by Gleah Powers
followed by Q&A
The summer I turned seventeen, my mother took me to Paul Roberge’s studio to study art. He told her he didn’t accept everyone and I had to bring samples of my work. He was the best artist in Phoenix, known for his drawing and painting skills and his many public sculptures and murals including the Phoenix Bird at Sky Harbor airport. My mother thought the Phoenix Bird was “God-awful,” but most everyone else saw it as a beautiful rendition of the symbol of the city. I liked its semi-abstractness, bright colors, and that Paul had used natural materials from the Hopi and Navajo reservations in its construction.
My mother said she remembered him from years ago when she used to model. He’d come to the Wigwam Resort and the Westward Ho on modeling days and sketch her and the other models as they walked the makeshift runway by the swimming pool as guests ate lunch under striped umbrellas. Sometimes, I modeled with my mother in a matching child’s version of her outfit. We’d hold hands, pose, then pivot at the end of the runway, the skirts of our dresses lifting and twirling like fans opening into the hot desert air. But I didn’t remember Paul.
She said when she performed at the Sombrero Playhouse in Lady In The Dark, he came back stage one night wearing a black cape. “He was very dramatic. He kissed my hand and asked me to pose for him, which I never did. I wore a chignon in those days. He must be in his sixties now. He’s French, and he has a thing about Indians.”
Paul’s studio was attached to a small three bedroom adobe house, adjacent to the Indian School Road canal, encircled by paloverde and eucalyptus trees and twelve-foot high white and pink oleander bushes. The house and studio were set back a quarter of a mile down a dirt road from a street that was lined with upscale tract homes.
He’d just finished lunch when we arrived and was wiping his teeth with a cloth napkin. He was tall with gray white hair. A square patch of moustache sat perfectly underneath his nose. His steel blue eyes were both inviting and penetrating, as if he could see things about me that I didn’t see. His chiseled face tilted upward and moved slightly from side to side as if he were bothered by smells in the air. He wore sienna colored moccasins, which wrapped around the outside of his ankles, held together with silver buttons. A turquoise bola tie in the shape of a Zuni sun hung from his neck.
Kachina dolls and miniature French flags and soldiers sat on shelves above the desk in his office. He told us he’d just been named the French consul of Arizona. He was a good friend of Helen Luce and Marcel Marceau and his mother had been a Russian princess. He’d started the Boy Scouts in Paris and moved to Arizona to study the Navajo and Hopi Indians. He was an honorary member of the Hopi tribe.
“Remember me?” my mother said. “From the Wigwam?”
“Of course,” he said, but I could tell he didn’t. My mother knew it too. She fluffed her hair and cleared her throat. “I’ll just wait here,” she said, sitting on the couch in the den.
Paul took me the studio. It smelled of turpentine, oil paint, and charcoal. Work tables were piled high with stacks of drawing pads, sketches of naked woman, all kinds of pens and pencils, different sized broad flat knives, a palate, and huge jars of paint. Blank canvases were stacked up in a corner. Paintings of women with very long hair leaned against the walls: one with braids that curved down and up around her breasts; another with hair tangled in a man’s hands; an American Indian woman wearing smooth thick spiraling buns on each side of her head. Others had hair flowing down in sheets of black, reddish blond, or brown. All were realistically portrayed in glistening oil paint. I wanted to pick up the brushes I saw sitting upside down in red coffee cans, like magician’s wands, and be able to paint like that.
I showed him my tree drawings, the collages I’d made in art classes at school, and my best painting, a copy of Goya’s Saturn Devouring One Of His Sons, which looked more like his daughter in my version. The coolness of the cement studio floor eased through my thin leather-soled thongs.
“Ah. Very honest,” he said. I didn’t know what he meant but I hoped it was enough for him to accept me as a student.
He asked me to write a visual description of anything I liked and to come back in two weeks. Paul kissed my mother’s right hand, then mine. He said something in French as he unlatched the heavy wooden double doors of the studio. My mother’s “Million Dollar Red” polished toenails lost what was left of their shine as we walked through the dirt driveway to the car.
