Torn

Evan Lawrence Ringle

In January, midway through her sophomore year of high school, Taylor’s mother enrolled her in art classes at the Carnegie Museum without consulting her first. When Taylor refused to go, her mother flaunted her sketchbook—a private artifact she’d never once shared with anyone—and began flipping through its pages. Her mother claimed that Taylor had a natural assuredness with a pencil, an intuitive grasp of contour and a healthy sense of perspective, not to mention a mind for composition. Her mother had been an Art History major in college.

“If I’m so good what do I need classes for?” Taylor asked.

“I never said you were good,” her mother said. “I’m saying you have potential. And these classes are good. This art program is where Andy Warhol got his start.”

“Isn’t he the guy who pissed on a canvas?”

“They’re called oxidation paintings.” Her mother clarified.

“That doesn’t change the fact that he literally pissed on a canvas.”

"Maybe you’re too young to understand.”

***

Taylor’s art teacher was a younger man, mid-twenties perhaps. He was tall and gaunt like one of Giacometti’s dripping figures and it was clear that—for him—art was a serious matter. He introduced himself to the class as Rolph in an accent thick with some Slavic underpinning. Bohemian to the casual observer, Rolph wore tight black jeans and undersized T-shirts with obscure references silkscreened over them, none of which Taylor recognized. However, upon closer inspection she noticed that Rolph kept his thick black beard trimmed close to his face and his fingernails were fastidiously clipped and cleaned. A difficult task, no doubt, for a man whose daily craft involved sticky globs of oil paints and gritty shards of charcoal. Telling too of the disciplined way he approached his work.

On the first day of class, Rolph told his students that a real artist rarely leaves his studio. Then he led them, a pack of chattering teenagers, city kids mostly, up the stairs from the Hall of Architecture to their studio space. As he walked, Rolph stayed at least three steps ahead of everyone and he never once engaged any of his students in conversation. He looked as if their words offended him.

Later, when they came back down to the museum, lugging their sketch-boards with a belligerent clatter, Taylor saw Rolph wince. Leading them to the entrance of the Natural History wing, he stopped, turned, and waited in stern-faced silence until all of them understood, after the passage of several minutes, what was expected. Without a word, they entered the dark catacombs overflowing with stuffed specimens and reconstructed skeletons. Here, Rolph instructed his students to, “Spread out. Choose subject. Draw.” Taylor came to rest in a dusty corner before a stuffed gazelle and sat hunched over her board for a full hour, working in excruciating detail to capture the animal’s spiraling horns on paper. At the end of class, Rolph glanced at her work, nodded once, and told her to fill the entire page next time.

***

In the car on their way home, Taylor told her mother that she wanted to quit. Her mother said she needed to stick with something for a change, that she was talented, et cetera. Taylor wasn’t dense. She knew that what her mother really wanted was a chance to spend more time together. She wanted them to be close again.

There had been a time when Taylor and her mother had shared everything but, the painful truth was, Taylor had been the one to push her mother away. The year before, exasperated by her mother’s need to hover, by her compulsion to meddle in Taylor’s personal life—examples of which included her mother asking Taylor for details about high school gossip, encouraging her to dress up and wear make-up, pushing her to attend dances and to pursue her crushes—Taylor had revolted. She’d described the situation as “toxic” and she’d begged her mother to leave her alone. Sullen at first and then disproportionately apologetic her mother had retreated from her life, leaving behind a frosty space that Taylor found impossible to thaw. At least, not without relinquishing her autonomy.

***

For their next meeting, Rolph led them up a marble staircase to the Fine Arts Museum, pausing again in the entranceway to place a finger against his lips before allowing them into the echoing wing of white rooms where paintings hung and sculptures stood—sterile, fixed, eternal. Taylor had been given oil pastels and, for some reason, she found a portrait of two rabbis sitting at a hardwood table inspiring. There was something about the two men, captured forever in a wordless lull, not making eye contact, a tangible tension between them, that drew her in. Sitting down on the cold floor a few feet in front of the painting, she recreated the entire portrait, right down to the crust of bread resting on the floor at the rabbis’ feet. Taylor worked hard filling up the entire page, leaving no white space, and she was proud of her piece.

“Good work,” Rolph said.

It was the end of class and they were back upstairs in the studio. He was holding Taylor’s work out before him, arm extended, a snide smile lifting the corners of his mouth. Turning his hand, he displayed Taylor’s drawing for the entire class. But just as Taylor’s chest began to swell with a sense of pride, Rolph tore her drawing in half, decapitating one rabbi and sundering the table between them.

