Dedicated to my dear friend and mentor Chuck Kuhns
November 27, 1929 – January 22, 2000
tabula rasa– (tăb’yə-lə rä’sə) From the Latin tabula, tablet and rasa, erased. Defined as: The mind before it receives the impressions gained from experience or a need or an opportunity to start from the beginning.
With thoughts nowhere near the room she was in, or the work she was doing, her brushstrokes flowed across each canvas like butterfly wings, a bit of shading here, a small detail there. Kira saw a blank canvas as a tabula rasa, a term she’d stumbled on years before. The term never failed to flicker into her awareness as she began a painting. First, she conceived the image in her mind, and from there found it more productive to leave her hands to her subconscious. Her mind would roam anywhere and everywhere, and when her attention returned to the canvas in front of her, the painting was more complete. It still surprised even her.
She’d been painting since age six and was blithely unaware of how extraordinary her talent was. At age eighteen she’d put down her paints for many years to follow what, for her, was an easy path to a successful modeling career.
Her mother’s failing health and the decision to end that career had precipitated the move back, and though her return to New Orleans had been almost prescient in its timing, she’d still only gotten to spend a few months with her mother before she’d passed away. At first, with money in the bank and time on her hands, she’d simply pulled out the canvas, dusted off her skills, and once again begun to paint. In the past her talents had led her to do landscapes as well as portraits of extraordinary faces she’d encountered, flitting from one to the other easily as they tweaked her imagination. Now with the Ides of March approaching and her mother gone, she was left feeling detached and empty and reconsidering every aspect of her life. She’d been especially ambivalent about ending her modeling career, but had watched too many models hang on desperately to a life that had passed them by. No matter who you were, the years took their toll, and she at least felt as though she’d used good judgment as to when to quit. At any rate, she’d encountered just about as much fake as anyone should ever be faced with in a single lifetime.
Still, as much as she loved painting, the whole experience had seemed a bit empty until she’d stumbled onto her new business, Canvas of Life. Now, as she stared at the canvas before her, she was both nervous and excited as she prepared to begin Louise’s painting, her first real commission. But instead of starting, she paused for a moment and sat there on her stool with her arms crossed, reflecting on the events that had led her several months ago to mix her paints with cremains—the ashes of the deceased.
January, two months, ago had been frigid for Kira in more ways than the weather. She stood, surrounded by the cold stone of the mausoleum, only half-listening to the echo of the funeral director’s words as he droned on about the various urns and containers available for the storage of her mother’s ashes. Her mind was actually on the funeral itself, which had been two days earlier. It had been lovely, and she’d cried herself dry. Now, there were no more tears, and whatever this man was trying to explain was of no interest. Almost unconsciously she made a choice. His smile, as he turned away, looked as vacant as those he painted on the deceased.
Moments later, a footstep focused her attention on the assistant who was just returning from the recesses of the funeral home with a container in his hands. Before she knew it, she found herself departing that ornate house of death with a heavy heart and a heavier brass urn. All she could think of was that the urn felt cold and hard, a feeling that would quickly seem to epitomize her life.
February had finally arrived, but the intervening weeks had seemed to Kira like years. Mardi Gras was just around the corner. All the warehouses were full of local revelers who, unlike the throngs that flew in to see the great event, were feverishly building colorful and imaginative floats that, for the next week, would be part of the tremendous parades which meandered around the city, stopping traffic and attracting crowds. Hotels were filling up, taxis were running and all was poised for another year of one of the world’s most extravagant events.
The constant clamor of revelers and parades, and the general festive mood meant little to Kira. She had yet to fully absorb the enormity of her loss, lingering instead in the denial phase, not even seeing the vague beginnings of the acceptance that would eventually come. Her painting had become her only surcease.
She stood in front of her canvas, trying to paint a scene that depicted a part of New Orleans most people didn’t see, or at the very least failed to notice. It was a section of City Park, surrounded on all sides by buildings, roads, train tracks and humanity, that if seen from a certain angle looked, for all the world, like the heart of the Florida Everglades. Absently, she looked out the window at her lovely little garden.