By the time I went back to see Paul, I’d had my shoulder length hair cut short in a geometric style and I’d started working part-time as a shoeshine girl at the Safari Hotel barbershop. Jiggs, the owner, told me to wear hot pants and smile a lot. Sometimes I had to clean and polish six pairs of cowboy boots covered with horseshit, but the tips were good. My girlfriend’s mother was shocked that my mother would allow me to have such a job, but she’d heard about it from the bartender at the Safari and encouraged me to apply. “What a fun way to make money!” she’d said. My mother was a natural flirt, and I was not. I think she thought the job would be a good way to earn money and give me the flirtation training I needed. I hated bending over men’s shoes with a mirror behind me, but I learned that the more I smiled and the shorter my shorts, the more money I made.
Paul read my paper: a description of a mother and her two children playing and laughing together on a beach. He said I veered off the visual into a description of feelings, but he could tell I had an artistic sensibility. Even with the barbershop job, I couldn’t afford the twenty-five dollars an hour he charged for lessons. He offered to trade private and group classes for studio work. My duties would include bookkeeping, cleaning the studio, washing his brushes, stretching canvas, running errands, setting up easels and supplies for his art classes, and occasional portrait modeling. He’d provide a meal on the days I worked.
He was upset I’d cut my hair so short because it would be more difficult to attach hairpieces when I modeled. “A woman is made for long hair,” he said. “Below the hips, below her sex. American women cut off sexuality.”
“Short hair is much easier to take care of,” I said.
“Ah, but with long hair, a woman becomes different each day. She can wear her hair up or down, in braids, it is endless and the man stays interested.”
“What does the man do to keep the woman interested?”
“The nature of woman is to love one man and focus attention on him. The nature of man is to love many women.”
That didn’t sound right to me. But he must know. He was French.
Paul said the job was mine if I’d let my hair grow. I agreed to the trade and had my first art lesson.
He covered a wooden stool with a piece of black velvet, carefully set an egg on top, then angled two overhead flood lights to create shadows. He handed me a newsprint pad and a stick of charcoal.
“Be sure to include everything you see. I’ll be back in a while.”
“Can I have some music?” I asked.
I stared at the egg and thought he must be kidding. I wanted to use big brushes, spread thick color on canvas. I lit a cigarette and drew the outline of the egg. Slowly, I began to see shapes of light and shadow. I made small marks inside the outline and smudged them into little patches of gray, some blacker than others. My drawing looked like an oval patchwork quilt, not an egg.
Paul came back in an hour and handed me a glass of wine. “Good. Now, train yourself to see patterns of variegated light and shadow in everything.”
The next night, I set up the studio and attended his life drawing class. He had six students: two retired army men, three tan housewives from the neighborhood, who were very enamored with Paul, and me. We did quick sketches of the first nude model I’d ever seen. I was surprised she didn’t seem embarrassed. She changed poses when a timer went off: every minute, then every three minutes, then five.
“Why are we drawing so fast?” I asked Paul.
“Hesitation breeds bad art. The eye sees, the mind sketches, the hand only obeys. It is important to observe all the time, sketch all the time, wherever you go.”
The model’s eyes never looked at any of us directly. When she took a break, she went outside in her little blue robe and smoked. Her hair hung down to her knees. Paul told her to pin it up for the quick sketches and then release it for the longer pose we drew at the end of the evening.
I spent three nights a week and Sundays at the studio. When I arrived Paul would smile and say, “Ya te he,” a Hopi greeting. I stayed late in the evenings to wash his brushes with turpentine and Castille soap. On Sunday mornings, before we went to work, I made instant coffee the way he liked it, in a big ceramic mug with four teaspoons of sugar and thick cream. But instant coffee didn’t seem very French to me.
To round up students and try to sell his art, Paul did a portrait painting demonstration once a month for groups like the Kiwanis Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and circles of women in private homes who’d studied art in college and were now docents at the Heard Museum. They’d hover around Paul before and after the demonstration, each vying for his attention with wine, cheese, cookies, and practiced questions about art. I set up his easel, brushes, and tubes of paint and sat for the portrait. I wore a long hairpiece that hung down the middle of my back. I attached it onto my own pulled back hair and covered the line of demarcation with a black headband. Paul was impressed with how still I could be. I liked seeing my face emerge into a painting. He made me look older than I was.
