The Red Dot
Copyright held by author, 2019
About a week after the opening, Irving Pendila bought Omar Jackson’s painting. The developer attended the opening and as he was leaving told Matilda he loved the painting and today apologized for taking so long to get back to her. After he had given her his credit card information and the transaction was completed, Matilda immediately phoned Omar. The call went to voice mail but his mailbox was full, so she sent him a congratulatory text and invited him to come by to pick up the check, 60 percent of the $3,000 his painting sold for.
She was elated… and relieved. Jersey City Portfolio – a group show featuring local artists – was her project from conception to execution – the first art show she had total responsibility for as manager of the Ida Dovell Gallery & Boutique.
Leery of showing artists with little or no reputation among collectors, art fairs or other galleries, Ida was skeptical when Matilda first pitched the idea. It probably wouldn’t have happened at all if Ned Belgano, director of marketing and publicity, hadn’t advocated for a Jersey City Portfolio show. He said a local show would get their new location some much needed media attention… that, plus the community outreach factor more than outweighed any concern about whether or not one show might negatively impact the brand.
New Jersey public television interviewed Ida and even Chelsea Visuals sent a reporter and featured a write-up on their blog. But no more significant affirmation exists than a sale. Look for originality, she learned that from her mother. It’s important to have taste, even though all taste is subjective and all artists have that inner eye from which taste begins. Only time determines greatness, but if there’s originality time is more likely to acknowledge its artistic greatness and if your inner eye recognizes originality, then your taste is credible enough for collectors to follow.
Matilda saw the originality in the phone shot Omar sent her – subtle abstract expressionist touches – squiggly lines, distorted shapes – that accentuated the natural realism of the depiction: a park with gazebo and flower garden in the foreground, then the shiny river and a horizon cramped with Manhattan’s instantly identifiable skyline – glass, steel, neon – a background of ominous splendor. The other artists were white – well, there was more than one whose last name was Hispanic and an Asian woman – given the fact that Jersey City was touting the fact demographic studies declared it one of the most ethnically diverse cities in America, Matilda was somewhat surprised that the vast majority of the artists in the show were Caucasian – but the show’s first sale was by the sole African American and that had to be an accomplishment of some importance.
She liked him. Omar was a massive man, over six feet tall, barrel chested, thick arms, large hands, flattop curly hair. But his shy and quiet demeanor dispelled any intimidation his size might induce. He wore a suit to the opening, a nondescript blue suit, the kind a guy comfortable only in jeans and t-shirts might keep in his closet for funerals, weddings or job interviews. Artists and art buyers typically dress with flair – flamboyant cuts and bright pastels had not been popular for a few years, the looks were casual – tapered, dark colors and earth tones – no one else wore a tie.
Omar obviously felt awkward and might have been dressed unlike everyone else, but he was not completely out of place. He was an artist after all and no matter class or race, everyone in the gallery loved art and artists. The environment was welcoming. She remembered thinking how endearing he seemed in his off-the-rack polyester/wool blend suit, scared yet happy to be there.
Matilda clapped her hands together and walked from the back office through the gallery and store to the front reception desk.
Mushi looked up from the desktop screen puzzled at Matilda’s beaming countenance. After a few seconds, she chuckled. “What?”
Her voice went sing-song. “Guess what I need.”
“That could take all day.”
“I’ll give you a hint. It’s round and the color of blood.”
“Something from your show sold.”
Matilda nodded rapidly, smiled with all her teeth. Mushi stood and they hugged and hopped in unison. “When are you going to tell Ida?”
“I’m trying to decide whether to call, text or email. What is her schedule today?”
“Meetings and a party tonight in Oslo, then she’s in London. I would email her.”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
“She never wanted this show, a phone call might put her on the spot. She can accept being wrong, but hates to admit it. An email would show your confidence in the Portfolio show, the sales came in as expected.”
“It’s just one sale. I don’t want to make it overblown but I put so much work into this show it would totally suck if nothing sold.”
“This place is not Chelsea or Oslo or anywhere else so we just have to find what will work here and that’s what we’re doing. It just takes time. She’s smart enough not to give into her own anxiety but will never admit to anyone else that it’s only anxiety. Whose painting sold?”
“The oil on canvas of the park, Omar Jackson.”
“The black guy.”
“That is so cool.”
“Because he’s African American?”
“No… yes, that’s cool but I mean that guy, Omar, it was his first show.”
“I talked to him when he dropped off his painting. I never saw an artist so nervous, usually they’re cocky and rude to anyone who’s not the gallery owner or curator. Most artists have the manners of a lizard or toad, especially the ones we usually get. Not him, a real gentleman. He said he didn’t know what to do because it was his first show ever. I asked him if it was the first time he was accepted to a show and he said it was the first time he submitted any painting to any art show. His hands were callous and rough, I’m sure he is a blue collar worker. He said he never even showed his art to anyone who didn’t know him personally before now.”
Mushi handed her the roll of Red Dot decals. They walked to the gallery and Matilda stuck the crimson circle near the label on the wall. After months of wondering if she had made the right decision coming to Jersey City to manage a gallery she finally felt an absence of doubt.
Ida had opened up this location in Jersey City ten months ago and business had been spotty. The boutique had been doing well, attracting a wealthy clientele with its limited run, high-priced designer housewares. But the art sales were nowhere near the Chelsea, London, Oslo, or Tokyo galleries and it was her artists that Ida cared about the most. Original fine art was at the core of the Ida Dovell brand, Ida Dovell insisted.
The population in this former industrial city was rapidly growing mainly due to the influx of wealthier residents buying condos in the new buildings proliferating throughout the town but especially in the still freshly gentrified Power House District where Ida’s newest outlet was located. Those more newly arrived were willing to shell out big bucks for a limited edition handcrafted flower vase but displayed minimal interest in Ida’s internationally acclaimed painters. Buyers – even two or three deep-pocket connoisseurs – from Manhattan came – Ida chartered luxury buses with full-bars for openings – but the appeal just wasn’t up to expectations, underperforming art sales persisted.
The Power House District used to be warehouses and factories and still had cobblestone streets from when the 20th century industrial era thrived, employing thousands for decades. By century’s end those jobs were overseas and the warehouses and factories fallow.
The Power House once housed immense generators that powered the industry but now the block-sized brick structure was a historic landmark. What warehouses and factories that weren’t knocked down were turned into apartment complexes and mixed-used properties and those unable to be repurposed were replaced by shiny glass and chrome condo towers.
Matilda managed a Los Angeles gallery that Ida didn’t own but was associated with. She had grown up in the west coast art scene, her mother was an artist and professor and she had an earned an MFA in fine arts. Ida hired her and she moved to Jersey City into a condo her mother purchased for her.
She had friends in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where she met Ryan. Good looking, financially stable and career oriented, he was a videographer and worked as an assistant director on a series of educational documentaries on poverty in the developing world. He was filming in Brazil and had missed the opening, but the show was his idea, in a roundabout way.
Like all gentrifying cities, Jersey City had a well-promoted art scene – artists lived there and/or rented the affordable studio spaces and there were a handful of galleries – bars and cafes that hung art or pop-up spaces in empty stores or apartment building lobbies.
Except for the bars and cafes – who catered to the artists and their friends – i.e., the local art scene – none of the galleries kept regular hours and they sold art usually at less than a third of the price points Ida needed to sustain her brand. Ryan suggested a downtown Jersey City date – downtown was the neighborhood adjacent to the section where the Ida Dovell Gallery & Boutique was located, it was the first neighborhood to gentrify and was considered the heart of the J.C. art scene.
Theorem was the J.C. art bar – a bar with gallery space – the heart inside the heart of the scene– the show up when Ryan and Matilda went on their date had a winter theme –pop and street art influences were very apparent, but several of the abstract oils were genuinely engaging.
“I like this place, thank you for suggesting it,” said Matilda. They were seated on stools at a tall table for two near the bar, in view of most of the art.
“I’ve read about it online and it sounded interesting. Jersey City is the next Williamsburg, you read that all the time. I’m glad I have such a beautiful reason to come here.”
She smiled and blushed. She liked being with him. “If I’m not at the gallery I’m in New York. Ida hates coming to Jersey City.”
“She must be the only one who doesn’t know there’s an art scene here.”
“She knows it exists, she just doesn’t seem to care.”
“What a snob.”
“A successful snob who knows her business. I like this art in this bar though. There doesn’t seem to be anything similar to each other… there’s a multiplicity of style. If there’s a scene than it’s one of array.”
“It’s been going on for a while now, more than a decade. If the artists here weren’t selling work that wouldn’t be true. It’s a shame as a gallery you won’t show the art being created around you.”
“She complains about how her brand is not getting across in Jersey City. She’s always talking about thinking outside the box but she’s so rigid about things.”
“You’re well networked in New York, but there’s a lot of money in New Jersey, between here and Philadelphia there’s a vast upper middle class suburbia. You network with Jersey City artists, maybe you will be able to tap into a market that doesn’t want to go to New York or Oslo to buy art.”
A couple of days after the Jersey City Portfolio had its first – and still only – Red Dot, Ryan was back from his shoot. They traded texts. He congratulated her on the sale. I want to celebrate and thank you for helping me develop the idea for the show by making you dinner. We should go to a restaurant and have champagne he texted back and she replied I already have some champagne and I want to show you appreciation. Can I bring anything? She texted back: your cock and maybe some weed.
He replied with three thumbs up. She hadn’t felt sexy like this in more than a year… not since the breakup with Kyle, the live-in relationship, her first foray into full adulthood that crashed and burned in a spiral so bloody the wounds seemed never to heal. Some would never completely and for many that did their scars were permanent, but moving to the east coast and getting serious with her sales and management career was a leap in the right direction. Such confidence would have been inconceivable when she filed for the restraining order.
Her mother returned her call. “Congratulations on the Red Dot for that Jersey City show you worked so hard on.”
“I’m so proud of you.”
“It’s a beautiful painting.”
“You have a well-trained and gifted eye, I always knew that. Ida must be pleased.”
“I think she still hates Jersey City.”
“Who can blame her.”
“I hate the Northeast.”
“You grew up in Connecticut.”
“That’s probably why. I need warm weather. I need to see oceans, not just rivers. Southern California lets my imagination flourish. I liked living in the city when I lived in the city. It’s what you do when you’re your age, but I never loved it. Do you love it?”
