By Rachel Andrews
Michaela Winter sipped her coffee and prayed that the phone would not ring. It was amazing she still found time to paint, such were the other demands on her time. Would she be interested in a residency in Seoul? Could she comment on cuts to public funding for the visual arts? Could she judge a student art competition? It was for charity, and it would really raise their profile if she would agree to be involved.
It was a huge departure from ten years ago, when her longing for a whisper of recognition had reached desperation, when the rent was due in three days and her credit card payment in five, when she procrastinated for weeks over finishing a canvas for fear that the sight of another unsold work, stacked against its equally uncoveted peers, might lead her to burn her brushes and take up teaching.
She surveyed the canvas on the easel in front of her, before tucking a loose strand of hair back into her ponytail and picking up her brush, her hand instantly sliding into fluidity, the hesitancy conferred by constant rejection banished forever. At the age of forty-seven, and after twenty-nine years in the business, Michaela Winter was the hottest new artist in Europe.
Her studio occupied the entire top floor of a four-storey warehouse in Rotherhithe, which was otherwise occupied by a firm of architects, a Thai boxing gym and a shipbroker. By the door, fifteen carefully selected paintings were already crated, ready to be shipped to Venice. Her agent was expecting them all to be snapped up – in fact some had already sold at Miami Beach and were on loan from their new owners, who hoped that the exposure of the Biennale would inflate their value. Success, when it had finally visited Michaela, had been definitive, but the impending departure of these canvases, some of which had lurked in this studio for years, spawned a pang of loss.
Distracted, she wiped her brush on a rag and made another coffee, scrolling through her emails while she waited. Annie, her agent, had sent the final proof of the Venice catalogue, of which hundreds of copies had already been printed on thick, glossy paper and shipped to the Arsenale for opening night. People who couldn’t dream of affording one of her works would sneak a catalogue to display on their coffee tables. The bolder ones might ask her to sign it. There was a second email from Annie, reminding her to submit her answers for the panel by midday. Billed as an informal fireside discussion on the barriers experienced by emerging artists in an era of funding cuts, it was really going to be semi-scripted. Participants were requested to keep answers concise, to remain on topic and not to be afraid of using humour. She groaned. The pressure to be interesting as well as artistically brilliant was too much. She’d been working on this for days and was still drawing a blank on “Which factor was most critical to your own professional success?”
The intercom buzzed at ten a.m., right on schedule, and her footsteps echoed into silence as she crossed the bare boards. Five years ago, when she began to enjoy a measure of commercial success, she stopped replacing the rotating cast of young artists who sublet space from her until penury or parental pressure forced them out, and for the last three she’d had the studio to herself. She’d bought a stylish, yet criminally uncomfortable sofa, a new desk and a coffee machine to replace the ancient French press. She worked with renewed focus and productivity, buoyed by the first glimmers of professional recognition, and undistracted by arguments over shared bills and the incessant need to reiterate the “no overnighting” rule. Whilst she occasionally missed human interaction, she’d been grateful to escape the daily reminder of the ever widening age gap between her and the skinny, tattooed Insta-addicts who passed for colleagues. On her fortieth birthday the three other artists had bought a cake and a bottle of supermarket Cava, but the toast to “fame and fortune” had wilted under the recognition that if success were coming for Michaela, wouldn’t it have arrived by now? Just how long would she hang on, creating work that no one wanted to buy? Her talent was never in dispute, but her style, whilst distinctive and undeniably unique, was also deeply unfashionable.
She pressed the intercom button.
“Hi, come on up.”
There was no response. Someone must have buzzed the courier in already. She propped the double doors open using the fire extinguishers and waited. A few minutes later, the cargo lift slid open to reveal a tall, slim man in a Gresham & Black polo shirt. A full-sleeve tattoo of a green macaw, taking flight from a sea of tropical flowers, adorned his left arm.
“Remember me?” he said, grinning at her.