She’d moved in to one of those amazing residences that most people visiting the French Quarter never even glimpse. It was a two- bedroom flat that was part of what used to be a large home. These gorgeous little nooks were very sought after and seldom seen because they were so well hidden. Down the back streets of the Quarter, there are many places where one or both sides of the uneven streets are lined with seven and eight-foot, old, wooden privacy fences. Periodically, the casual passerby would see a locked gate and be left to wonder what could possibly be behind it that would require a lock. Once the gates were opened, however, the neophyte would be shocked to see a most pristine and varied garden with a carnival of colors and shapes, framed by more wooden fence. A beautiful low, black, wrought iron lattice, lined the brick walkway, and the outline of a dainty little porch was poised in front of a carved wooden door. Inside these little havens, sometimes large and sometimes broken up into smaller flats like Kira’s, were virtual architectural anachronisms. They were surviving tributes to the skill of craftsmen of the past when the French Quarter was the wealthy area and a most prestigious place to reside. These homes comprised part of the hidden treasures of the Quarter, and when Kira had first seen hers she fell in love with it immediately.
The canvas she was working on was set up by the window looking out into the courtyard. It always astounded Kira that such beauty could exist like a barrier between her exquisite little flat and the filth and ugliness of the streets just outside her gate. Flowers bloomed in a myriad of colors; bougainvillea, hibiscus, roses, even a small mimosa tree all spread a tapestry of color across the miniature panorama.
Her mind continued to float dreamily as her hand moved, but the moment her consciousness returned to the painting she stopped and inspected the work. She was now working on the water. She noticed the rich browns and blacks overlaid with the variegated grays of the reflected lichen. Absently, she let her mind slip back away, and the brush in her fingers again danced mindlessly across the canvas—brown, red, green, black. She shifted on the tall stool that was wedged under her left hip. This was how she stood, with one hip on the stool, and her right leg straight on the ground. Familiarity of the stance, the distance of the canvas, the smell of oil paint, the feel of the brush in her hand all produced an almost hypnotic readiness within her. It was like a form of meditation to precede the creativity; once those conditions were met, her brain shifted into “painting” mode.
Moments stretched into minutes, then hours, and the afternoon waned as she worked on the soft and simple landscape which had touched her eye the day before. She glanced up at the urn on the dark wood mantle for the hundredth time, something still tugging at her mind. Fingers danced to correct a proportion, as her thoughts settled on memories of her mother. How inappropriate, she found herself thinking again, to have one’s life enshrined in a brass vessel. It drug up images of Egyptian tombs and Anubis statues, which stood in sharp contrast to the beauty that was her mother’s life. Her mother had been such a sweet and gentle spirit, never very ambitious but always kind and willing to give of herself and her time to those she cared for and the people she met.
Pausing, she glanced at her work and considered the next shades she’d be using and the mixtures they’d require. She looked again at the lichen on the foreground tree to see if she still thought it needed a bit of work. Sure enough, even in the morning light, she felt the lichen needed more gray, but what hue? A steel gray was too dark. Hmmm, she thought, running through her imagination to find a picture of the color needed. Ash gray. That was it! Ash gray was the perfect hue to give that lichen the feel she wanted. But it needed to be a pure light ash but nothing came to mind until her eyes, wandered absently to the mantle. The urn! It’d made her think of her mother’s ashes. In that urn! In that ugly, lifeless, brass urn!
Her next thought had initially repulsed her—she wondered if mixing Titanium white with the ashes would produce the color she wanted. My God, not my mother’s ashes! Where had that idea come from? Wait a minute, she thought, what if she did mix those ashes with paint? What if she mixed ALL of those ashes with different paints and made something from them? Wouldn’t that give her mother’s remains more life and feeling than a nasty, cold urn?
The initial repulsive quality faded, and the more she’d thought about it, the more she’d felt like it was a much more respectable resting place for her mother than that stupid hunk of metal. What would be wrong with enshrining her mother in a painting? But what kind of painting? How would one go about deciding what to paint? It would have to be something with meaning to her mother’s life, something that symbolized who she was. A portrait maybe? No. Her mother wouldn’t have wanted that. She’d shied away from photos of herself all her life. Having her remains in a portrait of her would have appalled her. Maybe a family portrayal—nope that didn’t work either. Not personal enough. Maybe a scene of something important to her mother. That idea sparked the thought: the Old Mill from her childhood! Yes, that was it!
Without yet realizing she’d done so, Kira had decided to paint a picture, using her mother’s ashes, of a scene which seemed to mark the heart of her mother’s memories as a little girl. How fitting. The thought of it had seemed so right, and had given Kira so much pleasure; she’d actually determined to set aside the landscape and start her mother’s painting immediately.