Story of an Artist
John was born into an average family: average expectations, average worries. His parents were working average jobs with average income. They never had any financial issues, but they also did not have a lot of savings. They lived in a small apartment in a mid-sized city. He had his own room and was his parents’ pride and joy. As often as they could, they would take the car and drive someplace new, do something special.
It was not always easy during the first years of his life. He had gotten sick several times and needed to stay at home for weeks or months. The rest of the family lived abroad and could not look after him, but the old lady next door would check on him during the day. She had lost her husband several years ago and had no children of her own. Even though she enjoyed it, looking after him for just a few hours a day already exhausted her. He ended up being alone for most of the day. Whenever he could, he would get out the small box of plastic bricks below his bed and start building. Small towers or houses, sometimes mountains or animals. When he heard the old lady coming over, he quickly jumped back into bed and pretended that he was resting. Of course, she noticed what he had been up to. She smiled and often joined him after they had lunch. But his imagination far exceeded hers. She could not keep up.
The first year of school was expanding his horizon. So many different things that he had never heard or seen. He loved going to school during that time. Every day was bringing something new and exciting. But his joy did not last forever, and soon he realized that school was not meant to expand his being, but force him to play a role in society.
At the beginning of the second grade, his class visited a fair in town. People were presenting professions and hobbies in a creative way. Every small booth or station had something you could touch or work on. He felt like he was back in first grade again. After they had spent almost the entire day on the fair and were about to go back home, he came across a small booth. A white-haired man was sitting on a wood chair, leaning on his wooden cane. He had a little hat and wore glasses. On the table in front of him, dozens of small and big wood carvings were on display. John was fascinated and spent a long time looking at each of them. Animals, people, objects. But one carving drew his attention. It was a large open hand. You could see all the details of the fingers and the small ripples of the skin on it. The man noticed John’s interest and pulled out a box from below the table. It had large pieces of wood and several small tools with which you could carve and form the wood.
He moved his chair so John could see him work on the small piece of wood. He chopped off significant parts of the wood, till he began to work more precise and meticulous. The wood was slowly shaped into form. Then he could see it: the outline of fingers and thumb. The hand was giving him a thumbs up. Once the shape of the hand and fingers were in place, the man started to work on the finer details; the nails and folds in the skin. It took a while till he seemed pleased. Then he blew off the small pieces of wood that were coving the hand and used some paper to smooth the surface. John was starring at the hand as if he had never seen anything so beautiful in his life. The man smiled.
His teacher suddenly appeared out of the crowd. She had searched for him. It was time to go. She took his hand, and slowly they began walking to the rest of the class.
The man had stood up from his chair. He was very short, and only his cane kept him from not falling over. He had the carving in his hand and was holding it towards John. John walked back to him.
“I know you will take good care of it.”
The man smiled, and a tear rolled down his eye as John and the carving disappeared in the crowd.
The next day was Saturday, and the holidays had started. John persuaded his parent to go to the fair again. When they arrived at the place, the old man was not to be found. The booth was empty, the chair gone. His parents asked around, but the man had not come back today, even though he had rented the space for the entire weekend. They went back home.
A few days later, while looking at the carving he had on his desk, John came an idea. He wanted to be able to carve something this magnificent. He ran to his parents, but they did not seem to care too much about his sudden interest in wood carving.
“Your birthday is in 2 months. We can get you something then.”
That answer was not good enough for John. He took the carving and ran over to the old lady next door. He rang the bell as if his life would depend on it. The old lady almost fell out of her bed. She was doing an afternoon nap and needed a moment to realize what was going on. When she saw him at the door, she felt relieved. She asked him what was going on, but he only held the carving up towards her. Her sight was not the best anymore, but she could see that the carving was of extraordinary quality. She took it in her hand and slowly moved her finger over it.
“I want to do this.”
She looked at John. His eyes were clear and sharp. Something had inspired him to a degree she had never seen. He reminded her of her husband.
The next day they both went out and bought some tools. She still had lots of old wood lying around in her basement. Parts of tables and other furniture she could not remember the origin of. He could use it to his wishes. At first, his parents were angry with him but agreed to let him keep the tools as long as he would clean up the mess from the wood. The old lady suggested using the vacant office of her husband. The room was almost empty, and she did not mind if he was making a mess in there. His parent agreed.
He looked at the long piece of wood. It was a thick part of an old table. Thicker and longer than his legs. For a moment, he hesitated. His mind was questioning him. What was he going to do with this piece of wood? He had no idea what to turn it into. Doubts came up in his mind. Once he slowly moved the tool over the wood, they disappeared.
The wood was tough, and only with a lot of pressure, it gave in. He started to sweat when he finished carving a small circle. It felt good.
