Where a discouraged artist is inspired to discover their wings and soar.
1000 Day MFA: Week Six
As I stepped off the platform of the train station, a sleek, silver cab was pulling up to the curb. Under the assumption that it was somebody else’s ride, I dialled the number of the taxi company and waited for the line to connect. During this time, I watched the rest of the passengers descend down the exit ramp. There were hugs and kisses from reunited relatives, and dapper men and women in uniform, loading suitcases into awaiting cars. Strangely, not one paid any attention to the silver taxi, even though the door was open and the driver was leaning upon the door.
“May I be of assistance, sir?”
I looked up and noticed that the taxi driver was looking right at me and smiling. I smiled back. She reminded me of my grandmother with her silver flecked hair and oversized glasses.
“Could I trouble you for a lift to Broadbeach?”
“Of course”, she agreed. Relieved to be on my way, I pocketed my phone and made my way down the ramp.
The first thing that I noticed inside of the cab was how smoothly the taxi was running. I could not get over how quiet the engine was.
“Are all of the taxis like this in the Gold Coast?”
The cabbie grinned proudly.
“Electric cars are the way of the future, you know? Supposedly they are better for the environment, so they have my approval”.
“Incredible”, I marvelled, having never seen anything like it before.
As the journey continued we attempted some small talk to pass the time.
“Is this your first time to the Goldie, Matt?”, the cabbie began.
I nodded, forgetting that my face could not be seen in the dark. Gazing out of the taxi window I tried to make out the beach by the moonlight. Guided by the sound of the waves, at last I spotted the ocean. I could just make out the barrel of waves as they crashed upon the sand.
The cabbie laughed at my enthusiasm. I explained that I had grown up on a farm. While most people here could take the ocean for granted, for me it was very impressive.
“I understand completely”, she replied. “I grew up here and yet every time that I see it, the ocean still takes my breath away”.
I turned my gaze to my driver, hardly believing my luck. One of the perks of being paid to travel was meeting the locals. I looked forward to tapping into her local knowledge.
“If you could choose just one spot for me to visit this weekend, where would you recommend?”, I asked.
“Where to start..”, she pondered. I smiled, pleased to have this wealth of knowledge at my disposal.
“Somewhere picturesque would be nice”.
I told her about my visual diary and of my intention to sketch every new place that I visited in my life.
Her eyes lit up. Recognising what I was after, she rewarded me with a list of beaches. She also named a place called the Starlight Tower which she deemed to be the best viewing platform in all of the Gold Coast.
“Have you always been interested in drawing, Matt?”
I laughed and told the cabbie that I was more than interested. Drawing was my life and it was what I did for a living. .
“Can you actually make a living as an artist?”, she gasped.
I told her my story, that I had drawn every day ever since I was a boy. I had continued to do so, not because I desired to get rich or famous, but because I had no other choice. For me, the need to draw was equal to the need to eat, breathe and survive. Despite ridicule and the doubts of other people, I continued to follow my passion. I was well aware I was one of the fortunate few to be noticed and actually receive payment for what I do.
“I suppose you are headed to that convention this weekend, then?”
My writing partner and I had been lucky enough to be invited to showcase our latest comic: Deep Blue Sea.
“Hero-Con has been going on, ever since I was a little girl”, the driver reminisced. “My father likes it for the taxi business it generates, but not for anything else. He took me along once and told me afterwards that he regretted it. He considered it to be a gigantic waste of time for everybody involved”.
I could not comprehend such a sentiment. There had nothing like it around when I was a kid, so my memories of attending conventions were all very recent. I had just flown back from my very first Comic-Con in Los Angeles. Just being there, let alone being invited to take part had been electrifying.
“What did you make of Hero-Con?”
I asked this in hope that the cabbie had been more open to the experience. At first she frowned.
“I remember understanding my Dad’s point of view. There is no sense is any of it, really. Surely there are more productive ways to spend your time than dressing up and playing pretend. I do remember that it wasn’t all bad. My mum made me a Star Wars costume to wear, which I was quite pleased with at the time. I was especially impressed with the wall of art and comics. It is hard to believe but I used to be a lot like you. There was a time when I would carry a sketchbook everywhere. As you can imagine, it wasn’t a hobby that was tolerated for long in our house. There are times that I miss it. If only these weary hands weren’t so shaky I might just consider taking it up again”.
“You really should. You are driving a car just fine so your hands mustn’t be too bad”.
Suddenly the cabbie turned shy. I could just make out the blush upon her cheeks.
“I could never”, she murmured. “I wasn’t like I was any good at it. Anybody who ever saw my pictures said that I was wasting my time”.
“Who cares?”, I exclaimed.
“Did you enjoy what you were doing? If you truly miss drawing then it must have made you happy. I was told that all of my drawings were scribbles at school and I never cared. Your drawing are a part of you. That makes them important, even if you are the only one who will ever get to see them”.
