In Praise of the Basement Painter

space alien lr

I found this painting in the basement laundry room of my apartment building.

There is a table there where people put out things for people to take — clothes, old computer monitors, grubby toys, plastic dishes, and stuff like that.

I found it under the table, propped against the wall behind a table leg. I only noticed it because I was bending down to pick up some clothes I dropped.

Upon seeing it, my first thought was, “No WAY!”

I mean, how often does a person come across a nicely painted sexless humanoid figure floating in space? Under the free table in the laundry room, no less?

I brought it back to my apartment, and showed it to my best friend, who happened to be in town visiting from L.A.

“Whoa!” was her response. “This is amazing! Who do you think painted it?”

I had been wondering that myself. If it was painted by someone who lived in my building, who might it be? The downstairs neighbor who spends every morning between 8:00 and 10:00 am programming weird d.j. beats that never quite come together? The forlorn-looking older lady I have seen a few times doing her laundry, which always consists of nothing but old towels torn up into squares? The homeless transvestite guy I once discovered camping out in the basement electrical room?

“I don’t know,” I answered. “It feels to me like it was painted by a guy. Maybe a gay guy? And he isn’t happy with this painting, which explains why he would leave it under a table in the laundry room. And he’s sad about something. He feels alone, like an alien drifting in space.”

That saying, “A picture paints a thousand words.” It’s totally true, in my experience. (Also, I’m kind of psychic.)

unfinished nude and basilica

Over the next few weeks, I found two more paintings in the laundry room. I knew right away by the style that they were the work of the same mystery artist. “He” was really good at figurative painting. Way better than I am, that’s for sure. If I could do paintings like that, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t leave them up for grabs in the laundry room, with the risk that they would be hauled out to the trash by the building caretaker if nobody took them.

I never did find out who painted those paintings, or even identified any neighbors who qualified as likely suspects. I did find a perfect space to hang them though, all together, in my living room. As the years have passed, I have embroidered a story in my mind that explains them perfectly. It goes like this:

Justin lived alone in an apartment not far from the art school where he had studied painting for three years before dropping out. In spite of everything his professors said — they encouraged him to paint larger canvases and not to be so quick to give up — he just couldn’t see the beauty or value in anything he did, and so he finally said, “Fuck it,” and quit.

He met Jason shortly afterwards, one balmy summer night at a club. Jason was popular, outgoing, confident, handsome, and super buff — everything Justin wasn’t. He was drawn to Jason like a moth to a flame, even though he knew deep down it would never work out. Still, he had this feeling that if someone so desirable as Jason could like him, it might just prove that he was wasn’t that bad, after all.

One morning, after their third or fourth night together, Jason was standing naked, about to put on his clothes, when Justin said:

“You look so handsome right now, I’d like to paint you. Would you mind posing for me? It won’t take long.”

Jason grunted his assent and Justin grabbed his paints, brushes, and canvas, and got to work as fast as he could.

After only twenty minutes Jason was bored and fed up, checking his phone. Justin was only half-done with his painting.

“Fuck it,” said Jason, after thirty minutes. “I’m outta here.” And he left.

Justin never saw him again.

His phone calls and texts went unanswered.

His painting of Jason remained unfinished.

After those first few weeks of not hearing back from Jason, Justin painted a self-portrait of a sexless alien floating in space. Afterwards, he found he couldn’t bear to look at it. He put it under the table in the laundry room, where it was later carried off by a neighbor woman he never met.

Several more weeks passed, and Justin realized it was time to stop gazing mournfully at his half-painted painting of Jason. He had to get rid of it and move on. And so it too was left under the basement laundry table, where someone might — or might not — notice it. This painting was found by the same neighbor who had found the first one. She also happened to be an artist, although Justin would never know that.

Many weeks later, he found himself questioning his sexuality, wondering if he might be better off living a celibate life and attending church. He had been raised Catholic, so his first instinct was to head towards the nearest Catholic church, which in his neighborhood happened to be the Basilica of St. Mary.

He had his paints and brushes and a canvas with him. As he walked into Loring Park he observed the tower of the Basilica looming large in the gentle springtime sky, and he decided that the best thing to do right there and then was to paint it.

And that is what he did. Later, after judging the painting to be a total loss and abandoning it in the laundry room, Justin decided that church was not the thing for him. A week or two later, he moved out of his apartment, found a job at an advertising agency as a storyboard artist, and met the love of his life — a theater costumer named Lyle who was sweet, gentle, and a prince among men.

His former neighbor, the artist whom he had never met, found his painting of the Basilica tower in the laundry room, and  she added it to the little gallery of his work that she had set up in her apartment. She had attended the church shown in the painting from time to time — Christmas Eve, All Saints Day, and the Feast of Saint Francis, every third year or so, if she was in the mood. (She was one of those “Catholic church — but only the hits” kind of person.) 

Years later, she would write about the mystery artist’s paintings in her blog, and wonder if by some one-in-a-million chance she might one day learn the real story of the basement painter.

In the meantime, she would sign off on her blog saying:

Never say “Fuck it.”

basement painter gallery