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Authors: Alexander Vance

Behind the Canvas (6 page)

BOOK: Behind the Canvas
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“Paint something, child,” she commanded.

Paint something? Now? Claudia reached forward and opened the case. It was filled with small tubes of watercolor paint and several brushes. She looked up at Granny Custos. “I don't want to paint anything. I want to know how you're going to help Pim get home.”

Granny Custos set a small bowl of water and a stoneware plate next to the paper. “Then you'd best get started.” She gestured to the paper. “And make it a good one.
Paint
.”

The old woman projected an aura that left no room for argument. Claudia wasn't sure yet what to think of her. Granny Custos seemed to know a lot about the witch who had trapped Pim. She could just as easily be a witch herself. Then again, wasn't that the type of person who would be able to help Pim?

She reluctantly picked up one of the brushes. “What do I paint?”

“Whatever comes to you. Courage, perhaps. One can always use more courage.”

Pim had been staring in wonder at Granny Custos since her declaration about creating the world Pim was in. He fidgeted with his hands, looking desperate to ask a question. Finally he asked it. “If you created the world behind the canvas, then you must be an
Artisti
.” Understanding settled on his astonished face. “A Renaissance
6
Artisti
.”

“What's an
Artisti
?” asked Claudia.

“Patience, child,” Granny Custos mumbled. “Paint.” She sat and opened the book she had tucked under her arm. The leather cover was worn beyond reading and the yellowed pages were whisper-thin. She flipped through them delicately with nimble fingers.

Claudia picked up a tube of orange paint and squeezed a dab onto the plate, followed by a dab of yellow, then red. While she'd never had the guts to try oil painting, she had played a bit with watercolor. But she had no clue what to paint as she dipped her brush into the water, and even less of an idea why she was painting in the first place.
What does courage look like?
Suddenly an image came to mind—something she had seen in an art book in the library.

“Aha!” cried Granny Custos. Claudia jumped. The old woman jabbed her finger at a page in the book. She studied it for a moment before reaching for a bottle on the table. Claudia leaned over to see the title of the page:
Unguento di Attreversarse la Tela
. Flowery, illegible Italian streamed in rows and columns, but Claudia had seen the inside of her mom's cookbooks often enough to know a recipe when she saw one.

I'm painting and she's cooking. Next she's going to ask Pim to tap-dance.
She mixed the paint on the stoneware palette.

Granny Custos poured some of the contents of the bottle into a tablespoon, tipping the measured liquid into the green plastic bowl in front of her. “Art is magic. Always has been. And all artists, magicians. At least in part. But not all of them know it. Most do not.”

Claudia looked up, her brush a breath away from the paper. “All artists are magicians? What does that mean?”

Granny Custos flicked her fingers at Claudia. “Paint, paint! Don't ask your silly questions. Let me talk.” She dug a teaspoon into a can and sprinkled tiny seeds into her bowl. “To create beauty from nothing, that alone is magic. But art has stronger ties to the cords of magic than anything else. Cave paintings? Ha!—magic runes. Greek sculpture? Ha!—powerful talismans. Egyptian reliefs? Ha!—spells to make buildings strong and enemies weak.”

The old woman thumped the book in front of her. “As paper and ink let us access thought, the substance of art lets us access magic. Any artist with talent can learn. But only
Artisti
can master it.”

“What's an
Artisti
?” Claudia asked a second time. She thought the old woman would scold her again for asking a question, but Granny Custos stared at Claudia, looking as though she had a question of her own.

“Every generation produces a handful of
Artisti
. Incredible talent with brush or pen or chisel. But more so, they are born with a deep connection to the magic behind the art. It is no coincidence that when a civilization rises, art is its hallmark. That is because the
Artisti
are pillars of civilization. To be an
Artisti
is to lead culture, influence peoples, change the world. When the
Artisti
grow strong and flourish, civilization advances.”

