Broken Colors

Broken Colors

by MIchele Zackheim


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"A profoundly original, beautifully written work, so emotionally accurate that it tears at the heart. I read it without stopping."-Gerald Stern

Sophie Marks' path to artistic and personal fulfillment takes her from World War II England to postwar Paris and the Italian countryside. She leaves Europe in 1967 and spends the next two decades in the American Southwest. Acclaimed at last as an artist, she returns to England to confront the hidden memories of her childhood and test the possibilities of a renewed love, a passion ripened by maturity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781933372372
Publisher: Europa
Publication date: 10/01/2007
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.92(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Michele Zackheim lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


By Michele Zackheim Europa Editions Copyright © 2007 Michele Zackheim
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-933372-37-2

Chapter One Sophie Marks never knew her parents. They both slid into their shallow graves at the end of the First World War, her mother working as a doctor in the Balkans, her father as a mapmaker, sent to Africa to chart an alien land. A battered and cracked sepia photograph was the only real likeness she had of them. They are holding Sophie when she is still wrapped in swaddling clothes. Her mother is tall and thin; at least she appears tall, standing next to the outdoor table under the apple tree. She has dark hair, cut in a sensible fashion, no frills. There is no evident sensuality. Staring straight on, into the camera lens, she is apparently cool and unafraid. On the other hand, Sophie's father is blurred, having turned his head ever so slightly. That could have been why Sophie's impression of him was always as a romantic, a dreamer, a vague man wandering along the hazy edges of her mother's rationality. "You can just see their personalities," Sophie's grandmother, Claire, declared. But Sophie used to wonder how people could make that claim. In a photograph, could you really see a person's self in his or her eyes? Could one detect wickedness in the eyes of villains? Later, with photographs of Hitler, she honestly could not say that she sensed evil in his heart from looking at his eyes.

It was before the Second World War, before the displacement, before the dark curtain was pulled across the sun. Sophie lived in England, far into the core of the country-the Midlands. Her surrogate parents were her father's parents. Her grandfather, who had always insisted Sophie call him by his first name, Eli, made a living as a potter, but his true vocation was painting. His canvases were portraits of anyone who would sit for him, from the village drunkard to the tea shop lady to the local constable.

"You have to learn to read faces," he told Sophie over and over again. "People's faces are etched with their life stories. Then it's up to you, the painter, to translate their stories onto the canvas as a visual language."

Eli's painting technique had been developed and refined over his lifetime. He painted with a thick impasto, using a palette knife more often than a paintbrush-yet he allowed glimpses here and there of a delicately stained linen. Wide ranges of ochre and raw umber and burnt sienna were his primary grounds, along with the deep tones of Hooker's green, cerulean blue, Indian red. His signature gesture was to outline the portraits roughly in lamp black, creating a shadow that brought the faces in the portraits forward, as if they had something to say to the viewer. He imbued his work with deep-colored emotions that swirled from passion to despair, always leaving the viewer with a promise of redemption. Not only were his canvases pictures of people; his paintings also reflected his beloved wooded landscape. Indeed, Eli used to say, "My palette is borrowed from the people and this forest around me. Because it's on loan, I must respect it, utterly. Each time I make a painting, I try to honor the agreement."

Sophie grew up amidst his portraits and landscapes. Local people would walk up the road, passing the crumbling garden wall with the deep-pink, single-blossom hollyhocks peeping over it. They would be carrying a couple of chickens, the mail, a basket of eggs, a newspaper, on their way to Eli's studio to be immortalized in paint. This was nothing unusual to Sophie. The country people were self-sufficient, great moralists, and they minded their own business. Sitting for Eli was, in a way, how they paid their respects to him.

While a painting was in process, Eli would hang it somewhere in the house. Sophie not only lived with painted faces staring at her while she ate, or read in the sitting room, she on occasion slept with them.

"I'd be interested to know what you think of Mrs. Ramsben," her grandfather once said as he placed dear Mrs. Ramsben on the wall facing Sophie's bed. "When you open your eyes in the morning's light, you'll see her in the purest way possible. You must report to me your impressions." And come morning, Sophie woke and looked at Mrs. Ramsben with an open heart and unveiled eyes.