When Senor Tico’s, a new Mexican restaurant in Scottsdale, commissioned Paul to design a marketplace mural, I helped him paint pink and red flowers with green vines and leaves around the arched doorways. I was afraid of making a mistake, but he gave me a pattern to follow and said he had confidence in me.
I did life drawings of fruit, flowers, Kachina dolls and nude women. My skills improved. I made a color wheel with corresponding tones of white, gray and black. I did a painting exercise in the dark to learn about light. I couldn’t stop looking at my first self-portrait. It was realistic and abstract. The paint was thick, the brushstrokes a mixture of bold and refined. It was an image I’d never seen in the mirror, only felt deep in my stomach. I’d painted my insides, made visible a gnawing crookedness I had no words for. Paul said making art was like an archeological dig. He put on an art show with his student’s work, and I sold three drawings.
He took me to the Hopi reservation for the snake dances. He said I needed to experience something other than my white American culture, that exposure to Hopi life would be good for my development as an artist.
“You can sketch but no photographs and you have to wear a skirt on the reservation or they will think you are a hippie. The Hopi don’t like hippies, especially the ones that show up half naked to watch their ceremonies.”
We drove Paul’s old Chevrolet station wagon up the mountain road to Second Mesa. He’d been going there since the 1940s, before there was a road that went all the way to the top. He’d ridden a mule in those days. He told me the Hopi had dances for every occasion, even one to instruct children in sex.
I wished I’d had some instruction, I thought.
“White people are not allowed to see that one,” he said.
When we arrived at Second Mesa, Paul got out of the car and said, “Ya te he!” as he handed out gifts of chicken and coffee to the Hopi women who greeted us.
Paul showed me around the reservation before the dances started. I noticed some large snow white feathers on the ground and I bent down to pick one up.
“What kind of bird do these come from?”
He grabbed my shoulder and said, “Don’t touch it.”
“It’s part of a sacred prayer ceremony. You have to be more respectful. White people think everything belongs to them.” He sprinkled some cornmeal from a little reddish brown pouch that hung from his belt around the feather I’d almost touched. Then he sprinkled me.
“Let’s go,” Paul said. “It is time.”
We sat on hard folding chairs in the plaza. The Mud-Head Kachinas, the clowns called Koyemsi, were dressed exactly like the Kachina dolls in Paul’s den. Their bodies were painted in brown mud. They wore black skirts and headpieces made of mud with holes for their eyes and mouth. I got out my sketchbook and began to draw.
Other Hopi men, dressed as Snake people, appeared wearing loincloths and feathers. They carried gourds and seashell rattles. The crowd became quiet. The snake men began to move in a circle around the plaza in a repetitious stepping dance choreographed to the sound of their rattles. The monotone rhythm created a trance state. My body seemed to dissolve into the sound. For a moment, I slipped out of my mind. My usual thoughts seemed to un-stick themselves from my brain. I began to sketch abstract shapes I’d never seen or imagined. When I looked up, the men were extracting snakes from a bush, putting them in their mouths, between their teeth as they continued stepping.
“Rattlesnakes,” Paul said.
“Does anyone ever die?” I whispered.
Paul’s eyelids began to flutter. His body made tiny spiraling movements. I’d seen him do this sometimes when he was painting.
After a while, the men put the snakes gently on the ground and soon the plaza was full of slithering reptiles. A man with a stick poked at the snakes until they were in a pile. Finally, the dancing men grabbed them and carried them out to the desert in four directions, to the west, south, east and north. The plaza became quiet.
Being on top of the mesa, I could look out as far as I could see. A quiet breeze carried smoke and herb smells from the Kiva. A gust of wind blew my skirt up. I pulled it tight over my knees and held it down. This was the first time I’d felt like a minority. The Hopi lived a tribal life, protected by some kind of ancient reality. I wanted to be one of them.
