The ProsenPeople

Alizée, 1939

Tuesday, November 03, 2015 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Muralist: A Novel by B. A. Shapiro.

Alizée painted at a makeshift desk, an overturned shipping crate with one side sawed off to accommodate her legs. According to the label, it once held uniforms for butchers; she hadn’t known butchers wore uniforms. She worked in a warehouse that jutted into the Hudson River where eight different mural projects were being created side by side, and armies of artists clutching charcoal or brushes or marble pestles bustled through the yawning space.

Two years ago, she’d returned to the States after seven years in France. Seven more than she would have chosen, but she’d learned early on that the vagaries of fate had far more power than she did. She was nineteen at the time and had been living for that moment, had done battle with her family, her friends, even her art teachers, to realize it.

Nevertheless, at the first sight of Lady Liberty, she was swamped by a wrenching sadness and that odd sense of floating above her own head. From afar, she watched the shadows darken the space around her as she stood on the ship’s deck, searching for people bustling with energy and opportunity, the ones she remembered and the ones she knew weren’t there anymore.

Obviously, the country was in the midst of a depression, and she’d thought she was prepared for this. But the mute shipyards bounded by weathered warehouses, their wide doors swung open to reveal their lack of wares, unsettled her. It was well into the morning of a working day, yet grimy men, newsboy hats cocked, sat on posts along empty piers, smoking cigarettes and watching the boat’s arrival with no interest whatsoever.

This was where the memories lived, and that would be difficult, but it was, she somehow knew, the only place her real life could begin. And she was right. Now, although the empty warehouses and grimy men were still perched on the New York City docks, she’d beaten back most of the sadness and moved on.

“Looks swell.” Lee leaned over her shoulder and squinted at the tiny four-by-six-inch canvas she was painting. “If you like wooden patriotism.”

“My favorite,” Alizée said dryly. Although she got a kick out of making fun of the stiff, overly enthusiastic style imposed by the WPA, she wasn’t about to complain about receiving a paycheck to produce art. Even if other artists actually designed the works she was painting, it was a hell of a good gig.

Lee squatted, looked more closely at the small panels. She’d taken over directing the mural from a boy who’d gone to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War, receiving the unacknowledged and unpaid promotion because she’d worked for the WPA longer than any of the other assistants. She was ostensibly Alizée’s boss, although neither of them thought of it that way; they’d been friends long before this particular project. Lee frowned at the six four-by-six-foot pastel studies Alizée was miniaturizing, the original WPA-approved drawings for the mural.

Alizée didn’t like the frown. “What?” she demanded in mock dismay, then lit a cigarette. “Now you want to change it after I’ve worked my butt off for a week?”

It would take time to redo her efforts, but that was all it was: An effort. A job. Her own paintings were her real work. And those were very different from these: less tangible, more multidimensional, more in the process of becoming something else. When she worked on the mural, she was outside it; it was separate from her. With her own canvases, there was no space in between.

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From The Muralist: A Novel by B. A. Shapiro. Reprinted with permission from Algonquin Books.

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