Science Fiction Art creativity painting uploaded personality

Three Paintings

By James Van Pelt
Sep 8, 2020 · 4,508 words · 17 minutes


Photo by Amauri Mejía via Unsplash.

From the author: A painter obsessed with the genesis of creativity embarks on the ultimate performance art.

             “They’re you go, Vincent. You’re backed up.”

            Vincent opened his eyes, checked his watch. Twenty minutes as promised. The back-up technician handed him his jacket.

            The imaging center’s reception area opened beneath him through the ceiling to floor window.  It looked more like an airline terminal than a medical facility.  Most seats were empty, but the people who waited watched videos or read.  The early morning sun bathed the area in a mellow light.

            Vincent’s manager, Brian, met him at the door onto the street.  He handed Vincent a small, heavy black bag.  “The studio is set up.”  The energetic man checked his tablet.  Dark hair fell across his eyes.  He brushed it away impatiently.  “The refrigerator room is stocked.  You’ve got breakfasts and lunches for at least two months in the pantry, as ordered, and the catering service will provide hot dinners through the delivery slot at 6:00 each evening.  I double-checked with them that they know they will be dropping meals off, not handing them to you personally.  No conversation.  Laundry goes in and out the same way.  You already set up canvases and art supplies, so you’re okay there.”

            Vincent surveyed the street.  Morning traffic was light.  A two-block walk, and he’d be at the studio.  “What are the critics saying?”

            “Who cares about the critics?  The buyers are frothing at the mouth. We’ve got massive media attention that’s built over the last forty-eight hours.  Bids for the paintings are past huge.  You’ll be breaking contemporary art records.”

            Vincent nodded.  They passed a bagel shop with an open door.  The smells were too good to pass up. It would be the last time he’d interact with another human being or be in public for at least a month. He grabbed Brian’s arm and directed them in.  The barista, a petite blonde, smiled as she took his order.  He noted her name tag, “Lisa.”  Underneath, she’d written in marker, “Coffee maker to the gods,” which tickled him.

            As they ascended the stairs to the studio, Vincent’s mood was buoyant.  A month of uninterrupted work!  The art world was buzzing.  Buyers already lined up.  He could hardly wait to start.  Brian opened the outer door.  In the tiny foyer, they solemnly shook hands.  “See you on the other side,” said Vincent solemnly.

            The second door, the one into the studio was steel.  It locked on the outside.  Once Vincent started, he could not let himself out, but shutting the door on Brian positively relieved him.  Brian handled the business end.  Hustle and tension surrounded Brian like an aura.

            The studio smelled of solvents.  The blank canvas, a big one, stood on the easel where it caught the light from the windows best.  Vincent put on his work clothes, sat before the clean fabric, a brush in hand, then thought about what he wanted to commit to the surface.  He purposefully had tried to come to this experiment without a project in mind.  Something bright to start, he thought, something bold.  He mixed paints, chose a broad brush, then swept a vivid swath.

            Day and night didn’t matter.  Vincent painted when he woke, slept when he wanted, occasionally collapsing on the floor beneath the work.  Other times he staggered to the bed in the back.  Mostly he toiled during the day, but the changing light changed the painting, and he saw it differently at night.  Paint splotches covered his hands.  If he would have looked at himself in a mirror, he’d see paint on his forehead and in his hair.  His face was becoming a painting too.

            Occasionally, he showered, mostly when thinking through a problem on the canvas.  Running water could make contemplation easier.

            He’d paint for long hours until the colors shifted before him, until it seemed that musical notes flowed from his paintbrush, and the image became three dimensional.  Dark areas felt like step-offs into chasms, and light areas baked with their own heat.  He sat still, sometimes, staring, until the only outside stimulus, a click at delivery slot told him his dinner had arrived.

            For several days, although Vincent had ceased counting, he worked on one, tiny area in the painting.  He’d add a brush stroke, sit back to think about it, then make alterations all through the canvas to reflect the small change.  He considered light sources within the painting. What was illuminated? What was shadowed? What reflected? What absorbed?

            Color, tone, shape, gesture, texture, all tumbled in his head, bubbled from his brushes, seeped into his dreams.  The painting smelled like coffee to him, like warm baked goods.  Yellows dominated.  Yellow in the flowers, yellow at the green leaves’ edges, yellow in his portrait’s hair.  If a mountain could be said to smile, then the mountain in the painting smiled. If a lakeshore could be said to be welcoming, then the shore greeted him like a lover.  Elements appeared that he hadn’t planned.  A brush stroke went too long, or the color blended at an intersection in a unpredicted way. He looked at accidents as opportunities.  The paint makes the painting as much as the painter.  When you look at the canvas, the canvas looks back at you.

