Shitty Brown

“I’m looking forward to the art class,” said Irene. “It’s been years since I’ve painted anything. It will be fun I think.” James stared past her towards the front windows, where light poured in. He seemed to prefer facing that direction, not that he could tell her himself. She just had a feeling.

She enjoyed her daily visit to Open Hearts seniors daycare centre. It got her out of the house, and she’d made a couple of friends now. Most of all she liked to spend time with James, who had been her soulmate in many lifetimes, even though she’d found him too late in this life to share much, and his stroke had left him unresponsive to her and everybody else.

What did he do all day, she wondered? What did he think? What did he feel? What was it like to be locked up inside yourself, unable to share your thoughts and dreams? Poor James. Her James. King James. She said to him, “Okay darling, I’m going to see Mr. Amin to see if I can help today. He seems to appreciate my assistance.”

Mr. Amin said, “Irene! Nice to see you.” She wondered if they had magic imps in India? If they did, then he would definitely be one of them. “The art teacher will be arriving at ten. Would you please help her to set up when she comes.”

Mr. Amin was amazing. Where did he find resources for these kinds of activities? The Authority had cut back severely on funding. Public services were closing down everywhere, yet Open Hearts was running smoothly with cultural activities weekly, even twice weekly. They’d recently been taught a dance called Zumba, Egyptian belly dancing, healthy cooking, pottery, origami, and rapping – at which ex-cowboy Albert excelled, though Mr. Amin was displeased with the continual rhyming of his name with gold pannin’ and jammin’; “It is pronounced A-meen,” he said. “Not Am-in.” Albert had then rhymed his name with spleen and unseen, and obscene and latrine, at which point Mr. Amin had asked him to stop.

Irene helped the teacher lay out paper, paints, brushes, and pots. She hadn’t brought many colours – just the basics: red, yellow, blue, black and white. Enough to make something garish like they would have produced when children. Maybe they would succeed in mixing subtler shades. From what she recalled though, mix too much and you end up with shitty brown. There was enough of that around here already.

Mr. Amin called everybody together. Not everyone wanted to join in though, and not everyone was able to. Her James for example just sat to one side, staring. How could he engage? Never mind a paintbrush, he could barely hold his spoon.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Mr. Amin. “Here is our teacher, Stella. She has been an artist for twenty years, and has kindly agreed to deliver a six-week art course at Open Hearts.”

“If she’s an artist, then why isn’t she making art?” said Gemma.

“What do you mean by that?” said Mr. Amin.

“Isn’t there a saying: ‘Those that can do, and those that can’t teach’?”

There was an embarrassed silence, broken by Stella. “Actually I do both. I teach two days a week and paint three days. I’ll invite you all to ‘Being Become’, my next exhibition in the City. Mr. Amin, would you be able to arrange the transport?” He nodded. “Good. Let’s begin. Why do we make art?”

“Because it’s lovely?” said Irene. “It improves our environment.”

“Yes, it does. Anybody else?”

Mr. Amin couldn’t help joining in. He said that we had a basic instinct for harmony, balance, and rhythm. We desired experience of the mysterious. It was an expression of the imagination. It held ritualistic and symbolic functions. Nobody needed reminding that he had once been the Minister of Culture for Northern India, before retiring to Canadia to be near his grandchildren.

Stella said, “I think you’ve covered everything, Mr. Amin. Shall we begin?”

People fiddled about, knocked over water, got paint on their clothes, bent brushes, and ripped paper, but eventually paint made it onto paper, and artworks “became”.

Nobody noticed James rise. He shuffled over to the central table and seated himself before an art station. “What’s he doing?” Gemma said. “Watch out, he’ll make a big mess.” Stella helped him to get started, and he continued independently. It was true though, he was making a mess. There were patches of colour beside and then atop each other, which quickly fused into browns. Shitty browns. It was time for lunch, and they went to the dining area for oil-free chicken curry with chick pea rice. James stayed where he was, manifesting his vision.

Mr. Amin went to check on his progress. As Minister of Culture he had considered all manner of artworks for purchase and display in national museums. From Mughal miniatures to pickled sharks. He saw that there was merit in this painting. Within the shitty brown he saw a strong story emerging. He saw two trails of colours joining, separating, and rejoining, arching and twisting, fading and reforming – losing and then finding each other – yet their forms were always entwined.

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