“My drawing are important, hey?”, the cabbie sighed. “I suppose I should be glad after all of this time that somebody thinks so”. A part of me inside died. Horrible memories of art school came flooding back to me. We had a pretentious, overly critical teacher, Ms. Sharp, who was convinced that there was a right and a wrong way to produce art. Heaven help your grades and self confidence if yours was the wrong way. During the last thirty two years I had seen too many potential artists give in because of what others thought of them. To see this sweet woman fall victim to the disapproval of others was devastating.
I asked the cabbie her name. She said that it was Johanna Stern.
“What did young Johanna Stern like to draw?”
“Flying monsters” she answered without hesitation. Dragons, harpies, gargoyles: Johanna had been obsessed with fantastic, flying creatures.
I wished that I had been around to know young Johanna. Her creations would have been an excellent pairing with my endless assortment of sea monsters.
“Then I think that is what you should draw now as well. I hope that you give it a try. All that it takes is for you to believe in yourself”.
“Mmm”, Johanna muttered. In that moment I knew that she could never get past her doubt. I had lost her completely.
We rode in silence until she announced our arrival. I glanced at my watch. How could that be right? We had only been on the road for fifteen minutes. I did not expect to arrive at the hotel so soon. Shrugging this off, I paid Johanna her fare and waved her off into the night.
I should have been exhausted. I had only been back in Australia for a couple of days and I was still trying to catch up on sleep. My eyelids were heavy, however there was a compulsion within me that could not be suppressed. Unable to think of anything else, I unpacked my one of my unused sketchbooks and my inks. Panel after panel flowed out of me, until unexpectedly I had a new story. At the end of it, I added a dedication.
For Johanna. Never be afraid to spread your wings and soar.
Day one of Hero-Con was amazing and exhausting. My voice was hoarse, my hand was cramped from signing and sketching and I was all too eager to do it again tomorrow. For now what I craved was some peace and quiet in order to relax and recharge. With the rain spoiling any plans of visiting the beach, I thought back to Johanna’s sketching recommendations.
“Hey Maria, you haven’t come across the Starlight Tower in your travels yet, have you? I was thinking about going there tonight and having a quiet sketch”.
My writing partner shook her head. To help me out, she flagged down our convention director and local guru Phoebe James.
When I asked Phoebe, she frowned.
“Sorry, Matt, I have never heard of it”.
Strange. By the way Johanna had been talking, the Starlight Tower had sounded like a big deal. One by one, each person I asked within Artist Alley denied having heard it. Horace even tried finding out where it was on his laptop and he had no luck locating it either.
“It’s fine”, I declared after a while, tiring of the search. Figuring the best solution was to go directly to the source, I retrieved my phone.
Having chased up the number of the company: Seashell Cabs, I made the call.
“Hello, I am after a taxi, please”.
The receptionist on the other end was very polite.
“Certainly sir. Can you please give me your details?”
I told her that firstly I would like to request a particular driver.
“Her name is Johanna Stern. She was very helpful the other night and it would mean a lot to me if I could request her services again”.
“I will see what I can do”, the receptionist replied. I could hear the rustling of papers through the phone line.
“Stern.. Stern…. Are you sure that you have the right name? I don’t see any Johanna Stern here on our payroll”.
I told her that I was quite sure.
“Maybe there is a mistake in your paperwork. Her name was definitely Johanna Stern. She is an older lady, quite short and she wears large tortoiseshell glasses. She drives one of the silver, electric cabs”.
There was a prolonged silence on the other end.
“And you are absolutely sure that she was working for Seashell Cabs?”
“Of course I am sure”, I snapped. Surely I had not imagined the bold lettering on the side of the car. There had even been a seashell next to the logo, for goodness sake.
“Sir, I am sorry but there seems to have been a mistake. Johanna Stern does not work here, not do any of our drivers have cabs that fit that description. All of our cars are gold. I have never heard of a silver electric taxi anywhere, especially here in the Gold Coast”.
Clearly uncomfortable, the operator hung up before I could pose any argument.
“Matthew, come with me right now”.
Maria was suddenly by my side. Supporting my weight, she guided me to a nearby chair.
“What happened to you just now? You look like you have just seen a ghost”.
Poor Maria. I knew that I was trembling and that I was causing her to worry. Not having any other explanation, I settled for the truth.
“Maria, I think that I am losing my mind”.
Maria and Phoebe’s suggestion was an early night’s rest. They put the whole incident down as brain fog: the result of bouncing from convention to convention and not getting enough rest. Too tired to argue, I let them put me into a cab. Hard as it was, I tried my best to push Johanna Stern out of my head completely.
While I wasn’t required to be at the Convention Centre until 10am, I couldn’t bear to miss the costume parade. Blending in with the crowd, I stood back and watched the assortment of heroes, villains and monsters, march, wave and dance down the streets of Broadbeach. After it was over, I made it back into the centre just in time to hear the end of the costume competition.
“And now”, announced Phoebe, “Here at the 5th annual Gold Coast Hero-Con, here are our costume winners”.