            He painted in celebration and abstraction. Layers in the painting took on deeper and deeper meaning.  Vincent loved what he was doing. He loved the work.  In the end, a painting can be, should be, pure emotion, and this one was love.

            On the last day, he added just a single stroke, a white line at one shape’s edge.  It completed an arc of highlights that drew the eye from the upper left corner through the entire painting.  He smiled.  Was the painting good?  He didn’t know, but the process was holy.  He’d done the work the way he wanted.

            Next to the door that he opened once a day to pick up his dinner stood a table with a phone.  Beside that sat the unopened black bag he’d brought with him.  He received no calls on the phone. It connected only to a single number.  He hadn’t touched it while he worked, but now Vincent picked it up.  Brian answered on the other end.

            “It’s finished,” said Vincent.  He put the phone down, looked at the painting from across the room as if he couldn’t quite believe himself that it was there, opened the bag, took the gun in hand, pressed the barrel against his forehead, and pulled the trigger.

            The bagel shop blonde sneezed when she handed him his coffee.  “Sorry!”  She sniffed and wiped her nose with a napkin. 

            “Take lots of vitamin C,” said Vincent.  He wondered if the pantry had vitamins in it.

            Fifteen hours into a session, music blasting, Vincent attacked the sky.  He used a broad brush, slapping it hard into the canvas, pressing deep strokes into the paint.  The music gave him a counterpoint, a rhythm, and an intensity. His shoulders burned with effort.  Then, the brush broke, snapped in half.  He looked at it dumbly for moments before he realized what he’d done.

            He fired the gun.  The sound deafened him, but he wasn’t dead.  High up on the wall, he saw where the bullet entered.  Hesitation mark, he thought. I’m not really dying, but still I flinched.  He smiled, held the barrel to his forehead firmly with one hand while pulling the trigger with the other.

            The painting looked stupid, it felt stupid, and only stupid thinking had gone into it.  Without ceremony, Vincent took it off the easel, faced it to the wall against the other stupid one, and then chose a fresh canvas to start again.

            Vincent had never painted better. Every stroke found the perfect path.  Every transition blended exactly the way he hoped.  Proportions fell into the golden mean.  He worked on a single canvas in a blaze of unflagging achievements.  When the last paint hit the surface, he noticed the other canvases he hadn’t touched.  He chuckled.  I only need one, he thought.

            “You are done, sir.  Your backup has been restored.”

            Vincent opened his eyes, checked his watch. Twenty minutes as promised. The back-up technician handed him his jacket.

            He paused while putting it on.  “Restoration? Not a backup?”

            “Yes, sir,” said the tech.

            “Wow.”  Vincent shook his head.  “It’s already worked.”  Way more than twenty minutes had passed.  He felt like he’d been Rip Van Winkled.  “Am I me?”

            “As promised,’ said the tech. “Movement may feel odd for a day until you get used to the reset.  Your body.  Your face, and the you part of you is still you.  Welcome to modern biotechnology.”

            Through the window, the imaging center’s reception area opened beneath him.  It looked more like a bus terminal than a medical facility.  Most seats were full.  People stood in line to complete their registration.  A rainstorm darkened the windows.  Water ran in rivulets down the glass.

            “You look busy,” said Vincent.

            The technician already had the next client’s folder open on his desk.  He glanced up at Vincent.  “What? Yes, very busy.  You have a good day, sir.”

            Several people bumped him as he moved through the crowd toward the door where Brian waited.  He handed Vincent a small, heavy black bag.  “The studio is set up with supplies for as long as you need. Every night at 6:00, the caterer will deliver a hot dinner.”  They started the two-block walk to where Vincent would spend the next weeks working in isolation.

            “They know I won’t be answering the door?”

            “Naturally.”  Brian checked his tablet.

            “What painting am I on?”

            Brian laughed.  “I forgot for a moment.  You don’t know.  This is the second.”

            “How was the first? What did I paint?”

            Brian didn’t answer.

            Vincent said, “No, I’m being ridiculous.  You won’t tell me.”

            They walked, head down in the rain.  Vincent thought Brian looked tired.  There were bags under his eyes, and his step didn’t have the same bounce in that Vincent recalled.

            They passed a bagel shop door.  Vincent smelled the fresh goods, stopped and pulled Brian in.  “My last chance for a human interaction.”

