26 May The Eyes of an Artist
“The Eyes of an Artist”Written by Stephen Miller Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 15 minutes
My name is Daniel Burgess. I’m the photography coordinator for a public relations and marketing agency in Chicago. At least, that’s what it says on my business card. I’m not so sure what I am, anymore.
Just before dawn, I dragged myself out of my apartment to catch the Metra heading downtown so I could get to work early. Over the weekend a client of ours ignited a dumpster fire on social media with some very unfortunate tweets, and the internet mob was out for blood with torches and calls to boycott. All hands on deck, my boss’s email had read. And so I found myself pacing the cold and lonely train station platform just after four a.m., cursing the client under my breath. I yawned and stared into the orange glow of the lamp posts just trying to wake myself up.
It didn’t work. By the time I boarded the train I was sleepy, frustrated, and utterly unprepared for what was about to happen.
My eyes took a moment to adjust. The bright white lights in the vestibule were a stark contrast to the darkness outside. I stepped through the door and hooked a left up the narrow staircase to the second-level balcony. I dropped into the first empty seat as the train began to roll forward. It was less crowded than my usual seven-thirty inbound. Two chairs ahead of me, a man in a suit and tie had reversed his seat back to face mine. He was using the chair between us as a makeshift table for his briefcase. His face was buried in a copy of the morning paper, and he was yammering to someone on his Bluetooth in business-speak. Just kill me now, I thought. I leaned my head against the window, hoping I’d be able to tune him out.
That’s when it happened. It’s hard to say exactly when I noticed. Some subconscious defense in my mind had already detected the threat in my peripheral vision. Goosebumps rose. There was something about the man, the paper. He kept shifting in his seat, lowering the paper to make dramatic hand gestures to his business partner on the other end of the call, as if he could be seen. Every time he did so, he’d bring the paper back up to eye level, and I would catch a glimpse of a color picture printed on the back. By the time I saw it clearly, my heart was already pounding. I realized then that my subconscious had been trying to protect me—warning me not to look.
But, of course, it was too late.
On the surface it was just a photograph of graffiti—a mural, on the side of a building. A pair of artists had their back to the camera. They were painting a sea of blue and green abstracts around the portrait of a feminine face. The woman’s skin was polished bronze, her expression neutral, and her eyes just a white space that seemed to shine through the page. Impossible as it was, I could feel myself being stared into by those eyes. As the newspaper fluttered up and down I swear I saw the artists working, like one of those flipbooks we had as kids. But I was transfixed by those eyes. They beamed back at me like pools of molten titanium.
You could describe what I experienced then as a panic attack, but it was worse in a way that I still struggle to recount. It was as if seeing that picture had entered the code to a safe hidden deep in my mind. I could feel the lock coming undone and a door opening on some dark vault in my memory. In the darkness there was something I wanted more than anything not to remember. I shuddered knowing that at any moment the woman with the glowing eyes would look over my shoulder and shine her gaze on that thing that I didn’t want to see. Just then—
CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!
I started awake to the sound of the conductor banging her ticket punch against the railing at my feet. She was staring up at me from the aisle below.
“Rise and shine,” she said. In my disoriented state, I must’ve returned her stare with a look of wild-eyed confusion. “Ticket please,” she asked, and I got the impression she was repeating herself. My heart was still thumping. I managed to pull out my monthly pass, hands trembling as I showed it to her. She gave me a look like I was a crazy person, then thanked me and continued on her rounds.
My mind was reeling. What the fuck just happened?
I leaned back with a sigh and wiped beads of sweat from my forehead. Only then did I notice the businessman was gone. Had I really been so out of it that I missed him walking right past me—missed entire stops? And then a troubling thought occurred to me. I leaned forward to look over the back of the chair he’d been using as a table. Just as I feared, the paper was lying there on the cushion. As stupid as it felt, I had to look again—so I snatched it. I think a part of me wanted to believe it wasn’t even real. I braced myself, and turned the paper over.
The picture was still there. I was afraid I’d blackout or hallucinate again, but instead I just felt an unnerving sense of déjà vu, as though I’d seen the image before, a long time ago. There was a caption that read:
Residents decorate the walls of Köhler House: Apartments for Artists.
