Swimming Laps by Jamie Kirkpatrick

Arturo Alfonso Sandoval  is the artist who painted The Swimmer

Arturo Alfonso Sandoval is the artist who painted The Swimmer

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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