The Art Studio

Sarah Weiner

It was the unexpected burst of red and orange against the dusty, gray stone wall that drew me into the empty alleyway.  I walked towards the color tentatively at first, dubious of the sincerity of their warmth is this city of such sickly smog. However, my pace and purpose strengthened when the indiscernible blobs of color began to take shape as messily painted letters on a dry piece of cracking wood.  “Art Studio” it said, with an arrow pointing aggressively towards the small door that stood still and impassively beside it.
I looked over my shoulder in both directions, searching for someone’s approval to discover what type of Art Studio would lay behind such a careless door.  Suddenly, a woman hurriedly turned the corner and entered the alleyway carrying a basket full of wet vegetables and looking slightly flustered.  She paused momentarily, noticing my hand hovering above the door knob. She tilted her head back and shouted up to an open window a few feet above the Art Studio sign.  I heard someone mumble in response to her agitated call.  With a flick of her fingers and a quick nod of her head, she approved my entrance to the Art Studio.
I opened the door, expecting to see an entire room erupting with color.  Instead, I found myself in a small dark kitchen, a plate of half eaten chicken and rice on the table and dirty dishes stacked high in the sink.  If this was indeed an art studio, it was certainly somebody’s home as well.
Hearing gentle footsteps from above, I looked up to my left and noticed another sign proclaiming, “Art Studio”, in yellow, chipping paint.  This time the arrow pointed towards a narrow staircase.
At the top of the staircase, I was met by an elderly man with a wide grin and intelligent eyes. As I followed his careful, yet assured footsteps, into the room behind him, I greeted him formally:Chau chao ong a. He turned around, his soft white-gray hair shifting slightly around his face, clearly surprised to see a young foreigner speaking Vietnamese.  However, I barely noticed the way his eyes widened behind his thick framed glasses, for I was too entranced by the flood of color surrounding me.
All around me, hanging on the wall, leaning against the window, stacked on the floor, were paintings.  Exploding with color and emotion, they were confrontational in a way that demanded attention and respect.
Dep qua! I exclaimed, unable to find stronger words to express the beauty held in the pieces of art.  The old man smiled gently, and I could see by the pride in his eyes that he was the painter.
I wondered how such passionate, almost fearsome art could come from such a tender man. I attempted to focus my eyes on one painting, wanting to see it all at once but knowing that my simple human eyes lacked the capacity.   The painting spoke loudly with distraught and disquieted emotions. I could see that the paint was still wet, so glossy and fresh. I resisted the urge to touch a smear of crimson against a fretful backdrop of blue.  I wanted so badly to feel the slick, smooth texture of wet oil paint between my fingers.
Chau co thich ve khong? The man said, inquiring if I liked to paint.
Co, a. I replied, secretly a bit embarrassed.  My paintings and sketches, although I enjoy creating them very much, would have appeared so meager and pathetic next to these masterpieces.
Ong thich hoa sy nhat? Chau rat thich Picasso, I said, inquiring which painter the man likes the most, and commenting that I was a dear fan of Pablo Picasso’s artwork.
The old man breathed in and out deeply, as if the question was particularly hard to answer. He turned his back to me for a moment, walking across the room to open a door leading to a small balcony.  He beckoned me onto the balcony, where there was a small table and chairs.  I could sense years of patience and resilience as he cautiously settled down in one of the low chairs, sighing slowly.  After pouring us both a steaming cup of green tea, he proceeded to answer my seemingly simple question.
How could one even begin to compare the beauty of a painter’s works to those of a different painter?  The old man leaned in closer to me and looked right into my eyes as he posed this question. I was slightly puzzled, and he noticed this in my face.
Let me explain.  You are a very beautiful girl, but there are many beautiful girls in this world.  It would be impossible to say which girl was the most beautiful because each and every girl is different. 
            I leaned back in my chair, contemplating this idea.
It is the same with artwork.  It would be unjust to say that Van Gogh’s paintings are superior to Monet’s, because each artist paints in a different way.  They are all beautiful in some way, and so I could not choose which one I like the most. 
            The man smiled, satisfied and content with his answer.  He took a sip of his tea, and watched me carefully as I dwelled on what he had said.  We sat in silence, both of us thinking.  Soon, however, I realized that the shadows on the street below were getting longer as the light of day began to dim.
I stood up, telling the old man that I must be getting home.  I put out my hand to say thank you, and he grasped it in the warm comfort of his two hands.  We could have been age-old friends.
I bid him farewell, knowing our paths would unlikely cross again.  I was still thinking of his smiling eyes as I walked out of the art studio and onto the bustling street.  There was something about the way he spoke to me, choosing his words so carefully and delicately; he wanted to make me think, consider and reconsider.
And so I began to contemplate my definition of beauty.

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