Paul came out of his trance. “Now, rain will come,” he said.
And the next day, rain did come. It poured down as I worked on a painting of the snake dance trying to recapture how I’d felt on the reservation. In the afternoon, a model who was scheduled to pose that night for Paul’s new painting got sick and cancelled. He asked me to fill in. I’d have to pose nude and it would be extra money. Fifteen dollars an hour. He made a Brie cheese omelet for dinner. Whipping the eggs he said, “I do not understand you Americans keeping butter and cheese in the refrigerator. Cheese is alive!”
After dinner he handed me a robe. I took off my clothes in the bathroom, looked in the mirror, experimented with the confident and nonchalant expressions I’d seen on the models I’d drawn in class. I sucked in my stomach, put on the robe, and walked to the studio. Paul attached long stiff hairpieces to my head, then laid out fake tree branches, pieces of driftwood, small twigs and an antler horn on a hard wooden platform covered with shiny red and purple fabric.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. I went to the kitchen and downed a few gulps of Russian Vodka from the bottle. I went back to the studio, quickly threw off the robe and lay down. Paul wound my fake hair around the branches and the antler. He turned on floodlights. Heat beat down on my skin from every corner of the platform. He climbed up and down a ladder, hovered over me, taking photographs from different angles. Then he made insistent scratching sounds on paper, sketching me in different poses, occasionally rearranging the hair.
I started to feel aroused. The vodka had helped me relax. The theme from Dr. Zhivago played in the background. I was sure Paul would seduce me and I wanted him to. The more he looked at me the more sensual I felt. I wondered if he’d lean over and kiss me or lie down next to me. Would he carry me to his bed? If we had sex, I imagined I could ingest everything he knew about art.
“Ah. You are beautiful,” he said. “You are very beautiful. You were made for the south of France. Look up. Look up. A little to the right. There, that curve there. That's it. Now you are in the perfect light. The sensuous mouth. Lovely. Have you ever made love to an older man?”
“How old was he?”
“Was he an artist?”
“A dancer. In Florida he’s known as the Limbo King.”
Lennie was the first and, so far, the only man I’d had sex with. We met in Ft. Lauderdale when I was fifteen. My mother and I moved there for a couple years after her second divorce. Lennie had a Beatle haircut and at six-foot-four, lean and long limbed, he could wiggle his way under a limbo pole seven inches from the ground.
One night when my mother went out, I gave my virginity to the Beatle-haired limbo king. I wore a vintage 1940s see-through black lace nightgown for the occasion, sprayed my arms and neck with my mother’s Chanel No. 5. The insistence in his hands startled me. He began to kiss me everywhere. He smelled like Coppertone and salt water.
“I’ve wanted to fuck you since the first time I saw you,” he said.
“I haven’t gone all the way before.”
“Yeah, right.” He thought I was eighteen.
He led me to the bedroom where I’d lit five peach-scented candles. His hands slid under the nightgown rubbing my legs, stomach, breasts, and inner thighs. He tried to enter me and couldn’t. He kept trying and finally spread me open. I moaned with pain. He made panting noises and said “Oh, baby,” over and over again.
Afterwards, fluids seeped out of me. I knew some of it was blood. I didn’t show Lennie the proof. I ran to the bathroom to avoid staining my mother’s sheets.
When she suspected I’d had sex, she said, “I hope you’re not sleeping with him because if you are, he won’t respect you.”
Who’s respecting you? I thought.
Sometimes, when I came home from a date, I’d see a guy sneaking out of the apartment, shoes in his hand, a jacket draped over his arm. I’d wait until he walked down the street to his car, then go inside in pitch-blackness as my mother pretended to be asleep. I didn’t tell her I saw these men. She couldn’t take being called a hypocrite. So I let her think she was fooling me.
Lennie and I were together for a year. My mother and I moved back to Phoenix and I didn’t see him after that.
Now, lying amidst branches and twigs, I wondered what sex would be like with Paul. What French things would he do?
“Mmm. The hair looks natural on you. It is sexy.”
