Authors: Renae Kelleigh
by Renae Kelleigh
Copyright © 2014 Renae Kelleigh
All Rights Reserved
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Art Institute of Chicago
The curator’s kitten heels strike the hickory floor, a reverberating staccato that’s closed in by the widely spaced, whitewashed walls and the vaulted glass ceiling. She leads the group of high school freshmen out of the Alsdorf gallery, away from the bronze and granite statues of Vishnu and Shiva, and the Tibetan banner of
- the Medicine Buddha. The flock of eleven teenagers sticks close together, a breathing knot of blue jeans and backward ball caps, as they follow the tall, willowy curator through Griffin Court, toward the museum’s photography and new media sections. They carry notebooks filled with wide rule paper, glossy maps, state-of-the-art phones.
A forest green sign at the end of the corridor reads
SO LONG AS IT IS WILD:
Works Inspired by our National Parks
Beneath it is a quote from a John Muir essay: “God never made an ugly landscape. All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.”
The curator speaks of a collection of sculptures, an illustrated poem, a triptych, a fresco. Yosemite, Denali, Zion, Acadia. At the far end of the gallery, a girl named Emily breaks away from the group of her classmates to gaze at a series of framed pieces depicting the Grand Canyon. They are all roughly the same size, but they differ in type and composition. Emily studies each in turn, unable to explain what it is about them that appeals to her. There is a sense of haunting that resonates in each one, a melancholy beauty that is wholly immeasurable and yet completely indisputable.
Her eyes linger longest on the last of the series: vermillion rock, magenta cliffs, piceous shadows, lemon sun, ultramarine sky. The charred, black twist of a tree trunk. And floating in waves across the foreground of the painting, fine wisps of a brown that catches gold, like strands of sunlit human hair...
Approaching from behind her, there is the snapping sound of heels. “You’ve found my favorite.” The curator’s voice is soft, nearly conspiratorial. She flashes a furtive grin before turning to address the group.
“These seven represent the works of John Stovall, who was the resident artist on the north rim of the Grand Canyon during the summer of 1969. Stovall had a particular style, which I believe should be readily apparent when we compare his work to that of Joseph Routh, whose mural
hangs to our right.” She gestures to an expansive painting, at least twice as wide as it is tall, depicting the wide-ranging sweep of the canyon’s many crevasses. “Routh’s work is more typical of Grand Canyon art as a whole, because it primarily highlights the canyon’s breadth
Stovall, on the other hand, preferred a vertical orientation, de-emphasizing the width in favor of the canyon’s impressive depth.
“As you can see, Stovall’s style underwent a rather drastic transformation during his time at the canyon. Can anyone guess the most distinct aspect of this change?”
“The last three are in color,” volunteers a boy named Cameron, sounding unsure of himself.
“That’s right. Stovall’s early works were almost exclusively monochromatic. The first piece you see here is an ink drawing depicting Cape Royal; the other three are done in charcoal. But then, as of about early June of that year, a shift occurred. For his later works, Stovall stayed away from ink and charcoal, opting for pastels and watercolor instead.
“No one knows for sure what the underlying reason was for this transformation. However, legend has it that, while Stovall was in voluntary exile that summer, he met a striking young woman by the name of Margaret Lowry. The story goes that, soon after meeting Miss Lowry, Stovall was compelled to switch from grayscale to color, so that he was better able to capture the beauty of her eyes.”
The curator’s smile is coy. The boys groan and roll their eyes, while the girls grin knowingly at one another.
“And here she is,” says the curator, opening her rolled up copy of the museum guide to a color photo of a pretty young woman glancing up from a book. “Stovall’s purported muse.”
Grand Canyon National Park, North Rim
Meg Lowry had folded herself into a chair in the dim back corner of the room, where she could largely escape the notice of others while quietly sipping from a fluted glass of champagne. The wall behind her was made entirely of plate-glass windows which, during daylight hours, afforded magnificent views of the canyon’s north rim. Now that darkness coated the windows, it was almost possible to forget that, just beyond those thick glass panes, the world took a colossal step down.
The room was cavernous as well in its own, limited way, with high-beam ceilings and massive wrought-iron light fixtures. A few dozen couples swayed and bobbed and swirled across the expansive, varnished dance floor while a twelve-piece orchestra set the mood with its repertoire of quixotic melodies.
Meg watched helplessly as Rick Iverson gazed fondly at his dance partner, the stunning Alice Munny. Rick was supposed to be
date for the evening - he was the one who had invited her along for this holiday in the first place, after all - but Meg didn’t feel resentful of his obvious affection for Alice so much as she felt guilty for spying on their moment of intimacy. She couldn’t find it in her to feel indignant at all, regardless of the fact he’d spent more time dancing with Alice than he had with her that evening.
Alice Munny was, by anyone’s estimation, a beguiling woman. She had a sense of regality about her, a Virginian charm born of aristocratic breeding. Even Meg had to admit she and Rick made for a striking couple - she with her frosty blue eyes and lofty cheekbones, he with his straight teeth and dimpled smile. A perfect pairing of Classically Beautiful with Archetypally Handsome.
