He prowls for shapes and light. He wanders through neighborhoods and junkyards and out into the industrial part of town looking for the forgotten. This is where beauty can be found. There is a tile factory he had once painted, back when he was doing watercolors. The place is brick and mortar, deep shades of browns and greens that could only be formed by time. Andy lays on a bare hill facing the factory. He watches as the sunlight crawls down a giant smokestack. He lingers, sketching the scene until the light is gone. Then he waits for the darkness. He is at constant war with darkness. There is always something more to paint. He stays to watch the night guard making his rounds. The guard stops beneath a floodlight. The figure stretches, hands on his back, standing up on his toes. Andy holds that moment in his mind. The night guard lets out a deep sigh and his breath becomes a swirling cloud of cold air filling the night. Andy freezes the image and draws fast. When he finishes, his hand is shaking. He hurries home and redraws the scene over and again until he is able to capture the soft whites of the light and the exhaustion of the guard and the exact way he arches his back. Then, Andy goes back and adds all the warm colors he imagines to be burning inside the tile factory. He adds color to the cloud of air until that breath becomes something living and swirling, filled with oranges and ambers and rust.
Andy takes the painting to his wife who is reading. She studies the lines and the colors and offers some suggestions. “His breath is the heartbeat of the picture,” she says. “There is too much attention to the floodlight.” Hers is the only voice he listens to. Andy starts a new painting. This time, he focuses on the cloud of air and nothing else. It’s breath that gives our beings life. When he takes her the new painting, she nods and gives it a title.
The next night, Andy returns to the tile factory. He finds an opening in the fence and slides through. He sneaks up to the tall windows and looks inside. There he sees dark machines and long shadows. There are tools caked with grease and shards of ceramic tile on the floor. Men and women are pushing cleaning carts. They each have a story. A delivery truck arrives and three men start unloading large sheets of ceramic. Andy crouches low and draws the men at work. One of them notices Andy.
“Hey, what are you doing there!” he shouts.
Andy finishes the sketch. When the man reaches him, Andy shows him the drawing. The worker drops his shoulders and smiles. Then he calls to the other men and they come over and look over the drawing and laugh.
“Is that really how I stand?” one says.
Andy says nothing but watches them admire his work. “What are you doing out in the cold?” one asks. “I’m an artist. You think I can get inside the factory?” “We don’t work here,” they say. “We just do deliveries.” Andy nods. “Where are you going next?”
They invite him to ride in the truck. The men smoke and curse and tell stories of infidelity and injury and injustice. One worker holds up his finger which is bent and misshapen. His fingertip has been sliced off. They stop at a bakery and an airport hub. Nothing Andy sees has much interest to him. The reds of the signs are too bright. The yellows at the airport are too loud. Andy goes home disappointed.
“What did you find?” his wife asks. What were you able to see that no one else can see? She considers him a magician. He can make things appear and disappear. Her job is explaining his tricks to the masses.
“Nothing. I’m tired of watercolors,” he says.
“Yes, but they sell.” “Fine. But I’m done with pastels and primary colors.” “Think of your exhibit,” she says. “Everything sold.” “Yes, but the paintings had no soul.”
He cannot sleep. He sits in his studio and stares at the white of the canvas. The next night, Andy returns to the tile factory. He lays on the bare hill and watches the smoke rise from the smokestack. It looks like a prayer. He slides through the fence and walks the perimeter of the factory. He peers through a window and watches a young girl cleaning a windowpane. She takes her rag and runs it across the glass pane and what she leaves behind is a warm streak that looks like a color Edward Hopper would use. Andy stares at the color and starts to draw. He captures the woman on her tiptoes reaching to the top of the window and the flow of her hair on her shoulders and the texture of her socks and the stains on her rag. He rushes home and spends all night adding color and light to the image from his mind. He cuts everything from the painting that is not honest. Soon, the painting is reduced to the streak of brown on the glass and the complex color of rust and the toil of a hundred years. That single streak is everything that man and machine leaves behind. When his wife looks at the painting she declares it the best work he has ever done. He spends the next day locked in his room painting that same streak over and again and then the back of her head with her hair falling out of her bandana. When he is done, he has eight more paintings that his wife will catalogue and show to collectors.
