The Art of Confidence

The Art of Confidence

by Wendy Lee

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617734892
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 11/29/2016
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 871,181
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Wendy Lee is the author of the novels Across a Green Ocean and Happy Family, which was named one of the top ten debuts of 2008 by Booklist and received an honorable mention from the Association of Asian American Studies. A graduate of New York University’s Creative Writing Program, she has worked as a book editor and an English teacher in China. She lives in Queens, New York.

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The Art of Confidence


By Wendy Lee

KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.

Copyright © 2016 Wendy Lee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61773-490-8


CHAPTER 1

I'll start off by saying I had nothing to lose.

Although, I have to admit, I didn't have much to gain by what I did, especially in terms of the money. I still had to give lessons at the senior center and make those lousy copies of Impressionist paintings for tourists to buy.

I suppose I did it because I wanted something to show for the thirty years — longer than I had lived in my homeland — that I had been here in America. Something that was properly appreciated, even if someone else got all the credit.

Thankfully, my wife was not around to see what I had done. I don't think she would have approved of my actions, though not for the right reason. "You'd probably make more money collecting plastic bottles," she would have said. I don't think she would have really wanted me to be one of those Chinese people shuffling down the street in their canvas shoes, backs bent nearly double underneath clear sacks of plastic picked out of other people's trash, like hermit crabs with iridescent shells spat up from some otherworldly sea. I'm still a few years and ounces of pride away from that.

Although I don't know how much pride there is in what I do to earn a living. Every week, at the Chinese Baptist Church senior center in Flushing, Queens, I take people in their sixties and seventies through the paces of drawing an apple, a teacup, a potted plant. It feels like they have already moved into another plane of time, where seconds are minutes. I'm sure my hour-long lesson feels like an entire week. A man guides his brush of yellow paint across canvas with the speed of a midsummer's day, while a woman piles pigment onto her palette as though building a monument.

There's a widow who has her eye on me, despite being at least fifteen years my senior. "Master Liu," she'll quaver, "how can we make the apple look like it's not floating in midair?"

Perspective, I tell her. If everything else — the shadow on the tabletop, the wall in the background — looks as it should, then so does the object in the middle, even if it is flawed.

The widow, who is about as misshapen as the apple she has painted, steps back to look at her work. I wonder what she sees. A round sphere? The perfect apple in her mind's eye?

It's in these times that I miss my wife the most. Especially in light of the widow's subtle flirting, although come to think of it, the age difference is the least objectionable aspect. After all, I am fifteen years older than my wife; when we met, I must have seemed like a geriatric. I didn't have a tragic story about a divorce or a dead first wife or even children. I was just a painter, and for many years my bedfellow had been mediocrity.

I wish I could have told my wife about the first time I met the gallery owner. It was on a perfect summer day, when the tourists were out in force, streaming past my stall on the sidewalk just south of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, chattering in a thousand different languages. Occasionally a school group would straggle past, the uniformed children energetically swatting each other with their notebooks.

Then I saw the woman standing to the side, appraising my display of knockoffs of Monet, Pissarro, and Sisley. I knew she wasn't a tourist. For one thing, she was by herself. She wasn't one of those women determined to expose her family to art and culture, followed by a hulking bear of a husband and teenaged children in Converse sneakers who'd rather be in Times Square (although they could meet some of my immigrant street-art brethren there, as well).

No, she was a local, probably in her late fifties or early sixties, although well-preserved in the way city women over a certain age are. I could see all the signs: a glossy shoulder-length bob, too-red lipstick that matched the shade of her manicured nails, possibly a face-lift. So as to better look at my work, she had put on reader glasses with geometric frames. I am sure the word she would have used to describe them, as I had overheard women of that age group describe colorful jewelry at the craft fairs where I sometimes sold my work, was "funky."

She looked at me over the rims of her own funky glasses and asked, "Do you paint these yourself?"

"Yes, Madame," I said, getting up from my camp stool.

"They're very good."

I looked at my paintings as if with a new eye. They were all eight inches by twelve inches, so that I could fit a maximum of twenty paintings onto the wire scaffolding that enclosed my small patch of territory on the sidewalk. One entire panel was devoted to Monet, this being the artist most people recognized from being reproduced on mugs, tote bags, and mouse pads. I had copies of his greatest hits: the bridge at Giverny, the Houses of Parliament at sunset, the garden at Argenteuil, the water lilies, the haystacks. The trick in repeating these paintings and not getting bored was to look at them as something else. For instance, whenever I painted the haystacks, I thought of corn muffins. I was much more interested in them this way, not to mention hungry.

"How much do you sell them for?" the woman asked.