I turned my head to face him. “Will this be a painting of me with my face and body or are you just using me to get the right proportions?”
“Please do not move.”
“Did you look at the self portrait I did last week?”
“Very original. Honesty is the basis of true art. And remember, an artist is creative. Stay original. Never be a robot or a sheep. Have a contrary mind to be original, but do not become so much so as to veer on the sensational, like our friend Picasso.”
Paul said this with an envious tone. I could tell he wanted to get into a debate so he could make his case against Picasso, but I already knew what competition felt and sounded like. “So I definitely have talent?” I said.
“Most definitely. All great artists have been, at first, amateurs.”
“Were you ever married?”
“A long time ago. I have a daughter.”
“Did your wife have long hair?”
“Of course. I would not be attracted to a woman who didn’t.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“I have many. Perhaps I have a new one.”
He stopped sketching. I felt my body flush. I closed my eyes, ready for his touch. But he didn’t make his move. He started sketching again. “I just met a half Hopi, half Italian woman I want to paint.”
I thought he’d meant that I could be his new girlfriend. My body felt like dead weight as I posed for another hour in a different position.
“Voila,” he finally said and sent me home after I cleaned up the studio.
I didn’t tell my mother about the nude modeling. She wouldn’t have tried to stop me, but I thought she might be jealous. She got that way when she didn’t have a boyfriend. We’d go out to dinner and she’d ooze sexuality with the busboys, waiters, any man in the place. I still cared about her feelings then so I’d make a half-hearted effort to compete, felt guilty if I didn’t. And she’d always be the winner.
I did more nude modeling for Paul but he never made a move. My artwork continued to improve, began to look professional. The kind of abstract images I’d sketched on the reservation began to appear in my work; shapes of color faintly resembling human figures seemed to paint themselves onto my canvases. But I was also preoccupied thinking about sex with Paul, why he wasn’t interested after seeing me naked in all kinds of sensual poses. He started taking me to the Chris Town shopping mall to look for young women with long hair. When he spotted one, he’d send me over to do the talking.
“Ask if they would like to model for a professional artist. Ask for their name and phone number and give them my card.”
I didn’t want anyone else to pose for him so I lied and told him none of the women were interested. I started wearing my hairpiece everyday after that.
I guess my mother could tell I was falling in love with Paul. Maybe she read my journal or found the nude drawings I’d done of him. One day she told me she’d read an article in Vogue magazine that said young girls had a tendency to think they were in love with older men, particularly if they didn’t have a father. She stood up, cleared her throat and re-arranged the turquoise and silver bangle bracelets on her arm. She left the room and never mentioned it again.
I worked for Paul off and on for the next three years. After that first summer and as I got older, my longing for him faded. When I was twenty, in town visiting my newly married mother from art school in Mexico City, I worked with Paul one day in the studio. His vision had become spotty and I helped him finish a commissioned portrait. He said I knew his style better than anyone. After the day’s work we talked and drank vodka into the night. He kissed me and we ended up in bed. I didn’t know if it was the alcohol or his age or both, but he couldn’t get it up. His penis was surprisingly small and did not match his sexual bravado. I wondered if that had been the reason for his rejection. How many longhaired women had he really been with? I asked him why he never made sexual advances before. “I wanted to,” he said, “but I didn’t want to ruin your life.”
He fell asleep. I got up; walked in the dark through the house to the studio, looking at his art, breathing in turpentine, paint, linseed oil, and all the things he’d taught me.
Gleah Powers has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Lumina, Southwestern American Literature, Flatmancrooked, Naugatuck River Review and The Paulinian Compass, journal of St. Paul University Manila. She’s been awarded writing residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Rancho Linda Vista arts community and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial fund. Gleah lives in Santa Monica, California and is currently at work on a short story collection.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: As a young person, I studied art at various art schools in the U.S. and Mexico and worked as an artist’s apprentice.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Richard Yates, Mary Gaitskill, Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, Alice Munro
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: I move around from my writing studio, to the living room couch, to my bed and back again.
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: Jessica Lange
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A short story collection.