She paused, looking beyond Claudia and Pim and the walls of the room. “Since ancient times have the
Artisti
practiced their art. But a period came when the
Artisti
slipped into a well of greed. Selfishness. Fighting. Death. Those few who remained turned to the darker use of
Artisti
magic and faded into obscurity. The pillars of civilization were knocked away, and fall it did. The Dark Ages, historians call it. There were no
Artisti
to bring light. They were born, yes, they were born. But they lived not knowing who they were.”

“And then the Renaissance came,” Pim said.

“The Renaissance did not just come,” Granny Custos said sternly. “It was built. It was ushered in. A young
Artisti
, a Spaniard, learned of the
Artisti
from a historian. He discovered his gifts, studied his craft, knew his mission. He went forth to find other
Artisti
—for there are ways to recognize them. Across Europe, he brought us together. Seven of us, there were. We learned side by side. We started in Italy, and through our work we influenced and enlightened in ways only
Artisti
can. It caught fire and spread slowly across the continent. As the
Artisti
art flourished, so did philosophy, trade, music, architecture, medicine. Civilization was lifted up again. The pillars were replaced.”

Claudia could feel the look of disbelief on her face. “The Renaissance happened because of the
Artisti
? All those great artists and thinkers—like da Vinci, Michelangelo
7
—they were great because of
you
?”

“We lit the spark. Started the pendulum in motion. Influenced. That is how
Artisti
work. Besides, Leonardo was one of the seven.”

“And so were you?” Claudia asked.

“I was.”

“You realize that was, like, five hundred years ago.”

“Some days,
bambina
, it feels like much more.”

“And the world behind the canvas,” Pim asked, “what about that?”

Granny Custos picked up a spatula and stirred the contents of her bowl thoughtfully. “It was the paint.”

“The paint?” Pim echoed.

Granny Custos smiled broadly. “Ironic, no? We delved deep into
Artisti
magic. Uncovering secrets that had been lost for millennia. And yet that great discovery occurred simply with a new paint. Oil paint. Early on, we began to use oil paint instead of tempera. Van Eyck
8
saw it first—a ghost in his painting, or so he thought. Then others saw it, as well. Painted creations granted life on a plane beyond the painted surface. We found that the oils used to make the paint—linseed, walnut, safflower, poppy seed—bear strong ties to the cords of magic. When used in the powerful act of creating art, the miraculous occurs.

“But the creations we discovered were faded, erratic. Eventually we traded wooden panel for canvas—because the linen used in canvas came from the same plant as the linseed oil. That synergy of paint and canvas is all it took. A new world was established. Ah, but how to enter? That became the question. Many years of my young life were tied up in that pursuit. Theories. Experimentation. Trial and much error. And then I finally discovered a path that led straight through the canvas itself.”

She tapped the fragile-looking page in front of her. “We crossed the canvas.”

Claudia looked from the recipe to the bowl, and then back at Granny Custos. “And what did you do there?”

“We built that world from both sides of the canvas. We breathed life into it, painted it into existence. We crossed the canvas to give our new world structure. Order. It was a marvelous place—not simply a culture we had propped up and supported with our influence, but one created entirely by our hands, our minds. Borne of curiosity and skill. We had turned canvas into sky and pigment into grass. A place of marvel. But it was something more. It was a place that would never fall to ruin or decay. A place where the hours passed yet our bodies never aged. And when we realized this, we began to cross the canvas with more selfish intent.

“Immortality. To live forever. We thought it would house our souls and feed our bodies eternal life. We were to be gods of our own realm.”

She looked down again at the bowl in front of her and snatched another bottle. “Carried away in our dreams, we became. For a time. It is a wondrous place. But not meant to house the flesh.” She shot a glance at Pim. “Is it, boy?”

“Indeed not,” he replied meekly.

Claudia's painting hand was on autopilot. She barely glanced down as she listened. “And that was the world behind the canvas? What happened? When you knew it wouldn't give you immortality? What did you do with it?”

