by Megan Murphy
The Gallery opened on a perfectly ordinary street corner on a perfectly ordinary night, wedged between a barber shop with a faded, pinstripe sign that had lost all of its color and a bakery that was really just a counter with deflated soufflés on display in a smudged glass case. The Gallery was something bright and altogether unexpected. The space was really just one room divided by a single piece of drywall. Buzzing fluorescent lights swung precariously from the ceiling, illuminating the shiny, paneled wood floors. The walls were stark white, the kind of clinical shade particular to hospitals and art museums. A few paintings slouched on them, but none that demanded attention. The dead bolt, a sliver of gold against the peeling black paint of the doorframe, invited the curious to come closer. The sign above the door said “Vincent’s.” A piece of paper taped to the door read “Come in!” in loopy, broad Sharpie letters.
You will find this place eventually. But not yet. Be patient.
West would not say he was an artist, if you were to ask him his profession. He would tell you that he was a student, a chronic consumer of caffeine trying to do something meaningful in the world. He worked in a pet store uptown, which mostly meant he spent his days stacking bags of dog food on unstable shelves and helping stressed-out moms buy fish for their kids.
West would tell you that he was not an artist, and this would be a lie.
The thing about lying, West knew, was that there were a few different kinds: the lies you told other people and the lies that you told yourself.
He found the Gallery coming home after closing up the pet store. Well, home was a tricky word. West lived in a small apartment with two bedrooms, the tiniest toilet, and a constantly stoned roommate. It was not home. West was still looking for one of those.
He was walking back to his apartment when he passed the Gallery. He noticed the sign first, which is also undoubtedly the first thing you will notice, too. The letters flashed sharp and bright, the color of sunflower petals; the writing was a bit sloppy, but not in a pretentious way. West read the sign on the door. Peered in the windows. Saw the white walls, the wood floor. Looked at the gold dead bolt. Then he sighed, whispered a choice cuss word under his breath, and stepped inside.
Nothing dramatic happened when he opened the door, which was part of the Gallery’s charm. It simply was. West looked at the white walls and the crooked rendition of Starry Night hanging in the back. The Gallery looked back. Breathed.
West wandered through the space for a while, running his fingers along the walls, testing the floorboards with his boots. In the back of the Gallery, by the far wall, West found three gallons of paint. One blue, one black, one red. A note, written on old newspaper, fluttered on top of the blue paint can. The print from the newspaper faded to little more than the faint impression of red and black ink, so the Sharpie-written note stood out clearly:
What do you feel?
West stared at the note and the paint for a long time, lying, lying, lying. If he were an artist, he might have dipped his fingers into the paint. He might have stuck his arms in the color up to his elbows: one arm in the blue, one in the red.
But West was lying to himself. He did none of those things. He stared at the paint and the canvas of the white wall. He breathed in and out. The Gallery waited.
Finally, West poked the red paint with the tip of his right index finger. He didn’t smear it on the wall. He held it up in the buzzing fluorescent light and looked at the paint. The Gallery waited.
Tessa, although you might call her Tess when you meet her (most people do), was an artist. She had a degree in the damn thing. She made her money off commissions and painting and the digital art she posted and sold on her website.
She learned the definition of the word burnout last week but still needed to work.
Tessa found the Gallery while walking away from work: away from her apartment and her home and her girlfriend cooking dinner and their adorable Great Dane named Munchkin. Tessa wasn’t looking for art, and she wasn’t lying about who she was to anyone.
She just wanted to feel something.
Growing up, Tess drew fairies hiding in tree trunks, their wings all dewy like butterflies. She always colored with the boldest, brightest markers. Somewhere along the way she’d lost the color. It had been a long time—longer than she could remember—since she’d drawn something for herself. She’d stopped doodling in the margins of her notebooks. Tess missed that kind of art: the sacred, personal kind that rooted in her belly, that wrapped warm fingers around her rib cage and hung on her bones like laughter.
Art had become gray and mundane and tedious. When Tess drew now, her pencils scraped blank pages, grasped at empty air. Then she found the Gallery.
She knew this street’s particular character—its quiet edges and loud, quirky shops. She walked this way quite often for the cheapest coffee place in the city, so the Gallery was not exactly a surprise. But it did make her pause.
Vincent’s shouted at her with its bright yellow cursive, and because Tessa was an artist, she thought, Van Gogh?, and went inside.
The white walls of the space overwhelmed Tessa, at first. She wandered for a few minutes, straightened the crooked Starry Night painting, spun in a circle with her arms out under the glaring lights and thought, Hello, hello, hello. The Gallery sang back a greeting in the creaking of the floorboards.
Eventually, Tessa found the wilting sunflowers near the back. They sat in a clear round vase full of browning water that vaguely resembled a fishbowl. She straightened their slumped stems. She pulled a pencil from her pocket and sketched an outline of the sunflowers. When she touched the dull edge of the pencil to the wall, something shivered inside her, lifted its head. Heat tickled her stomach. She made something faint and barely noticeable, but something true.
Poppy wanted, quite desperately, to be happy. She was writing a paper on mental health and the dangerous trope of the tortured artist and she was finding the whole thing frighteningly relatable and depressing. She’d never really understood the trope, to be honest. She couldn’t create when she felt this way. There was no relief in it. School was hard and life was hard and paying rent was hard and waking up was hard. She wrote down lists of good things in her journal, because her therapist said that would help. She’d already written two things the day she found the Gallery: that her train arrived on time and that she saw a dog. She would add a third later, and it wouldn’t fix anything, but it would help a little.
The streetlights started to wake up along the mostly deserted street when Poppy found the Gallery. Warm light stretched out along the crack in the half-open black door, a welcome change from the dull, brown-orange flicker of lampposts and faded sunsets that usually illuminated her walk.
She stepped inside because she wasn’t doing anything else and the sign on the door said she should. Poppy noticed the yellow paint first: something new for the Gallery’s visitors. The single can of open paint sat in the center of the room with a brush sticking out. The note beside it, scrawled on old newspaper, the edges yellow and faded, read, Do not eat.
Poppy laughed. It felt good to laugh in that space, where everything was open and echoing. This was a blank canvas of a room. She dipped her fingers into the yellow paint and splashed a little on the walls, dotted a pencil sketch of sunflowers with color.
She would write down later, in her journal, that happiness didn’t come very often. Not for a long time, anyway. There were moments, though, where she could surface. Moments where there was a quick burst of color. Moments where she could laugh without cho
king. This was one of them.
You will find the Gallery on an ordinary night under very ordinary circumstances. You’ll be there, sharing space with the ghosts of old paintings and crooked picture frames and white canvas walls begging to be colored with something new. You’ll be there, and you’ll think of dipping your fingers into paint. You’ll write down in your journal that this is what art is, what love is: an open space where the walls are white and the air smells faintly of sunflowers.
Megan Murphy is a recent graduate of The College of Wooster. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she can often be found writing in various coffee shops. Megan wrote “Vincent’s” while on a writing residency at Firefly Farms with Sundress Academy for the Arts in Knoxville, Tennessee.