They had driven only yesterday from UC Berkeley, the eight of them divided between Don Travers’ Fairlane and Rick’s Monte Carlo. This was to be a graduation celebration - twelve days at the Grand Canyon, where none of them had ever been before. They were a multifarious group, thrown together over the past four years in a great variety of ways. For the illustrious soccer team, Rick had played left midfielder to Paul Harper’s right forward. Both men were acquainted with Don through his position as a photographer and sports writer for the
. Don was, in turn, dating Faye Annenberg, an ostentatious liberal whose best friend Alan Mackey was himself a bona fide hippie. (Rumor had it he’d set fire to his draft card during a campus-wide demonstration the previous March. Faye, meanwhile, had been among the protestors distributing marijuana-laced brownies to the National Guardsmen on Bloody Thursday.)
Paul was also friends with Mary Ann Marshall, a whip-smart political science major who leaned more right than left and had thus faced her fair share of adversity during her time at Berkeley (this despite her protestations that she was, in fact, a moderate rather than a true conservative - any political opinion falling right of far left was considered offensively reactionary). Mary Ann had befriended Alice two years prior, when both served on the debate team. They had bonded over their mutual love of the beach and, embarrassingly, Elvis Presley.
That left Meg. She lacked prowess in athletics and wasn’t particularly interested in spectator sports. Likewise, she wasn’t especially savvy on current political issues, and she knew little of the forces at play in far-off theaters such as Sudan and Vietnam. She was also far from a pop culture guru (when The Beatles had made their iconic debut on the
Ed Sullivan Show
five years prior, she’d been in her room at her parents’ house in Santa Monica, working assiduously on her calculus homework, oblivious to the takeoff of nationwide hysteria). Of course, these facts alone were enough to severely diminish her ability to find common ground with the vast majority of her classmates. As a comparative literature major, her favorite pastime was reading, and this she was content to do in solitude.
Of course, that was before Michael Goodnight came into her life. By turns devoted and depraved, theirs had been the epitome of a whirlwind romance. They’d fallen in love quickly, quicker than Meg would’ve believed possible. Michael was a religious studies major, but more importantly he was an artist: a painter, a poet, a musician. A dilettante. For inspiration, he made abundant use of the various chemical enhancements available to him - LSD, mushrooms, and at times hefty doses of alcohol - and his outlet of choice shifted to coincide with his drug
His brash disregard for the law unsettled Meg, but she valued his love and companionship too much to let this be the reason for their dissolution. No, it wasn’t the drugs that broke her heart - it was finding Michael in bed with another form of “inspiration” and his subsequent assertion that Meg was “overreacting” to the revelation of his infidelity.
It was six months later that Meg met Rick at a dinner party hosted by his fraternity. She was still reeling from her broken heart, but the pain had dulled enough that it was no longer unwieldy. She’d been surprised and flattered when Rick flirted with her, especially since she’d rarely garnered male attention of any sort for the past half a year. (She hated to admit it, but in truth her doleful expression and closed-off stance were primarily responsible for this.)
Rick was, in many ways, Michael’s opposite, and Meg had at least enough self-awareness to recognize that this was a large part of his appeal. If she’d plummeted headfirst with Michael, she abstractedly wandered with Rick. Instead of an explosive fusion of elements, here was a gentle and steady osmosis. In her journal, she had characterized her relationship with Michael as “passionate” and “wanton;” for her relations with Rick she used words like “nice” and “sweet.” He was levelheaded and ambitious and usually kind, but in truth she considered him a bit boring, not to mention self-absorbed.
Now, watching Rick clutch Alice around her whippet-thin waist, she wondered why she couldn’t bring herself to feel cross with him. He’d asked her here just a month ago, and at the time she’d assumed she would be going along as his girlfriend, but as the weeks had worn on, that term had seemed less and less appropriate for the brand of relationship they had.
Still, there was something unreal about watching the boy who was (for all intents and purposes) her boyfriend grin so dotingly at another girl. Anger wasn’t the word for what she felt, but self-pity? This was the fathomless pit she struggled to keep from collapsing into as she sat alone in her party dress. She felt like a little girl at a gathering full of grownups, watching the events of the night unfold without playing an active part in them. Even her blush pink dress felt childish with its embroidered flowers and full skirt, not nearly as sophisticated as those of the other women in the room, whose form-flattering gowns were anything but frilly. She felt foolish.
“Would you like to dance?” The question startled her; she hadn’t realized anyone was nearby. Looking up, she was relieved to find Paul standing above her instead of some stranger. Unfortunately, it was evident from the line in his forehead he was asking her more out of pity than genuine desire.
“Thank you,” Meg replied softly, placing her hand in his and allowing him to lead her to the dance floor. Dancing was the last thing she felt like doing, but demurring, she felt, would have been rude.
Paul wasn’t a particularly skilled dancer, so they mostly swayed in place for the duration of the orchestra’s instrumental version of “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” which suited Meg just fine. After the song was finished, she thanked Paul again and made up an excuse about needing some fresh air. Being a gentleman, he offered to accompany her, but this she declined.
Along the south-facing wall of the lodge was an airy viewing deck lined with slatted chairs. It was here that Meg initially escaped. She paused beside the railing and allowed her senses to awaken from the chill that raced up her bare arms and the aeolian perfume of ragweed and evening primrose that invaded her nostrils. There was only the barest suggestion of the tumultuous terrain that lay just steps away, where the moonlight sketched the edges of cliffs and chasms beneath interlaced fingers of cloud and rock.