Monday, August 17, 2009

Encyclopedia Drew and the Mystery of the Unclaimed Canvases

The short version is this: I have these canvases and I’m not sure what I should do with them. They’re not mine, as far as most conceptions of ownership go, yet they’re all in my house.

In a sense, it’s not all that inappropriate that I should have anything of indeterminate origin in the house I live in now. As I’ve said before, my house is an odd showcase of stuff I didn’t buy but now have essentially come to own — furniture and photos and items of decor that came from some previous tenant and that remain here by virtue of the fact that this place hasn’t been completely vacated in years. Who bought these? I have to wonder. Amber? Lisa? Deirdre? Scott? Marion? Any of the other dozen or so names that still get mail here? But that’s beside the point. These canvases are more cause for concern than the furniture and photos and items of decor that people either didn’t want or simply forgot about.

On Sunday, I spied my one-house-over neighbor— a doddery old man who I’ve watched for years silently watering his garden — walk an armful of attempted paintings to the dumpster in my apartment complex. He’s not supposed to, I don’t think, and he knows this. I’ve even seen him walk a trash bag over to the dumpster, only to turn around and return to his home because he heard a voice from within the courtyard. I suppose he didn’t want to be caught, though I seriously doubt anyone would object to him infecting our garbage with his. After I watched him return to his home after he’d successfully disposed of his atypically artistic trash, I went down to the dumpster myself.

You see, I’ve had all this cursed free time in the past two weeks. I need the free time. I need to get away. However, when faced with the fact that said free time is the only advantage of my current situation, I feel the need to constantly take advantage of it — writing, reading, watching movies, playing video games, contemplating pop culture minutiae, following one man’s quest to conquer the Encyclopedia Britannica, thrilling at Hal Jordan’s induction into that famous space corps, seeing little Palom all grown up, and whatever else happens to seem like something I’d enjoy doing. This new master rules me with such a hard hand that if I’m at any moment not taking advantage of my free time, I feel like a slacker who’s indulging his own laziness at the expense of his overall happiness.

At some point, I decided to paint, which I haven’t done in more than a year. The canvas — which originally sported had a pine tree crudely spray painted on it in an effort to further deck the apartment’s halls for a Christmas party years ago — first became a Tequila Sunrise, with a red-to-yellow fade piled on thickly to cover up the bumps indicating the evergreen beneath. Then I ruined it all and re-slathered the canvas with green and blue without any intention of what I’d do with it. This topography dried and eventually became the background to an abstract — that is, as I use the word, just a little sloppy and lacking in much detail — landscape depicting only a tree. I don’t know why. I don’t know where it came from. I suspect that it may be a manifestation of my mental state.

This is what it looks like:

It may develop further, but I can’t imagine how. I’m happy to never touch it again, yet I don’t feel like I want it hanging up in the house. I may slap on even more paint. I may stick it in the closet and continue with a new canvas. Whatever, right? It’s my free time. Why not act on whatever whim I feel at a given moment?

Canvases, however, cost money, and I don’t have enough of that at the moment. This monetary deficit — which, apparently, I can’t solve by selling my spare free time — sparked my interest in Old Neighbor Man’s trash paintings. I picked through them, ignoring the ones made only on stiff paper and taking the actual canvases. I brought them up to my room. I figured I could gesso over them later and make them my own.

Then, on the way to lunch, I noticed a sign tacked to a phone pole just cattycorner from my place: “TAKEN — PAINTINGS THAT WERE SITTING BEHIND MY CARE. THESE WERE NOT TRASH! HAVE YOU SEEN THEM? CALL (XXX) XXX-XXXX.” (The real sign had a phone number. You knew that, of course, but this is a true story and I don’t want be accused of embellishing.) So I called the number. No answer. I left a message, explaining that I was pretty sure I found the missing paintings and that whoever it was that I was leaving a message for should call me back. Figuring they’d probably want all their paintings, I went back and picked up the ones I left next to the trash.

That was Sunday afternoon. I have heard nothing. This morning, I called the number again. It didn’t even go through to voicemail. I suppose I could have tried again and perhaps even should have tried again, but I didn’t. It occurred to me that I could have punched the number into my phone incorrectly, so I went to the same phone pole. The sign was gone.

Now I must make a decision. I could just paint over the canvases and go on with my life, though I suppose the original paintings could emerge through what I’d painted — a pentimento Tell-Tale Heart that would eventually drive me insane. If it’s any consolation, this is what the “good” paintings look like:

Not to be a dick about it, but covering them up with my original artwork wouldn’t exactly deprive the world of some museum-quality work. (Then again, who am I to talk, little Mr. Smear Tree?)

I could also embellish the better ones — the female nude in particular — and turn them into some combined thing, representative both of the original artist’s intent and my desire to fill up my empty hours. That, however, wouldn’t solve the problem of the remaining pieces, which are of lesser quality and aren’t even worth the trouble it would take to repaint them. They look like this:

I could ask Old Neighbor Man if he can tell me where these came from, but that might be awkward. I don’t think he speaks English and I’ve lived next to him for about three years without ever so much with a pleasant exchange, even though I imagine it would be harmless enough to tell him that I appreciate all the work he does to keep his garden looking nice.

Or I can find another something to exist in place of all the nothing and just ignore the paintings until I grow sick of them and stick them in the attic, likely forgetting about them and rendering them some mystery for a future tenant of this apartment to ponder. When I’m a ghost in the mailbox like Amber and Lisa and Deirdre and Scott and Marion, some Encyclopedia Whoever can stumble on these and imagine that they have more history in this house than they actually do.

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