“I think so, Mom. The energy here nourishes me.”
“Have you been painting?”
“No, just working. I like managing.”
“You got a Red Dot, art must be selling.”
“We get a lot of sales for the furnishings. We could turn the whole place into an overpriced Target. Mushi jokes we should use the gallery space to sell appliances.”
“How happy is Ida about that?”
“She wants to sell art.”
“She gets bigger and bigger names, more and more collectors follow her.”
“The gallery is three times the size of Chelsea, better designed too. The lighting is better too, in fact the lighting is better than the Tate, but the buyers just don’t come here. It’s like buying somewhere other than a major city is degrading to them. Ida charters buses from Chelsea for the openings, liquors them up on the way over. She’ll do anything just to make sure she has the right people here. Good thing too, people who live here aren’t buying art and not enough people are coming to this side of the Hudson to buy art. We’re selling vases and end tables for thousands of dollars, we’re profitable. But you know Ida, she’s paranoid that if she gets too well known for selling fancy furniture and expensive housewares her brand will be tarnished.”
“Gallery owners are positively pathological when it comes to their brand. The paranoia of someone as self-absorbed as Ida knows no bounds.”
“The art scene here is big and there’s some genuine talent too, but convincing her to tap into the community was a chore.”
“Everybody on the faculty has a niece or nephew living there it seems. She has to get established in Jersey City, it just takes time.”
“Ryan says the same thing, he encouraged this show. I’m thanking him tonight by making Grammy’s pasta primavera.”
“With the mascarpone and guanciale?”
“There’s a wonderful store two blocks from my place, everything fresh and organic.”
“The best pizza I ever ate, not counting Rome of course, was at some street fair in Jersey City way before you were born. I’m glad some of that old school Italian stuff survived all this gentrification.”
“The store is brand new. Monterrey Meadows.”
“I saw one of those the last time I was in downtown L.A.”
“All the stores and cafes and restaurants are new, everything is, just like the gallery space. We’re the first tenants. People who lived here all their lives tell me that all the time, how this used to be abandoned warehouses and factories, people selling drugs. There’s parts of the city that’s almost as bad today people say, and other parts that are gentrifying, even hyper-gentrifying, but nobody really lived in my neighborhood until just a few years ago. There was no one to displace.”
“You’re not in a neighborhood transitioning out of a slum. Quality of life is built in. We bought at the right time.”
“It’s almost like living in a bio-dome, an enclave isolated from the rest of the city. To even get to the downtown section where the Art Bar is you have to cross parking lots and streets as busy as a highway before you reach anything resembling another neighborhood.”
Her father’s father was a successful stockbroker who once had offices in five American Cities. The son followed in his father’s Wall Street footsteps. Her father – and his siblings – were not one-percent rich but solidly upper middle class. Like his siblings, her father was well educated but he was the most skilled at knowing when to buy and when to sell. Investors trusted him, just like they did his father before him. The difference between father and son was not their business expertise but their feeling of personal responsibility for family stability.
The patriarch’s marriage lasted nearly 60 years. Both parents attended Episcopalian services every Sunday together and died within months of each other at an assisted-living senior center in Tampa Bay.
Her father also loved to procreate, but with a variety of mates. A commitment to family he did not inherit. He loved women and many loved him but the love on a relationship by relationship basis was never able to be sustained past a few years at most.
His marriage to Matilda’s mother – the fourth of his five attempts at wedded bliss – lasted the longest at nearly nine years. Twenty years older than her mother, she was his second midlife crisis. Matilda had half-siblings but they rarely spent time together; no bad blood between them, just a mutual if mild resentment. They all accepted that their father had fallen out of love with their individual mothers. The half-siblings never blamed each other for the dismantling of their own family units but lingering anger over the perpetual sense of loss each divorce produced could not be avoided.
Any communication was cordial and infrequent. Her father’s other offspring existed in different worlds and even generations – two stepsisters were around the same age as Matilda’s mother – and his estate was plentiful enough to be distributed without objections.
Matilda loved her father and knew he loved her. All his wives agreed he cared about his children. A stable family with two parental units spanned many – maybe even most – of Matilda’s most formative years, but by high school it was just she and her mother against the world.
She met Kyle when she was in graduate school and living with roommates about a year after her father died. He was a lawyer from a family of lawyers and they fell in love but even when they were falling in love – and certainly after falling out of love, but even when they were good together and passionate and everything was laughter and desire – she worried how much of this love was genuine and how much was a side effect of grief.
Was an artist wife and white collar husband as the pinnacle of couple happiness just a childhood fantasy she was forcing to come true? Maybe she was just lonely, not truly in love at all. Early on, she asked her mother once if she thought Daddy would have been impressed by Kyle and after an uncomfortably long pause said I don’t know… if you’re happy that is all that matters.
Handsome, funny and polite but also a slacker who hated being the lawyer his parents made him become. Reading anything bored him, even literature and comic books, much less the bottomless tedium of law books, briefs, contracts, depositions, testimonies or the countless waves of monotonous letters and memos and emails that needed attention every day and well into most nights. The only thing he loathed more than reading Latin or legal jargon was himself for having to read at all instead of playing, thinking and feeling music.
Kyle wanted to be a rock star, played in bands since grade school. Early on, he would serenade her as she painted. She loved that… while it lasted. Nothing made him happier than playing guitar and it was not that he wasn’t talented, just never good enough to be professional. He wrote songs and could sing along and entertain strangers, but the devotion to the guitar could never truly be fulfilled. The regret he lived with every day and mentioned constantly – either drunk or sober – was if it wasn’t for being a lawyer I would be a real musician.
Within six months after signing their lease they were rarely spending time together. She was completing the cubistic series with accompanying 150-page master’s thesis and the mandatory seminars, conferences, receptions and assorted meetings only became more intensive the closer to graduation, plus her hours at the gallery and shifts at the antique store. When Kyle wasn’t sweating into a scratchy wool suit while behind a desk or in front of a desk or seated at a conference table or under the relentless irritation of the fluorescent lights of a courtroom, he was playing open mics or jamming with one of his bands. He was adept at both acoustic and electric punk.
From the happy hour legal gatherings to the past midnight music gigs, alcohol was constant, bumps of coke and/or meth not uncommon. She was never judgmental about the drinking or the drugs. She could party, but had put it behind her, at least for now. Waking early enough to attend the gym’s first yoga class of the day kept her mind clear. She went vegan three days every week, fasted three days every third month and never drank more than a glass of red wine at social occasions where it would be awkward to not imbibe.
He never liked the art crowd or the college crowd; the clubs always smelt of urine and the music now always sounded the same. When they did spend time alone, both were tired, usually angry about one perceived slight or another and gradually neither could be sure who should be doing the apologizing and who should be expecting an apology.
Pursuing what she loved and working hard to achieve the goals she had set, she was in a happy place in her life. The place he was in was miserable. At his age in his field you could not lawyer a little and the more he lawyered the more he hated living even though spending the time needed for what he felt driven to do meant ignoring the reality that his talent for music never equaled his need for music.
Then the lawyer work dried up – the firm was understaffed and lost business – and instead of doing another round of resume sending and interviewing, the folk punk band decided to make an EP. He never wanted to admit how amateur they sounded, and the studio their manager booked cost thousands of dollars, half of which was paid for by the desperate rich lawyer.
The skin surrounding his squint would get red and he would just go in the other room and smolder, drink right from the bottle, more than once passed out in his own vomit.
Their love had been so perfect, so beautiful and that perfection and beauty deepened with time. They were mad for each other. The way he made her body feel – that dance of anticipation and release that swelled from deep in her soul and went through every cell in her body then back to the soul – intense longing then unleashing that longing with presence. The idea of being without him and their love was unbearable. They were in each other’s mind, their physical reciprocity of that certitude of shared thought and feeling was a rush of desire that even then she knew was at least partially hormonal… yet no matter how physical, it was real… and even after the breakup – the restraining order – after her mother drove three hours in a rented mini-van and packed two suit cases of clothes, which she put in the van along with all her canvases, paint, easel, Apple and drives – one black eye is enough her mother kept repeating in between asking her what she couldn’t do without because she’s never coming back – Matilda obeyed her orders in teary silence – even after the worst of it and even when she hated him for giving her no other choices – she yearned for Kyle, for the love they first felt.
How much of that intensity was due to the energy of youth and how much because of the purity and depth of their love she couldn’t answer, would never be able to truly know.
What she did know was that Ryan was the first one since Kyle she felt anything close to that yearning. But was this anything more meaningful than merely thinking about someone often – was that the same as love? It was some form of love… that had to be true… and if not love, the potential for it becoming love was there.
They were exclusive as far as she knew, but they had yet to talk conclusively about their relationship. Why should they? They were having too much fun fucking.
Before dinner they fooled around to the point of disrobing so they ate dinner naked – well she wore an apron to serve the hot food – and they both seemed to knew that moment when no more food was needed and they went into the bedroom together for a long period of leisurely foreplay that after a brief pause for brandy and a few hits of pot was followed by borderline animalistic intercourse, orgasms of emotional magnitude. Drenched in perspiration as their breathing settled, they were uncomfortably alert. The exertion had the counter intuitive effect of leaving both wide awake.
Sometimes when the pleasure and the determination to reach it is so formidable, the intimacy so exposed, you need to talk about anything except for what just happened. He had noticed the canvas in the corner before they even ate, commenting that it didn’t look like she had worked on it like she said she intended. She had nothing to say then because at the time she needed to undress him and now without any noticeable provocation, his comment about the canvas suddenly popped into her mind. “I’ve been so busy.”
“To paint. With work and this show, the boutique has been so busy – not only are people coming in even on weekdays, we’re doing online sales too. Plus Ida loves to teleconference after five.”
“You want to paint now?”
“No…” she chuckled when she realized he was kidding. “I’m still a painter. I talked to my mother today and she mentioned the painting, just like you did when you first came here tonight. Both of you unknowingly conspired to put that in my head again.”
“The randomness of synchronicity.”
She caressed his chest. “Exactly.”
“You can be good at more than one thing. Sales is honest work in theory.”
He relit the joint. She rubbed the protrusion of his triceps then rested her head on his chest. She kissed the exhaled smoke when he continued.
