A (Self) Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

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Words || Emma Harvey

In college I wanted to be an artist. A famous one. Maybe even a good one. I painted still lifes of pears and shoelaces and violins. I would start at eight in the evening, after dinner, and continue on until early the next morning. I drank green tea between each portraits. I’d tried whisky once, but it had made me more interested in playing the violin than in painting it.

This nocturnal schedule was impractical, according to my mother. She wore a lot of khaki. It was indeed, very impractical, but it felt special. There is a certain egotism in being awake and working when nobody around you is. My mother couldn’t stop me anyhow. At the time I was living away from home, in a dorm, so I could sleep all day if I wanted. I didn’t wear pants much either.

My friends would ring me – I was too busy to ring them – and ask questions about my work. I would give cool, elusive replies like, ‘in good time!’

I knew they talked to each other about me. I liked that they did.

I went to art galleries by myself.

By the end of my first year, my university studies had inevitably begun to flounder. I was enrolled in a finance major and only attending lectures in the afternoons. The other students in the course were as animated as the contents of my paintings. The assignments made me want to drink more whisky. I preferred instead to sleep and paint and connect the moles on the back of my lover, Don.

I called him my lover.

 

My mother would ring me every now and then to say things like, ‘you should take up cycling’ and ‘well, I like watching television but that’s not going to make me any money.’ I never spoke much during these phone calls. This was mostly because they would come at around ten in the morning, while I was still sleeping. I could barely scrape together the words to say good morning, let alone form an independent thought or a counter argument. So naturally, I hadn’t worked up to telling her that I had applied for the university’s Fine Arts course. I stuck with things like, ‘good’ and ‘sounds good’ instead.

I told Miranda about the application. I didn’t usually tell Miranda much at all. She seemed like she might take horoscopes seriously, and was passive-aggressive about organising coffee dates. But she reacted to good news exactly as you’d like her to, with wide eyes and big teeth, and that’s what I had felt like at the time.

‘I sent them my best portraits. I think I might have a chance at an interview.’

‘A chance? You’re already in as far as I’m concerned!’ she exclaimed, bouncing in her seat in her embroidered cardigan. This is why I was friends with Miranda. Myfragile, artistic ego, thriving on the company of someone who would never be my rival.

We ordered banana bread and laughed loudly, purposefully. People were probably looking. We laughed louder. I tried to reconcile this with the lethargic, ‘sounds good,’ good-girl on the phone to my mother. I couldn’t.

‘Should I wear my long skirt?’ I asked.

‘The longest one you own!’ she said. ‘That’s professionalism.’

‘That’s daggy.’

‘Ohh but you can pull off anything!’

When she stood to leave, a perfume cloud lingered in her place.

‘I’m so glad you were able to free yourself up for coffee, this once.’

 

When I got the call to say I’d secured the interview, I told Don to bring Thai and wine to celebrate. He arrived late in his usual state of masculine concern.

‘Sorry babe, sorry.’ We called each other babe.

When he inquired about my paintings as he always did, I was ready for it. My portfolio greeted him like well-behaved children.

‘Lightbulbs,’ he remarked. ‘That’s new.’

‘I think they’ll like that one. It’s the vegetables that were the hardest.’

Don snatched immediately at a cheap, phallic joke. I laughed the same laugh I had shared that day with Miranda. For some reason, however, it seemed this laugh was not universal and, in Don’s presence, the execution was all wrong.

We sat on the carpet and kissed for a while. The takeaway went cold. We ate it anyway, except for the prawns, and drank the wine from plastic cups.

‘I’m drunk,’ I said, when I wasn’t. ‘I love you.’

The evening settled warmly in our stomachs. We whispered into each other’s faces and I fell asleep feeling feminine and light.

 

I don’t know why I took pens. Three of them; as though it were an examination instead of an interview. Three pens in my shaking hand.

‘Your portfolio is not diverse enough,’ said the ­convener.  His eyebrows were huge.

‘I do still life,’ I told him. ‘That’s what I do.’

‘We’d like to see more,’ he said. ‘Can you paint people? A self-portrait, perhaps. Could you do a self-portrait, Miss Walsh?’ His eyebrows looked like they might crawl off his forehead any minute.

I felt a sting behind my eyes but agreed to attempt it. The remainder of the interview went very well.

‘Thank you very much, Miss Walsh. Could you sign this please?’

‘Of course. Oh, thank you, but I have my own pen.’