Red Warner’s Last Painting

Red Warner's Last Painting

Excerpted from the forthcoming novel, Visual Liberties

He’s now had his morning coffee and finished off a bowl of oatmeal with raisins and slices of banana. From the back of his closet he digs out the old coveralls he wears when painting, takes off his shirt, puts the coveralls on and slips his feet into paint splattered shoes that have been relegated to the back of the closet—hasn’t worn painting clothes for quite some time. He goes in to his studio and puts a Dave Brubeck CD in the player. He moves all the paintings that have been stacked against the back wall to the opposite side of the studio, unfurls a twenty foot length of canvas from a six-foot-wide roll and staples it to the wall. It takes him close to half an hour to cover it liberally with interior white house paint, water-based, spreading it with a wide roller in broad movements as if conducting an orchestra. The paint is uneven, thick here and thin there with runny drips in places and areas of almost bare canvas in other parts. If he were painting a wall it would be a lousy job.

He sits down and gulps air like a dog after a hard run. His hands are shaky, and for a moment he feels nauseous and dizzy, but shapes and textures are roiling in his head and he can’t wait for the dizziness to subside or for the paint to completely dry before he starts drawing into it with big sticks of charcoal, working now quickly and now slowly and deliberately, spending very little time on any one section but going rapidly from one end of the canvas to the other. He has always worked all over, dedicated to the theory that getting hung up on any one part of a painting disrupts the unity of the whole. He paints in rhythm to “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” “Strange Meadow Lark,” “Take Five.” The CD stops and he replaces Brubeck with Miles Davis and continues drawing with a burning fever of creativity. Through the open door into the living part of the house Shelly hears him coughing and wants to scream. So often she had heard Pop coughing like that and she knew how painful it had been for him.

He works for an hour like this. Gradually images began to emerge. It’s like finding pictures in clouds or smoke. The ancients did it with stars; thus we have the Great Bear, Orion the Hunter, the twins Casper and Pollux. Near the base of the painting are ground-hugging animals: snakes and alligators. In the middle section are people, an army of people. The sky above is crowded with birds. All of the animals and all of the people are marching forward; none are clearly delineated but are a conflagration of energetic marks—an army of gray coming out of gray clouds, silvery fish, blue horses in a blue sky and red birds in clouds of fire. The feeling that they are going to continue right off the canvas is strong.

His left arm starts to hurt. He paints the animals in the bottom section in tones of green and black, every once in a while making a random slash of the green paint in the top sections, the idea being to have a little something from each section bleed into or pop up unexpectedly in the other sections, a corollary to his dictum to paint all over. The pain in his arm is stronger and he now feels constriction across his chest. He’s getting a headache and he’s out of breath. He paints the people in tones of red, umber and burnt sienna in the same frantic manner in which he painted the animals. This will be his last painting. He is going to die today, and he can’t leave it unfinished. He digs in his pocket for a nitroglycerin tablet and pops one under his tongue. He sits down and takes deep, slow breaths waiting for the nitro to kick in. If it is his heart the pain will quickly subside after taking the nitro. What was it Doc Duval had told him? If the pain doesn’t stop after five minutes, take another; if it hasn’t stopped after three pills call 9-1-1. Screw that. It’s not his heart, it’s his lungs. Heart disease and cancer. It’s not fair that one man has them both. He shouts for Shelly, asks her to bring him a morphine pill. She tries to get him to stop painting and lie down for a while, but he insists he will be all right.

He wonders if he should do anything else with the sky area but decides it can wait until the next day. Maybe Shelly is right. He might feel better after a nap. It’s been hours since he started and she is worried sick. He covers his paint and brushes with plastic wrap and walks into the living part of the house, stepping out of his paint-smeared shoes at the doorway. Shelly follows him, sits down in her usual chair with head in hands, softly crying.

“What’s the matter, honey?”

“Nothing. I just worry about you. That’s all. I’m just a silly old lady.”

He didn’t die. It’s a week later and he’s at it again. Different painting. Shelly wakes up to an empty room. The air feels warm and clammy. She kicks off the sheet and opens her eyes to investigate the world around her, momentarily unsure where she is. Oh yeah. Neither of them sleep well these days. He coughs half the night, and when he does go to sleep he often has horrible dreams and flails about in bed so violently that she’s afraid she might have to quit sleeping with him. She turns to see if he’s awake. He is already up. That’s odd. She nearly always gets up before him, brews their morning coffee and brings him a cup to drink sitting up in bed. She loves the rare occasions when their roles are swapped and he gets up first, not because he brings her coffee, making her feel like royalty, but because that means he is feeling better. This morning she smells the coffee, but there is no Travis. The door to his studio is open. She gets up and pads on bare feet to the studio. From the doorway she sees him seated in his chair facing away from her, shoulders slumped. Could it be that he has passed away during the night? That’s her constant fear. But no, she sees him reach up to scratch the back of his head. His oxygen tank is by his side with the leads looped over his ears and into his nostrils. In front of him one of his old paintings has been stapled to the wall. It’s one that Shelly has never seen, one of many he has kept rolled up in a corner for no telling how many years.

She approaches him and puts a hand on his shoulder. He reaches one hand back to touch her. His touch is gentle but his skin is rough. She can tell from the energy in his hand that he is feeling better. Thank goodness. She expels the breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding. “What you doing?” she asks.

