Pay It Forward, Book 3: The Artist
When creativity meets a blank page.
After a lifetime of seeking perfection, all it took was one lapse in judgment to change everything. I took one pill and the edgy nervousness that was my constant companion disappeared. I finally felt free.
I chased that feeling and, soon enough, a variety of powders and substances entered my life. Illegal or prescription, it didn't matter. I was mixing everything. I was like the Rolling Stones of the 70s.
When my family forced me into rehab, I was defiant. I struggled through talk therapy but went through the motions. My therapist suggested something different.
"Art therapy? How are string and glue sticks going to help me?"
"Alex, the beauty of art is that you can do anything." My therapist handed me the schedule. "There are no rules."
I was skeptical but made an effort. At the art therapists' encouragement, I tried painting. My new creative outlet gave me a sense of control that I never felt before and I made steady improvement in my recovery.
Eventually, my therapists recommended outpatient therapy. I found temp work that kept me afloat and, after a while, settled into a steady job at a coffee shop. The daily work gave structure to my day.
Luckily, the coffee shop was a locally owned café. During my breaks, the manager let me sit at a table with the cheap paint set and art notebook I bought from the dollar store.
"Hey, cool watercolor."
I looked to the man at the next table. "Thanks. Are you a painter?"
"Nah, but I like paintings." The man stuck out his hand. "I'm Mateo."
"Nice to meet you." I shook his hand. "Alex."
"You're the barista. I recognize you." He pointed at my notebook. "Mind if I take a look?"
I handed him my notebook and he flipped through the pages. After he reached the end, he returned to the middle of the book.
"This one," Mateo showed me the page. "It’s awesome. Can I buy it from you?"
"Would you take five hundred?"
Mateo nodded. I was living paycheck-to-paycheck and eating instant ramen for dinner every night to save money for art supplies. Five hundred dollars was a lot of money.
I agreed and Mateo clapped his hand on my shoulder.
"Cool, I'm on my way out. Can I pick it up tomorrow?"
I gave him my phone number to text me the pick-up details. Later that night, I looked at the painting that Mateo wanted. I painted it a few months out of rehab. I was struggling and went to the lake to meditate. I ended up sleeping in my car and woke up to a sunrise I felt compelled to capture.
I was proud of that painting. I hated to part with it, but I needed the money.
The next evening, my phone buzzed with a text from Mateo. My shift at the coffee shop ended hours ago and I thought that Mateo had changed his mind. I was already at home so he agreed to meet me at my apartment.
"Alex, these are for you." Mateo walked into my apartment and leaned a couple of canvases against the wall. He unpacked a small box on my kitchen table.
I looked at all the tubes and palettes of paints. "What's all this?"
"I have an offer for you. Instead of the watercolor painting, I want to commission a new painting for my wife."
"Commission? Mateo, I'm not a professional."
"Maybe not. But you got something." Mateo took a black notebook out of his box and handed it to me. "I have to go to Los Angeles for a while. Sketch some ideas in here and I'll choose one when I get back."
I looked at all the painting supplies he gave me. "This is too much, Mateo."
"Nah, it's an investment. Also, I don't expect you to work for free. Is two thousand good for the painting?"
Stunned, I nodded.
"Cool." Mateo opened his wallet and counted out eight hundred dollars. "Here's eight. I'll give you twelve hundred when you finish the painting."
I looked at the notebook. "What if you don't like anything that I sketch?"
"We’ll cross that bridge if we get to it. No matter what, you can keep everything."
"But what about your money?"
"For your upfront work. I know what it's like to struggle. I'd never ask you to work for free. Deal?"
I looked at the fan of hundreds and fifties on my kitchen table and agreed. "You never told me what you did, Mateo."
"I'm a music producer. I'm based out of L.A. but my wife is here temporarily with our baby. Her parents live here. I fly back and forth."
I asked if I knew any of the artists that he worked with. The list of singers he listed was a who's who of the music world. My eyes widened with each name. No wonder Mateo could afford to pay two thousand dollars for a painting by a nobody.
After Mateo left, I sat down with the black notebook. As the hours ticked by, I continued to stare at a blank page. Doubt crept in. What if Mateo didn't like anything I came up with? What if I couldn't come up with anything at all?
I closed my eyes and thought of what I learned in rehab. Don't let perfection be the enemy of good, my art therapists used to say. It's a painting, you can always start over. You can always begin again.