            “Minimum input will make this session as much like the last session as possible.”  Brian seemed impatient.  “Those were your rules.”

            Vincent thought with eagerness about the time he had given himself in the days ahead.  Finally, he could eliminate all distraction.  In his twenties, he’d worked as a night hotel clerk.  At 5:00 am, he staggered home, slept for two hours, and then drew or painted until it was time to work again.  He yearned for the time to create, for the long, uninterrupted hours in his own head.  Today, a pause felt like a luxury.

            “I always have a bagel to begin my day,” Vincent said.

            The barista, a haggard looking, petite blonde whose name tag read “Lisa,” with the handwritten addition, “The mass’s downtrodden servant,” stood at the counter. “Cinnamon raison, toasted with strawberry cream cheese?”

            “Yes!” said Vincent. “How’d you know?”

            “I’m good with orders. Is your skinflint partner paying again? A dime tip is from the 1950s.”

            “Did she say that last time?” asked Vincent.

            Brian put a twenty-dollar bill on the eight-dollar tab.  “Keep the change.”

            “You are a skinflint, Brian.” Vincent laughed.  “What’s got into you?”

            He shrugged.  “Let’s go.  Your studio awaits.”

            Vincent wanted to finish his breakfast first, though, so they sat at a table next to the window.  The rain continued, a dark, cold drizzle that made the passing cars splashing through puddles sound like viper hisses.

            The idea for the experiment, a performance art piece, occurred to Vincent a year earlier. Over the past twenty years, he’d built a reputation for himself.  A New York City and a Sante Fe gallery were devoted to his work. A busy catalog business and steady stream of orders for pricey prints flowed in, but he worried he was going down a commercial wilderness, losing touch with relevancy in the art world, turning into Kincaid or Rockwell, an artist who could do only one thing, a popular thing that sold well but meant he was stuck creatively.  Last year he’d been the artist in residence at a retreat in the Wyoming Rockies.  He remembered sitting outside on the main ranchhouse steps, enjoying the morning sun.  Two young attendees, talking earnestly, passed him on the stairs.  They nodded in his direction.  For a moment, he felt like he had arrived.  After all, they had come to this retreat to learn from him.  They were disciples. But as they went through the doors, one said, “He hasn’t been revolutionary since before I was born.”

            Vincent wasn’t ready to join the old guard.  So the question he’d struggled with for years came back to him: what is creativity? Where does it come from? To answer, he decided to do three paintings.  He would backup himself just before the first painting, throw himself totally into the making, and then when he finished, die.  The reset would be him again at the beginning.  He’d do the second painting.  Would the two paintings be the same? Would that mean his creative destiny was hard wired within? A creative fate? Or would the paintings be different?  Given the same starting condition, would he wander into other creative areas? Did he have creative freewill?

            Resets weren’t cheap.  Backing up a complete consciousness with all its memories didn’t pose a challenge anymore, but preparing a new body did, especially if he paid for looking like himself instead of taking a generic shell.  Still, he could afford it.  The idea was a stunt, but an important one. He would be relevant again, pushing the envelope’s edge.

            Once Vincent proposed the idea, Brian turned it into an event.  “Why not be both creatively valid and profitable?” he argued.  So, the project became a media extravaganza. 

            “We have to move,” said Brian.  He tapped his fingers nervously on the table.  “You’re going to overhear something, or someone’s going to walk in here with a newspaper. A headline you didn’t see the last time could invalidate everything.”

            Vincent nodded, gathered the half bagel and coffee.

            As they ascended the stairs to the studio, Vincent’s mood was contemplative.  The rain muted the city’s sounds.  Trees dripped.  In the foyer, he shook Brian’s hand solemnly.  “See you on the other side,” said Vincent.

            Vincent was glad when the door closed, locking him in the studio.  Brian’s paranoia that Vincent might be changed by ten minutes and two blocks irritated him.

            The studio smelled of solvents and something else.  Vincent wrinkled his nose.  There was bleach, a biting odor.  A blank canvas, a big one, stood on the easel where windows would cast the best light, but the day was gray and the canvas shadowed.  Vincent put on his work clothes, sat before the unmarked fabric, a brush in hand, then thought about what he wanted to commit to the surface.  He purposefully had tried not to come to this experiment with a project in mind.  He looked up at the windows.  Rain spots and roiling clouds greeted him.  He felt dark, so he mixed paints.  His first stroke was a black, wide swath.