“Rich people have money to spend and spending it on art has benefits. If it wasn’t for you, the artist wouldn’t get paid.”
“And it is good for society and the more art there is the better society is for that.”
He took another hit, handed her the joint, tenderly kissed her nipple and nuzzled upwards to her neck.
His lips felt moist. She became pensive when she toked. “But it’s only transaction.”
He lay on his back, locked his fingers at the nape of his neck and stretched his bent elbows towards the ceiling. “You’re making that transaction possible and the king make that queen pin you work for may get the biggest cut but you make money along the way.”
She held the joint to his lips. “Transaction is not as valid as creation, that’s what you’re saying.”
“That’s what you’re saying.” He coughed out a billow of smoke, followed by a series of small coughs. She put the flimsy butt into the ashtray. “What you do for Ida requires a skill set you’ve attained. Enabling commerce is necessary. All labor is valid.”
“I like making my own money, that’s true. I also like being good at something too. Art runs in my family, you get the calling whether you like it or not. I just don’t know how good I’m at painting and maybe I’m not making the time for it because I am afraid to find out just how good I am not.”
“Do you wish it was your Red Dot?”
“You’re better than the shrink I had in the Valley was.” She shifted her position, now both side by side, not touching. They stared at the ceiling and listened to the night. “I suppose on some level I wish it was my dot. It’s not jealousy though. I loved his piece, that’s why I put it in the show. The sale is a validation of what I saw in Omar’s painting and what I saw was true art and true art inspires an artist to create and I don’t have time to create. I feel guilty that I haven’t painted, it’s this whole no excuse for not making art mentality that my mother gave me then was permanently drilled into me by my grad program. In no way would I want to take away his success. That’s his Red Dot.”
“You know, you don’t really hear about artists of color in these gentrifying cities where artists form scenes and communities. I didn’t see any at that art bar or the gallery show we went to, the one in the lobby of that church they turned into condos. Williamsburg’s practically a blizzard.”
“White out conditions. You hardly know that outside the Williamsburg bubble is an entire city with its own multicultural culture.”
“Not Manhattan, Brooklyn. Generations of working class people, immigrant families. The hipsters think they’re pilgrims settling a vacant Plymouth Rock but there was a community there before them that is still there but you wouldn’t know it by the so called art scene there. Your show at least brought in a non-white hipster.”
“Hipster? Mushi thinks he’s blue collar.”
“Working class and black, that’s fantastic.”
“Giving representation to artists from the entire community could be good for the brand, don’t you think.”
“”The more segments of the community, the more people you can exploit.”
“What exploitation? You just said everyone makes money because of Ida Dovell.”
“We get scraps that help us get by but the system is perpetuated. Wealth oppresses everyone and just because some economic activity occurs does not negate the exploitation. Did you ever see real poverty? Way worse… there are places in South America a million times worse than what we have here. That kind of poverty crushes you. Until you see it, you simply can’t fathom how it affects someone’s life. Your entire life is just sacrificial fodder, fuel for the machine making the haves have more which makes more have-nots and the more have-nots in the world the less those have-nots have. Stuff like art, even morality itself, become unaffordable luxuries because your personal survival is threatened on a daily basis. Everything is geared to distracting us from changing that system.”
The way he said everything bothered her. The tone seemed harsh, mildly so but its suddenness eliminated the coziness from the moment. She picked up her phone and turned on a Spotify playlist that mixed classic with contemporary folk-rock and went into the kitchen to get a glass of water.
He left before dawn, hours before she had to get out of bed. He turned off his phone alarm and dressed quickly, no making coffee or taking a shower. No civilized morning ablutions for a guy on the go. She felt his kiss, heard his whispered goodbye. Her eyes opened, she pushed away the bed linen, and pulled his body on top of hers, wrapping her legs around his waist. His denim jacket and jeans felt coarse against her flesh. He waited for her to let go then promised to text and she was unable to go back to sleep after he departed.
Detective Brian Snyder came to the gallery the next day. Matilda was leaning over her lap-top responding to emails when she heard Mushi nervously cough then saw the man looking at the ceramic lava lamp in the boutique. Mushi trembled as she whispered, “Police.”
Matilda walked over to him. Tan cargo pants, brown blazer and a light blue dress shirt with a faded red tie, his hair was light brown, shorn to fuzz. He pointed to his badge, which was on the same belt as the holster holding his department-issued revolver.
“Are you the owner of the Ida Dovell Gallery & Boutique,” he politely but firmly inquired.
“I am the manger.”
“Did you know Omar Jackson?”
“Omar… he’s an artist. Is he in trouble?”
“Artist? Meaning what exactly.”
“That he makes art.”
“Like these lamps and dishes and whatnot?”
“Omar is a painter.” She gestured towards the adjacent gallery but his expression didn’t change. He followed her into the gallery and they stood in front of Omar’s idealized gazebo surrounded by hedges and a flower garden, the glistening river and skyline background. She flipped on the track lighting, illuminating all the art in the entire gallery.
He gazed, perplexed. He didn’t so much look at but watched the painting for at least three minutes. “Omar Jackson painted this.”
He took out a notepad from his side jacket pocket and unclipped the pen from his shirt pocket and with a sigh, flipped open the pad and apprehensively jotted.
“What do you do here?”
“I’m the manager and I curated this show.”
“Yes, I put the show together.”
“The show… these paintings.”
“They’re the show.”
“We’re a gallery and we show art.”
He made another scribble. “How did you know Omar?”
“By his art. He submitted to this art show.”
“His painting. This painting.”
“You chose this painting from submissions because you’re the curator. The curator decides what paintings are in a show.”
“Can you tell me what this is about?”
“Where you friends with Omar.”
“I only met him twice, when he dropped off his painting and when he came to the opening last month.”
“This circle, that orange thing.
“Why does his painting have one?”
He re-read the label that clearly stated Omar’s name, but his disbelief persisted. “For that price.”
“Yes, it sold for that price.”
“Somebody bought it for that price.”
“That’s what sold means detective.”
He nodded, oblivious to the sarcasm. “You don’t know Omar.”
“Not before the show, he responded to an Art Call.”
“Call for art, it’s a solicitation. I curate different shows. J.C. Portfolio is a group show and we put out an open call. Our gallery is different for Jersey City, we have the boutique and two art gallery spaces and most of the shows in the galleries are solo shows.”
“Solo shows, just one artist.”
“Right. Group shows like the one he’s in have several artists. Omar was in this group show.”
“You did not know him.”
“I answered that question before. I demand to know what this is all about.”
“Your business card was in his wallet. Omar was shot three days ago and I’m investigating his murder.”
“He’s dead… murdered?” Her gasp startled the detective then her voice barely made any noise. “He was so young.”
“Twenty three.” He cleared his throat. “You didn’t hear about the shooting last weekend in Greenville.”
“Is that Brooklyn?”
“Jersey City. It’s still ghetto, like downtown and the river—“
“Here, what they call the Waterfront… here used to be ghetto, more so than Greenville, at its worse the River was always worse than Greenville ever was, even Greenville now. I guess you hipsters don’t go outside your neighborhood much.” He reached into the side pocket of his jacket and pulled out a flat, clear-plastic bag which held a business card. “We found this card in his wallet. I had no idea a gang banger would be in a place called,” he read from the contents of the evidence bag “Ida Dovell Gallery & Boutique.”
“Yes. He got out of Rahway six months ago. Five years for involuntary man slaughter, he beat a rival gang member to death. He was seventeen but they tried him as an adult. That’s your artist.”
On the verge of hyperventilating, a tremor swept through her body. She maintained her steadiness and remained as outwardly calm as possible. “That man… that very young man… could not have been more gracious. He was dressed in a suit and more polite than most people I’ve met in New Jersey. I don’t know anything about his past or his life. I only know art. This artist has great talent, anyone can see that.”
“This looks like a real painting to me.”
“I see that, I just can’t believe it’s by him. I didn’t know what to expect when I came here. I’m just following procedure. There’s nothing to investigate.”
“You said he was murdered.”
“One of three shootings last week, the twenty third this year. All gangs, everybody knows and nobody cares.”
“I heard about gangs all the time in Los Angeles when I lived out west, but I’ve heard nothing on the news about gangs out here.”
“They’re fighting over territories for cocaine and heroin. Markets basically. Gangs are the sales networks for drug cartels. They’re in every city. The DEA tells us the gangs don’t smuggle the drugs, they just handle sales of the drugs smuggled here. That makes them our problem, not theirs. When there’s this much money involved, the stakes are high and these kids kill each other and they’ve gotten really good at killing each other. I don’t expect to solve this case but we’re obligated to investigate. Your card was the only thing that didn’t make sense. “
“Now it does?”
“I believe you are telling the truth. I believe here is where he got this card and he got the card because of this Red Dot painting. It’s the ‘his art’ part I can’t make sense of. Who bought it?”
She paused. “Someone who fell in love with Omar’s painting. I would be uncomfortable giving you his name before asking my boss.”
“I don’t think there’s any link between the art and the shooter.”
“The buyer didn’t know Omar. He just liked the picture and had the money to spend. He didn’t know anything more than that the artist was from Jersey City because all the artists in this show were from Jersey City.”
“I was in high school when the artists first started moving here. Seems I see a new mural appearing on buildings every other week these days.”
“We’re new to Jersey City, officer.”
“Detective… Detective Snyder.”
“Detective Snyder. We’re an international company, with galleries in Oslo, London, Tokyo. The artists we usually represent are internationally famous, well known in art circles.”
“Serious art buyers. Collectors, museums and other galleries. That’s our clientele for the gallery. We didn’t know any of the artists we’re showing in this show until they submitted work. This show was a first for us. We did it for community relations – present a show of local artists, give some of the talent here a shot.”
“Somebody gave Omar a shot all right. I’m not surprised, but I’m surprised too.”
“I don’t understand.”
“He was on our radar just being a gang member, and an ex-con. We knew who he was but after his release, he didn’t seem involved in any gang activity as far as we could know. He was making steady paychecks at some garage on 440 and keeping all his meetings with his P.O.”
“Parole Officer. I talked to him two days ago. The guy was shocked, truly sad. That surprised me. Most P.O.’s don’t develop any feelings for their case subjects. He said he liked Omar, that he believed in him. He didn’t mention no art, nothing about a hipster art store in the Power House District… no offense, Miss.”
