“Do You Like Art?”
“Do you like art?"
It was technically a vague question. Inferring from the context of our conversation, I thought he was referring to paintings.
"What, like the Picasso and Da Vinci we were talking about?"
He nodded, watching me closely.
Perhaps his eyes prompted me to forgo the usual ambivalence that I adopt in statements made to strangers at a tea shop.
"Not really," I said, slightly liberated by the truth.
"I mean I get that they are famous and there’s a lot of skill involved. But...they just don’t do anything for me."
He smiled, understanding the sentiment.
"I was just like you." He said, signalling for two additional cups of coffee.
"Many years ago, when I was still in my twenties," he said, "I was hospitalized for about two weeks."
I nodded sympathetically.
"Not for a physical condition," he quickly added, shaking his head. "I was a little...off." He tapped his head with a wry smile.
"I’d been addicted to sleeping pills and when they weaned me off it, I became manic. Not to mention suffering from terrible insomnia."
"They put me in a hospital ward, and the doors were locked. This was back when the Dutch government could lock you up if they deemed it necessary."
"So there I was, pacing up and down the hospital corridor, speaking thrice as fast as normal, with thoughts gushing through the nerves in my brain."
He paused to pick up the cup of coffee. "Imagine having ten of these in five minutes. Now imagine that energy lasting the whole day."
I raised my brow, trying to picture this fellow in a manic state.
"Ofcourse my life was in shambles, and staying awake the whole day didn’t help. I could think of all the mistakes I made till then. About how bleak my future was. How alone I had become."
His face turned dark as he thought back to that time.
"I was imprisoned. Under a lot of debt. Beholden to the state and the doctors and the ward nurses. All I could do was dash up and down that corridor."
He paused to take a long sip of fresh coffee. Suddenly he seemed to brighten up.
"And about a week after walking through that corridor every minute of the day, I felt exhausted. I guess the medication they’d prescribed was beginning to wear me down."
"I sat down in the middle of the corridor, my back against the wall on one side. And only then did I notice that there was a painting on the wall opposite me."
He looked at me, perhaps trying to choose the words that could best describe his thoughts.
"It took a few moments for my eyes to register to image. I wasn’t analyzing this painting at a gallery. There weren’t any signs or whispered suggestions prompting me to look at a particular spot. It was like watching a house through a car window, your mind half absent as your eyes explore.
And then, just like that, my mind snapped to attention. It’s that moment when your eyes refocus on the entire picture, for something has happened. Something has caught their attention."
It must’ve been obvious from my expression, for he paused to try and describe the painting.
"It was a painting of a ship in the middle of the sea. An old timey ship, the kind used to sail and discover new worlds. And I think it was an oil painting. Because the paint was thick, and left impressions on the canvas. The shades of blue were rough, almost violent, as violent as the sea they served to depict.
And as I stared at the picture, I could feel myself watching it come to life. The sturdy ship, in the midst of a turbulent sea. Conquering unchartered territory. And the way it was positioned, that’s what got to me. The ship was almost at the centre of the canvas. Behind it was just the sea and the rough sky. Not another ship in sight. No land in sight.
In that moment, I could feel the strokes of paint carry pages of words transcribed from my raging mind. The thick, harsh blue swishes seemed to convey all the turmoil and confusion I’d been feeling. And the emptiness of the horizon, where the stillness of the sky and sea merged, seemed to have spilt into the corridor, enveloping me in never ending miles of loneliness.
But it was the ship. The ship that seemed to sway a little yet hold steady as though with anchors dropped to counter the tumultuous waters. Its large sails fighting back against the stillness of the sky..."
His voice tapered off, as he shook his head and restored a wry smile.
"So whenever someone says to me that they don’t get paintings and other artworks, I think of that one framed in the middle of the corridor. Any other day of the week it might have looked like a picture from a postcard. But on that day, it was a summary of my soul."