I made a mental calculation. I hadn't thought she looked like someone interested in buying a painting — usually those people were tourists who had just gotten out of the museum, spied a copy of a painting they had seen in real life, and wanted to take home a souvenir — but perhaps I had been mistaken. Maybe she wanted a little picture to adorn an office wall, or to hang in her bathroom over the toilet.

"For you, Madame, only fifty dollars," I said grandly.

"Fifty?" She frowned. "For fifty I would expect something larger. I really need something larger."

My perception of her changed. Maybe she was an interior decorator, looking for a painting for a client's wall or a doctor's waiting room. This could mean several hundred dollars.

"I have larger paintings in my studio," I said.

Her eyebrows lifted slightly at this, as if she was surprised to hear that I had a studio. True, it was only my garage, but that was where I kept and did my real work, not out here on the street.

"I also work on commission," I added.

"Perhaps," she said, "I could come visit your studio? You see, I don't really know what kind of painting I want yet. But it has to be big. Imposing. You know what I mean."

I didn't, and readjusted my impression of her yet again. So she wasn't working for a client. Could it be that she was a true art appreciator who wanted a painting for herself, not at another's direction or simply to fill a physical space? This could be interesting indeed.

"Of course," I replied. I wrote my address on the back of a blank receipt slip and handed it to her. "This is the location of my studio and my contact information. You are free to come by any time you like."

"Queens?" The slightest curl of her lip. Obviously someone who lived in Manhattan.

"It is close to the seven train. My name is Liu. I am at your service." I bowed like the old-fashioned mandarin I must have appeared to her, despite the fact that I was wearing paint-spattered work clothes.

"I'll call you if I'm interested." She handed me a business card, although it had been clear by her words that she would contact me and not vice versa.

After enough time had passed for her to walk a block or so away, I looked at what she had pressed in my hand. A piece of plain white cardstock that bore the words Caroline Lowry, Owner, The Lowry Gallery. The address was in Chelsea. I flipped the card over to its blank side and back again, half-expecting the words to have disappeared like invisible ink. But no, Caroline Lowry stayed put. Could it be that finally, after thirty years, just when I was ready to give up, a gallery was interested in my work?

I should have known that no real gallery owner would have been convinced of my talent from seeing a few knockoff paintings sold on the street, but at that point in time I could have believed anything. As I said before, I had nothing to lose.


* * *

Because I had no wife around for me to tell what had happened that day, I called up my oldest friend in New York, Wang Muping. We had met at the Art Students League on West Fifty-seventh Street in the early 1980s after both of us had just arrived in America as naïve, impressionable twenty-year-olds. We were the only Chinese students in our class; he with long hair and I with a buzz cut, but everyone, even the teacher, had trouble telling us apart. Wang still had long hair, with a few hoary streaks now, and wore a checkered scarf draped around his neck in an attempt to look hip, but in certain lights it just made him look like an old lady.

I asked him to meet me in one of our old hangouts, a diner not far from the art school, where we'd been so poor that we could only order soup and cream-cheese sandwiches. Now, although we weren't that much better off, we could at least order the lunch special.

I should say that I was not much better off, but Wang had made a name for himself in certain circles by parodying certain elements of Chinese brush painting. For example, in a recent show he had exhibited a series of shanshui paintings, or mountain-sky landscapes, except the tiny figures typically posed alongside the rivers or atop hills were of couples in pornographic positions. Wang was represented by a sleek gallery downtown, whom he'd tried to get interested in me, as well, many years ago, but my work was deemed too traditional. Now Wang lived in a high-rise that only he considered to be in Soho but was actually on the Chinatown border.

"What do you think of this?" I asked, showing him the business card. "Have you ever heard of it?"

"The Lowry Gallery? It's above Fourteenth Street," he said, pronouncing "Fourteenth Street" in the same way Caroline Lowry had pronounced "Queens." He tapped the address, in the mid-twenties and so far west it might as well be in the Hudson River. "Maybe you should go visit, see who is exhibited there. Have you checked out the website?"

"There isn't one."

Wang tsked. "So, either this owner is old-fashioned, or she thinks putting anything online will result in her bank account getting hacked. Either way, it's not good."

It was just like Wang to put down any positive news that came my way. Such as when he heard a year ago that I was getting married for the first time in my life, he said, "Too bad, because I was just going to introduce you to my cousin's old classmate who just arrived from Shanghai. She's so impressionable that she'll sleep with you if you so much as offer to show her around." I suspect Wang ended up sleeping with her himself, so as to not waste the opportunity.

"But you still think I should stop by?" I persisted. "What if the gallery owner is there? I don't want to look like a stalker."

"There is no way that anyone would mistake you for a stalker," Wang said in a way that made it a dubious compliment. Then he checked his phone. "It's only three o'clock. You should go now. I'll go with you. I can take a look first and if this owner is not there, we can both go in and pretend we're buyers. You know, like those wealthy Asian buyers from Taiwan or Hong Kong."