The article was about Köhler House (apparently a tenement that catered exclusively to those in the fine arts), winning a contract to paint murals around the city as part of a beautification project. It all meant nothing to me. My gaze lingered one last time on the white-eyed woman before I stuffed the newspaper into my messenger bag.
* * * * * *
My day at the office went as expected, which is to say that the big show of crisis management had fuck-all to do with me. While interns scurried around the open-plan space, I stayed at my desk mostly pretending to work. I couldn’t shake my damned fascination with the picture in the paper, which I’d set beside my computer monitor. I kept a browser open behind my photo editing software, and whenever I could I researched the article. I never found anything interesting or out of the ordinary, nothing to explain how a photograph could so violently paralyze and consume me.
That was until my coworker Ashley stopped by my desk with a cup of coffee. She was wearing that same charcoal pencil dress she wore every Monday.
“You feeling okay, Dan? Because you kinda look like shit today,” she asked—brutally honest as usual. Just then, I had a thought.
“Hey,” I said, passing her the article, “that strike you in any way?”
“This a client?” she asked, taking the paper with her free hand.
“No, personal question.”
She set her coffee down on my desk and unfurled the paper. I stared at her face as she looked it over, waiting.
“Ah, artists, the shock troops of gentrification,” she said, smirking. “What about it?”
“The photo doesn’t look, I don’t know, off to you?” I could hear the pleading in my voice.
She looked at it again and shrugged. I felt ashamed. Was I really so desperate for validation that I wanted the picture to hurt her too? I didn’t want to believe that.
“Sorry,” I said. “It just had an effect on me, I guess.”
“It sounds like you had an aesthetic response,” her smirk grew. “But you’d know more about that sort of thing than me. Art used to be your angle, right? Before you went commercial, I mean.”
Suddenly I didn’t like where this was leading. There is a saying among people who fancy themselves creatively driven that PR is the dark side. It means selling out. There was a time I used to feel the same way. An awkward silence passed, and then she spoke the words that turned my world upside down.
“I guess the style just speaks to you,” she said.
I can’t remember if she said anything afterwards. I don’t even remember her setting the paper down and walking away with her coffee, though she must have. There is no way she could have known the effect those words—those specific words—would have on me.
I think I told somebody I was feeling sick. I left the office and caught the next Metra heading back to my apartment. I sat alone on the train as the memory of a night almost twenty years ago crawled out from that vault where I’d sealed it away.
* * * * * *
That night, I’d been driving alone in my Jeep for ten straight hours. I was traveling home from visiting my girlfriend who’d transferred out east that fall. Well, by then she was my ex-girlfriend. It had become painfully clear that our long-distance relationship wasn’t working out. Her life had taken on its own momentum, pulling her away towards her career. By contrast, I no longer had any idea where my freelance photography was going. It felt like nowhere.
It was after midnight when I passed through Indianapolis. I turned north toward Chicago, and soon I was surrounded by farmland that seemed to stretch on forever. Eventually the traffic from the city dwindled away and I had the interstate to myself, save for the occasional long-haul semi. By then, the only radio stations I could receive were preaching religious gospel, so I switched it off. I drove for miles in the dark with only the sound of the wind and brooding thoughts about my future to keep me company.
At one point I passed along the edge of a rainstorm. Between the loneliness and the rumble of distant thunder, I found myself drifting off into a state of highway hypnosis.
And then I saw the girl.
She was walking along the shoulder in the opposite direction. As surprising as it was to see someone out here alone in the dark in the middle of nowhere, I don’t think I would have stopped if not for something else I noticed. In that tiny snapshot of time between my headlights picking her out and passing her by, I saw she had her arms folded tight. Her left hand was clutching a gash of red that had soaked through the sleeve of her grey hoodie. My blood ran cold. I pulled over, mentally preparing myself to offer first aid.
“Hey!” I shouted as I opened my door. “Are you okay?” If there had been a reply, it was swallowed by the wind. I hit my hazard lights and stepped out onto the shoulder. The temperature had dropped sharply after the storm, and my breath fogged up in the cold. The girl was still walking away from me, by then just barely visible in the flashing hazards. There were no streetlights or headlights anywhere, just the endless expanse of soybean fields and swaying silhouettes of ash trees.
