There’s a certain scrolling speed at which it’s possible to glimpse an Instagram feed without triggering the autoplay on the platform’s incessant video advertisements. I was cruising at this speed one afternoon, getting a sense of what people were posting, when a striking composition of muted shape, color, and half-light beckoned me backward. I thumbed my way up for another look at the image, which registered on a second glance as a painted landscape. It was an urban scene, or perhaps suburban, but in the original sense of the word, meaning that the commute between this neighborhood and the city center could likely be made on foot, and probably even without passing under a roaring highway.
The focal point of the painting was a home on a corner, a shotgun house of the kind that you can, as they say, shoot a cannon through and not do damage, as long as the front and back doors are open. A few shrubs and a little patch of grass were illuminated to almost neon green by the heavy stare of a sodium vapor streetlight. Otherwise, all was swathed in darkness, apart from the faintest glow in the sky, either night giving way to day, or day giving way to night, the vague shapes of cloud just barely catching a whiff of indigo from the sun’s earliest breath, or its last gasp, take your pick. It’s impossible to tell from the perspective of the viewer, and anyway, the ambiguity, for me, was one of the piece’s most alluring qualities.
Then I went somewhere. If it took an instant to recognize the subject of the painting, it took a fraction of that time for it to pull me into my own past, backward through the years and into a milieu in which my current self, the one who thinks in fiscal rather than calendar years, would have probably come off like a space alien, or more likely, a bad joke, to the person I once was. The painting took me back to my university years, and not the first set, but the last, when we were all pursuing so-called “terminal” degrees, our intelligence, stubbornness, and tolerance for overwork carrying us forward, tumbling, it felt like sometimes, toward an attainment that would certainly transform us into the most complete versions of ourselves, or so we hoped.
I learned later that “Above It All,” the name of the painting in question, had been created from a scene in New Orleans. With that context in mind, I could absolutely see the likeness, having spent a little time in that city myself. But the place the painting took me to is many miles, even states, even regions away from southern Louisiana. It spirited me instead to the Midwestern college town where I took my graduate education, a location that, despite its relatively northern latitude, is warmer year-round than some outsiders might expect, and which, as some insiders occasionally remark, is about as far north as the South goes. That is to say: it, too, has its share of shotgun-style houses, and these are packed tightly into the leafy neighborhoods rolling south and west from downtown.
This town also has an ample network of alleyways, and they are of the same kind that’s seemingly crossing the foreground of “Above It All,” and wandering out of frame in either direction, toward secret ways, where, perhaps, the glow of the streetlight does not penetrate, and the pavement turns to blacktop, and the blacktop turns, in places, to a mulch of fragmented composite, uneven stones, and persistent grass, to say nothing of the alleyside trees, brambles, and unruly shrubbery, which in some spots grow so thick that they seem to crawl overhead, forming the kind of canopy that’s not supposed to exist north of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Along these alleyways, the painting reminded me, the darkness becomes palpable, the crickets and katydids keep the time, and signs of human habitation draw back, so all that remains is the occasional click-on of a central air conditioning unit, the acrid tang of a distant smoker’s late-night refreshment, or the furtive sliver of amber shining out through a rear window and flashing briefly through the tangle of foliage that separates the alley, wild and untended, from the darkened back lawns, maintained but turned navy blue by the moonlight.
For nighttime walks, I always preferred these alleyways to the main roads. Over the years, I got good at navigating them, so that eventually, I could make it from one end of town to the other without spending much time at all on the sidewalks of the main thoroughfares, where the traffic never seemed to slow down to more than ten miles an hour over the limit, and where, at night, especially on weekends, crosswalks became chicken games, and headlights became search lamps, ever hunting for their next meal. Taking the alleyways, I could remain safe, remain hidden, even hear my own thoughts as I roved between home and whatever dalliance was occupying my mind at the time.