Matilda shrugged it off. “I find it unlikely somebody this talented could keep his art a secret even if it was just some hobby.”
“The P.O,. said he worked as a mechanic, rented a room from a cousin and had family back in Virginia. Except for the cousin who never had anything to do with gangs, seemed any family who was alive but not in jail was back in Virginia, even the ones who were born in Jersey City. That’s all I know about Omar the ex-con and former Blood. Nothing about no nice painting.”
“It is a nice panting.”
“It didn’t look like a gunfight, there was no weapon at the scene. We don’t release the names of victims until the family is told. Contacting them took a few days and by then, the local reporters were on to another shooting. That was gang related too, not that any politician or reporter in Hudson County is going to mention gangs or their alliances with the cartels to the public, God forbid right. A statistic makes a better story. Nobody cares about his name.”
“I care. We care. He’s an artist.”
He shook his head, cursing under his breath. He drew a line across the bottom of the notepad’s page then flipped the notepad closed, shoved it back into his jacket pocket then clicked the ballpoint pen and clipped it back into his shirt pocket. “I’ve known that P.O. ten years at least, I’ve never heard him say anything near as nice as the stuff he said about Omar. I guess what I’m trying to tell you is that I see no reason he wasn’t on the straight and narrow. If he was making paintings like this he had to be doing something constructive with the rest of his life too… I don’t know anything about art nor do I want to… my wife does all the decorating… I think she would like this painting. I know that park.”
Detective Snyder tightened his lips, suddenly silent. Omar Jackson had created something he could not stop looking at but was unable to make sense of that something and that was what angered him, knowing that something was going on that he could see but not understand. He resented having to play the messenger, that it was his duty to relay tragic news to this law abiding, young woman. He gave her his card.
“If you think of something feel free to call me.” His voice wavered, suppressing how upset he now felt. “I want to thank you for your time.”
She could only nod as he walked away. The next thing she knew she was sobbing and Mushi was hugging her.
Ida asked her so many questions about what the detective actually said, the tone of his voice, what his demeanor was and how he looked that Matilda actually wound up telling the same story three times. Calmly, evenly, Ida then instructed: “Call Ned as soon as we hang up and tell him everything you’ve told me and we’ll talk tomorrow first thing.”
Ned listened to her tell the story, but asked no questions. “You handled that cop appropriately and professionally. Tell no one that a homicide detective came to the gallery or that Omar was shot. In fact, don’t even talk about the Red Dot. No one, not friends, family or lovers. Stay off of social media completely, post nothing of any kind on any platform and that includes anything and everything Ida Dovell Gallery & Boutique related as well as any of your personal accounts. I’m going to call Mushi and give her the same gag order. We have to control the message starting now. Ida’s skyping in from Oslo at ten, I’ll be there two hours before. I’ll bring those Hoboken cappuccinos.”
“You’re going to Hoboken before coming here just to buy cappuccinos.”
“I’m going to Jersey City, right to the gallery. The place that’s practically next door.”
“The Warehouse Café?”
“Yes, that coffee shop, the funkier Starbucks without all the mossy green and that weird mermaid. It’s in that ugly, old beige building filled with expensive condos.”
“It’s called the Warehouse Café because it is in a former warehouse.”
“I get the cute irony. They serve Hoboken Cappuccinos, that’s their cappuccino. I love those things.”
“They serve Lackawanna cappuccinos, well not even that. It’s called Lackawanna Coffee and with that coffee they make cappuccinos, which I agree are delicious and yes I do want one. Lackawanna is also the name of the train station that is in Hoboken and that is probably why you’re mixed up.”
“You move from California a year ago and now you’re Bruce Springsteen. Who cares, it’s just Jersey. If their cappuccinos weren’t the best I ever had I’d stay home and just Skype in with Ida. But I need to clarify my own thoughts before developing a strategy about this so if you and I could talk one on one before Ida calls that would be optimum. You did good today, Matilda… and I’m sorry about Omar.”
Ned was outside the gallery when she arrived. He had cappuccinos and assorted muffins and as Matilda unlocked the door, switched off the alarm system and turned on the lights, Ned sustained a jovial rant praising the cappuccino. “I swear, they’re as good you get in Milan. They’ve almost ruined cappuccinos in New York for me, they’re that good. Want to know why? They’re hot without being burnt. The baristas there know that precise temperature is seventy three degrees Celsius.”
“You give them a temperature.”
“Not give, I asked though and they gave the right answer.”
“At least you’re not bringing your own thermometer to test their truthfulness.”
“My taste buds are way more accurate than any thermometer could ever be. That level of heat brings out the coffee flavor and keeps the drink hot for the entire cappuccino experience. Another thing they do there, they dust the drink with a powder that has both cinnamon and cocoa. It’s a proprietary powder blend, marvelous. I always ask for a mix of heavy cream and almond milk. I got yours that way. It’s for both flavor and consistency. The espresso though is the key.”
He placed the cardboard tray of drinks and the brown biodegradable bag of muffins and the replica of a vintage bicycle messenger satchel on the conference table then hung up his jacket on the coatrack. He wore the skinny jeans popular with men half his age. He favored vests that did not match his jacket – the former was silver, the latter ink black – striped shirts and droopy velvet bowties. All he needed was derby and a handlebar mustache and he could be in barbershop quartet – except for the neo-punk Calvin Klein’s and of course, the horseshoe nose piercing and the nine gold rings clamped to his left earlobe. Ned didn’t dress to impress, but to express his self-confidence through style and the essence of that style was the combination of fashion trends from different historical periods.
“I usually get green tea most mornings, but this tastes so good.”
“I need strong now.”
“I like a rich espresso, muscular. What makes an ideal man also makes an ideal coffee. You can never be too rich, too muscular or too caffeinated. The blend of beans, the way they’re roasted, makes the flavor perfect for cappuccinos. I love coffee and there’s no better manifestation of coffee than the cappuccino. You don’t have the right proportion of steamed milk than you don’t have a cappuccino but a latté which are good but they’re more a milky coffee, a coffee milkshake. Not its own beverage.”
His laptop was out of the satchel and booted up, screen glowing. “It has to be tough news to hear, about Omar.”
“I barely slept.”
“Death for one so young, it’s horrible no matter what we do.”
“What do you mean what we do? What can we do, he’s dead.”
“We can’t change that, but as a business and a gallery, we have to control the message. Do we say anything, and if yes, what should we say. More importantly, what if somebody like a reporter says something or asks us a question about Omar, we have to be prepared. Also there’s a few legal considerations, do we know the next of kin.”
“I never met him before this show. I told you everything I know.”
“I know you did, but I am going to ask you again. Do you have any idea of who we are going to pay?”
“The Red Dot, we take a commission and we pay the artist do we not. I know you wouldn’t have hung his work at all without having the contract signed and we’re obligated to pay. I doubt this kid has a lawyer much less a will, but we have to find out first. We have to pay somebody.”
“I hadn’t even thought of that.”
“That’s why I’m here, to make sure we work this out for the good of all concerned, especially the Ida Dovell Gallery & Boutique. The lawyer said he’d call me with the LexisNexis report by nine. We have to be prepared.”
“The detective said the papers weren’t interested in Omar.”
“Prepared for Ida, that’s the first priority. Forewarned is forearmed… or should we be forearmed first, I forget.”
She recited the Detective Snyder visit again to him and when she got to the part where she learned cause of death and Omar’s gang involvement, Ned asked detailed questions, probing for things she couldn’t know and when information wasn’t available, he asked how she felt about what the detective told her. He forced her speculation. She became paranoid that if in lieu of fact her opinion would be taken as truth, then any gallery messaging could be based on an inadvertent falsehood, potentially damaging the brand.
The detective had difficulty reconciling the art he saw with the gangbanger he knew and every time Ned’s questions were about what could be known about the violent, criminal past of Omar, Matilda couldn’t reconcile why a bullet was in the brain of that shy kid in an inconspicuous suit a banking student intern might wear, laughing away his fear making small talk with strangers at the first public display of his beautiful work of art. But any tears were no more than flecks and her voice stayed steady. She was reminded of when her father died. His last wife planned the funeral service and reception, a challenging affair considering the number of relatives and their complicated relationships. Matilda put aside grief because the funeral had to be gotten through and she gave thought-out opinions that everyone reassured her they appreciated.
Mushi arrived with another round of cappuccinos. Ned interviewed her about the conversation she had with Omar. The googling and searches brought little more than they already knew. His only police record was for the manslaughter charge, but the lawyer said his juvenile records were sealed by law, which only meant he had a New Jersey criminal record as a minor, not why he was arrested. Nothing other than general stories could be found: twenty three deaths by gun violence last year but no other information than ‘believed to be gang associated’ – no articles about actual gangs, their actual names, their relationships with drug cartels or why they are killing each other
A different set of keywords brought up reports on the rising toll of overdoses in New Jersey. Opioid crisis hits Garden State, but nothing about gangs selling heroin. When gang stories appeared, no mention of the cartel. The stories about gun violence in Jersey – almost all the victims were young African American men – only believed to be gang-related causes was said – nothing about what the actual situations that led to death might be.
Just the incidents, just the deaths, only facts like time of day and where the killing took place.
No earrings, no lipstick, her hair pulled back. Ida usually seemed of indeterminate age but now looked her actual age, exactly fifty seven. Being middle aged plus unadorned made her no less attractive – she had a fanatic dedication to a demanding diet and fitness regime – but it was more than just her health and beauty – she had charisma, an innate quality that can never be adequately defined and is both glow and gravitational pull.
That charisma made her glamourous. You always knew when Ida Dovell was in a room. Men and women fell in love with Ida, trusted her taste so completely they wanted her taste to be theirs. It’s not like she even lacked glamor now, but she projected something more powerful, something more serious. A continent away, not caring about what she wore or how she looked, she seemed never more imposing.
Ned and Matilda sat at the conference table, their boss appeared on a flat screen on the wall. When the connection was stable and the greetings concluded, silence lingered. Ida put on a pair of large eyeglasses, red plastic frames, round bug-eye shape. Matilda had never seen her wear glasses before; Ned could remember no more than four previous occasions.
