Friends of mine recently redecorated the living room of their condo in Florida. They have wonderful taste in art and to my mind, the centerpiece of the room is a large painting that hangs over the fireplace (yes, they have a fireplace in Florida) in which a swimmer in a pool is headed out of the image. All you see are calves and ankles and the shimmering water. I love it!
I wonder where she is going. (I can tell it’s a female swimmer because of the shape of her legs and the delicate rendering of her ankles.) Maybe she’s swimming laps or just taking a quick dip or even skinny dipping. I like that possibility best. The pool looks clean and serene, the most private of places.
Two other elements of the painting captivate me: the play of light on and in the water and the pool’s ladder, reaching up and down simultaneously. The ladder is both a way in and a way out of the water..and of the painting. My swimmer didn’t just dive into the pool; she slipped into the water. There are only gentle ripples around her, not much more of a disturbance than that. Also, she is moving away from the ladder as though she changed her mind : maybe she has decided to swim just a little while longer; maybe she’s avoiding some task that awaits outside the languid comfort of the pool; maybe she’s exercising or just daydreaming. Can’t tell.
All I know is that she’s not out of the water yet; she’s choosing her element. There’s something else about my swimmer: she’s underwater. I imagine she’s holding her breath, her cheeks are puffed out, her eyes bulging as she breaststrokes her way toward the other end of the pool. Maybe it’s just a game (can she make it all the way to the other end?) or maybe she just loves the silence of the underwater world. I know I do.
So what’s the big deal? It’s only a painting. No, it’s more. There’s a life here and a story to go with it, a life and a story stretching far beyond the frame of the canvas.
The painting gives us a glimpse of that story—a ladder going down into its depths, if you will—but at the borders of the painting, it’s my imagination that takes me the rest of the way. I don’t ask much more from art than that.
Or from writing. Sometimes when I write, I feel like that swimmer in the painting. I’m in a silent place, a world unto myself, a world that buoys me up and makes me feel lighter than my considerable earthly pounds. My stories are my laps. Sometimes they are wholly contained within the framework of a few paragraphs, but at other times, they extend far beyond a few hundred words on the page—at least I hope they do. Sometimes, like the swimmer in the painting, I too am holding my breath, eyes bulging, lungs about to burst, and I wonder if I’ll make it to the far end of story before I drown. But somehow I do. I break the surface and gasp for air, happy to be refilling my lungs again.
And then I turn, push off the wall, and do it all over again.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”
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