Unfinished Pictures

It is a stormy night. Trees are bending in the wind. The sky is threatening. Occasional claps of thunder ring in the distance. The rain has come and soon the city will be washed clean. The sky seems to burst open, the rain turns into a storm, as we arrive at our destination.

I wanted to introduce you to a friend of mine – an artist, a painter. Together, we have come to his studio and, after some cordial conversation, he has invited us into his work space so that we can see his many paintings.

The work space is filled with paintings, so filled that we can only barely make our way about. A large window provides an almost panoramic view of the city at night and of the threatening clouds and the rain.

My friend the painter talks enthusiastically about his many paintings as he shows them to us.

This one, he tells us, is the Chicago skyline. The painting is not finished; actually, only the background is in place, with a few strokes of his brush to indicate where the major skyscrapers must later be positioned.

He excitedly tells us that this painting is a portrait of a woman carrying a vase of water. The figure has been blocked in but there is not yet any indication of a vase of water. The background here is also missing, so we can’t place the figure in time or space.

Here, he tells us, is a picture of a cottage by a lake. Only the lake has been painted.

Moving several canvasses aside, the painter glows with pride as he holds up a painting of a farm scene, and he tells us that this surely will become one of his masterpieces. Only the farm house has been completed.

And on and on it goes. More paintings. Each of them unfinished. Each of them in search of completion, of closure.

After several hours, we leave the painter’s studio and walk out through the city’s dark streets. The rain has ended, but the clean smell remains. The air is fresh again.

You tell me that my friend is a most unusual artist in that he never seems to finish any of his paintings! He begins a painting with great enthusiasm, but then grows weary of the work required to complete it, and then turns with new enthusiasm, new interest, to another canvas.

Yes, I reply to you, my friend is a most unusual painter. One can see great promise in his work; there are hints of great power, traces of artistic grace, but it is, alas, as you say: the promise is not fulfilled, the great power is only a hint, the artistic grace still a shadow. The pictures are unfinished.

Yes, my friend is a most unusual artist.

You reply: how can you even say that he is an artist? Isn’t an artist one who has completed … finished … at least one painting? Isn’t your friend simply deluding himself into pretending that he is a painter while not really a painter at all? Isn’t this whole idea that he is a “painter” and an “artist” simply a diversion for him, a fantasy, a dream? Isn’t he really, literally, not an artist at all but just a dabbler?

Yes, I think you are correct. To be an artist in any field, one must go to the end of the path with one’s art. To be a painter, one must have finished at least one painting! Without this, one may certainly paint, but one is not a painter, one is not an artist. Such a person has not gone to the end of the road with his art. He has not finished even one painting. There is no other verdict. All else is, indeed, illusion.

As I turn to look at you, I see that you avoid my gaze. You look downward. I can see that a great sadness has come over you. It is the sadness that comes to us when we realize that the dream is over – the daylight has come and our goal has eluded us still, the prize has not been won.

I want to speak to you, but I know that you would not hear me. We walk along the dark city street and the silence engulfs us.

Excerpted from The Experience of Magic by Eugene Burger. © 1989 Eugene Burger and Richard Kaufman.

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