oppressively small when we cannot drive away from it whenever we wish. While my dad is near enough to take me places (like Crystal Bridges) as he is living in Springdale while he starts his new job, my lack of vehicular autonomy is often inconsolable.

My mom is in Colorado overseeing home improvement projects and money traps that might help our house sell quicker, my dad is trying to sleep at night in a ruckus hotel and get to work on time every morning, and I am uncomfortable in my college dorm room, stewing disappointment over the burned-out promise of a place that is mine. We have already spent Thanksgiving mostly apart. I have been praying—ungraceful oscillations between near-sighted angry rants and empty tear-dabbled pleas—that my family will be here, home together in Arkansas, by Christmas. But as the December days have woken and slept one after another with no prospects of a buyer or a new house, I’m beginning to draft my two-week resignation on praying for a complete family on Christmas. I lean heavily into the high ceilings of Crystal Bridges, and a small event hosted by one of my English professors, as a prescription-grade dose of human-made rest.

Upon walking into the raised doorway in the text-based art exhibit, the first thing you notice is the word HALFULL painted on the wall directly opposite you. It is in four-foot-tall citrus-colored capital sans-serif letters. HAL is orange; F is lemon yellow; ULL is green like a real lime peel, not like the lime green hue in Microsoft Paint. The closer you step to the perfect letters and expanse of raised wall stretching above them, the emptier you feel. Muffled voices and faint floral perfume—evidence of the strangers mingling behind you—are barely discernible above the pulse of footsteps and the not-so-faint scent of cleaning products on the hardwood floor. You stand before the word feigning bliss—that is, ignoring your exuberant list of end-of-semester assignments—as it sizes you up. Did the artist intend this word to be an accusation? You don’t notice how exhausted and unmoored you are until it labels you: half full.

My wedge heels clack across the room as I retreat to other textual artwork: a series of four prints, blocks of text pressed onto white matboard in a typewriter font and an excessive amount of ink. The citrus word still pricks the back of my head like orange juice that slides its way into a paper cut. I forget what the typeset ink prints say even as I read them. My busy schedule—my lack of time to experience my feelings or pray to God—is supposed to fill me. And this visit to Crystal Bridges is supposed to affirm that.

A month later, in January, I write a poem out of my mind’s imprint of HALFULL as its catalyst in an attempt to examine my rapidly emptying glass of energy and peace.

 …I sit, half full,

holding a handful of blank

paper and a heart

full of answerless amens…

In the other room, another artword piece entitled “Untitled” by Robert Rauschenberg is a plain-framed rectangle of sepia-tinted mixed media. A white 1960s car drives out of frame on the left side as faded working-class men, backs to you as their hatbands catch the sweat beading in their hair, walk past the Coca-Cola sign on the grayscale store-fronted street materializing on the right. A smattering of silver block-stencil letters float above the car, spelling nothing in particular. Time, direction, and reality are all unclear, much as they are in your own life. You shift your weight from right foot to left, the bones in your heels feeling as though they’ve been thumped with hammers. You stare at a shiny E in the center and see: the list of academic sources for your six-page paper on Hans Christen Andersen’s fairytales due in your Advanced Composition class next week, the vanilla latte you ordered in a shiny black mug at Pour Jon’s last week when maybe you should have been working on your paper but instead spent two hours laughing with your crush’s older sister, your resume for the bank teller job at Arvest you are going to attempt to secure for income over the summer to pay for next year’s creative writing classes—What’s the deadline for that application again? Perhaps I should check when I get back to the car—and suddenly you are no longer in attendance in the present.

The couples and families moving behind me as I blink at the mixed media exist only as murmurs and dull shoe-sole thuds against the floor. I stand with stiff legs, unanchored in the wanderings of my mind and over-populated schedule while “Untitled” waits for me to metaphorically sit with it. My feet continue to ache.

So I stay. One moment and then another. I scribble down a few thoughts in my notebook, the one with pocket-sized lined pages, a credit card sheath, and a dark leather cover, to use in future creative writing exercises. To the artist, I write, “I appreciate that you left this work Untitled. You didn’t tell me how to approach it.” And the ambiguity of the scene strikes me again. The pencil sketches of departing men and fading street shops stretch a distance between me and them, but the detail and outline of precision imply a closeness, like holding a street-level photo to your face and remembering the sounds and sights of the memory from which it was snapped. This artwork seemed my mirror: unmoored, certain only of uncertainty, designed.


Just as Rauschenberg knew the sense of every movement in his disjointed display even though his viewers do not understand, so God knows every interworking interlocking event of my life, though I cannot see the cleanly planned connections from where I stand. Just as Rauschenberg designed with intention and premonition each pencil chip and silver paint square of his art, so God outlines my days into an artistry of reason and faithfulness. All I can bring to this masterpiece, human and divine, is myself: my will to wait and my fists emptied of all I dragged with me.

m.d.

 

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