I called out to her again, and still I received no response, so I followed her into the dark. My eyes adjusted to the faint moonlight. I could see she was young, twenty at most. Her clothes were damp and her cropped black hair clung wetly to her pale neck. It struck me that she must’ve walked through the storm. She was trembling, mumbling to herself, and didn’t seem to acknowledge my presence at all.
“Hey,” I said when I was right next to her. I reached out for her shoulder. She spun around and screamed. I froze and she staggered backwards, losing her balance and almost falling into the gravel. I saw then that the red gash on her arm wasn’t the only one. There were streaks and blotches of different colors on her hoodie and ripped jeans. It was paint.
“What’s going on?” she asked with fear in her voice. “Where am I?”
I told her that I saw her walking along the side of the road—that I was afraid she was hurt.
“Goddammit,” she said under her breath. And then, “what road is this?”
I was surprised by her question. It was the only road. “I-65,” I said.
“Goddammit, goddammit!” she muttered, and then screamed in frustration. She started to cry.
I didn’t know what was going on with her, but I knew she was cold and afraid. I walked with her back to my Jeep and dug a blanket out of the back, offering it to her. I asked her if she lived nearby. She told me the name of a town and I remembered from road signs that it was further along the direction I was heading.
“Look,” I said, “I don’t mind giving you a lift back there, or we could call someone you know and wait for them here.”
“There is nobody else,” she said, and then smiled. “You’d really do that for me?”
“It’s not a big deal,” I said, and introduced myself.
She said her name was Colette.
* * * * * *
As we drove, Colette leaned against the window in silence, staring off into space. My ex’s chiding voice came to infect my thoughts. You seriously picked up some cute, mentally unstable hitchhiker in the middle of the night? Jesus Christ, Daniel. You don’t know what she’s on. Don’t be surprised when she pulls out a knife or a gun and murders you for your car. I wanted to remind that voice that I didn’t have to listen to it anymore, but just then Colette did pull something out of her pocket that glinted in the dim light.
It was a Zippo. She flicked the lighter open and closed it. She continued doing so, like she was nervous and needed something to fidget with. When she noticed me glancing at her, she stopped.
“I was trapped in a fugue state,” she said.
When I asked what she meant, she told me that she would sometimes find herself wandering around strange places, having lost any short term memory. It started when she was a little girl. Something bad had happened to her. Whatever it was caused her to dissociate from reality. It had been a defense mechanism, and still happened from time to time, usually when she was stressed. Tonight had been a nasty one, considering how far she’d made it before I’d snapped her out.
I listened and didn’t say much, except to ask her the last thing she could remember
“Being in my apartment,” she said, “working on a project.” When I asked her what kind of project, she just said “Art.” “It’s a place for artists,” she added.
To get to her place I had to exit the interstate and pass through the run-down outskirts of a town that looked like it had been dying a slow death since the eighties. Dilapidated old storefronts advertised liquor and payday loans. The only signs of life anywhere were the lights in a laundromat and a gas station. The latter I was grateful to see as I was beginning to run low on fuel. Colette told me to turn at that intersection.
We drove down a row of decrepit-looking tenements. I didn’t have to ask which one was hers. At the corner, just before the railroad tracks was a four-story brick building completely covered in paint. As I turned to park I looked up in awe at the mural that wrapped entirely around it. There was a lot to it that I couldn’t quite make out, but what was most striking were the towering people painted like bronze metal figures. They stared out from the mural with big white empty eyes that soaked up the jaundiced street light.
“Home sweet home,” Colette joked, and got out of the car. She stepped onto the curb and immediately pulled out a pack of clove cigarettes, lighting one up. I just sat there for a moment, staring up at the people in the mural. There was something captivating about them, even in the dark. I remembered the old Minolta Maxxum I kept in the back seat. I got out and fished it from its bag, making some quick adjustments to the camera’s settings.
“Mind if I get a picture of that?” I asked her.
She breathed smoke. “Go ahead, if it speaks to you.”