Granny Custos shrugged. “Seeking immortality was a vain pursuit. We came close to losing ourselves, forgetting the true role of the
Artisti
, falling into dark places as the
Artisti
of old. But we awoke from our dream and moved on. The world we had built no longer needed us. We left it there. Went our separate ways. Found other
Artisti
. Taught them. Kept the pillars strong. But the world behind the canvas ever grows. Thousands upon thousands of hands now have constructed it. Every brush touching oil paint to canvas has made it flourish—mostly in ignorance.” She tapped her finger on the page of the book. “Tarragon? Hmmm…” She rummaged through her stash of bottles.

“And now every painting comes to life there,” Claudia said, thinking about how vast that world must be. “Not just the ones painted by
Artisti.


Artisti
or artist, master or student, it makes no difference. It only matters that they paint with passion using oil paint and canvas.”

“Do you still go back to visit?”

Granny Custos pursed her lips and shook her head. “I have not returned there for a very long time.”

“So, how have you lived so long if you didn't find immortality in there?” Claudia asked.

She was surprised to see the old woman actually wink at her. “Story for another day.”

“And the other
Artisti
,” Pim said, his hands on the invisible wall that held him back. “Who were the others? Of the seven.”

Again Granny Custos shrugged as she studied labels. “Dabblers and geniuses and rogues.”

“Was Nee Gezicht one of them?”

Granny Custos sent a curious glance in Pim's direction. “She was. Different name, we called her then. And her black heart more hidden. But dangerous. Always dangerous.”

“The witch who cursed Pim was one of you? She was an
Artisti
?” Claudia asked.


Artisti
, yes, because of her power. Witch, yes, because of how she uses it.”

“What was her name then?” Claudia asked. “Was she a famous artist?”

“More important to ask what her name is now,” Granny Custos retorted. “Nee Gezicht. Nee Gezicht. What does that mean?”

“It's Dutch,” Pim replied. “It means ‘one with no sight.'”

“Indeed it does. To have power without the proper vision of how to use it makes one blind. Greed makes one blind. Fear makes one blind. It is difficult to see when you walk in darkness.”

“What does Nee Gezicht fear?” Pim asked.

Granny Custos stirred her thick, gelatinous mixture with the spatula. “Van Eyck—one of the seven—died young. His death saddened all of us. But Nee Gezicht, it made her bitter. She had loved him from afar. She hated life for its frailty. She hated death for its finality. Van Eyck's death illuminated for her the human condition: that we are weak. That we will all die. And that is what she fears. Weakness. Death. Of the Renaissance
Artisti
, she worked the hardest to find a way to live forever behind the canvas. All she does is driven by those fears. Gain power. Eliminate weakness. Cheat death.”

Just listening to Granny Custos talk about Nee Gezicht put a sick feeling in Claudia's stomach. “So is there any way to beat her? Or at least to break Pim's curse?”

The old woman eyed Claudia carefully before returning her attention to the concoction in front of her. “Carried a staff, she always did. All the powerful
Artisti
store magic in an object. A precious object.
La raccolta
. Gives focus to their power. If not tied down, the threads of magic start to unravel. Over time, a spell will dissipate. And so the
Artisti
creates a single
raccolta
. This keeps spells in place for hundreds of years, if needed. Like a keystone keeps an arch, or a stake keeps a tether.
La raccolta
can be anything that weathers time—a ring, perhaps. Or a pendant. Van Eyck had wooden shoes. Artemisia Gentileschi
9
used a steel sword, which she always kept sharp.”

“A sword?” Claudia said.

“Indeed. Very fitting, had you known Missy.” Granny Custos looked at Pim. “But Nee Gezicht. Nee Gezicht carried a staff. Wood from a black walnut tree. Her
raccolta
.”

“Yes,” Pim whispered. “I've seen it.”

Granny Custos dipped the tip of her pinky into the mixture and stuck it in her mouth. She seemed to consider it a moment before spitting to the side. “After so many years, all Nee Gezicht has become is held in place by her staff. Your curse remains intact because her
raccolta
remains intact. Break the staff, break the curse.” She paused as a grin spread across her face, exposing a mess of chipped and crooked teeth. “Break Nee Gezicht.”

BOOK: Behind the Canvas
13.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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