Of course she did. It was Jonathan the lithographer. He’d worked from this studio for years. He had graduated from Central Saint Martins at the top of his class and waited tables at Claridge’s while he waited for a break, and now it seemed he was working as an art courier.
They hugged awkwardly.
“You want a coffee?” said Michaela. “I just made one.”
He indicated the scanner hooked onto his belt.
“I’d better start loading up,” he said. “They know exactly where I am and how long I’ve been here. We can’t blame the traffic anymore.”
She felt a pang of disappointment.
“Can’t you just say I wasn’t ready?” she asked.
“They’ll charge you waiting. It’s twenty quid for every fifteen minutes.”
“I can live with that.”
What plane was this that she now inhabited, where twenty pounds was pocket change rather than a week’s grocery shopping? She imagined Jonathan recounting the story later, and felt a small thrill of satisfaction.
Jonathan grinned. “Awesome. In that case, black, two sugars.”
Jonathan followed her into the studio, exclaiming over the new décor, the floor to ceiling shutters and the numerous canvases set on easels. Last time she’d seen him he was on his way to New Mexico. She’d found it hard to conceal her envy when he’d secured an internship with a top print workshop in the States. After another unsuccessful and financially ruinous exhibition, she’d felt marooned by failure. Jonathan was moving on and she was stuck. There was comfort in collective failure, and he had broken faith with her.
“So you left the job at Persimmon?” she asked.
“It was an internship,” said Jonathan. “A job would imply payment.”
“I got off to a good start, but the director moved on, and the next guy was taking things in a different direction.” He shrugged. “To cut a long story short, I wound up with no job, no visa and no money. I came back three years ago.”
Yet he hadn’t been in touch. None of them had been, she realized, but what she felt was less like nostalgia and more like survivor’s guilt.
“Still working?” she asked.
He paused, looking almost ashamed. “The truth is I haven’t done anything in months. I just can’t get started. I can’t even motivate myself to prep the blocks. It’s hard, with no proper studio. You need space.”
“You could have come back here,” she said, unsure even as she said it whether she truly meant it.
He looked taken aback.
“CK said you weren’t subletting anymore.”
“Yeah. Charles Kane. That’s what he’s calling himself these days.”
“He’s an epic dick,” she said, surprising herself at how venomous she still felt. “That’s why I said no when he asked me. It’s not a blanket policy.”
Jonathan gave a half smile that she recognized all too well – the smile of someone who disagrees but doesn’t dare comment. In that respect, fame was bloody liberating. She got to have unqualified opinions, and Charles Kane was a dick because she said so. He’d rented studio space from her for almost three years. He was one of the more talented and dedicated ones, and he made a decent income as a session photographer for food magazines, so he could afford to play the long game with his painting. As a result, he was the closest to her in age, thirty-five to her forty-one and she liked the guy. Maybe that’s what hurt so much. One hot July morning she’d come in early to finish a commission, a huge, abstract effort, intended for a restaurant wall, and now worth six figures just on account of the signature. The lift was blocked by a forklift truck so she’d taken the stairs, and was surprised to see the door of her studio already propped open. A young woman, clad only in underwear, was examining Michaela’s canvas. Charles was making coffee in her press, which she knew he wouldn’t wash.
“Is this your stuff?” asked the girl.
“No,” replied Charles. “It’s Michaela’s, the woman I told you about.”
“Is it good? This painting?”
Charles laughed and wrapped his arms round her waist. “What do you think?”
“It looks like something you’d buy in Ikea.”
Charles laughed louder and Michaela’s initial indignation about overnighting (Charles was a repeat offender) gave way to dismay. Why hadn’t he explained it was a commission? It wasn’t as though she normally painted smiley lobsters peeping from a background of improbably coloured seaweed. Anyway, she was a million times more talented that that little bagel snapper, wasn’t she?