I took the shot.
“Hey,” she said with sudden excitement, “I have an idea. Since you were nice enough to give me a ride—and I’m broke as fuck—let me give you a piece I’ve been working on as payment.”
I wanted to say that wasn’t necessary, but I couldn’t help feeling intrigued.
“It’s the least I can do,” she smiled invitingly, “and then you can have your very own Colette Köhler original to take back to Chicago.”
I conceded, setting the camera back in its bag and locking up the Jeep. We crossed the sidewalk beneath the watchful gaze of her painted sentinels. And then we entered that damned place.
It was Colette’s idea to leave me alone while she changed clothes. It would take her a minute to find the piece she had in mind for me, and her rain-soaked clothing was driving her nuts. She was already peeling off her hoodie when we found her door down a long hall of dorm-style apartments. She invited me to check out the studio upstairs in the meantime, and if I ran into anyone to just say I was a friend. And then we split up.
There was a chemical smell in the stairwell that triggered a sudden involuntary memory of standing alone in my darkroom, bathed in red light, watching an image slowly develop on photo paper. It was that familiar darkroom odor, like a mixture of vinegar and pine sol, wafting down the stairway. It got stronger and sweeter as I made my way up.
Whatever purpose the second floor had originally served was dramatically re-envisioned by whoever had knocked down almost every wall. The studio was as enormous as it was messy, and cluttered with hundreds of works—paintings, sculpture, mixed media. Some were unfinished, resting on tables and easels; others were stuffed into storage racks cobbled together between the exposed columns to partition off workspaces. Paint spatter covered every square foot of the concrete floor.
As I looked around, I found myself drawn to a painting on a bench easel. Something about it had caught my eye. In that final moment of naiveté, I thought to myself what a clever optical illusion the artist had created. Most of the large stretched canvas was inky swathes of black oil. But scattered throughout were these white ovals that seemed to scintillate with their own light, like stars in the night sky. For some reason, I was reminded of the eyes on the mural outside. I don’t know how long I just stared, mesmerized by the effect, when I noticed that the eyes were moving—rising, like bubbles from the depth of the ocean, before disappearing off the edge of the canvas.
By then, it was too late to look away. I’d begun to see something that I didn’t want to see. Its shadow had been present when I first entered the building, though I hadn’t realized. Quick glimpses at the work here and there had revealed its contours, like hearing voices whispering a language that I couldn’t understand. But now it had finally grabbed my attention, and held it there—eyes glued to the canvas. It stared back at me from beneath the oily blackness on the other side. Hot tears streaked down my cheeks. As the eyes continued to rise, they brought something with them, dredged up from some unfathomable place. I felt it rising in me, like something on the tip of my tongue—a memory on the verge of recall. And then it showed me.
It showed me Colette, soaking wet, standing in the red glow of my tail lights. Her smoky eyes stared back at me from the canvas, and she repeated what she said earlier.
There is nobody else.
Looking back, I think whatever intelligence lurked in that painting was trying to warn me of the danger I was in. As if to punctuate the message, Colette’s eyes flashed with blinding light. I staggered backwards, slipping on something wet and kneeling down painfully into a pool of clear liquid.
And then I saw the first body.
A woman lay right in front of me, hidden behind a huge leaning canvas. Her long blonde hair soaked up the blood that dripped from her neck. There were others I could suddenly see, camouflaged amongst the chaos and the clutter of that place—Colette’s roommates and neighbors, lying dead with their artwork. My first instinct was to crawl backwards through the puddle. I bumped into a workbench, and a large amber bottle rolled off the edge and shattered on the floor.
As if in response, I heard a door close upstairs. Heavy footsteps creaked toward the stairwell.
I sat frozen, swallowed by a primal terror I’d never before known—like I’d woken up in a spider’s web.
The footsteps descended the stairs.
I found the presence of mind to reach for the fallen bottle, Pure Gum Spirits of Turpentine. The bottom had broken off creating wicked teeth of jagged glass. I held it tight in my trembling hands—no better weapon in sight.
The footsteps stopped. For a moment I was certain that whoever had murdered these people had heard me, if not the breaking bottle then the sound of my heart pounding in my chest.
