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The Memory Painter
Author:Gwendolyn Womack

The Memory Painter by Gwendolyn Womack

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In memory of Fukumi Mitsutake

I stand before the masters who know the histories of the dead, who decide which tales to hear again, who judge the book of lives as either full or empty, who are themselves authors of truth.… When the story is written and the end is good and the soul of a man is perfected, with a shout they lift him into heaven.

—Egyptian Book of the Dead


The paintings hung in the dark like ghosts. Too many to count—not an inch of wall space remained. The canvas eyes looked alive in the darkness, staring at their surroundings as if wondering what alchemy had transported them to this place.

The artist’s loft had an industrial air with its Lego-like windows, concrete walls, and cement floor. A dozen bolts of Belgian linen leaned in a corner next to a pile of wood waiting to be built into frames. Four easels formed a circle in the center of the studio, a prepared canvas resting on each. Their surfaces gleamed with white gesso that had been layered and polished to an enamel-like perfection, a technique used in the Renaissance to obtain a nearly photographic realism. This artist knew it well.

The paintings themselves were an eclectic ensemble. Each image captured a different time in history, a different place in the world. Yet the paintings had one thing in common: all depicted the most intimate moments of someone’s life or death.

In one painting, a samurai knelt on his tatami, performing seppuku. He was dressed in ceremonial white, blood pooling at his middle. The ritual suicide had been portrayed in excruciating detail, the agony on the samurai’s face tangible as he plunged the blade into his stomach. Behind him, his “Second” stood ready, his wakizashi sword poised to sever the samurai’s head. In the next painting, an imperial guard on horseback dragged a prisoner across a field in ancient Persia. And further along the wall, an old man wearing a turban stared into the distance, as if challenging the artist to capture his spirit on the last day of his life.

The studio had three walls, and the entire space was closed off by an enormous partition of Japanese silk screens. On the other side was a spartan living area with a kitchen hidden behind a sidewall. Down the hall, there was a smaller room unfurnished except for a mattress on the floor. The artist lay sprawled across it on his stomach, shirtless and in deep sleep.

Without warning, he sat up and gasped for air, struggling out of the grasp of a powerful dream.

“I am here now. I’m here now. I’m here now. I’m here now.” He chanted the words over and over with desperate intensity as he rocked back and forth in a soothing motion. But then, just as suddenly, his body went slack and his eyes grew distant as a strange calm descended over him. He got out of bed.

Entering his studio like a sleepwalker, he selected several brushes and began mixing paint on a well-used wooden palette, whispering words in ancient Greek that had not been heard for centuries.

His hands moved with a strange certainty in the dark. Time passed without his awareness. He painted until the hours towered above him, pressing down upon his body and begging him to stop. His feet grew numb, his shoulders stiff with pain. When the sun’s glaring noon light reached his window, a piercing pain lanced through his head, jarring him out of oblivion like an alarm clock.

I am Bryan Pierce. I am standing in my studio. I am here now. I am Bryan Pierce. I am standing in my studio. I am here now. I am Bryan Pierce. He forced the words into his consciousness, grabbing onto their simple truth like a child reaching for the string of a kite. The words were the only thing that kept him from flying away.

Bryan’s legs buckled and he sank to the floor, leaning against the wall for support. Hands dangling over drawn-up knees, his arms were streaked with every pigment on the studio shelf. His bare chest displayed similar stains.