But as soon as Charles and his friend left, she faced down the lobster. He was right. It was a nothing painting by a nothing artist. She grabbed her brushes and over the next day and night, she made it her own. Her signature bold colours obliterated the insipid, soothing tones requested by the client. The lobster no longer peered coquettishly from the weeds – it crouched in shadow, twisting seaweed forming a ghostly cloak around its outstretched claws. The following evening, when the courier woke her from where she lay sleeping on her sofa, the lobster shipped. It wasn’t what the client wanted, but he was too worried about his lack of a chef and the delay of his liquor licence to protest, and the cheque came through without comment. The lobster even got a mention in the opening night review, although the fact that it was the most positive comment in the piece said more about the restaurant than the painting.
Annie Hatton, agent to anyone worth knowing, was invited to the opening night by a trustafarian sculptor who was begging her to represent him. She hated the food and despised the sculptor, but loved Michaela’s lobster, which she contemplated for a full forty minutes as she waited for her appetiser. She googled Michaela when her date went to the bathroom and called her the next day.
Jonathan pointed at the crates stacked by the door.
“You mind if I log those while we talk? It’ll save you money.”
“Not at all. You need help?”
“I’m good. It’s all electronic now. I just sticker and scan. Not like the old days when you actually had to concentrate. Remember when we did that art fair in Manchester?”
She grinned. “How could I forget? Turning over that last canvas and realizing we’d shipped the wrong one made me recognize I can’t function in the real world. That’s why I had to stick it out here, come hell or high water.”
She was apologizing, she realized, for her improbable good fortune.
Jonathan said nothing. The scanner bleeped in the silence.
“Sorry, that was tactless,” she said. “I imagine you’d rather you’d been assigned a different job today.”
“Actually I asked for this one when I saw the address,” he said. “It’s nice to see the place again.”
“And me?” she said, trying to keep her tone light.
“Of course,” he said, without looking up. “That goes without saying.”
“I wish you were still working,” she said. “I always loved your stuff.”
That was true. Jonathan’s prints had combined precision and spontaneity in a way she rarely saw.
“I know when to quit. Anyway, the odds are stacked against me. The chances of two famous artists out of the same studio? Zero.”
“I’m not sure it works like that,” she said.
He straightened up, the last painting scanned.
“No, of course not. I guess it just underlines how rare the success stories are. Anyway, I’ll call the van round. We should load up.”
As he made his call, she glanced around the studio, her eyes alighting on a miniature seascape she’d finished a few months ago, preparation for a larger piece.
“Why don’t you take that one, as a keepsake of the studio?” she said.
“I didn’t come here to…” he paused, “…get anything from you.”
“I know, but it could make a difference. A year’s rent on a studio space, at the very least.”
Immediately she regretted her choice of words. Why had she valued it, casting herself in the role of patron and Jonathan as her humble beneficiary? She knew what his answer would be before it came.
“I’m good, but thanks. I appreciate the offer.”
It took just minutes for Jonathan to load the paintings onto the specially designed trolley and wheel them into the lift. He gave a shy wave as the doors slid closed, and then he was gone. Her phone vibrated in her back pocket. It was Annie and the message just read “Panel answers to me b4 12!!”
Michaela idly rubbed at a coffee ring with her index finger as she contemplated the final panel question again.
“Which factor was most critical to your own professional success?”
There could only be one answer. Jonathan, with his beautiful lithographs, was a courier, Charles Kane was still taking photographs of varnished bakery products on a day rate, yet here she was, about to be the toast of the Venice Biennale. Certainly, talent and hard work and persistence and self-belief were pre-requisites, but they weren’t the deciding factor.
L-u-c-k, she typed. Luck was non-refundable and non-transferable, its distribution arbitrary. You could try to share your good fortune, as she had with her offer of the canvas, but luck would not be directed. It was truly a law unto itself.
She hit send and flipped her laptop closed. Then, after adjusting the shutters to optimize the light, she picked up her brush and began to paint.