A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman
On my way into college I paused to do a quick sketch of this old dear walking towards me. She was a hefty piece of flesh, buttocks sticking out at the back as a counter-balance for the weight she carried up front, skin falling like fleshy cataracts beneath her chin, bosoms swinging like udders, and I managed what I thought was quite a clever little caricature, very Gerald Scarfe or Ralph Steadman-ish if we’re looking for a modern influence, George Grosz or maybe Cruickshank if we think a little further back.
As the woman reached me she went up on tiptoe to take a peek at the drawing, studied it for no more than a moment and then flared her nostrils, calling me a cheeky young madam. There were hairs hanging from her nose and they flapped like bunting as she snorted her anger.
‘Yes?’ I smiled politely. I had a slight grin on my face, impish, but nothing too offensive.
‘Give that here!’ the woman demanded, but I shook my head and easily held the sketchpad out of reach, a tantalising distance above her head like a mother teasing a child. ‘Well rub it out then!’ she huffed.
‘Sorry, love, but this is art, it’ll outlive the both of us.’ I could see that the poor dear was peeved, her face was red and she was beginning to sweat, so out of sheer devilment I decided to upset her a little more. ‘In any case, the ink’s indelible,’ I added, with a condescending frown. ‘Yes, it’s a long word, I know, but basically it means that you can scrub and scrub as much as you like and it won’t go away. Clever, eh?’
The old woman didn’t seem to think so.
‘You cheeky little cow!’ she said, and started her handbag swinging, coming from way behind her shoulder, so I scooted out of reach with a laugh.
There were people looking, I knew that; there always were. The jacket was what caught the eye first, scuffed dull leather with the name on the back, ‘Ginny da Vinci’, in polished chromium studs; then they saw the hair, short as any bloke’s, bleached blonde and spiky, and they would give a giggle or grunt with disgust; last of all they noticed the jeans, not denim blue anymore but faded and torn and caked with paint of all colours, some fresh, some pastel pale. This is when it clicked and they put a place to the face, if not a name, when they muttered to themselves ‘she’s one of them’, meaning an art student.
I should have known it was going to be difficult, being an art student in a town like Sleepers Hill. I mean-! Sleepers Hill! What a name to conjure with! We’re not talking about an oil painting here, that much is for sure, not the sort of place that would’ve interested Canaletto. What we have is a dormitory of a town where the houses are as silent as sensory deprivation centres and no one ever wakes up until a piece of scandal -mine?- rouses them from their stinking pits. There’s always been a lack of romance and sensitivity, in the place and in its people, you only need to see the way the locals look at me to understand this. Why, they wouldn’t recognise an artist if he threw a can of Dulux at their feet and said it was one of Pollock’s. ‘Pollocks?’, they’d mutter, and think it was another naughty name for the genitals.
No, forget Sleepers Hill. Paris is where I should have started, and in an earlier time, with the tarts and the Tuileries and absinthe at tuppence a tot, the girls at the Folies Bergeres flashing their knickers and twanging their suspenders. The Sleepers Hill of my youth is a bit short on tarts, at least of the kind an artist can use, the ones of character who are as keen on being immortalised as they are on plying their trade. The women I grow up with are all bums and beehives, tights and twin-sets, and though there are probably suspenders they’re never openly on show, not unless you fancy standing in front of the corset shop on the market square and have folk wonder what you’re up to.
It was hard, then, trying to be an artist in that desert of a place, so devoid of any cultural heritage. Sleepers Hill was not an environment where a Ginny da Vinci could blossom.
At least that’s what I thought, until I got to know Paula.