In particular, the painting caused me to remember alleyway walks taken on the way back from the watering holes that clustered around the town square in a three-block radius, from endless house parties where living room dancing gave way to all-night singalongs, from community potlucks at the local Christian radical compound, and from rock shows on soaking-hot summer nights, the outdoor air, though sultry, still a welcome reprieve from the radiant heat of bodies thronging into the club to hear this or that musician screaming or droning his catharsis onstage.
I remember the sense of solitude these midnight rambles brought, a required tonic for an only child like myself, a way of temporarily disengaging from the many familiar faces I was sure to encounter on a night out: the friends, the romances, the colleagues, the townies, all of us bound up, helplessly, it could be said, by the center of gravity that the university claimed in our lives, all of us seeking recreation within a field of play that made it almost mathematically impossible not to run into one another in the space of an evening. In a town so small, there’s no escaping you, as the singer sang.
That life feels as distant now as the shore does from the sea, as the vessel moves intransigently forward, heedless of what it’s leaving behind. What’s startling in retrospect is how the experience of walking those neighborhoods and alleyways, and the layers and layers of sensory delights that the walks conjured, vanished at some point, squirreled away to some neglected nook of memory, because I graduated, in the end, and moved on, and changed, and in fact, grew slowly into a version of myself that I like quite a bit better — but without ever having stopped to archive the interstitial spaces, the secluded paths, the dark lanes, of the place that I called home for almost six years. No matter the seeming durability of the ingrained patterns I carved out for myself then, they were gone, or at least, made inaccessible. “Above It All” brought them back.
They say you should never buy a piece of art you don’t absolutely have to have. When at last I came out of my reverie, I knew I had to have “Above It All,” for the forgotten parts of my own story that it had returned to me. Its appearance on Instagram had been somewhat utilitarian. The artist, New Orleans-based Ben Hamburger, had used it as the accompanying image for a painting class for which he was seeking students. I know no further details about the class, as I navigated immediately to his website, where I discovered that the only way to get in touch was through a generic “leave a message” form, of the sort that elicits a response about as often as it sends one’s email into the digital ether, never to be heard from again.
But Ben, bless him, wrote back the next day, and I learned more about “Above It All,” including its medium (oil), its size (a feature-worthy 30 by 24 inches), and its location (Gallery Orange, a French Quarter art boutique barely two blocks west of the Mississippi River). That last factor sent a pang of worry rippling up my back. I remembered my own trips to New Orleans and the heavy foot traffic that characterizes the French Quarter at all times of day. My mind flew to a disaster scenario in which my dear painting was being snatched up by some bead-bedecked philistine who had not a shred of the personal affinity for the piece that I had. Thankfully, such a catastrophe was not to be. Ben connected me with the gallerist, and we quickly sorted payment and delivery details. In retrospect, I like to think it was exactly my personal affinity that guaranteed “Above It All” would ultimately come home with me.
I don’t mind saying that it took more than one month and more than one check before a sturdy, well-packed parcel arrived at my door. Call it a version of fine art layaway. With my first payment, I enclosed a note to Ben in which I thanked him for making work that reconnected me with a part of my own biography that had been lost with the demands and accelerations of life after graduate school. He wrote back: “I am honored to have this piece in your collection. Thank you so much for the kind words. It means a lot to me.”
We did not correspond further, but his painting, or mine, or ours, as it were, now hangs above my bed in a space that easily allows me to stop and admire it multiple times a day. There is so much that has changed, most of it for the better, since the scene in “Above It All” represented anything like everyday life to me. Yet I stand in front of it, and I contemplate, and it floods me with gratitude for ways traveled, and lessons taught there, most of them variations on the theme that I am enough for my own life, even if it took a long period of seeking before that lesson was truly learned. This, I think, is one thing art is meant to do: to help us return to our ultimate home, the one we cultivate in ourselves, the one that was always there in the first place, regardless of how closely we might have chosen to look at it, as the seas around us pitched and swelled.