"She looks kind, Eli," Sophie reported.

"Good," he replied, "that's the look I wanted to capture. But sometimes," he cautioned, "a sitter isn't a particularly nice person. Sometimes your subject does indeed have a callous look, a hungry look, a look of disappointment at what has happened to her or his dreams. As an artist, you've a responsibility to be honest with your perceptions." With this advice Sophie learned not only to see a painting but to feel it. His teaching simply became a part of her person.

As soon as Sophie could hold a pencil, she was drawing; as soon as she understood paintbrushes, she was painting with watercolors. And as soon as she understood not to put brushes filled with paint in her mouth, she was painting with oils. Many an hour she sat and worked alongside her grandfather. He had taken an old drawing table and sawed off the legs to fit Sophie's height. Sometimes she would work from his models; other times he would set up a still life for her; sometimes she would look out the window and paint the garden. On occasion she would copy him. Eli did nothing to discourage her. Painting became second nature. "You have an artist's eye; it's good work, Sophie." Once, when she had painted a skyscape, he said, "You certainly have an eye for a Turner sky," and she giggled at his rhyme.

Eli was a man of medium height, neither fat nor thin, but knotted in the joints. He thought it humorous when he had trouble getting the kinks out. "My body reminds me of a bag of twigs and stones; smoothed by the rain and wind, rattling against each other, getting stuck, coming apart." He had an unusually large and handsome head, almost out of proportion to his body, and covered with thick, white, wild hair. His nose was narrow and long, and the older he got the longer it became, nearly touching his upper lip. Once he reached seventy, he had to shave off his mustache because it made the tip of his nose itch. He had a voice stirred with gravel; it could fluctuate from a lyrical note to a growl, and back again. Sophie loved to hear him sing arias from operas, lullabies, and after 1923, catchy tunes from the radio. In the studio he would hum all day long and then complain that he did not know why his throat was so dry.

He always dressed in the same style of clothes: a tan workman's shirt without a collar, dark-brown corduroy trousers, and in the winter a brown tweed waistcoat with specks of green, and brown leather buttons. And at all times draped from one pocket of his trousers was a gold watch chain, attached to the burnished gold timepiece given to him by his father.

When Sophie was about five years old, her grandfather took a map of England and spread it out on his worktable. With a ruler, he drew an equal-sided box around the country, and although his table was potholed with old and dried paint, he managed to find the center of the drawn box. He wanted to prove to Sophie that where the lines intersected in the middle was where they lived. He showed her that they were halfway between the towns of Stoke-on-Trent and Stone, and but a few feet, her grandfather promised, from the center of the world. She later understood he was trying to show her how important she was to him; even though she had been orphaned, she had not been abandoned.

They lived within the patina of a Constable painting: terre verte, amber and sorrel browns, yellow ocher; always a stroke of sky, a translucent cobalt blue. Generations earlier, it had been an area where, from the knolls, one would see only bleak valleys with black coal smoke billowing, valleys scarred by huge ovens where bricks were made. When Sophie was little, there were still the same imposing nineteenth-century soot-blackened stone churches and buildings. "But listen, Sophie," her grandmother said, "I'll read you the other side of the mountain." And when Sophie was eight years old, by the light of a gas lamp, Claire, each night for many months, read Anna of the Five Towns. "Listen to the color," she would remind Sophie. "Listen to Arnold Bennett write about our home."

In front, on a little hill in the vast valley, was spread out the Indian-red architecture ... tall chimneys and rounded ovens, schools, the new scarlet market ... the crimson chapels, and rows of little red houses with amber chimney pots, and the gold angel of the Town Hall topping the whole. The sedate reddish browns and reds of the composition all netted in flowing scarves of smoke, harmonised exquisitely with the chill blues of the chequered sky ...

The region was the home of the Staffordshire ceramic factories, and the district where Josiah Spode and Josiah Wedgwood were born. In 1715 Wedgwood established a factory, having fine clay brought all the way from Cornwall and Devon. The soil in the Stoke-on-Trent area was more sandy and gravelly than one would expect; it was wonderful for gardens and rough terra-cotta pots, but not for fine pottery.