I doubted we were dressed like it, especially Wang and his old-lady scarf, but I agreed.

The Lowry Gallery was not one of the relatively newer galleries in the area but located on the ground floor of a town house, one of the few left on a street of mid-century buildings and apartment blocks. Wang strode casually by, looked into the front window, then crossed the street and returned to where I was hovering in the bushes like a dog unable to take a shit. Rather than two has-been artists in their early fifties (well, Wang was not yet a has-been, while I had never even been), I felt like we were two schoolboys about to play a prank.

"What did you see?" I asked.

"There was a young woman inside, sitting at a desk. The receptionist, I think."

"The owner could be in the back."

"True. In any case, I'm going in." Wang walked through the door with such purpose that I could only follow him.

The gallery was larger than I expected for something on the bottom floor of an apartment building, the space separated by several white dividers. By the entrance was a desk, behind which sat a young woman whose long brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She was not the long-legged, fashion model–type of receptionist such as the one who graced Wang's downtown gallery — I had heard those girls called "gallerinas" — but a plain, dour-faced girl who looked like she would prefer to be anywhere else.

"Can I help you?" the gallerina asked.

"Er." Wang gestured helplessly. Then, speaking with an accent that I had never heard before, even from all the tourists who passed by my stall, he said, "We are just looking?"

"Sure. Take your time."

Wang pulled me by the arm to look at the painting that faced the front window. It was obviously the centerpiece, a huge canvas with colors radiating out from what appeared to be a silk-screened image of Mickey Mouse. It reminded me of a tie-dyed T-shirt, not unlike the kind you could find at a souvenir shop. But I barely noticed the effect, only the price tag.

Wang made a disgruntled noise. "They are selling this piece of derivative crap for ten thousand dollars?"

Ten thousand dollars was a lot of money. Maybe not to all artists, possibly not even to Wang, but for me it would mean being able to pay rent, the opportunity to give up my job at the senior center, to paint what I wanted, at least for a while, which I had never been able to do before.

"Did you have a question?" the gallerina called.

"Not yet," Wang responded. He turned to me. "You don't do this kind of work."

"No, I'm 'too traditional,'" I murmured. My positive thoughts were beginning to drive themselves, lemming-like, off the cliff of my mind. Why was Caroline Lowry interested in my work if it wasn't the kind that she showed?

Wang approached the gallerina with what I knew well from our art-school days was his attempt to turn on the charm, although it was painful to watch at his age. "Young lady, is your boss around?"

"She stepped out for the afternoon," the gallerina replied. "Do you want to leave a message?"

"Can you tell her that Mr. Liu and his agent stopped by? That is Mr. Liu." Wang pointed to me. "She will know who he is." He displayed the business card that I had neglected to take back from him.

It seemed to mean something to the gallerina, for her eyes widened slightly. I could see they were a pleasant hazel, like a puddle of water that you look at more carefully and see an entire ecosystem within. "I definitely will," she told us.

"What was that all about?" I demanded when Wang and I had stepped outside, and I had swiped the business card back from him. "And what's this about being my agent?"

"This gallery owner doesn't give many people her card," Wang replied. "She's very selective. And for some reason, she's selected you."

"She hasn't done anything yet."

"But she will once her assistant has passed on the message that you stopped by to see her. You can thank me later."

I shook my head, determined that even if Caroline Lowry did get in touch with me, I was never going to tell Wang. Least of all to give him the satisfaction that he was right.


* * *

When I returned home, I felt anew the loss of my wife. Our apartment on the first floor of a frame house in Elmhurst, Queens, appeared not to have been touched for hours, not even by sunlight, as I had not bothered to open the curtains when I had gotten up that morning and now it was too dark to do so. Before Jin had come into my life, I had lived like a long-established bachelor, with ingrained habits that came from years of either living alone or not caring what other people whom you lived with thought of you.

While an art student I had lived with a bunch of classmates, including Wang, in a tenement in Chinatown. Then, when I'd needed more space, I'd moved to various apartments throughout Queens, always paying cash and even once agreeing to paint a portrait of my landlady's daughter and future son-in-law as a wedding present in lieu of rent. About ten years ago I'd found my current apartment in a two-family house, owned by an absentee landlord from New Jersey, and agreed to rake leaves, shovel snow, and generally keep an eye on the place in return for the use of the garage in the back as a studio. The upstairs tenants continually shifted from groups of immigrant men who spoke Spanish, families who spoke Tibetan, and students who spoke Korean. They never stayed long enough for me to get to know them, and often the only way I was aware they were there was due to cooking smells seeping through the windows or foreign pop music thumping through the floor.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Art of Confidence by Wendy Lee. Copyright © 2016 Wendy Lee. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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