First—a small line, traced on the wheel of a bicycle in a special ink. The bike was ridden throughout the town. Every sidewalk was marked with the line; it was feathered in shape, as if fallen from a small goose or large dove.
In truth, even before that, there were the pieces of thick white paper, smeared with paint the deep color and thickness of jam, landscapes of blunt horizontal line, grossly orange suns, and bright latticework of trees in green and brown. Everyone had one on their refrigerator, or pinned to the wall above the table where the mail piled up.
For a short while, there had been postcards, mailed to everyone, ornately crisscrossed in gold-leaf, the faces of saints, each halo intricately curlicued, radiating, the eyes of the holy crossed out in black felt-tip.
She performed these tasks in the mornings before school. The kitchen smelled faintly of cigarettes from the neighbor downstairs, who smoked before making lunch for the children each day.
At this time, she was considered a prodigy. She won awards in the local contests. The awards were distributed in a gymnasium with a grey linoleum floor. She was embarrassed and made her mother or older brothers go to collect the awards, though sometimes she wore the medals pinned to the front of her dress.
There was art school—first in the city close to the home of her childhood, accessible by a small local train. Then the academy in the larger city. She rented a room there. Supplies were expensive. She won scholarships. She spent summers at the seaside, in special colonies with studios for artists. There were cottages on wooded slopes, all meals provided, a tiny bed with an iron frame, and unlimited time to paint and paint.
She did not call herself a painter or an artist.
One of these summers, in the far north, at an outpost with no nighttime, only day, a day that endured for so long the whole summer was one undifferentiated block of time, she ran out of canvas. The mail and deliveries of supplies came in by small ferry only once every few weeks. So she stretched bed-sheets between the trees. She used a small pine branch dipped in a watery jar of ink, thinned from the local creek. When this dried, she folded it up and mailed it back to the city, where they hung it immediately from the flagpole of one small lighthouse and then another and another. She let it be. She ran out of sheets and used the back wall of the cottage, the ceiling above the bed, the door of the shed in the yard.
She was written about. She was in demand. Less and less, she appeared, and when she did it was always in a black dress with a silver thread shot through; a woman from the mountains had woven and sewn it for her in a style that made her seem of another century.
It became difficult to describe her work, for it was difficult for those who wished to describe it to gain access to it. The days of small colored squares of paper pinned to the walls like butterflies, each with a sketch on it, a map or a flag, in colored pencil; the days of squares of glass that caught the light of the windows they tilted against, the days of mosaics made of colored shards soldered together with precious metals, the days of small notebooks, like a child’s copybooks, with illuminated letters: a for apple, f for flower, s for shell; the small, framed portraits of the heads of children or famous women: these days had flowered and passed. They were gone.
The great transformation occurred during the year she spent living with other artists in the grand Academy in the center of the republic’s ancient capital, the most coveted of situations: like four dozen eggs in a carton, each with its own cardboard depression to rest in, separate, but not alone, protected from cracking, but still rubbing up too closely together. Food and drink and a place to sleep were provided; a workspace, but the kitchen was shared between the forty-eight of them. Every time she came down to rinse out a brush or boil water for a cup of tea, there was someone there, asking her about her work, asking to see, commenting on the weather or whether the heater was working, whether a sweater was needed. She bought a pair of skis and found places on the mountain where she could work in solitude, in her parka, in pencil, for paint would have frozen. Yes, it was the company, and the false solitude of being one among forty-eight that had driven her to find her truest solitude, the truest most desolate place where she could embark upon the work she had been born for.
On the side of the mountains, on the rocky slides below the precipices, she first made the pieces that no one could write about, that few would ever see up close: tiny pencil strokes, faint like the tracks of those first bicycle tires. Delicate as a baby’s eyebrows. Thousands, millions of strokes, one for each fracture between stones, for each crack in the dirt, the cracks accumulating to form the cones of mountains, the ridges that stretched towards the edge of the continent. After months and months of twenty-hour days, she had a whole series of them, rendered directly atop the geographical features they represented. Passersby would mistake them for the mountains themselves. A woman tidying the kitchen miles and miles away would glance out the window, then glance again. Had the horizon been altered? Was it the shadow of a passing cloud that had changed it? The work had replaced and even improved the usual landscape; it had begun to replace the sky itself, the perimeter of the planet touching up against the atmosphere. In the space beyond, a new stratosphere had been born.
So in short, at the same time her work became impossible to transport, impossible to convey to the critics and galleries and even the museums that sought it, impossible to simply bear witness to in any conventional or predictable way. The more invisible and ineffable it became, the more visible, the more inevitable its presence in ordinary life. It was impossible to wait for a bus, to go for a walk in the fields outside of any city, to hang the day’s wash on the line and not see it. It was impossible to breathe and not feel the tickling of a tiny brushstroke, to turn one’s head on the pillow before awakening and not detect, deep in the ear, the scratching of a pencil.
As biographers have all agreed, she was a woman of small stature; into old age, she had maintained the nature and character of the young girl she had been, the girl who had pinned those first awards and medals to her pinafore. And yet her work was monumental, impossible to be captured by the largest institutions or to conceive of by the most powerful critical minds, impossible to reproduce in the double page spreads of the prominent magazines and journals, or the glossy folios strewn over the tops of crystal tables in the summer houses of wealthy collectors. It was impossible to construct an edifice around it, to contain it, impossible to raise a dome that would protect it and yet preserve its wild and terrestrial expansiveness, though the most renowned and ambitious had tried. There was a theory, whispered among the philosophers and geographers, that only the earth itself could perform such an act of curation.
This most-discussed and least-documented era of her work was what finally preserved her independence and solitude, the great quiet she had sought all along. She was now part of the host of the history of art, of the greatest artists whose portraits lined the galleries of the most venerable museums in the most ancient and hallowed capitals and whose legacies had withstood revolution and catastrophe. She was part of the diaspora of marble and alabaster that stretched across the history of humanity. And it was all because of her tiny brushstrokes rendered in the sharpened pencil of the schoolchild, the solitude of the forest, the infinity of the treelines, the views of a planetary geography from the windows of airplanes. She was not, in the end, one of the forty-eight eggs, of the ninety-six, or the hundred. She was herself alone.
See, she is there: a small woman, in a content and accompanied solitude, amidst tracings of lines and shadows, and the shadows of those tracings, the traceries of the shadows beneath those shadows, accurate, precise, the millions and billions of the tiniest of lines that converged to make something larger than themselves, and her most private self at the center of it, a self-portrait really, another self into which before long she would enter, never to return to us.