The rest of the holidays he spent relentlessly turning all the pieces of wood the old lady had, into smaller and smaller pieces, filling the entire room. He made sure to clean the room every day and thanked the lady for letting him destroy her furniture. His parent came over to check on his several times a day, but he was occupied. Even the temptation of going out to get some ice-cream rarely made him stop. He wanted to create.
His parents asked him what the pieces he made did represent, but he had no answer for them. They were not meant to mean anything. They were just meant to exist. He just wanted to make them because he wanted to make them: all kinds of shapes and objects. He liked some of them and others, not so much. But he did not care about how they felt afterward. He just enjoyed making them.
The beginning of school was wearing on him. None of what they did interested him, and soon he brought tools and wood into the school. After the teacher had noticed and warned him during class several times, the teacher told his parents. After a short discussion, he resigned and only worked on them during the breaks.
The old lady had a heart attack as he was about to get into the fifth grade. She died several days later. She had been there all these years and seen his growth and progress. When they visited her in the hospital, she told him to continue his work.
“I won’t be able to see what you will accomplish, but by that point, everybody else will.”
His workspace was gone. Now everything had to fit into his small room. It did not take long until his parents were complaining about the noise and smell of the wood. Even after he closed the door, cleaned the room, and open the window every once in a while.
At first, there were only calm discussions, but soon they would start fighting about it. As the child in the room, he eventually gave in and moved all his tools and carvings into the basement.
The rest of his school life went by uneventful. His grades got better after he had to drop his passion. His parents saw it as proof of their excellent parenting skills, but he was heartbroken all these years. In his last years of school, he got interested in a girl from another class. They had some lessons together and were getting along well. When his parents went out, he was in the basement, carving a small angel. He polishing it as best as he could, even oiled it. When the day came around and he was about to ask her out, she laughed and ridiculed the carving before he could say anything. He decided to leave it at that. He threw the carving into the large trash container at the exit of the school.
He finished school, and his parents wanted him to go to university. He had no other idea what to do with his life, so he agreed. He spent three years studying economics and politics. It was a more peaceful time. He was at university for longer times and made some friends. He avoided home and his parents as best as he could. They saw his grades improve and did not think about it.
A small company on the other side of town was searching for employees, and he applied. He had just finished his degree and could not bear the idea of staying at home with his parents. They had separated themselves over the years. They did not care for each other anymore as they used to and were following their own goals. They still lived together, but he could feel the tension in the air.
They helped him move into a small two-room flat near the company’s offices; then they were gone. He went out and got himself a burger and kebab. He was sitting on one of the boxes filled with his stuff and ate the kebab. It was quiet. Only the humming of the refrigerator from the kitchen was noticeable. He started to unpack. It was evening when he opened the last two boxes. The carvings from his childhood looked at him. They were just as he remembered. He sat down on the floor and looked at them, one by one. Triangles, squares, weird mixes of animals and shapes, most not identifiable.
The company was comfortable to work at. The coworkers were friendly, and his work not very demanding. Most of the days, he was done with work in the early afternoon and spent the remaining hours playing games on his phone or watching videos. Was this how everyone’s life went by? Was this what his parents had wanted for him?
One day he went out with his coworkers and got back home late at night. The weekend was about to start, and they had a few drinks. He felt a little tipsy. He turned on some videos on his PC and relaxed. It took him a while until he became aware of the small piece of wood and the tool in his hands. He had taken them out of the box and was slowly, almost unconsciously, carving circles into the wood.
The next day he woke up early. He still had a slight headache from yesterday, but he quickly got up and started to sort his tools and carvings. The inspiration of his childhood had taken over his dreams, and he kept thinking about the old carving. The carving the white-haired man had given him. It took him a while until he found the hand at the bottom of the box. He took out a towel and some oil and carefully cleaned it. It still looked as miraculously as it did back then. He placed it on his desk and observed it. Something was growing inside of him. Something he thought he had lost a long time ago. His eyes opened wide; his senses started to tingle. He knew what he had to do.
He came back two hours later with blocks of wood under his arms. One of his responsible coworkers, who had not drunk as much as everyone else, was willing to help him out with his car. They filled it up with small wood blocks that they got for free at the local recycling center and moved them into his apartment. They moved some furniture, and now he had a proper working space. His coworker seemed to not fully grasp what they were doing until he saw the craving on the desk. After he left, John got to work. He had a lot of catching up to do.
It did not take long for his coworkers to notice that something was off. He had small flakes of wood on his clothes and behaved restlessly at work. His boss gave him a few days off, thinking he was overtired from work, which only intensified his behavior. When he tried to explain himself about his hobby, they thought he was joking with them. Maybe he had partied too hard on the weekends.
