Behind the Canvas
By: Alexander Vance
REMARKABLE THINGS, paintings. So different from other types of art. Drawing, after all, is just a single black line repeated over and over. Chalk has color to it, but it’s flat and dusty. Sculpture is just a fancy kind of Play-Doh. And photography … well, there isn’t anything to that at all. Just point and shoot.
But painting … Made up of hundreds—thousands—hundreds of thousands of tiny little brushstrokes. And layers, one color on top of another, sometimes providing depth, sometimes mixing to create a whole new color. All spread over a canvas that adds a texture of its own.
Claudia Miravista pushed her face closer to the painting on the museum wall. With her nose just inches away, she could actually see places where the paint rippled up into peaks like waves on the ocean. She could make out individual brushstrokes the artist used to—
“Ah, Miss Miravista?”
Her head snapped back as her entire sixth-grade class turned to stare at her. Mr. Custos, the museum curator, wiggled his fingertips in her direction.
“Let’s not breathe on the artwork, shall we?”
A few snickers ran through the group of students. Claudia mumbled an apology and felt her light brown cheeks start to burn pink.
“Now let’s take a look at a work of art from a completely different time and place,” Mr. Custos said, walking along the edge of the gallery. The class trudged behind him.
Claudia had mixed feelings about coming on a field trip to the Florence Museum of Arts and Culture. On one hand, she loved art. She’d been to the museum a dozen times before. It wasn’t the largest art museum in Illinois, but she could walk to it from her house. She also checked out books from the public library on art history—the big ones that would break all five toes if you dropped one on your foot. Even now, sandwiched between her notebooks, she carried her own mini art encyclopedia, Dr. Buckhardt’s Art History for the Enthusiast and the Ignorant.
On the other hand, she secretly loved art. It was hard enough trying to fit in at school without everyone knowing that she spent her free time reading about paintings and artists who had been dead for hundreds of years.
“This painting was created by a follower of Caravaggio,” Mr. Custos continued, gesturing at a painting of an angel and a man in a way-too-bright orange robe. “Caravaggio1 was known for his masterful application of chiaroscuro, which refers to a dramatic use of light and dark in the scene.”
Chiaroscuro. It sounded like a fancy Italian dessert. Claudia whispered the word to herself. Chiaroscuro. It was fun to say, the way it filled up her mouth. If she ever convinced her parents to let her get a dog, perhaps she would name it Chiaroscuro. Or maybe Rembrandt.
Mrs. McCoy, her sixth-grade teacher, stepped up next to Mr. Custos. “Class, what do we say to Mr. Custos for taking us on a tour of his museum?”
The reply came with the enthusiasm of limp spaghetti. “Thank you, Mr. Custos.”
The teacher held up a printed worksheet. “Your last assignment today is for you and a partner to find a painting and ask each other these exploratory questions about it. Write down your partner’s responses and then make a sketch of the painting. This will be the foundation for your essay. And please use your museum voices!”
The mass of sixth graders suddenly sprang to life. Students pointed at each other from across the gallery. A few fist bumps passed between boys. Definitely-not-museum-voices bounced off the walls.
Claudia scanned the room, pretending to look for someone in particular but on the inside desperately wishing for someone—anyone—to tap her on the shoulder. They had taken a head count when they came into the museum. Nineteen students. That meant …
Please don’t let me be the only one without a partner, she begged.
Across the room she saw Megan Connell standing alone. Megan had never said anything mean to her. She even smiled at her sometimes.
I could ask her, Claudia thought. It wouldn’t be hard. All she needed to do was move her feet. One step at a time. She could do it. Here it goes. And … now. Take a step.
She took a step.
Then Jason Brandemeir walked up next to Megan and said something to her. She shrugged and nodded, and the two moved off toward the gallery exit.
The crowd of students was dispersing in pairs. Claudia stood alone in the center of the gallery. She felt naked, like a blank canvas without paint and without a frame.
A tap on her shoulder. Claudia turned to see Mrs. McCoy.