He sleeps two hours that night. The rest of the night he sits in his studio and imagines what stories he can tell. In order to tell these stories, I must know who they are. He says this over and again. The next night, Andy decides to approach the night guard and show him the pictures he has drawn. He is sure, this will be the end of the tile factory. However, somehow, the night guard is interested in the paintings. He stares at them and comments on the colors in the cloud of his breath. He asks Andy where he learned to paint and how he ended up at the tile factory. Andy answers each question with honesty. The night guard asks if he can have the painting. Andy rolls up the canvas and hands it over.
The name of the guard is Daulton. He takes Andy to the guard shack and they sit in a small room with bare walls and drink coffee. Daulton says the tile factory is empty at night, save for the cleaning crew. “It’s nice to have company,” he says. “It can get lonely here.” Daulton tells Andy he is in school to become a preacher. They speak of their childhood and adoring fathers and the rawness of the tile factory. Andy asks Daulton to pose for a portrait. Daulton is more than happy oblige. In the drawing, Andy captures all the self-assurance and privilege he sees in the face of the young man. Here is a boy who feels he is better than the uniform he wears.
Andy asks if he can go inside the factory. “What for?” Daulton asks. He is staring at the portrait and smiling. Andy says, “There’s so much more to paint.” He tells Daulton to keep the portrait and Daulton seems pleased. “I suppose you can have a look around,” Daulton says. “Just make sure you stay out of the way.”
Andy enters through a small door and into the shadows. He walks past humming machines and workbenches with renderings and compositions. He runs his hands over a rusted time clock he imagines is still used. He spends most of that first night watching the young girl as she cleans. Her name is Melanie. Andy introduces himself and tells her he is working with Daulton. That week, Andy shows her a painting he made of her snapping the dust from her rag. In the painting, he has captured a million pieces of dust and they glow in the light from the window. The dust took him hours to paint, each as delicate points of light. The colors in the painting remind Andy of nighttime snow and the feeling he had sitting by the window waiting for his father to walk home.
“Where did you learn to paint like this?” Melanie asks.
“My father taught me. I practiced. I went to college.” “To be a painter?” He nods. “Are you a painter?” “I am,” he says with quiet assurance.
It takes several weeks, but he convinces Melanie to pose for him. At first, she has no idea what this even means. She asks, “How long will I need to sit still?” She talks to him about her two daughters and her mother who watches the girls and how she rushes through her cleaning to get home to her kids. She speaks of school and her hopes of becoming a certified accountant. Her dream is to have her own house with a chicken coop and a pond and a small bedroom for each of her girls. She says this while sitting as still as she can in the guard shack. Daulton watches Andy paint. Once Daulton leaves for his rounds, Andy asks Melanie questions about her mother. He says, “Tell me again,” and Melanie speaks of the way her mother guilts and how she talks to her in front of her kids and how it makes her feel so small. Andy draws her mouth and her eyes as she speaks. He thinks of Van Gogh with Gachet and the downward slope to the eyes. There is one series of paintings he does of her that is nothing but the braid of her hair and the slope to her shoulders. When he finishes those paintings he stares at what he has done with deep satisfaction.
“Why do people pose?” Melanie asks him.
“People want to be seen.” “Yes, but we have photos.” Andy smiles. “Cameras lie. A painter must always be honest.” “Are you always honest?” Andy thinks. “I am with my brush.” After this, Melanie sits in silence.
The other workers take little notice of Andy. When someone asks, who is he, or why is he there, they are told, “He works with Daulton.” This allows Andy the freedom to explore the factory and its small rooms filled with blacks and grays and silver streaks of grease. In one room, Andy finds a strange tool. He lays the tool on a workbench and for most of the night he draws every angle until the story of the tool comes to life and he is able to imagine the hands that have held its shape and the simple beauty of it pulling glowing tiles from out of the flames. When he finishes drawing, he comes out of the room and spots one of the cleaning crew sitting on a bench with his head in his hands and his wild dark hair coming out from between his fingers. Andy stands in the shadows and draws fast. For fifteen minutes, the man does not move. Andy draws him a dozen different times until soon he focuses on the color and texture of his hair poking out through his fingers. When he goes home that night, Andy puts all the emotion he feels from sketching that strange tool into the painting of the worker holding his head in his hands. When he is done the sun is rising. Andy takes the paintings to breakfast and shows his wife. She studies each canvas in silence, and when she is done she is weeping.