            Day and night ceased to matter.  Cut off from the world, without a clock or phone or radio or computer, the only regular rhythm was the clatter at the delivery slot at 6:00 pm.

            Vincent talked in workshops about getting into a creative zone, a place where outside concerns faded away, a place where the hand and the mind and the materials seemed to be one.  “In the zone” became the place he sought, a Zen-like peacefulness that negated self and time, a place he’d wake from thirsty because he hadn’t drank for hours, or where the pain in his wrist and back told him he’d been at the work beyond his body’s capacity.  Always, always, always, exiting the zone felt like rising from ocean depths.  He’d break the surface and blink with surprise at the studio’s reality.  Walls, floor, chair, table and bed, all so solid and not related in any way to the painting and where his head had been minutes before.

            Over the days, he layered the paint a dozen times.  Black on black. Violet and grays, and deep, dingy blues.  He’d painted clouds.  Behind them, he imagined sun shining, but the clouds never broke. There were places, though, where a higher cloud’s underside caught a reflection from a lower cloud hinting of light beyond.  On the dark landscape below, brush strokes suggested shapes.  Was it a human herd, their shadowed heads bowed below a hopeless sky? Was it an army fleeing a battle so vicious they felt only fear and death? 

            Off to the side among the seething mass rose a single tree, barely enough light from the clouds to separate it from the background.  If your eye followed the branches, you saw they stretched the canvas’s length, but you couldn’t see them unless you saw the trunk first.  Dark on dark were the branches, except on one branch where three leaves glowed larger than perspective would allow.  When Vincent stood back from the painting, the three green lights were what attracted his eyes first.  It was only after his gaze broke away that the darkness in the rest of the painting resolved itself into the clouds and bare branches, and the retreating army.

            Was this what he painted the first time?  Vincent sat before his nearly finished creation, spent.  For days he’d been more in the painting than he’d been in the world.  But now he thought about emerging.  A few more strokes, he would call Brian, hang up, then kill himself for the second time.  He didn’t have to turn his head to know the black bag sat beside the phone, waiting.

            For the millionth time, his eyes found the small hole in the wall by the door.  It was the only imperfection in the sterile surface.  He wondered about it.  Insects?  A bullet?  It amazed him how often he caught himself staring at it.

            He rested, the painting nearly finished.  From his bed, he saw the morning light reflected on the painting, the darkest painting he’d ever done, or was it?  What had he painted earlier?  The time was gone, which was the experiment’s point.  He couldn’t know what he’d done before, in his other incarnation.  He was supposed to be the same person for each painting.  How would subtle differences affect him?

            Vincent moved to the painting. His hand, paint splotched, ached from hours holding the brush.  Maybe a highlight would be the last touch.  A light tinge reflecting from the tree trunk.  He picked through his paints to find the white he liked, but he didn’t put it on the palette. The tube rested heavy on his hand.  He had used so few light shades.  He turned it over.  On the back, the company printed the batch number.  If you knew what you were looking at, the batch number told you when the paint had been manufactured.  Vincent read the number, put the tube down, and then checked the rest.

            When he lay down, he couldn’t sleep.  He laced his paint-stained hands behind his head, thinking about the experiment, his place in art history, bleach smells, and Brian.

            Brian said the work would set records for contemporary art, and Brian would know.  Brian knew art values.  He was the moneyman.

            Vincent eyed the telephone and the black bag.  He’d finished.  He could call Brian, then pull the trigger.  Brian said this was painting number two.  The third one would finish the project.  He would find out if creativity was preset, or if what he painted changed as he painted.  Starting from the same place, would he paint the same canvas three times?  Did da Vinci have a choice, or was the Mona Lisa his fate?

            Michelangelo said he didn’t choose the figures he carved.  He said, “Every block of stone has a sculpture inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”  Michelangelo carved away everything from the stone that wasn’t the sculpture.  That idea always bothered Vincent.  When he painted, was he making decisions, or did he lay down predetermined strokes? Did the sculptor control the stone, or did the stone control him.

            Vincent opened the bag, took out the gun.  Its solidity surprised him.  Very utilitarian in design.  He hefted it, then pressed it against his forehead to feel what it was like.  He’d pulled the trigger before.  A flick and the safety was off.  Once he called Brian, he could go back to the beginning.

            He didn’t know guns well.  It took a minute to figure out how to free the magazine, but after fumbling for a moment, the magazine dropped from the gun’s handle.  Vincent picked it off the floor.

            It was empty, and so was the gun’s chamber.