“Looks like you’re the odd one out today, Claudia.”
Again, Claudia thought.
“You can be my partner. Would you like to choose the painting?”
Claudia nodded. She led Mrs. McCoy to the gallery exit and then through two more galleries until they came to one that was empty. At least there no one else would see her paired up with the teacher.
Rambunctious shouts came from elsewhere in the museum. Mrs. McCoy huffed and gestured to the wall. “Pick a painting, Claudia, and start your sketch. I’ll be back.” She hurried off.
Claudia sighed and plopped down on a purple cushy bench in the center of the gallery. She was alone. Again. Actually, she was okay with being alone. But if you do that too often, you start to get … well, lonely.
She liked people well enough, at least in theory. But when she actually had to start talking to them—knowing what to say, or what not to say, or how to keep people from thinking she was a total dork—her mind would go blank and her tongue would seize up and she sounded like a caveman with a stutter.
That wasn’t entirely true. She could hold a conversation just fine with an adult. It was kids her own age who were the problem.
She sighed again and looked at the painting in front of her. It was a portrait of three Dutch gentlemen sitting around a table. They wore black suits with frilly white shirts and wide-brimmed hats and looked like something from a Thanksgiving play. Their swords were drawn and lying across the table or resting against a shoulder. Each had a thin mustache and a goatee. Two of them looked like they were holding back a laugh. The third looked annoyed.2
In the background—in the upper-left corner of the painting—was a boy, perhaps her age. Probably a servant or something, although he was in the shadows so it was hard to tell what he wore. But his eyes were a brilliant crystal blue, like marbles. His face was curious and friendly and … accepting.
I could be friends with a kid like that, she thought suddenly. It wouldn’t be hard.
What would she say? That was always the tricky part. She cleared her throat. “Hey, I’m Claudia.” The words echoed around the gallery and she lowered her voice. “So, do you like the museum? I know, it’s a little small, right? In Florence—the real Florence, in Italy, not Illinois—they have dozens of museums. Huge ones, on every street corner. It’s at the top of my places to visit someday.”
Was she prattling? She was talking about herself, which was rude, right? She should at least ask the other person’s name.
“So, what’s your name?”
Two boys—Nate and Christian—entered the gallery, snickering over some private joke. They paused when they saw her.
“Dude, Claudia, who are you talking to?” Nate asked.
“No one,” she mumbled. She grabbed her art history book and opened it up. The boys laughed quietly over something (her?) and settled on a bench on the other side of the room.
Dr. Buckhardt’s book didn’t have anything on the artist who painted the three Dutchmen. That didn’t surprise her—it was a small museum.
She pulled out her notebook and pencil and began to sketch the painting.
She enjoyed drawing. She found drawing from scratch too difficult, trying to pull things out of her own imagination. So most of what she drew was like this—copying paintings or pictures she found in a book or on the wall. She thought she was pretty good at it but couldn’t say for sure. She never showed her drawings to anyone except her grandpa, who knew a lot about art. He always said “¡Qué talento!What talent!” But then, grandpas were supposed to say that.
Her grandpa had even given her a canvas and some oil paints for her birthday several weeks ago, along with the promise to teach her a few lessons. She wasn’t ready for that, though—you only get one chance with a blank canvas, and a paintbrush didn’t have an eraser on top.
Her throat was dry. She hadn’t finished her sketch yet, but it was time for a break.
She glanced at Nate and Christian as she left the gallery. They still hadn’t done any work. Boys.
Claudia walked through the high-ceilinged atrium, lined with sculptures and purple benches. Sunlight trickled in from a crystal clear, domed skylight overhead. She paused for a moment to study it, noticing how the rays of sun highlighted the dust particles floating across the dome. She passed the gift shop and then hesitated as she approached the drinking fountain. Three girls stood next to it, talking in hushed voices out in front of the restroom.
Taking quick steps, Claudia approached the fountain and leaned in for a drink.
