This story is true, but the "story within the story" told to me by a very unusual woman named Opal, may or may not be true. Even with the help of Google, I can find no information on it.
In September, 2005, I was on a painting trip to Presque Isle in Northwest Pennsylvania. My usual practice on such trips, is to get up at five a.m. and be painting by six, in order to get the long shadows of the morning sun. I paint for about 3 hours, then have lunch and sleep for an hour or so. By 5 p.m. the sun is getting low again and I go out for an evening session, again, of about 3 hours.
Plein air painting is a joy, but also very difficult, due to the sun moving, wind, insects biting you and just lugging your easel and materials to that special spot, which always seems to be" just beyond" some huge rocks or a half mile from the nearest parking area. The great landscape artist Camille Corot said the secret of being a great artist, is "knowing where to sit down!" So we often spend a lot of time and calories, just clattering around, with our aluminum folding chairs, umbrellas and satchels full of paints, banging on our portable easels like a one-man band.
On September 20th, 2005 during the evening session, I went out on a rock jetty, which extended about 100 yards into Lake Erie. There were a few fishermen on the rocks, and a black and white lighthouse at the end, which looked really great against the blue lake and a DaubignyDaubingny-like sky. Post-modern artists are not supposed to paint light houses (or snow scenes or flowers etc.) - but I like to take risks as an artist- so I decided to be naughty, and do it! It was about 6 p.m. and I was struggling mightily with the color and light when I heard a girlish sounding voice say "I wish I could do that!" The voice was actually a mixture of child and adult, somehow. I turned to see the person, and it was indeed a woman, probably in her late 20s or early 30s.
She wore a, too-large for her, 1950s style dress. It was white with a red flower pattern splashed across it. She was..."Rubenesque" in figure and wore thick glasses with dark hair that flared out wildly in all directions in the lake wind. When she spoke, she seemed to look to the side of you, instead of "at you." But the strangest thing was her teeth! She had one large solid front tooth, instead of two central incisors with a space between them. I didn't want to stare so I kind of looked away, but guessed it was some kind of dental appliance? The old "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" TV show came to mind. "My name is Opal." she told me with a broad child-like smile.
I returned the smile and quickly went back to my work, not really wanting to encourage her. She stood behind me, about 4-5 feet away. As I tried to find just the right tonality of color, the wonderful peace of immersion in art would start to take hold. The feeling that you are living inside the painting began to wash away everything except turning formless daubs of pigment, into clouds and water. Then as my reverie was almost complete, Opal would blurt out something like, "I can't get near the edge because I might fall in." I'd turn and smile briefly then turn back to my study. As I began to put clouds in the sky she suddenly yelped "wow, if I did that, I'd mess it all up!"... I nodded and smiled and she said, "I know a story about an artist...do you want to hear it?" I didn't think I had a choice, so I said, "sure." This is the story Opal told me as I worked on the painting pictured above.
She began: "There was this artist...he wasn't a real good artist, like one who could, you know, get thousands of dollars for his paintings. They wouldn't even let him into art school. Then a war started and he went into the army. When he was there, he couldn't make friends except with this one other soldier. His friend was the son of a really rich...I guess...billionaire, and they were in the army together.
So once, the failed artist did a painting of his friend, but it wasn't very good. The friend took it anyway and thanked him. Then in the war, his friend got killed in the line of duty. And the artist was really sad..."
(As I painted away, I found myself listening to Opal's story, and her odd voice and child-like manner no longer seemed so strange... her story continued)
"So the artist had lost his only friend and he asked his captain what he should do with the painting? The captain gave him the address of his friend's father and said, "write to him and see if he wants it." So the failed artist sent the letter and he said, I did a painting of your son and it is not a very good painting, but it is the last picture of him. If you want it, I'll give it to you. The billionaire answered that he did want the painting. The failed artist, decided to take it to him, in person when the war was over, so he kept it safe the rest of the war.
So...when he was let out of the army, he took the painting to the address he had, and saw it was this really big mansion on a hill. But the billionaire welcomed him and took the painting of his son, killed in the line of duty...and he cried over the painting, even though it wasn't, you know, a very good painting or anything.
The billionaire had hundreds of painting in his mansion, by the world's most famous artists, but he always kept that painting of his son hung in a place of honor. Then years later, when the billionaire died, his will said, that the art collection should be auctioned off...So all these wealthy people and curious people came on the day of the auction and, you know, marveled at all these great paintings! But...well...nobody was interested in the portrait of the son, except for one young man. This man knew he couldn't afford any of the famous paintings, but for some reason, he really liked that portrait and decided he'd try to buy it.
So the auction started and the auctioneer said they would begin with this "fine portrait" you know like an auctioneer might say...He started at a thousand dollars, but no one bid, not even the young man. He thought he could only afford about a hundred. So the price kept getting lower and lower, and then the young man made his bid of a hundred dollars. No one else bid no matter what the auctioneer said, so he... you know...said, going once, going twice and hit down his gavel and said " SOLD to that young man."
The rest of the crowd was anxious to bid on the rest of the paintings, but then the auctioneer said, "And that will conclude the auction of this fine collection!" The crowd didn't know what was going on and began to shout and say things, you know like "but you only auctioned this one painting, and it's not even any good!
But the auctioneer held up his hand and said: The terms of the will are, that "whoever shall buy this portrait, at whatever price, shall receive, the ENTIRE COLLECTION!"
When Opal concluded that story, I made an involuntary gasp. I turned and she stood there, sort of blushing and said, "did you like that?" I told her it was the best art story I'd ever heard, and I meant it.
I also thought with a bit of disappointment in myself, that my initial reaction to this woman was to discredit her, to not take her seriously, to not want her to talk to me, and why? Primarily because of "surface." She wasn't "pretty" in any way. She had a strange voice. She seemed to be a distraction. Besides, I had more important things to do didn't I? Frankly I felt a bit of shame. Opal had enriched my life.
"It's getting dark soon, I have to leave" she said suddenly, and turned. I watched her wander back down the jetty and disappear into the fading light. I went back to my painting and finished it thinking of this strange woman who gave me this gift. Later in my campground, I wrote down the story, trying to keep her speech pattern in it. Since then, I've told Opal's Story to many of my classes of art students. When I conclude it, there are always at least a few, who let out a gasp, as I did that evening on Lake Erie, and as, I'm sure, they also did at the auction of the failed artist's portrait.Thank you Opal.