A twinge of a smirk rippled at the corners of her mouth. “What have you two gotten me into in Jersey City…. look, this artist, this…”
“Omar,” Matilda nervously chirped. “Omar Jackson.”
“I’ve never had an artist die mid-show before and no artist who died like this, a shooting. It’s horrible. Did you know him, Matilda?”
“Not before the show, but I liked him.”
“My condolences… my sincere condolences…” She stared at Matilda, waiting for her to nod. “… I have to remember that I own a business. Ned, can this hurt the brand?”
“Not now. Nobody knows that it was Omar Jackson who was shot, the papers didn’t print his name. When… or if… they do print his name… it’s a different story.”
“Then the Ida Dovell Boutique & Gallery will be mentioned.”
“The cop didn’t know anything about his art,” said Matilda.
“It’s not like Omar was interviewed or quoted, but I put him in the press release, he was mentioned on Facebook. He didn’t have a Facebook page, so there was no social media link. We didn’t want to go all out with promoting the artists for this show. We wanted the Ida-Dovell-outreach-to-the-artists to be the story, not the artists themselves. Nobody seems to know – or even care – that Omar showed art in our gallery or even was an artist. I don’t know who will be interested. The local media was barely interested in the show itself. If it wasn’t the new-to-Jersey-City-global-gallery hook, we probably wouldn’t have gotten any coverage beyond Facebook. But just because something is not known now in no way means it will not be known soon. In this day and age, the assumption has to be that somebody will find out that Omar was a Red Dot artist at the Ida Dovell Boutique & Gallery and likewise, in this day and age, the assumption must be that somebody will disseminate that fact through one internet platform or another.”
“I was apprehensive about this community art show from the beginning.”
“You’ve been apprehensive about Jersey City from the beginning.”
“This incident isn’t helping, Ned. My clients want to be associated with… exquisiteness. Quality art is my brand.”
“It is quality, it sold,” said Matilda.
“I wasn’t lying when I told you the show looked good, Matilda. Irving has money and he’s honest for a developer, but he is not exactly a Brookfield. He’s been the only sale so-far for your show. I’m glad a painting was bought, but let’s keep everything in perspective.”
“It’s a tragedy, but just a tragedy,” said Ned. “We can deal with tragedy. I don’t mean to minimize the tragedy. He was a nice kid.”
“I seem to remember somebody in the suit you described, I didn’t talk to him. Did you?”
“Just to say hello… look, the scenario of issuing some statement at some point is most likely. I don’t foresee negative ramifications now or when that likelihood transpires. We were giving someone a break. Jersey City isn’t Oslo or London, they have their own game. We’re always rubbing up against local artists. We’ve done Portfolio shows in our other locations, they may be on a different scale and had a different style and the artists may have been better known, but they were no less local than the show Matilda put together here. All cities have their game that we have to play and this is just the Jersey City game. It’s not our fault that half the city is attracting the wealthy and privileged while the other half is frozen in a crime-ridden ghetto time capsule. If it does get out that one of our artists is a murdered gang member, it will be news for a cycle or two, but we’re the heroes and that could only enhance our brand. We don’t know enough about Omar at this juncture to do anything else but wait.”
“What don’t we know,” said Ida.
“A lot. We only know he painted a Red Dot painting and that he was shot. He doesn’t have any representation. We don’t know where he learned to paint, or what kind of archive he has.”
“I didn’t see any other work. He doesn’t have a website.”
“I trust your eye and your commitment to the artists,” said Ida. “I’m wondering if in the future those should be considered red flags.”
“The future is still unwritten,’ said Ned. “We need to find out more about him and we need to find his family anyway. We need to give his check to somebody, by law.”
“Maybe we should call off the entire transaction. I’m sure Irving will understand.”
“We’d have the same problem, who do we return his painting to. We need to find his family to make sure the payment is all completed. We have the time to find out what we need to find out. Nobody is asking for a statement now so we have time to find out all our options.”
“What other options.”
“Tragedy is always a good story.”
“Good story?” exclaimed Matilda. “His death was senseless.”
“A good news story, local artist murdered in the street. Tragedy and artists have always gone hand in hand. You liked his art, you stand by your decision to put him in the show.”
“If he has more work, maybe we can represent his estate. It’s not just the tragedy of his short life, but it’s the tragedy of our times. Chelsea used to be ghetto too, before the 1980s there wasn’t the gallery scene and international artists showing and new and old money buying art there. Art gentrified that neighborhood while other neighborhoods remained ghetto, crime and drug sales rampant. Every city in America is two cities now. We’re on the third generation at least of people who grew up watching Seinfeld and Friends on daily reruns. They want to live in the city they saw on television. Let’s face it, it’s been mostly white people moving into an urban area and going all Jane Jacobs. The other neighborhoods get left behind from whatever Urban Renewal was happening or the speed it was happening at. Cities have both the haves and have nots, but Ida Dovell gave an unknown, albeit tragic artist a chance.”
“It was a blind submission,” said Matilda.
“That was in the copy I wrote to promote the show. He could be our Basquiat.”
“Because he’s black?”
“More that he’s dead, but black too. Basquiat’s price went way up right after his death and it’s still going up. He sells higher than Warhol now. We both know enough art history to know he’s not the first. An inner city kid who made it good, had the gift of art. Died tragically. Basquiat died like Jim Morrison or Sid Vicious. He was a rockstar who died a rockstar death, that era’s sexy death was drug overdose.”
“Basquiat was a star before he died.”
“I agree it helped that Basquiat was also a genius.”
“You want to make Omar famous for dying?”
“Gun violence has been a sexy way to die young since Tupac at least.”
Ida interrupted them. “I signed off on community outreach, I own the decision. Maybe bringing more attention to this issue of gangs or gun violence is part of the outreach. Not everything can be foreseen, but it seems risky to associate the brand with that cause, or any specific cause… I love multicultural art but I always found Basquiat a little… forced and unnecessarily discordant. ”
“He sells Ida and there’s no reason to believe his price will ever go down,” said Ned. “But besides a person of color and a martyred superstar, his graffiti style brought the art that was happening in the streets into the galleries. He made art galleries cool, part of that whole New York scene. He was known outside the typical circles, that’s why his work got bought and its prices keep climbing. Downtown New York was the center of the music world, independent movies, design and advertising – Basquiat showed in those galleries, helped those galleries be part of a scene that the whole world was now watching. The whole art world was changed by collectors going to galleries they never been to before because something new that everyone else was excited about was known to be happening there.”
“Omar Jackson may be talented but he’s not Basquiat,” said Matilda. “Jersey City will never be Downtown Manhattan and this is not the late eighties.”
“Tell me about it. Downtown Manhattan is not Downtown Manhattan anymore either. I am not saying history can be repeated, much less comparing our Omar to the groundbreaking Jean-Michel, I’m just saying if he has a decent portfolio of unsold paintings it may be beneficial from a publicity standpoint and a revenue generating standpoint to extend our brand to handle those sales.”
“If somebody else sells the art of somebody we discovered that will not be doing the brand any favors either.” She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “I hate hypotheticals, Ned. Matilda, find out what you can. If there’s a portfolio to be sold, I’ll consider it when we see the details. Otherwise, let’s figure out this check business. My inclination is to do what we have to do in the short term and hope we don’t have to issue any statement of any kind in the long term. Farewell from Oslo, I have yoga.”
Detective Snyder seemed happy to hear from Matilda. More amused than happy perhaps, but he sympathized with her dilemma of needing to contact the next of kin. He directed her to James McKenna, the parole officer… he would be the guy I would ask, tell him I said that.
“I didn’t know he painted, but I’m not surprised.” McKenna sounded like a muted foghorn. She had yet to hear a thicker Jersey accent.
“You thought he was an artist?”
“Nothing like that, but what little time I spent with him I could see he was attentive, sensitive. With cutbacks they want us to see more case subjects and spend less time with each. My caseload is twice as fat as it was just four years ago. I can’t say I knew him well. He was showing me the pay stubs and his urine tests were clean. I believed him when he said he was putting whatever happened in prison and the life he was living that put him in prison behind him. I can tell when someone is sincere. Something replaced that anger, something gave him that sincerity. I don’t know what else was going on in his life but he didn’t have much, so maybe art was what he did have.”
A day later McKenna called her back, said Omar’s cousin who lived in Jersey City knew Omar painted and would love to meet with her.
She Uber-ed to the address, a large townhouse with multiple apartments more than 20 minutes away from the gallery.
A bodega – a deli and convenience store that sold everything from fresh sandwiches to fabric softener – was at the corner of his block – old men in lawn chairs sat around a card table engrossed in a domino game. Other storefronts were boarded up. The houses were multi-family dwellings, their colors chipped and faded. Jerome was waiting on the porch, eager for her arrival.
“Jerome Jackson?” she called from the sidewalk.
“I still don’t know if you are real.” He was a big guy, over six feet tall, wide shoulders, arms like telephone poles, barrel-chested like Omar. Their features were similar, a noticeable resemblance if you knew to look for it. Jerome was older by at least ten years, a little hunched over, bald. “I remember him telling me he was going to hang that painting of his in a gallery, I lent him my suit for a party he said he was going to. He said it was an artist party. I had forgotten all about that when his P.O. told me about you.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
He wiped his eyes. “None of that now. I was in Norfolk all last week laying Omar to rest and I got enough of that from all them kinsfolk and friends of the family down there. Please come in, I put on some coffee. I still can’t believe his painting was hanging in one of those fancy places they’re building by the River but you look the part,”
“I have never been to an art gallery but a classy young woman like you would be exactly who I might picture running one.”
The black faux leather of the couch was torn on one cushion and both armrests were worn. The walls were bare except for two framed posters of 1970s cars – a Camaro and a Nova – muscle cars they were called – and pennants for the Knicks and the Giants. On the coffee table was a sketch pad. A vast flat screen television dangled on the wall and on one side of the coffee table was a puffy easy chair made of green faux leather.
“It was just you and Omar living here?”
“I have a son and an ex-wife in South Orange and I have to do crazy hours just to keep up with the child support. My son stays here sometimes, but otherwise it was just me and Omar.”
“It’s very… male.”
Laughing, he handed her the warm mug and sat down in the easy chair. “Definitely has the man cave vibe, it does that. When Omar was here, we didn’t see each other all that much either. We worked at different shops, and we both put in double shifts, overtime hours. You never turn down work when it’s offered. When I’m here I’m mostly asleep. I try to spend as much time with Jamul as I can.”