“I know,” one of the girls said. “Jason Brandemeir has the coolest blue eyes.”
The girls squealed. “I love guys with blue eyes,” said another. Claudia glanced over. It was Megan Connell. “The guy I marry is totally going to have blue eyes.”
The boy in the painting flashed through Claudia’s mind. He had amazing blue eyes. She straightened up from the drinking fountain. She could tell them that. She could join their conversation. She had something to say!
Before she had a chance to change her mind and go back to being alone, she blurted out: “Do you want to see a boy with incredible blue eyes?”
The girls turned to look at her. “What do you mean?” asked one.
Claudia felt her tongue turning numb. “In … one of the paintings. Really cool eyes.”
She braced herself—one of the girls looked on the verge of giggles. But Megan shrugged and said, “Sure.”
Claudia felt a nervous excitement bubbling inside her. “Um. Okay. This way.” She had joined a conversation! She had suggested something and they said sure!
She retraced her steps back to the gallery. “It’s in a Dutch painting,” she said over her shoulder. “With these guys and their swords and big floppy hats.”
Nate and Christian were still goofing around as she entered the gallery. She ignored them and walked over to the painting of the three Dutchmen. She waited for the girls to catch up, and then she motioned to the painting with a flourish, like they do on game shows.
She watched the girls study the painting. “Which guy?” one of them finally asked.
Claudia turned. In the painting were the three Dutchmen, their hats, their swords, and the table. And nothing more.
There was no boy.
“Their eyes are all green,” said another girl.
Claudia’s mind whirled. “But there was a boy right there…”
“What are you guys staring at?” Nate asked.
“Claudia can’t tell blue eyes from green ones,” a girl said.
“And she thinks those old geezers in the painting are cute.” Everyone laughed, including Megan Connell.
“I’m serious,” Claudia said. “He was there.”
“What’s going on here?” Mrs. McCoy rushed into the gallery, followed closely by Mr. Custos. “These are notmuseum voices.”
Claudia snatched up her notebook. This was crazy.
“Claudia’s telling lies about the paintings,” a girl said.
“I am not.”
Mrs. McCoy looked at her expectantly. “I thought you were supposed to be sketching.”
Claudia huffed and reluctantly held up her notebook sketch. It wasn’t finished, but it distinctly showed three men with wide-brimmed hats and a boy in the upper-left corner. “There was a boy in that painting earlier. A boy with blue eyes. And now he’s gone.”
The kids in the gallery snickered again.
Mrs. McCoy folded her arms. “Is this supposed to be funny, Claudia? No one is going to laugh when you get a zero on your assignment.”
Claudia stared at her sketch, fighting back the burning in her eyes that would inevitably be followed by tears. “I’m not lying.”
Mrs. McCoy clucked her tongue. “Everybody back to your paintings, right now! Get your assignments finished up.” She pointed at Nate and Christian. “You two aren’t even supposed to be in here. Get back to where I put you, please.”
As everyone filed out of the gallery, Mrs. McCoy paused by Claudia. “I need to see how the class is doing. Just answer those questions on your own, okay?”
The questions. Who cared about the stupid assignment? She’d made a complete fool of herself. Everyone had laughed at her. And there was the definite possibility that she was going crazy.
Claudia stood in the empty gallery and stared at the painting of the three Dutchmen. She hadn’t imagined it. The image of that boy with his crystal-blue eyes was as clear in her mind as anything. She had seen it. She hadtalked to it, for crying out loud.
She took a few steps toward the painting. The patch where the boy had been was now a muddy black, unremarkable and blending in with the rest of the background. She reached her hand up toward that corner of the painting … and stopped.
She spun around.
Mr. Custos stood in the gallery exit, his three-piece suit immaculate, his shoes shiny. He looked at her as if she had done something completely surprising.
They stared at each other for a moment. Then he flashed her a fake toothy smile and a wave, and ducked out through the exit.
She sighed and plopped down on the cushy purple bench.
Once again, she was alone.