My blood ran cold. Had she just said 5th? Not 25th or 50th? I could distinctly remember Johanna saying she had attended this convention as a little girl but clearly that wasn’t possible. I grabbed at an abandoned programmed left at my station and saw the number clearly in front of me: 5th. I slid into my chair and made a mental note to have a sit down with Phoebe that evening. Clearly I was not well. There was no way that I could continue on with the rest of the tour.
Thankfully, most of my fans were forgiving. Having discovered early in the day that I was too disturbed and distracted to draw any commissions, I limited myself to signings and answering questions. As a replacement novelty, Maria tracked down some drawing paper and pencils and set up an art station for budding illustrators. ‘Have Maria Goldstein name your creature’ was her pitch. I did not really mind that most of our visitors that day were kids. At least I could get some pleasure watching them express their creativity. The lapse in attention turned out to be a blessing. If I had been distracted then there was a good chance that I would have missed her. The little girl, especially in this crowd was in danger of being swallowed up by it completely. An older man, presumably her father, was dragging her along at an alarming rate.
“I have no idea how you roped me into this, Johanna. I can barely breathe in here. Choose one last thing to see then I am getting us out of here”.
Did he just say…?
I focused upon the girl, examining her jet black hair and large pink glasses. She was dressed up as a Star Wars character but it was not Princess Leia.
I stood up.
“I like your costume, Johanna”, I called. I could feel Maria glaring at me. This was the most spirited that I had been all day.
“You’re Rey from ‘The Force Awakens’, right? You have good taste. That was my favourite movie from last year”.
Johanna and her father stopped and stared. Johanna, despite not having a clue who I was, smiled right at me.
“I’m going over there, Dad”, Johanna announced. The father rolled his eyes and walked up to the counter with her.
“How exactly do you know my daughter?”, he began. I ignored him.
“Do you like my sea monsters, Johanna?”
Johanna took a moment to scan my display wall. When she looked back at me, her brown eyes were sparkling.
“Uh huh. Did you really draw all of them?”
“Do you want to have a turn?”, I offered. “Why don’t you ask my friend Maria for a piece of paper? I would love to see your best monster”.
“Not another monster”, he remarked under her breath.
“Please, Johanna”, I begged, not being able to bear her being talked out of this. Johanna looked from me, to her father, and then to Maria.
“Can I have some paper please?”.
I watched as this six year old created her masterpiece. While it was far from perfect, it was easy to see what it was supposed to be. The green majestic dragon was covered in leathery scales and its wings were fully open. I could see its spiky tail and the fireball coming out of its mouth. Maria, God love her, whistled when it was done and dubbed it Flaminator. Johanna giggled.
“Do you mind?”, I asked, grabbing my pen and her creation. I drew my first picture of the day, firstly adding an ocean underneath Johanna’s dragon. Then I added one of my favourite creatures, the aerobatic Seaclaw Dragon. I drew it leaping out of the water, splashing the Flaminator with its spray. I finished with my signature and a message of encouragement.
For Johanna, from your number one fan, Matt Chastain.
Rummaging underneath my table, I found my sketchbook from last night and presented it, and the drawing to Johanna.
“Read this when you get home, okay? I hope that you enjoy it”.
Johanna took the sketchpad. She opened it. When she saw the griffins on the first page, she gasped.
“I love it”.
“Are we done now? Good”. At last Johanna’s father was able to drag her away. I prayed that my comic would be enough to keep the girl inspired.
My mother used to tell me not to examine life too closely. It was much better just sit back and enjoy the ride. I have done my best to follow this advice over the years and not dwell upon my mysterious encounter. The best explanation I could come up with was that I was visited by a ghost that night. Was is a ghost of what could have been? An echo from another lifetime, from a future Johanna filled with regret? There was no way to know for sure. The one thing that I do know for certain lies in front of me here and now. I am standing in line waiting for the most remarkable young woman. As she looks up and smiles at me, I beam with pride. I wish that I had been that professional and composed at twenty-one. Of course I don’t expect for her to recognise me. Even fifteen years can seem like a lifetime ago. I wait patiently for my signature, and then thank her before I leave.
I feel a touch upon my hand.
Johanna rummages behind her station. She pulls out a clear packet and hands it to me.
“It only seems fair that you get to keep a copy. I still have mine. I cannot begin to tell you how much it means to me”.
I pull the comic out of the packet and flick through the pages. Each panel was the same as the ones I had drawn for Johanna, except that they were redrawn in her own style. She told the story of the griffins, not just once, but many times. Flipping through I could see her progression as an artist over the years. On the back page she had drawn two dragons entwined. The large one was blue, jagged and dripping with water. The second one, though smaller and covered with fine, purple and green feathers, has an impressive wingspan and a fierce look in her eyes. Underneath, I read her inscription.
For Matt Chastain. Thank you, Dragonfather. It is because of you that I was able to find my wings and soar. From your number one fan, Johanna Stern.
I take another look at our dragon portrait, and then quickly turn away, in fear of causing the ink to run.
“You astound me, Johanna” I manage to say at last. I reach for my Dragonchild and give her a hug. I could see her wings, on and off of the page, and they were magnificent.
If you enjoyed this story please click upon the pretty green heart below.