“Omar and me, we were only second cousins. I didn’t really know him, well I’ve known him all his life. As a kid, we were not little brother big brother close, but close like first cousin close. He didn’t have a lot of choices, Jersey City or Norfolk, but his sister sold the family place down there anyway so where would he stay if he did go back down? What kind of life is there for him down there now, he’s not country like that no more. He’s a good worker and one of the best mechanics anyone’s ever seen, they were giving him as many hours as he could take.”
“Did he always paint.”
“If he did I never knew. That sort of thing didn’t really run in our family. I think I remember one of my aunts making quilts, that’s the closest thing that comes to mind. They sent him away so young he had no time to become who he truly was, you know.”
“But he painted here.”
“Oh yes, yes. He painted that picture of the park that’s in your gallery here in that room. It’s all empty now, there’s no sign of Omar left. I cleared out all his stuff and brought it down south. He didn’t have much, one bag of clothes and a couple of books. He had those brushes and tubes and the stand for that canvas board, that art stuff. I didn’t see any canvases, other than the one he sent you. I remember him coming with that rectangle thing, the canvas, carrying the stand for the canvas and a bag of brushes and tubes of paint. He borrowed my car. He didn’t like to drive, he didn’t like to be even inside a car. Crazy, the brother knew his way around a vehicle’s engine like it was nobody’s business but hated to be inside a car, he just didn’t like to be inside nothing. When he wasn’t working in the garage he was walking around Jersey City. He walked everywhere. Then one day he decided to paint.”
“He told you that?”
“I’m going to paint. That’s what he said when he came back with the car and the canvas and all that art stuff. I asked him did he know how to paint, not to shoot him down, I was encouraging him. He said he had thought about painting for a long time. He told me he had been going to the library and watching videos about painting pictures.”
“He was self-taught? He never had any sort of art class?”
“He never talked about how he did his time and I never asked him, but I doubt it. He did vocational mechanical training as far as I know. He dropped out of Lincoln high school pretty quick when he got up here anyhow and back in Norfolk, about when he was a kid, that you’d have to ask his sister. We’re not too big on schooling of any kind, although she’s a nurse but that was a lot of on the job training at the hospital.”
“I’m amazed anyone could paint at the level of this work by being self-taught. The amount of craft that painting took is just remarkable. It’s the last thing I would’ve suspected.”
“His painting is that good.”
“I think so.”
“You look and sound like someone who knows what they’re talking about. Hot Damn, Omar. I knew you had something.” He grunted away a sob. “He never meant to kill that boy, he never meant to do half the things he did. Trouble just could not stay away from him. He was just a tough country kid proving himself so he could be part of something up here. That’s how I see it. That good inside him, he had to put it away to make money. Something changed after Rahway, for the better. He stared a lot. I could never tell if he was looking real hard trying to see the truth of something in front of all of us yet we can’t see that truth or if what was in front of him meant little to nothing to him, as if his eyes weren’t interested in what everyone saw, just the pictures in his own mind. Whether they were memories or his imagination or some kind of combination of both only he could know. He wasn’t that quiet a kid, he wasn’t silent like that, before he went in. Not that he was a loud person, you know, unless he got angry. Omar never meant to kill that kid, that was an accident. Omar was just a boy, a teenager. He did stop punching him, he wasn’t you know, just pummeling away like a maniac. They were hitting each other, and one of Omar’s punches went the wrong way to the throat. It wasn’t even about gang stuff, it was over some girl, Jasmine, but nobody would say anything about what really went down to the cops, not that they would care. It was just juvenile crap, you know what I’m saying? Jasmine od’d when Omar was already locked away.”
“Have they found out anything more about what happened to Omar.”
“There’s nothing to find out. It was an assassination. Omar killed one of theirs, so they killed him. They couldn’t get him in prison so they got him in J.C.. Two bullets in the back of the head, everybody knows what was going on.”
“You think it was revenge for the victim of the crime that Omar did time for?”
“I know it was. The gangs have their own code, their own justice. They’re victims of their own macho bullshit, but it’s real and it is deadly. I’m glad my son is with his mother in the suburbs away from all this mess and I am doing everything I can to keep him there.”
“The detective who came to the gallery said the investigation was routine.”
“No one can do nothing. You ask me, everybody killed Omar, just like everybody killed Miguel. Omar was just the one caught up in a world not him or Miguel or Jasmine could ever change. I’m sure the actual killer, his actual assassin, was younger than Omar. Some fool teenager making his bones. I’m sure he never met Omar before he shot him. I just hope this closes the circle. The boy who killed him is going to either die just as young for something just as stupid or die in jail for having done something just as stupid. I just pray the retaliation ends with Omar’s killing, so Omar’s memory isn’t connected to any more death.”
“Omar’s memory isn’t connected to death for me. I won’t let that happen, Jerome. My memory of him is of art. My first Red Dot as a curator.”
“Your first what of a who now?”
“I put this show together, it was my idea, artists from Jersey City. When we sell a painting we put a Red Dot next to it so buyers know it’s already sold. It’s a big deal to us in the gallery. No, my memory of Omar is not of death, it’s of beauty, the beauty I saw in his painting, the beauty of the colors and his eye for detail and the sensitivity you see in each line and stroke. His park is filled with love. That’s why I chose it for the show because the show was about artists in a place and that place was a specific city and Omar showed us the beauty in that place. He was an artist that not just loved beauty, he revealed the beauty he saw to everyone who sees his art.”
His chin pressed against his chest, his head swayed and tears dripped from his eyes to the floor. She reached out and his long muscular fingers grasped her palm. “I remember him at the party, how nervous he seemed, but I could tell he was happy to be there.”
Jerome blubbered out a brief snort of laugher. “He borrowed my suit, the only other suit he had was the one he wore to his trial. He said he was no longer that person so he wore my Sunday best. He said that he was going to an art party. He said he never saw so many rich white people in one place before.”
She laughed with him. “True, there may not have been many people of color there, but I saw him talking to people. He was smiling his beautiful smile. He belonged there because everybody there loved art and Omar was an artist. Everyone there only saw his wonderful painting, his background or police record or the fact you Jackson men are the size of snowplows didn’t matter. Artists belong in galleries talking to other artists and other lovers of art. That’s my memory of Omar, not of death or crime or whatever else he did. I care about none of that. The Omar I know is a gracious young man who used his talent to create one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve seen since I’ve started working for Ida. I will always cherish his memory.”
He patted her hand. “I think his sister would love to hear you say that.”
“I would love to talk to her, actually I have to. She’s his closest relative and I have to pay somebody for Omar’s painting.”
“Oh, right… she’s the closest living relative. You really think he could have made it as painter.”
“I have no doubt. Do you think she knows of any other paintings, I find it hard to believe he only painted once.”
“If anyone knows if there are any more she would. The painting of the park was the only one I know of that he did here, but I did find this.” He picked up the sketch pad from the coffee table and handed it to her. “My son found it in the closet yesterday, I must’ve missed it. They’re just sketches, I was going to send it to Khadija. I think they’re new.”
She pressed her knees together and rested the pad on her lap. The first page had simple black marks, lines more or less recognizable as a fire hydrant, sidewalk curb, street sign. The next page was a scene, she noticed the gazebo, but from a different angle than in the painting. The next page he started using colored pencils, but it wasn’t a complete scene, just the gazebo, then not just the gazebo, but the shingles on the roof of the gazebo, Another page was the flowers in the garden of the foreground. Three pages on the river alone, each building in the skyline had at least one page each. His meticulousness was breathtaking. Not only was the shape detailed, but colored pencils created the shadows and light that rendered each shape into life.
The vividness of the painting was the beauty of the painting and that vividness was created step-by-step. What a genius of composition, to both conceive of a scene yet knowing that in order to see the beauty those dozen different moments – a coalition of the miniscule – must be captured. An artist notices sky and stars and knows why the sky needs each star. That’s what she saw in his sketches, him noticing a detail then finding the best way to reveal why noticing it mattered.
Each sketch was more refined than the one on the page before it. Only the final page was blank.
Of course… she realized, the final page was the canvas now hanging in the gallery next to the Red Dot.
“What an extraordinary process.”
“They looked like they were pretty good drawings. I never saw them before Jamul found the pad. Omar never showed them to me or nothing.”
“These are not random. They’re studies. He was working on these to get to that final painting.”
“He drew everything first before he painted.”
“Not just one time, he drew each part of that painting until he got each part perfect.”
“You think he learned to do that by watching YouTube on the library computer?”
“You have to be working at a high level to have this kind of process. The kind of painting he did is not some fluke. Did he have other pads?”
“He didn’t have much and I didn’t know that he had that one…” She gazed intensely at each page. He swallowed the rest of his coffee. “Do you think it’s worth anything.”
“It’s hard to gauge prices on the basis of just one sale. I love these sketches. I know what I’ll be asked, who owns the pad, you or his sister.”
“I don’t want to take anything from her, but you should have them.”
“I’ll give you five hundred dollars for it.”
“Five hundred dollars just for that pad?”
“Let’s call it a retainer. If the gallery sells it than the retainer will be reimbursed and the estate will get the rest, minus our commission of course If we don’t sell it, then it’s a straight out sale to the gallery. You and Khadija get along?”
“We got no bad blood between us. I always stop in to see her when I’m down in the Tidewater.”
“If she wants it, we will have to give it to her. Just pay back the retainer minus 10 percent for you.”
“I’ll call up Khadija for you and tell her about you and your gallery. She loved Omar, always believed in him. I know she would want to talk to you.”
“Great. I will write you a check.”
He paused. “My accounts are monitored by my ex, if she sees I cashed a check for $500 she’s going to want her taste.”
“Can you drive me to an ATM?”
The gentle vibrations of the rolling train lulled her into long stretches of slumber. She hadn’t any decent sleep since Detective Snyder came to the gallery and could finally surrender to a not unpleasant grogginess.
During her semester in Europe as a foreign study student, she took a train from Paris to Berlin with Andre, a student from Prague in the same program as she. They were intensely if briefly in love. He filled sketch pads with studies, amazing reproductions of Degas, Van Gough and Monet. He said he thought in impressionism, claimed his brain only worked visually. He had a more than ample penis and her memory of their time together was an ecstatic blur of sex and dance clubs, museums and galleries, a short-lived paradise where nothing was more important than art, pleasure and their desire to be together.