The only one who cared was a young woman who was working part-time at the company. One day she asked him about it, and he ended up taking her to his apartment. He became aware of how messy his apartment had gotten, but she did not seem to care. She was looking through the rows of carvings he had made: small animals, people, hands, plants, abstract objects, a mix of all. His apartment was full of it.
“Have you showed this anyone yet?”
“Why not? You need to put this online! This is amazing. People want to see this! Ok. You know what? Let me get my camera and some lighting, and we take some pictures tomorrow.”
And they did. She brought several light sources, a tripod, and a high-end DSLR camera. They spend the entire afternoon taking pictures and setting up his social media. He did not understand why it was necessary to do all this, but as they got the first likes and comments on his posts, he was beginning to understand. He had worked on all of this on his own, for himself. It was time to share his gifts with the world.
A few days later, some of his coworkers came up to him. They were sorry for the rude comments they had made. Now that they’ve seen his art, they were impressed. He was glad that they respected him now, but that would not change their mindset. They would do the same to someone else again, without being aware of it.
The weeks went by, and his online following grew substantially. It was weird for him to see all these people interested in his work. Some even wanted to buy it from him. He felt stressed out and turned off his PC.
Lisa had been coming over frequently to help him take pictures and maintain his online presence. She noticed that he felt disconnected from it. He just wanted to create and felt distracted by all the things that interfered with it.
Something came to her mind. It seemed ridiculous at first, but the more she thought about it, the more it made sense. She told him about it, and they discussed it for a while. It could work.
The next day Lisa started to sell dozens of his old carvings. There were already many people interested, and within two days, she was able to sell a third of the carvings in his apartment. She took care of the packaging and shipping. They had made two months of income within a week. A few days later, she rented a small studio space in a warehouse, four times the size of his apartment. It was the cheapest she could find and within their budget. She got together some people from the company. They rented a small truck and loaded it up with all kinds of pieces of wood that they could find at the recycling center. When they arrived, he had already brought his tool and was helping them unload. Next up were new and bigger tools. She looked online, then they drove to a warehouse and bought everything in one go.
He had to get accustomed to the new tools, but it was exciting. He felt like a little boy when he started to cut the wood into pieces.
A month passed, and they were looking over the results. They were shocked. In just one month, they had made more than working full-time at the company for months. Especially the new carvings had become popular and were selling exceptionally well. And all this, while he had only worked on them after work.
The next day they had a meeting with their boss and explained their situation. Their boss understood and gave them the next month off. They would not get paid but also not fired. They would meet again and either stay or leave the company. Little did they know that it was the deciding move for both of them.
The next week he worked on the largest carving yet. It was the size and shape of a human, but it was deliberately different. It had large spread-out wings and a deformed head that had several squares growing out of it. It had four arms, and the legs were ones of horses.
When they went to sleep, it went viral. The next morning it was not his alarm that woke him up, but a call from his parent. What a turn of events. They were asking if it was him that had made these sculptures. They were surprised, proud, slightly angry, but most of all, confused.
Lisa came over the moment he had finished his call. He was still in his undies when she was banging at his door. She had a bright smile on her face. She hugged him, then showed him on her laptop what was going on. Someone famous had shared his carvings during the night, and it had gone viral. She even received some messages from people bidding five-figures on the carving. He felt a light burden fall from his shoulders. Nothing would change; he could continue to create just like he did before. But now, there was nothing and no one that could stop him from it.
The old man suddenly popped into his mind. Was he still alive? Did he remember little John? Did he know that it was him?
Lisa threw some clothes on his face.
“Take a shower and get dressed. We have some pictures to take. The world shall know your story.”
She pushed him into the bathroom.
“I won’t look. Promise.”
She made a giggling sound and started to clean his room. She made him more confused that the sudden breakthrough they had. He took a quick cold shower, and they went on their way.
The picture of the statue was shown across the screen. Next to it, a slim young man with short hair, leaning with his arm on it. He had a bright smile on his face and was wearing a plain white t-shirt. His other hand was open and in it, a small carving. It was not clearly visible, but then it got into sigh: a hand giving a thumbs up. The young woman from the local TV station was reporting the sudden popularity of this local artist. A few more images were shown while she paraphrased what John and Lisa had posted alongside the picture.
It was hard to see the image on the TV, but he immediately recognized the small carving. It had been a long time, but he remembered the little boy. He had sometimes wondered what he had been up to. It was the morning after he had met him when he had his first stroke. The motoric in his hands was gone, and he had not made another carving since. He had given the boy the last carving he had ever made. The boy was carrying the passion onward; he carried the flame.