“Studying this painting.”

It is a huge painting. It reaches almost floor to ceiling and is sixteen feet long. On the other wall is the equally gigantic painting he recently finished in one frantic session with a little touchup the next day. He looks at one and then the other, pleased with the new one but ponderously mulling over the other one. There’s a confusing conglomeration of squares and triangles and circles in many colors, with amorphous brushed-in areas contrasting with well-defined shapes, and paint application ranging from thick impasto to thin veils of wash. It is almost as if he had tried to cram into this one canvas every tool in his toolbox. She remembers that he had once told her that he sometimes likes to clutter his paintings with a hodgepodge of shapes and marks and then gradually find the things that don’t belong and paint or scrape them out until he’s left with a few essential shapes (but with some ghost images of the deleted forms). She thinks this is a painting desperately in need of decluttering.

“I think I need to fix this one,” he says.

“Shouldn’t you get something to eat first? You haven’t even had your morning coffee. Should I bring you a cup?”

“I guess so. And my pills.”

Travis pushes himself up out of his chair. His arms are wobbly. He stands for a while in front of the painting, picks up a couple of the fat oil bars from his box and starts filling in areas with a pale, thick mixture of white and dusty rose. Shelly brings in his coffee and sets it on the table next to his chair. She hands him a fistful of pills that were pre-sorted by day and time. He swallows them dry and then washes down with a coffee chaser. She watches him for a while, and then goes back into the kitchen to get herself a cup, comes back and watches him paint some more while drinking her coffee. His is getting cold. She doesn’t know whether to speak to him or not. She hasn’t been with him long enough to know how sensitive he may be to being talked to while he’s working. She imagines creative people can be nasty when interrupted.

His method of applying paint fascinates her, but it also terrifies her because he is obviously expending a lot of energy, and she knows he does not have the strength for that.

The oil bars are like giant crayons. When he applies them to dry areas the paint goes on thinly in lines or slashes of color. To create solid fields of color he scrubs back and forth. When he drags or pushes one color into another the bar pushes the other color aside and then the colors mix in slush piles like snow and dirt being plowed. He fills in areas up to and sometimes over the edges of shapes from the previous painting. In some places he presses a piece of cardboard to the surface and paints over the edge of the cardboard, thereby using it as a kind of masking tape to create sharp edges. He works up close then steps back to study what he’s done. He picks up a large paint brush, dips it in paint thinner and then washes away some of the color he has already applied.

After almost half an hour she says, “Shouldn’t you get something to eat?”

“Yeah, OK. Let me just get this part.” And he keeps painting. He stops for a moment and from behind him she can see his shoulders lift and drop to take in a forced breath.

She impatiently waits another ten minutes and then says, “You really need to take it easy. Your heart won’t take this.”

“I’m fine,” he says, his voice a raspy gush of air.

She thinks I can’t watch this, yet she cannot turn away. Finally he sits down and gulps air. His coffee, untouched, is stone cold by now. She asks if he wants her to heat it up. He shrugs his shoulders, and she realizes he has not sat down to take a break but to study his painting. He gets up and soaks an old rag with paint thinner and starts wiping away much of what he has painted. The now thinned paint runs down the canvas. He scrapes over parts with a trowel. He paints for hours, and she stands and watches as if she is watching a man prepare to leap off a tall building and is unable to stop him. She thinks that is exactly what he is doing.

Painting is going to kill him, she thinks. And then she thinks he’s dying anyway; let him die doing something he loves. But she’s not ready for that. She wants him to stop. She tries to distract him with talk, suggests they should take a walk down by the water, maybe go fishing. He ignores her. At one point she decides to try and distract him with a book—a book because it’s the only other thing she can think of at the moment. It’s the latest book by Jack Butler, their friend and Travis’s favorite writer. He shouts at her—as close to a shout as he can manage, “A book! You bring me a freakin’ book? Can’t you see how insignificant that is compared to this?” indicating with a sweep of his hand the painting he is working on, like that’s just literature, this is art. He picks up the book and smashes it into the thickest area of paint and it sticks in the gummy paint. “There,” he says. “Now it has significance. It is part of a painting.”

“I don’t think Jack would agree.”

“Oh, I think he might. I think he’d love it. ‘Sides, now I’ll have to buy another copy. Surely that oughta please the old reprobate.” His eyes sparkle at the thought of his friend seeing his book embedded in paint sludge.

He works on the painting for hours. Shelly watches it change from something chaotic to something clear, stunning and powerful. At least half of it. The left side of the painting looks to her like it must be finished, but he has not touched the right side. She still doesn’t understand abstract art, but she is beginning to get a feel for it. She has grasped the meat of it without knowing it.

He has spent hours on one half of the painting, which is not like his usual way of working all over. After studying the painting for a long time he finishes it off in a flurry by filling in the whole right side with sheets of cadmium red and orange applied with a wide housepainter’s brush and then a wash of flaming alizarin crimson. It’s awash with fire and blood, thick as paste on the edges and thinning to an almost invisible wash. The intense red sheen covers three quarters of the painting. When done with it he plops down exhausted in his chair and says, “There now, that’s a painting. Could you maybe get me something to drink? And I’m sorry if I worried you.”

She is both mesmerized and devastated.

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