The meadows and forests she watched through the train window made her think how Europe was a dream – the colors she saw seemed replicated from the masters she had studied – nowadays, her periodic job-related excursions to Europe were always for business, mostly spent in galleries, offices, hotel rooms or visiting artist studios. Except for the art, everything she saw was routine. Now seeing the very American colors of Philadelphia then Washington D.C. – how the hills of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware gradually morphed into Virginia lowlands – reminded of her that other train ride and being with Andre when everything European was new.
She hadn’t thought of Andre or their love affair in months. Last she heard he was an art teacher in some Paris suburb, never had a solo show as far she knew. Nobody of any note collects him… but Paris is no Oslo when it comes to 21st century art.
Andre had potential, Omar had originality. She looked at the sketch pad on her tablet. She had scanned each page into high definition jpegs.
She remembered Ned’s email after he viewed the pad. “They’re stunning, but unless there’s a body of work, selling this might be problematic.”
Mushi made a slideshow and after viewing them together once, she added the last slide of the completed, Red Dot painting and when they went through them again, both his objective and the progression reaching that objective was evident.
Later that day, Mushi turned on the flat screen in the office. She had linked the pictures together in another loop. Each sketch was followed by a close up of its comparative image in the final painting. They watched the loop in silent awe. Mushi whispered, “you can see his mind working.”
Now, bored on the train heading south, she re-watched Mushi’s loop. His sense of purpose astonished her. His intensity was inescapable. Each sketch formed a decisive element until a final image that could not be depicted any other way was achieved. He never looked back, he never doubted. When what was on the page matched the picture that was in his head he picked up a brush.
Getting close was never close enough for Omar. He was inventing his own visual language to say what he needed to say. That language was not an interpretation of the visual but inseparable from the art. The impact was undiluted, not because of luck or uncontrollable inspiration – not some sudden attack of the muse – he held onto each idea until his feeling was expressed. This level of excellence invents art that will be marveled at forever.
She dozed off until a text notification woke her. Ryan. Arrived in rain forest hope you’re well.
Could he even be bothered, she thought. He had landed four days ago, why keep his promise to text now. She had been too preoccupied since she made him Grammy’s primavera and when she did think about Ryan she knew their affection had waned. He was the one leaving the country. He was the one to text a status first, not her. Whatever feelings he had for her were not strong enough to compel his immediate expression of them to her. The fact he waited until now annoyed her more than if he hadn’t texted at all.
The window was dense with night. She had slept through the sunset. The Plexiglas blurred her reflection.
“Norfolk,” announced the conductor over the intercom.
She focused on de-boarding the train, getting to the hotel and checking into her room. She thought she might feel better about texting Ryan before going to sleep in a strange bed but she didn’t reply until the next day, after a cup of coffee and a bowl of cornflakes from the complimentary continental breakfast station in the chain hotel dining room. She still couldn’t find the right words so a thumbs up sufficed.
Matilda sat in one of two, thickly cushioned chairs by a small round table. The lobby’s riverfront window encompassed nearly the entire wall. Beneath the cloudless, rich-blue sky a wide river dankly glistened. She was too nervous to do anything else but gaze at what seemed sheer vastness. Warm, sunny weather: that had to be good omen.
Eventually Matilda checked her phone for the time… ten minutes late. She looked around the lobby, wondering when texting would be considered rude by someone who lived in the south.
It gradually dawned on Matilda that a woman standing across the room was watching her. Matilda had noticed her a few minutes before, milling around the seating area of the lobby. She was tall and slightly stout, wearing an indigo sweater and jeans. She took a step forward, then froze, visibly nervous.
Once she realized Matilda unmistakably knew who was looking at her, the woman’s apprehension escalated. Recognizing familiar cheekbones and complexion, Matilda gently waved. She remained petrified, so Matilda went over to her. “Are you Khadija Jackson?”
Her eyes narrowed closed, her sorrow excruciatingly apparent. “I thought I could do this. I was looking forward to meeting with you. I apologize, I can hardly breathe.”
“Do you want some water.”
“I don’t mean to make a spectacle. Ever since I found out about… I have these phases, you might call them spells. I thought that sort of grief had been purged by his service, but seeing you suddenly makes it seem fresh all over again.”
“No darling, it’s not your fault. I don’t know if I can sit down right now.”
“Khadija, I’ve been cooped up here since arriving in Norfolk. I would love to get some fresh air.”
Khadija steadied herself by grabbing Matilda’s hand as they went through a revolving door. The hotel was on wide cement walkway, alongside cafes, restaurants and shops. On the other side of the walkway was the river. They strolled to the railing and faced the water.
After a while, Matilda said, “the river is beautiful.”
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Jerome described you accurately.”
“He said you looked classy and artistic. You sure don’t look like somebody from the New Jersey I remember.”
“I’m from Southern California originally.”
“No wonder you don’t got the accent. You like living in Jersey City?”
“New York is the place to be when it comes to the art business and Jersey City is almost just like being in New York.”
“The art business, huh… are you a business woman or an artist.”
“I ask myself that question all the time. I trained as an artist, my mother’s an art professor. The art business is one of the few businesses where being an artist is considered a recommendable qualification.”
“Because if you’re an artist you know what art is good.”
“Ida Dovell, who owns the gallery, she was never an artist and she has one of the keenest eyes for quality art in the world. You certainly don’t need to be an artist to be a curator, but a lot are. I like the job because I love art.”
She still couldn’t say his name. “…his…his painting is good?”
“Red Dot good.”
“When a painting sells we put a Red Dot next to it in the gallery. I love Omar’s painting, he was very talented. The art business may be about art but it is still a business and without sales I wouldn’t have a job. A lot of good art doesn’t sell, especially from an unknown artist. Omar could’ve had a career making art, he was that good.”
Khadija held onto Matilda’s hand as they began walking. “I knew he had something special when he was knee high just by the way he looked at things.”
“You two were close.”
“I was ten when he was born, momma had me changing his diapers. I used to be so mad because I had enough chores, you know when you’re that age starting to act up and talking back. We lived way out in the Tidewater sticks and we had nothing. He was my responsibility and accepting that made me grow up some and that felt good to me back then. I bought him a sketch pad.”
“His first sketch pad.”
“Momma and Daddy encouraged no frills when it came to life. Half the time seemed we were just more bills they had to pay and all the presents at birthdays and Christmases were practical, shoes and underwear and those sorts of things. I saw he was doodling on napkins and then he started using his crayons and he went from filling in coloring books to drawing pictures on the walls. I didn’t see any point in just yelling at him to stop because people are going to do what they want whether they’re scolded or not.”
“You saw his gift.”
“To tell you the truth, at the time the only gift I saw was that I didn’t have to wash them damn walls. He went right to that pad. He loved this bog, it was a pond, a very muddy pond. It was in the middle of the woods behind our yard, swarming with mosquitos all summer, lots of mud turtles and bullfrogs. He kept drawing that same bog. I guess he had nowhere else to go, but I don’t remember when he lost interest in drawing. Life forces some boys to get older sooner and faster than others.”
“I would love to see those sketches.”
“That house got flooded all the time. Those pads have been long gone for years, gone long before he went to live in Jersey City.”
“He had other pads?”
“I’m proud that I encouraged the drawing and you being here proves how right I was to give him…”
“…something that nobody else was doing anything for my… little brother.”
They sat on a sunny bench. An orange ferry chugged towards a cluster of buildings, minor skyscrapers next to a shipyard – long jetties and docks, akimbo cranes – tones of gray and brown. The seagull on the nearby railing immediately flapped away.
“Didn’t he have any art classes in school? Norfolk looks like a city to me, they must have drawing in kindergarten at least.”
“Norfolk! We didn’t grow up in no Norfolk. Cobb’s Creek. The scarecrows guarding the corn had more intelligence than most of them teachers they had there. But, truth be told, they were the first ones to bring him to the art museum here.”
“The Chrysler Museum of Art?”
“That was probably the closest thing he had to an art class. They went on a field trip. We didn’t go on no field trips when I was in that school. He told me all about it. Usually I would have to pry to get anything out of him, but he wouldn’t shut up about this museum. He kept telling me about these pictures and statues. So for his birthday once when there was a half-price day, Momma gave us bus fare and we packed sandwiches and he brought his sketch pad. So, we get there and I had never been in a museum, I didn’t know what to expect. He knew right where to go and I followed him to this gallery, Matisse. I still remember that name. It was this huge room, biggest room I had ever been in, I never saw paintings so big and the colors were so new, like I had never seen red look that way before. Took me a while, but I realized that he… Omar… wasn’t next to me. He had plopped himself down in front of this one painting, sitting right there on the carpet and he was sketching the painting.”
“He was doing a study.”
“I thought he was messing around at first, but he was just drawing. A guard was there who was very sweet said there was no problem, people do that all the time. Omar told me he saw college students sketching the paintings on the field trip and that’s what he wanted to do. I asked him how long did he want to sketch. I only want to draw the paintings here, he said. So, I told him I would be back in one hour and not to leave that room for any reason. I looked at the rest of the museum and when I came back sure enough, he’s in the same spot an hour later. Those drawings of his looked like photographs of the paintings, they were so clear. I wanted to put them on a wall somewhere in the house, but he said no, he didn’t want anyone else to know what he was doing.”
“Jerome only had the one pad.”
“He didn’t draw when he lived up there. I would ask him once or twice if he was still drawing, he would shut down and I did not want to hear nothing about the drug dealing crew he ran with, besides I was in my own mess with my first husband, I didn’t have time for my brother. We didn’t talk as often as we probably should have and that was my fault as much as his. I bought him a pad one other time.”
“Before he moved to Jersey City?”
“After, when his trial was over and he was sentenced. Drawing always made him feel good and they were sending a boy to a man’s prison and he needed something he could feel good about. You can’t nurture God-given talent if you’re the muscle for a gang, at least in prison he might be away from that lifestyle. He wanted the money, needed the money. Hell, his only other choice was some $8.00 an hour floor mopping job. If you’re black and need to work for a living it’s always a recession in America. Doesn’t help any that bad luck runs in our family good times or bad. I tried to write him as often as I could, but that fell off. He drew one picture of the bog, entirely from memory, it was perfect. I had it on my refrigerator the longest time. He only sent me that one.”