            He thought a long time about what the empty gun meant before moving.  He stalked the studio’s perimeter.  Paints, brushes, extra canvases, solvents, cloths, his clothes, a chair, a table, an easel and a bed.  He kicked the chair apart until nothing was left but the four legs like clubs, and a splintered mess.

            He called.  “I’m finished,” he said when Brian picked up on the other end.

            Vincent waited by the door, a chair leg in his hand.  When it opened, it would shield him from whoever came in.  There were no clocks in the studio, so he had no way to measure how long he stood there, conscious that his heart pounded, twitching at every imagined sound on the door’s other side.

            Finally, a solid click told him the outside door had opened.  A key turned the deadbolt in the solid steel door.  Vincent held his breath, the chair leg over his head.

            Slowly, the door opened.  “Vincent?” said Brian.  A gun and a hand slowly moved into view.  It stopped.  Brian could see the painting.  “My god.”

            Vincent brought the chair leg down hard. He felt the wrist snap, and the gun spun away on the floor.

            Brian shrieked, fell to his knees, holding his arm to his chest.  “What the hell, man!”

            Vincent put his foot on Brian’s chest and pushed him over.

            “You were going to kill me.” He didn’t feel rage.  The gun was too far for Brian to reach.  Vincent took steady breaths.  “How long have I been painting?  How many paintings have I done?”

            “We’re making a fortune,” Brian gasped.  “You’ve never done better work.  The buyers are lapping it up.”

            “You got greedy, didn’t you? How many?”  Vincent rested on his stool, the chair leg across his knees.

            Brian grimaced with pain as he sat up.  “Just one as far as you know. This was the experiment, to paint a single painting as many times as you wanted, always starting fresh. I think you broke my wrist, dammit.”

            “You took the bullets.  When did I stop killing myself? Did I ever kill myself?” It occurred to him maybe he’d lost his nerve from the beginning.  With the backups in place, Brian might have shot him the first time (although, to Vincent, this seemed like the first time). 

            Brian closed his eyes.  “After the sixth.”

            Vincent flinched.  “Six?  We announced I’d only do three.”

“The buyers loved your work.  I told them you’d extended the experiment.  Who wouldn’t?  I thought I’d find your body like I had the first five times, but you had the gun.  You were going to kill me.  I talked you out of it, though. We were going to walk out together.  It wasn’t a big deal.  You did three more paintings than you thought you had, but when you gave me the gun, I shot you.  I’ve done the deed myself since.  How did you figure it out?  For five paintings, you followed the plan.  Why’d you screw it up?”

            “You stocked the studio with new paint each time.  The tubes have a coded date on them.” He picked up the white he’d used last. “This batch came out three years from now.  How many paintings, Brian? How many times have you killed me?”

            “Twenty-two.  You paint fast.  But you’re thinking about it all wrong.  You may have died all those times, but I’ve restored you too.  This eight weeks or so in your life that you’ve had twenty-seven times could be the most brilliant you’ll ever be.  Can you imagine what other artists would give to be at the top of their talents all the time? No fading.  No eroding vision.  It’s like knowing when in your life when you’d be the happiest, and rather than seeing it pass, you get to stay there.  I’ve given you a gift, an awesome, profitable gift. Vincent, you’ll never have to work again.  You have become a legend.”

            Vincent looked at the painting’s blackness.  It truly was magnificent, or at least it seemed magnificent, but it was also a joke.

            “You don’t get it, Brian, do you? You never have. You don’t understand art.”

            Brian shook his head.  “What do you mean?”

            “It’s about growing.  You know what I’m looking forward to? It’s the painting I do next, with this one in my head.  The big deal is all those other Vincents who learned from their paintings but never got to do the next one.”

            Vincent tossed the chair leg aside.  “Art is about process, Brian. It’s about leaving a trail. I’m going back into the world.  I’ll look at those other paintings.  I’ll mourn for the lessons lost, and then paint something new.”

            He thought for just a second about closing the door so it would lock behind him, to leave Brian with the gloomy painting, all the supplies he would need to maintain himself, and a loaded gun.  How long would it take, Vincent wondered. 

            But he left the door open.  Outside, the clouds draped across the sky in shapes and shadows. The street danced in perspective and lines and texture.  A business woman walked by. He could see the tension in her hand holding the briefcase.  Her neck struck a beautiful gesture as she turned to look up the street.

            Vincent longed to paint her, to capture everything, to build on his last work and grow.

            He smelled coffee and bagels and the urge to create.


This story originally appeared in Asimov's.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."