Their house, called Pottery Cottage ever since it was built in 1803, was balanced between two small, mottled-gray, rocky hills. Sophie's grandmother was a poet. She used to marvel why anyone would build a house of brick between the two jutting breasts of a woman. Eli would reply (each and every time), "Two breasts, my eye. A mule's ass with a bucket between its back legs, that's what it is!" Sophie always thought her grandfather correct, for the basement of that old house filled annually with water, causing great grief and a lot of work. Adding to the upkeep was the perennial problem of the ivy-choked chimneys, which forever had to be cleared; the dampness of the spot encouraged ivy to grow faster than the clover in the fields. Once a year, her grandfather would climb a shaky ladder onto the roof. With a tool he made from pieces of wire, he reamed out the soot.

But it was the birds Sophie would remember most. Especially the nightingale. She never knew a day when she did not hear its song. When she was small, she was convinced that the nightingale sang for only the three people in her family. Her grandmother often quoted a passage from Shakespeare when Sophie was being put to bed and they heard the nightingale. Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day./ It was the nightingale, and not the lark/ That pierc'd the fearful hollow of thine ear./ Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree./ Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

Claire adored caring for her chickens. Her family often challenged her by saying it was an obsession, but she did not mind, and blithely carried on. She always had at least a dozen Dorking hens, which had five toes instead of the normal four, and a few sweet-tempered Buff Orpingtons, most of whom were good layers of tawny-colored eggs. Claire had a number of customers from the nearby village and was quite serious about providing them with the best eggs in the district. Each summer she entered her eggs in the competition at the village fair. Sophie remembered standing before the egg display and seeing her grandmother's three raw eggs, poised firmly on a teal-blue ceramic dish made by Eli especially for the competition. Alongside the dishes of her contenders, her eggs shone and never failed to win one of the three prizes. Right before the war she was given a silver cup: For Lifetime Achievement to Claire Marks, Best Eggs Category. "Just look at that cup," she would crow. "It makes me want more chickens. You can never tell, Sophie, perhaps I make better eggs than poems!"

Sophie detested the entire chicken operation. The acrid smells. The constant mess. The ghastly mash her grandmother spent so much time making. And the feeding twice a day. Even though Sophie loathed the feeding more than anything, she was often asked to help out in the morning before going to school. "My dear," Claire would excuse herself, "I have a poem in my head." And Sophie would have to boil together bits of bread, potato peelings, and leftover vegetables, mix them with a baler of bran and three balers of meal, and stir it all up into a pulpy mess with her hands.

Then she would put on the dirty blue apron and the old black rubber boots by the back door and go out to the chicken house. Here she placed the metal troughs and then plopped the nauseating feed equally into each one. But Sophie did enjoy gathering the eggs. Reaching into a warm nest and cupping her hand around a found egg was quite gratifying. She never got over the excitement of uncovering a warmed gem and giving it to her grandmother, who always carried on as if it were the first time she had ever seen an egg.

Claire loved pleasing new customers. "I've never, Madam, tasted an egg like your egg," they declared. And she would answer, "Fain would I kiss my Sophie's cheek, which is as ivory and smooth as one of my eggs." This sent Sophie into a flush of embarrassment. But one thing she could say on her grandmother's behalf was that she kept separate aprons for her duties. Always hanging on the hook on the back door was the heavy blue factory apron for the chickens and the lighter-weight red-and-white checkered one for the house. Considering Claire's helter-skelter methods of housekeeping, this was an accomplishment.

Almost every night in front of the fire, Claire would read to Sophie. Sophie relished her grandmother's warmth and the aroma of lavender that was part of her clothing. They would cozy up under the softest afghan, Claire would put on her glasses, and off they would go. Once, Sophie, after hearing a story about an imaginary princess, asked, "Claire, do you ever hear voices inside your head-for instance, having this princess talk to you?"

Claire looked at her with a solemn face and Sophie thought she had said something foolish. "My dear child," Claire said, "of course I have people in my head! What a question! Every artist I know hears special voices; it's part of the profession. Are you trying to tell me that you have voices visiting you?" And Sophie nodded yes.

"Are they good voices or scary ones?"