I opened my eyes, grabbed a pencil, and started sketching. Mateo and his wife just had a baby. A baby's birth was about renewal. Life. Redemption. As the words ran through my mind, so did the images.
The next day, instead of painting during my lunch hour, I sketched. I had never noticed the number of families that came into the coffee shop. They were exactly what I had in mind for the painting.
Within weeks, my notebook was almost full. The idea of rebirth stuck with me. Every day, with every page, I could start again. A blank page wasn’t empty. It was ready to receive.
A month later, Mateo came back to look through my notebook. I didn't tell him that I finished a painting. While Mateo sat on my couch, flipping through my sketches, I went into the other room to retrieve the canvas.
"Alex, these are impressive." He looked up. "What's that?"
"I hope you don't mind, but I already painted something." I turned the canvas around and brought it closer to him.
It was an image of a newborn boy being placed on his mother's chest. It was the baby's first cry. Mateo stared for a moment and then put his head in his hands.
Damn, he hated it. I put the painting aside.
"You don’t know this but my wife and I had trouble conceiving. Your painting is – is –" Mateo stood and hugged me. "It's perfect, man, perfect. She's going to love it. Thank you."
For the next six months, Mateo checked in on me whenever he was in town. He encouraged me to show my paintings at a local gallery but I was hesitant. I didn't feel ready. I didn't feel good enough yet.
One day, Mateo saw a recently finished canvas. "Hey, didn't you have something like this in your notebook? I like it."
"I'm thinking about trying to sell it but it doesn't fit the local art market."
"Actually, I know someone who might want it. Do you mind if I take it to show him?"
"Take it," I answered. "I need more space, anyway."
A year later, Mateo flew me out to New York and surprised me with tickets to a sold-out concert. I wasn't surprised at how connected he was but he wasn't just the laid-back guy I knew. In this world, his life was chauffeured cars and late-night events.
"Alex, I have a last minute thing to go to tonight. Wanna come?"
I was leaving in a few days and I wanted the full NYC experience so I agreed.
Later that night, we were ushered into a building via a private door. Such was Mateo's life. A suited man led us to the front row of a room lined with chairs.
I took a seat beside a man, who could only be described as "distinguished." I looked around, not expecting the older demographic of the crowd that was filling the room.
"Alex, I'd like you to meet my friend, Stanley." Mateo gestured to the man sitting next to me. "Stanley, this is Alex, the painter."
"Alex, nice to meet you," said Stanley. "I'm a big fan."
"Yes, of your work." Stanley opened his magazine – an auction catalog – and showed me a page.
My painting. I looked at Mateo. "But how?"
"Remember the paperwork you signed a few months ago?"
"Yes." It sounded vaguely familiar.
"The paperwork was to authenticate your painting and to allow me to act for you to sell your painting." Mateo continued after I didn't respond. "I brought your painting to this auction house. They've been eager to find an undiscovered, raw talent."
This is impossible, I thought. But here we were.
When the auction started, I flipped through the catalog and read the descriptions for each painting. All the artists were up-and-coming painters. All except for me. The text for my painting was sparse because no one had heard of me.
The first few lots sold for around $10,000. My painting was next.
"Ladies and gentlemen," announced the auctioneer. "Let's start the bidding at one thousand –"
"Five thousand dollars," yelled a voice in the back.
There was a spate of applause. Who would start the bidding so high?
"Six." Stanley raised his paddle.
What in the world?
Each bid escalated by a thousand dollars. My head ping-ponged around the room. My heart raced. My breath quickened. I looked to Mateo, who had a smug look on his face. He tipped his head as if to say, I told you so.
Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen.
The bids slowed, increasing in five hundred dollar increments. The price inched higher.
"If there are no other bids, I will sell this painting, ladies and gentlemen. Fair warning," announced the auctioneer.
I closed my eyes.
"Sold for twenty thousand dollars."
As the audience applause grew louder, Mateo patted me on the back. "Congratulations, Alex."
At the reception that followed, I spent the evening shaking hands with collectors and gallery owners. Mateo stood by, letting me have my moment.
A few years ago, I was a dead man walking, strung out on anything I could get my hands on. A year ago, I was searching my pockets for coins. I shouldn’t even be alive but I was. And I was here.
This wasn't the perfect life I thought I wanted. It was better. It was the life I needed.
Pay it Forward is a 5-story series of free-standing stories about what happens when a person is faced with a blank page:
- Book 1: The Scribe
- Book 2: The Lyricist
- Book 3: The Artist
- Book 4: The Conductor
- Book 5: The Sage