“He never said why he didn’t send me anymore or if he ever drew anything on the other pages and I never asked. Jerome was the one who told me he was painting. I felt so proud. I remember laughing with him about the time he drew pictures of the paintings in the Chrysler.”
“Why did he start painting after he got out.”
“He said he just felt that he should. He never told me or Jerome he was sending it to some high-class art gallery.”
The seagull landed back on the rail. Matilda squinted at the sun. “Khadija, I could cancel the sale… it’s your brother’s only painting… you should have it.”
“No. I don’t need his art to remember him. I have the real him in my heart every day. I can look at the jpegs you sent me if I need to see his art. If I hung it on the wall there would be times I could be sad and looking at it would just make me more sad. That would not be Omar’s fault or the fault of his art, but I would blame one or the other or both for giving me despair. My husband never liked him so that also could cause unwanted hostility in my home. Me taking that painting wouldn’t be right anyway.”
“What wouldn’t be right about it?”
“His painting sold because somebody wants to own it, that’s what Omar wanted. He wouldn’t have submitted it to your gallery if he wanted it not to be sold. If he just kept his art to himself and not showing to it anybody but his family than he would not have been the real artist you say he was good enough to be. His art should be with someone who loves the art and doesn’t give a good God damn about who made that art.”
Ida moved the Jersey City Kim Kwang-ho show up a month. He was one of the best known of the New Abstractionists – a handful of young artists from Seoul combing traditional Asian imagery with unabashedly Western abstract expressionism. The New Abstractionists were hot. The Whitney included Kwang-ho in an exhibition whose tickets sold out months in advance. Coverage about this new mashup became widespread, stories not just in the usual art magazines and the New York Times, but CNN and MSNBC and places like Vogue and Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone and what seemed like thousands of websites and online news sources.
The New Abstractionists had broken through the media clutter and the normally insulated realm of contemporary art. This fame only increased the status-value of owning art by an artist in a group declared today’s visionaries. Kwang-ho not only sold well at a London show two years ago, but every piece in in the Tokyo location last year sold out at price points twice as high as his Europe show. Tokyo rarely sold Asian artists, the buyers there wanted the western artists Ida’s brand was best known for. The Kim Kwang-ho Jersey City show would be the ultimate test of how global this new trend in abstract art truly was.
Ida assigned Matilda to curate. She traveled to South Korea to visit his studio and personally selected each painting in the show. The trip included a layover in California and a weekend with her mother, where they went to a spa in Santa Monica and rejuvenated their bodies with a Premium Detoxification Deluxe Package for two: mud baths, yoga, meditation, massage, vegan meals, smoothies and herbal colonics.
During her trip, Ryan texted her that he was back in town, asking do you want to get together and she merely responded I’m out of the country without saying where or why or offering to hookup upon returning. He sent a few other texts, became annoyed with her silence so he went silent. She had no interest in telling him about Omar or hearing about his latest South American film adventure. Infatuation fades quickly when the intimacy is only of the flesh.
Two other paintings from the Jersey City Portfolio show received Red Dots, one of the sales was to the father of the artist. The show underperformed financially, but Ned pointed out that all three sales were to first time Ida buyers, expanding her customer base.
“The show was a good idea, Matilda,” said Ned. He had come to Jersey City bearing cappuccinos for an afternoon meeting. To everyone’s relief, Ida cancelled the closing reception for the Jersey City Portfolio show. The excuse was the upcoming Kwang-ho show, but the unspoken reason was Omar. Instinctively, everyone needed to distance themselves from death.
“In hindsight, I should have known it was off brand.”
“Brands evolve with each new situation. It may not have worked the way we hoped, but we can’t avoid the fact that there are all types of artists in New Jersey. Next time we do a local show, we’ll just figure out a better way. Ida knows the brand is malleable. That ability is part of its strength.”
“Is the Ida Dovell brand malleable enough to include Omar?”
“Technically it already has, you enabled that. Look Matilda, quality art is our brand, that’s our standard, that’s our mantra. You, me, Ida, the guy who bought Omar’s painting appreciate quality art, we like what we believe will last. Our customers are the wealthy. The business around the art can be glitzy and superficial, but the art we sell has meaning. None of what we do would matter – people wouldn’t be interested in the art – if art didn’t make us feel something we wouldn’t know otherwise. We long for that glimpse into the soul that art can promise, everyone does, so did Omar.”
“Do you really believe that if he had a body of work we could have sold it.”
“I would have loved to try. What are you going to do with the sketchpad?”
“Keep it for myself, maybe it will inspire me. I’ll never let Omar go completely.”
“Crime, violence, jail… in the end, none of that was stronger than his compulsion to create art. Art was unable to leave him alone.” He leaned back in the chair, wistfully shrugged. “Just like us. We can no more explain art than explain why we love art. Why is our reaction to art so complete we devote a career to it? Is it because we believe those with gifts to create art, gifts on the level Omar or Kwang-ho possess, can make the world a better place? Is it our own egotistical craziness? Are we simply exploiting someone’s fear of having empty wall space?”
He waved his palms. She wished him goodnight.
Ned went back to Manhattan, stopping for an apple martini at his neighborhood pub where he checked his Instagram then talked movies with another regular. Matilda answered more emails then wrote some social media posts. Mushi came into the office to say goodnight and they talked about the Kwang-ho show and Mushi agreed the positioning of the pictures should be a sequence of colors, dark to light.
Alone in the gallery office, Matilda turned on the flat screen television, hoping that viewing larger versions of Kwang-ho ’s work would clarify the decisions she needed to make. She scrutinized those abstracts until she was too tired to think about anything else but going home to bed.
His arms and chest were hardened by regular workouts on the weight machines at his gym, but Irving Pandila’s paunch was as obstinate as his receding hairline. He was ten years older and four inches shorter than his wife whose hair was an explosion of braids and cowrie. The couple was in a good mood, they were heading down the shore and Omar’s painting had been designated for their new summer home in Matawan.
The boxed up painting lay on the conference table, they declined Matilda’s offer of water, said they wanted to beat the rush hour traffic. Matilda said, “I have to tell you something about this artist…the artist… died.”
“The big guy in the suit?,” said Irving.
“You met Omar Jackson?”
“I talked to him at the opening. Nice kid…quiet. I told him I liked his painting and that I was thinking of buying it. I knew the park. We used to go to that park all the time when we lived in our first apartment in Jersey City. I joked to him that I fell in love with my wife in that park.”
“He asked me to marry him there.”
“I asked you to marry me in Wildwood.”
“That’s where you gave me the ring. We got engaged down the shore. It was in that gazebo when I told you I would say yes if you did ask me… how did he die?”
“…he was shot.” She waited for their shock to evaporate. “I don’t know many details. The police are treating it as a routine investigation, as just another shooting among men of color in Jersey City. I do know that he was a young man and just out of prison and getting his life together and painting this picture was part of that… process.”
“There’s a whole other Jersey City than what’s down here in the Powerhouse,” said Irving. “He looked young… what twenty six, twenty seven.”
After a pause, his wife said “I read where there’s more shootings in Jersey City than there were in Newark last year. The homicides are all gang related the article said. Those kids are thugs. They shoot each other up all the time.”
“I only know his art, I don’t know anything about his life. I do know that Omar was not doing any of the shooting when he… died. He didn’t have a gun. I don’t know about his past, I really don’t. But he wasn’t a violent man when he painted this picture.”
“It’s creepy that he died so horribly,” said his wife. “Maybe it’s not a good idea to have his picture in our summer home where our kids will play and our families and friends will visit.”
“When I showed the picture to you on my phone you said you loved the painting.”
“I said I liked the painting and that was before we knew… this.” She tapped her index finger against the box.
“It’s perfectly understandable if you want to cancel the transaction,” said Matilda. “The Ida Dovell Gallery & Boutique will be happy to accommodate whatever you decide. You don’t have to buy the painting, it doesn’t have to be part of your lives.”
“That’s our park and that’s why I love that painting.” Irving slowly exhaled, rapped his knuckles lightly against the table. “I first thought I bought it only to show support for what Ida’s doing here. Her gallery makes this a real neighborhood, a special place. The fact that you were giving exposure to local artists is good for the community and what is good for the community is good for my business. A Building in a good community attracts investors. But that is only part of the reason and not the most important part. What that park means to you and me is the real reason I wanted that painting.”
“Okay, honey,” she said as Matilda watched her hand touch his. “I’ll love the painting, I will. I’m excited about hanging it in the living room in the new place. I just hate thinking about tragedy, but you said you liked the guy.”
“It’s not about liking or knowing Omar. I feel this way about this park because of how I feel about you and a photograph could never remind me – no, not reminding, what’s the word… invoke! … his art invokes those feelings inside me and those feelings are mine.,. ours. That is way stronger than just a nostalgic recollection. I build buildings but really, I am a catalyst for investors, the architect, the construction company and the realty company to sell the spaces. But if all those players didn’t come together, that building would not be here and that building is part of a neighborhood, a city, a setting for life to be lived and something of me will always be there in what made that life that is lived possible.”
“Aren’t your kids supposed to be that something of you that you leave behind,” said his wife.
“I want them to know what I’ve done, I want them to be proud of me. I can show them buildings that are there that were not there until I got them built. But they’re no longer mine. It’s the same with this painting of our park. Once Omar made that art, that art was out there in the world and was not really his anymore, just like the park belongs to everybody, but the meaning of that park for you and me is ours alone.”
Matilda led them to the glass doors of the gallery where they both hugged her goodbye. In the gallery, the contractor was on a ladder rolling fresh paint on the wall. After each show, the walls were painted anew. Mushi, her arms folded against her chest, was on the other side of the space, inspecting the paintjob. Matilda decided muted blue complemented Kwang-ho’s work; the Jersey City Portfolio walls were a grayish ivory.
All the Jersey City paintings were removed, the bare walls now a different color. Not seeing Omar’s park alongside his Red Dot still bothered Matilda, but now she was thinking about the aqua shade, wondered that maybe painting the far wall a contrasting color would better enhance Kwang-ho ’s lines and asked Mushi what she thought.