"Mostly good voices, and sometimes they sing to me."

"Well, that's good to hear, dear," Claire said, patting Sophie's hand. "An artist you're certain to be."

People thought that being the only child of aging grandparents would make Sophie feel responsible for them. On the contrary, she felt she must be old as well, and that they were all three caring for one another. Sophie hung in the margins of her school class, watching her friends as if they were children of a rare and mysterious tribe. They all had such energy. It was hard for them to sit still. She could sit quietly for hours on end, happily entertaining herself by painting or drawing in her grandfather's studio or looking through his art books. When she did have a spurt of energetic activity, she knew instinctively that she should take it outside and run in the pastures across the road or swing as high as she dared from the chestnut tree.

Sophie grew so fast that for a dreadfully long while, her arms dangled almost to her knees. It was a painful time; her entire body ached. And so did her grandparents'. They were shrinking, moving in reverse. Their backs were no longer straight; her grandparents appeared to bend to the wind and stay there, complaining about their aching limbs, their stiff joints, changes in their skin. This would confuse her because her bones also ached and her joints felt as if they were rubbed together like stones in a sack and her skin was the shame of every waking moment. Instead of feeling that she was becoming a grown-up, she felt as if she were meeting her grandparents at the headwaters of the river and floating right along with them out to sea.

Sometimes Sophie could discern surprise in a new student's eyes when her grandparents were introduced as her parents. Neither Claire nor Eli ever made the correction. Sophie knew, although everyone was perfectly pleasant to her, that the others found her odd, disjointed, and aloof. And being the only left-handed student even further distanced her from her peers. "Force yourself to use your right hand," her teachers would warn her. "Otherwise you'll never learn good penmanship, and you'll certainly never be as good an artist as your grandfather."

She was intrigued by her grandparents' hands; she would find herself staring at them, then turn red, feeling she was being impolite. Her grandmother could sit for long hours at her rosewood writing table with the mysterious pigeon holes stuffed with scraps of paper. She would stare out the window and then mark long dashes of spidery words on the violet pages in her cornflower-blue exercise books. As Claire grew older, Sophie noticed that the veins on the top of her hands began to bulge like tiny pebbles moving ever so slowly along the bottom of a stream. Her fingers changed as well. They became slightly twisted, with the top third of each finger angled in a contrary direction. Eli's hands took longer to transform. They were so thickly covered with coarse, dark hair that for a long time Sophie could not see their age. Then she began to notice a deep magenta becoming visible through the hair-what she always thought of as his "fur." At first she supposed he had been using this color on a canvas and it had stained his hands. But it soon became apparent that his hands were changing into ancient tools, and he began to have a difficult time holding onto a paintbrush, or even his cup at teatime.


Excerpted from BROKEN COLORS by Michele Zackheim Copyright © 2007 by Michele Zackheim. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents Broken Colors....................9
About the Author....................320

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Broken Colors 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
CarolynSchroeder on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I truly enjoyed this book, another great little surprise from Europa Editions. This beautiful, sad, wise yet ultimately hopeful novel surrounds a woman born around 1915 and raised by her eccentric, artistic, very non traditional (for the time) grandparents in the Midlands, England. She becomes a painter at a young age and the story follows her losses during WWII, her loves, travels and creative life into her 70s. The passages about creating are oustanding. I am a painter and there were times I felt she captured EXACTLY what it feels like (to me anyway) to emote through art, struggle and bring it all to a canvas. The protagonist is a wonderful character, complex, who can laugh at herself; and the "supporting cast" are great. This is simply a beautiful book that has a lot to say about art, love and life. To say much more would take away much of its magic. Highly recommended, especially for anyone interested in the creative process.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this almost in a single sitting - bought it one afternoon, started that night, resumed the next morning, first at the breakfast table, then at a cafe, finally in a park by the river. What a wonderful story - epic, yet somehow like a series of small paintings... I am curious how many of the techniques are ones the author has used (her bio says she is also a visual artist), how many invented or imagined. And the endless balancing act, for an artist, of the need for solitude and the need for love ¿ so real, as is the drive to come full circle. Beautifully written - I look forward to re-reading it.