But they paused only to unscrew something. And as they descended the final flight I heard the sloshing sound of spilling liquid. And then they took off running.
Something inside me woke up. I rushed downstairs with the bottle. That sickeningly sweet pine smell of turpentine was a hundred times worse now.
“Where have you been hiding,” a man’s voice snarled from Colette’s room.
I burst through her door and found them struggling against her dresser. His ratty clothes and hair were soaking wet. He had one arm firmly around her waist—both of hers were trying to push away the knife closing in on her throat.
“And who the fuck are you?!” he yelled at me. “Let me guess, the next gullible artist they lured in here to infect.” He turned his crazed, bloodshot eyes back to her. “Isn’t that right Colette? Go on, tell him. Tell him what you do here—where the inspiration comes from. Tell him who it is that speaks to you.”
Colette kicked at him ineffectually, trying to squirm free. He pressed the blade of the knife against her skin.
“Just let her go,” I shouted, brandishing the broken bottle.
“It’s too late for her!” he snapped. “If you know what’s good for you you’ll get the fuck out of here now. And don’t look at anything on your way out, nothing this sickness has produced.”
Just then he turned his eyes toward me. But he wasn’t looking at me. His gaze fell on something behind me, and went wide with terror. Colette seized the moment and grabbed a sculpting tool from the surface of the dresser, stabbing it deep into the flesh above his knee. He grunted and staggered, but just as she broke free he swung the knife, burying it between her ribs. Her own momentum worked against her, and the blade tore a vicious gash across her torso as she fell forward. She stumbled out into the hallway and collapsed.
Now he was facing me with the bloody knife.
“Maybe it is too late for you too,” he said, and opened his other palm to reveal Colette’s Zippo. He sparked the flint once and then again—then he burst into flames. His turpentine-soaked body ignited like a human matchstick. He stumbled forward screaming and collapsed onto the bed. The blankets caught fire instantly. The surge of light and heat was overwhelming.
I remember pulling Colette over my shoulder and dragging her outside before the fire found the trail of flammable liquid he’d poured and snaked its way up the stairs to the studio. I was doing what I could to stop her bleeding when the windows blew out, showering us in glass. When I looked up, flames and smoke billowed from every hole in the building.
The white-eyed people in the mural were gone.
I wouldn’t see one again for almost twenty years.
* * * * * *
The L-train screeched overhead and I dropped the tattered newspaper into a garbage can on the sidewalk. The mural from the article faced me from across the street. Köhler House: Apartments for Artists. Even in the dark, the bronze woman’s white eyes shone to me like lighthouse beacons. Her onyx lips curled upward in the slightest sly smile. I crossed the street and dropped my heavy backpack to the sidewalk.
I had caught the last train back into the city, arriving just after midnight. Earlier I’d dug through the storage space beneath my apartment, unearthing an ancient box labeled “DARK ROOM”. Inside were jugs of chemicals and a black three-ring binder. In the binder were dozens of sleeved prints of street art and artists. Tucked in the back was the shot of Colette’s apartment building. I set it down beside the newspaper photo. For the first time since that night, I heard them speak to me. They beckoned to me in a language somehow buried in the aesthetic itself, like a virus slipped into computer code.
At Köhler House, I unzipped the backpack and pulled out the jug of flammable darkroom solvent. When I looked back up, the woman in the mural was gone. I could feel her right behind me, looking over my shoulder.
“Hello, Daniel,” I wasn’t sure if I heard her voice, or just thought it.
“Hello, Colette,” I said.
“You’ve always had the eyes of an artist,” she said. “They’ve led you here again.”
I pulled the lighter out of my pocket. I thought of the people inside, mindlessly enthralled by their muse—Infected.
“You’ve run from it for so long,” she whispered, and it was true. How many years had I been hiding in that soulless routine—languishing in that hollow joke of a career? Could I really go back now?
“Come inside, Daniel,” she said. “Join in the Great Work.”
I was beginning to lose it, I could tell, just like on the train that morning—just like in that studio, almost two decades ago. I put the lighter back in my pocket, my thumb already raw from grinding the flint wheel.
I knew what I had to do.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available