“Nothing lasts forever,” he said. “Tear them all up.”

There was a moment of stunned silence, and then a horrified reckoning settled over the class as Rolph’s instructions sunk in. They all sat, looking helplessly at their drawings, unwilling and perhaps unable to destroy their work. In a rare instance of redundancy, Rolph repeated his command. “Tear them up,” he said, with a distasteful shake of the head. When no one moved Rolph said, “If you don’t, I will.”

With a heavy sigh, the girl sitting next to Taylor—an effervescent girl named Atasia with bright beads in her hair, one of those outgoing teenagers that parents love who, by the second day, had managed to befriend the whole class—began to shred her drawing. Soon the rest of them were doing the same.

They were quiet as they exited the studio. Before she turned the corner to descend the stairs, Taylor looked back and saw Rolph gathering the ragged strips and squares of their mutilated drawings, heaping them all into a gaping black trash bag.

***

The following week, as her mother stopped in front of the museum, she paused for a moment and looked her daughter over. Impossible to say what she might be thinking. Taylor had done everything she could to be the exact opposite of what her mother expected. She kept her hair cropped short, once her mother had referred to it as a “boyish bob,” and she shunned jewelry and makeup. Her closet was full of clothes her mother had bought for her, dresses and skirts, which she refused to wear, preferring instead a comfortable pair of jeans and a revolving array of loose-fitting t-shirts. These choices—Taylor suspected—were a great source of regret for her mother. By contrast, Taylor’s mother was a paradigm of femininity. She always looked put-together, and she never left the house without makeup. She was thin, leaner than most of the mothers of teenagers Taylor knew, with slender limbs and fair skin. “Willowy” was the right word. Taylor doubted she would ever be described as “willowy” by anyone.

“Well,” her mother said, “have a good class.”

Taylor rolled her eyes and exited the car.

***

Rolph was waiting for them in the Hall of Architecture. Taylor couldn’t help but notice a number of students were missing. Those that remained assembled quietly and followed Rolph up to the studio. One of the other kids coughed and said, “Art Nazi.” There were a few snickers but Rolph didn’t seem to notice. As they took their seats at the table, Rolph went to a closet at the far end of the room and re-emerged with a large black trash bag slung over his shoulder. Dumping the bag out over the center of the table, a torrent of shredded sketches and drawings tumbled down from the bag’s mouth in clumps, like mounds of leaves only smelling of graphite and chalk instead of earth. As the ruins of their drawings settled over the table the Art Nazi declared, “Today we make collage.”

They were instructed to choose no more than one piece from their original drawing. The rest must come from the work of others. Taylor and her fellow students set to work gathering strips and pieces that appealed to each of them. As they began pasting these onto rectangles of paperboard, Rolph explained—in a rare moment of loquaciousness—that he’d had them work in different mediums on purpose, and that all art was a collaborative enterprise. “No one stands alone.”

By the class’s end, a series of collages hung along the studio wall. Each demonstrated the budding aesthetic of its creator, but none was possible without the work of others. The class stood back, admiring their reimagined work. Taylor recognized fragments of her original drawing spread out among the collective mosaic—the scruff of a rabbi’s beard had become a blue puff of smoke, a table leg the column of a tree, and the crust of bread that had once lain on the floor between the rabbi’s feet now served as a raft in someone’s lonely ocean, or perhaps it was the reflection of the moon.

“You see,” Rolph mused, a sad little smile twisting his face. “There is method to madness.”

***

When her mother’s car swung into the carriage drive to pick her up, Taylor threw her sketchpad in the backseat and slid into the front seat beside her.

A part of Taylor wanted to share the experience of collage with her mother. However, she’d already resolved not to say anything because, number one: she didn’t want to admit to her mother that she was beginning to like art class and, number two: she didn’t want to encourage another intrusion into her life.

There was a moment, stopped at a red light, when Taylor thought she might say something positive.

Her mother glanced over at her and asked, “How was class today?” Her tone was hopeful, her eyes expectant.

Gazing up at her, Taylor almost lost her resolve.

Then she felt her jaw stiffen. Turning to look out the window, she said, “Kind of boring.”

Author Portrait

Evan Lawrence Ringle is an Assistant Teaching Professor in English at Penn State Behrend. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri, St. Louis. His fiction has appeared most recently in The Roaring Muse, Soliloquies, and Shenandoah. Currently, he lives in Erie, Pennsylvania, with his wife and daughter.