Making Room

Even a child needs a room of her own. Mine was a square of light on the floor of the living room. At dawn, I opened one of my parent’s two art books and placed it in the square. The dust lit by the eastern morning light swirled before me as I squatted akimbo; my knees bent flat to the floor in the shape of an M. I leaned my torso forward and pressed my face into the color reproductions of Fifty Centuries of Art. Here in tiny landscapes behind Roger Van Der Weyden’s Madonna and the curtained Dutch rooms of Vermeer, worlds opened up to me that are at once more vivid and appealing than the one I lived in.

 

Like Alice, I longed to be on the other side. I wanted to live inside a painting.

 

LIttle girl looking at art book with a Van Gogh painting.

The walls in my bedroom were beyond repair. In the twenty years that I had lived over the Grange Hall in a small upstate New York town, I never asked the Grange to do anything to the apartment. My collective landlords had a mean age of eighty-three. The solutions they might come up with to renovate my apartment were too frightening to contemplate. Over the years we made a tacit agreement, whereby, I could do anything I wanted, as long as I didn’t ask them to pay for it.

 

I moved from room to room tearing down the plaster walls, rewiring and then sheetrocking.

 

All the rooms were done except the bedroom. Without a plumb wall in the place, the slanted lines of the floor and ceiling gave me vertigo. To level, the dresser required large shims under the front legs. Without them, the dresser tilted several inches away from the wall. I let the dresser tilt. The increased gravity helped when I opened the drawers.

The thin wash of paint on the bedroom walls had long since dulled due to the apartment’s heating system, which took hot air heated in the basement, sent it up to the attic in ducts and then blew it down through the ceiling into the room, carrying a century of dust with it.

 

The room needed doing. Or more accurately, it needed complete undoing.

 

Having recently returned from the Bonnard exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, catalog in hand, and with nothing left to lose, I decided that instead of tearing down the walls, I could use the walls any way I wanted. And what I wanted was to cover my walls with Bonnard paintings. Bonnard’s paintings could be described as a fusion of Monet’s obsession with light and Matisse’s with color. He sat on the historical pivot between these two artists. His paintings are organized by light, in a palette that is rich and vibrant.

 

 

My room, too, would be organized by light. Bonnard’s light.

 

I painted his windows next to my windows, a corner of his room in the corner of my room. Out of Bonnard’s windows, you could see the Seine in the distance. He painted this painting when he lived in Vernonnet, as small village six miles downstream from Monet’s house in Giverny.

 

Monet’s House in Giverny.

I once lived in Giverny as an artist-in-residence at the Claude Monet Foundation.

 

Six miles further down stream lived Jan, a Welsh woman who settled in France eighteen years before I met her. She taught English to the French and French to the English. She was my tutor in all things French. She had an ease with language, understood things in context, and could sort out the nuances of meaning. I found myself under her tutored eye, being seen in a way that I had never been seen before.

 

 

When I finished painting this landscape, that Jan and I had once shared, I leaned into the painted window, cupped my hands to my mouth and called out, “Jan, oh Jan.” My space and hers blended on this imaginary plane. With that, my full relationship with the walls began.

 

The surface of my walls bent and stretched into Bonnard’s.

 

My room expanded as I extended his floor onto my walls, adding a painted balcony, a fireplace, tiled floors, iron bathtub, a dog I called Flat and two unnamed cats. I painted plants, chairs, tables, stools and still lives, everything but the figures. I wanted to be the figure in the painting.

 

When a 1910 clock that perfectly matched the one in Bonnard’s painting appeared in a local thrift shop, I knew that my job wasn’t finished.

 

Photograph by Duane Michels

Soon tables, chairs, bowls, and baskets manifested in the room as though they were moved from Bonnard’s room into mine.

 

But just as these pieces were being pulled into the third dimension, my tilting dresser flattened as I ignored its shape and on it painted cadmium yellow wall tiles transmuting to lavender.

 

Photo by Duane Michels. This table is painted with an image from Matisse.

The spatial warp continued as I painted one of my tables with a still life.

 

My pale floral rugs looked sickly in this vibrant room. So I took up rug hooking and hooked my dog “Flat” into the tiled floor.

 

 

When I stood in the bedroom and looked through two sets of doors to my bathroom, my doors had the same configuration as the ones in the painting. You couldn’t tell where the room ended and the painting began.

 

One Sunday as I stood on my ladder painting yet another window on the wall, I saw the Bonnard catalog, open on the floor in a square of light. I had done it. I was living in a painting. I sat in the painting, moved in the painting and slept in the painting. My real and imagined worlds merged. And now, as I call out to Jan, my journey reverses and I long to walk through the painting and emerge from this safe place of my creation into the real space of the people I love.

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