In time, Andy thinks only of the tile factory. His wife collects the paintings and gives each of them numbers and names. Then she sends images to collectors who are becoming more and more interested in his new work. Andy does not want to know what sells and what does not sell. He is not interested in what others think of his work. He does not paint for them and does not seek their counsel. He is the one lays for hours in the snow waiting for the right light and when it comes, he is the one who decides how the light should be captured. What on earth could any collector tell him about how to paint Melanie or how to capture the essence of her hands? Andy knows his paintings are selling, but that is all he knows.
One night, he finds a room in the factory that is filled with tubes of paint in a thousand small cubbies. When he finds the room, it catches his breath. He stares at the rumpled tubes with wrinkled casings and rolled up ends. His first impulse is to find the colors he has never seen. But then comes a moment when the entire room becomes one giant canvas and it blends together as one. He sits on the floor and for hours he draws everything he sees on that wall. Then, he takes down tubes of paint. He applies colors to the canvas by smearing the paint with his fingers. Soon, the strokes are wild and brutal and in that moment he feels all the violence of the factory and the hardship of the workers who have spent their lives and their bodies for that place and the injuries and the burns and the scars and he smells the residue in the air that sticks to their lungs and stays with them for the rest of their lives. Andy puts everything he feels on that canvas. His heart is beating fast. When he is done, he takes the painting to Melanie and asks her to put it somewhere to dry. She looks at the canvas. She has seen the room before, but not like that. The painting frightens here. It is unlike anything she has ever seen.
Some of the paintings he gives to Melanie. She thanks him for each one. She tells him that one of his paintings hangs in the bedroom where her daughters sleep. “This is better than any gallery,” he says. Andy asks her about school and her mother and the amount of time she is able to spend with her girls. She tells him everything. One morning, Andy asks his wife how many of the Melanie paintings have sold and how much they have made. When she tells him, Andy is shocked at the number. That day, he goes to the bank and takes out a large sum of money. He puts the money in an envelope and hands it to Melanie. Of course, Melanie tries to give it back, but he insists. He says, “A model should be paid.” Then he tells her how many of her paintings have sold and how much they have made and when she hears the number she is quiet.
“How long will you paint here?” she asks him.
“I could paint here the rest of my life.” “Won’t you run out of things to paint?”
Andy smiles. “I will only run out of time.”
One night, he lingers in front of the large oven that bakes tiles during the day. He watches the embers change from orange to black and gray. He has not seen Daulton all night. He goes to the guard shack to get another canvas, but when he arrives he is met by a strange man. The man tells Andy to stay where he is. Andy asks, “Where’s Daulton?” and when the man does not answer, Andy knows that all things must come to an end.
Within minutes, there is a police car and what appears to be a manager from the tile factory. The manager is holding the painting of the tubes of paint. When Andy looks at the canvas, he sees how the colors have dried with stunning texture. The painting has become more than what he expected. The two men linger and talk outside. Andy watches them and wonders if there is anything in that scene he can draw, but the light from the police car is all wrong. The two men enter the guard shack and the officer asks Andy what he is doing at the factory. Andy tells them everything. He shows them his paintings. He describes the color of the bricks. The men are not impressed. The officer goes through his things and takes more paintings and all his tubes of paint. Andy says nothing. He knows he will get them back. They load up several unfinished sketches of Melanie. He wonders if they even know who she is.
At the police station, Andy calls his wife. She is livid. “How dare they arrest you in your work!” she says. “Do they know what they’ve done!” She tells him to say nothing, she will be there within the hour to get him out. An officer processes his stuff. He asks, “Did you make these paintings?” Andy nods. He is tired. He asks the officer to please not get the paintings out of order. There is a progression to the sketches that is integral and must not be altered. The officer seems to understand. He tells Andy that he too considered becoming a cartoon artist, before joining the academy. Andy looks at the man for the first time. He wonders if the muted purple to his hat was always there, or if the color had been worn down over time.
Andy waits in a small room with a hard mat. He curls up on the mat and stares at the blank wall. When he does, he sees the unfinished paintings of Melanie. He imagines the lines needed to finish the shape of her hands. There are other paintings he sees that are still only in his mind. He wonders when he will see Melanie next. Andy waits for an hour. The room is quiet and the lights are harsh. He closes his eyes and dreams of the bare hill and the smokestack and the brown bricks in the sunset. This gives him some peace. When they finally come to get him, Andy is fast asleep. His arm is dangling off the mat and his fingers are touching the ground. The officer shakes him. He calls Andy by name. Only his hand moves. With small strokes, it looks as if he is painting the ground.