Creative Non-Fiction: The Salon
Written by Lucy Holme
Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall
My buried life, and Paris in the Spring
––Portrait of a Lady, T. S Eliot
When the morning bell rings out we stride quickly on herringbone tile down the long and chilly south wing corridor, its pistachio walls papered with notices, past the locked trophy cabinet and through the heavy double doors. A porthole at adult eye level, in each of the doors, reveals only darkness beyond. This hidden space, next to the stage, we call The Salon. The art studio—a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Académie des Beaux Arts—is a hidden space we enter with our sketchbooks full of crude pencil and charcoal drawings of famous works of Cézanne, Matisse and Berthe Morisot. Through those doors lies a private domain, ours alone for a fleetingly short time. I reach for the large round light switch, A3 leather folder under my arm. A paint-splattered concrete floor and wide, yet redundant radiator greets us. Even as winter approaches and later, when snow lies on the netball courts and green surrounds, they are rarely switched on and yet we learn to embrace the cold. We just wear more layers, fingerless gloves and beanie hats. Workbenches stretch along the perimeters and in opposite corners of the room, low-level porcelain sinks sit squat and wide as baths, resplendent in cracked patina, their black rubber plugs dangling on brass chains. The sinks are stained with the residue of a dozen discarded jam-jars, murky depths upended. A morass of blue, red and black grime coagulating to form a dull unknowing purple.
Our stations bear the personal detritus of our works in progress. Festooned with rags stripped from old white school shirts or sheets, stinking of white spirit and hardened with oil paint, they contain our precious tools; the stiff brushes we manipulate back to softness when the bristles are stuck fast together, red plastic baskets overflowing with found treasure—carbon shavings, hastily written notes, polished conkers in green spiky coats, curled and mildew-spotted leaves, and large flat stones with fossilised white veins, gathered from the beaches of Sussex.
These toolkits are a facsimile of our emerging minds. We are often solemn as we assemble our visions. The tinny radio on Mr Griffin’s desk barely audible, some of the girls nod in headphones to their own private beats. Walkmans buzz with sluggish battery power to the strained sounds of Erykah Badu, Suede or The Cardigans. The top windows are inlaid with mesh and opened a crack so the mid-morning light can seep in and infiltrate the dark séances of the teenage brain. It exposes the twirling dust particles above each student’s easel, suspended like their own luminescent art halos.
We are sixteen and the salon is our sanctuary. Our uniforms, which were identical at thirteen have, with each passing year, been adapted. Hems shortened, school shirts swapped out for aertex t-shirts, scuffed black DMs instead of the patent mary janes our mothers had bought us in Year Nine. We spend these hours free to create, our individual style covered with painter’s overalls, perched on high stools in front of our easels.
‘Do you remember the house on the hill?’ Helen asks, looking up from her sketchbook. I think for a moment. ‘Eh? No…which one?’
‘When we were stuck on the coach, in France. Remember? In that layby just outside Paris.’
I suddenly recall the house she means and begin to laugh, mired once again in the feverish chaos of the school trip. It was only the summer before, but my stomach still flips at the excitement we shared taking the ferry, the strangeness of the French road signs and the blinding lorry headlights.
‘The house with all the lights on, oh my god!’ I continue excitedly. ‘Everyone was so pissed off and cold and you just pointed at the beams projecting into the sky and went...THAT MUST BE JEAN-MICHEL JARRE’S HOUSE!’
We shout this part in unison and by this point we are hysterical, crying weakly and our quarter of the salon is filled with the static sound of ungasped breath. The rest of the class carries on, working quietly and diligently. I think back to what that trip represented. The freedom of it all. We were itching to see these famous artworks up close. Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhône. There was a life of learning to be had and we were within reach. I have had years by now to try to unravel the discomfort I experienced walking around the Picasso Museum, what I felt (with no context) when I gazed at his portraits of Marie-Thérèse Walter. At the time, we just clutched our sketchbooks closer to our chests oblivious to what potential hardships there might be ahead when it came to love and relationships.
Mr Griffin, awkward in zipped cardigan and corduroys raps on the easel.
‘Girls, please, enough chatter!
‘Sorry sir,’ Helen says brightly. ‘We were just reminiscing about Paris. Talking about how très magnifique the Musée D’Orsay was.’
He studies her quizzically. She leans forward and puts her arm over her easel so it is hidden from his sight. ‘No peeking at the masterpiece now, Kelvin!’ she says with a trademark wink, to which he responds with a loud extended tut and moves away.
My major work is an oil painting of a vase of lilacs and lilies. The vase is in the foreground and in the background a tall, slim girl stretches out across the bed, dressed in a heavy, red, brocade Victorian-era vintage nightgown. She wears 90s black stack-heeled platforms and her legs are crossed at the knees. Through the vase, her limbs appear distorted. I have been trying for weeks to replicate the exact colours I see in the photograph I took of her. She is my boyfriend’s sister and by default, almost like my own little sister. The afternoon rays reflected across her ochre bedroom walls cast a strange yellow glow that day. The season was on the cusp of change and we could both feel it. Some of the lines from T.S Eliot’s poem ‘Portrait of a Lady’ are stitched around the border of the canvas. ‘You let it flow from you, you let it flow/ And Youth is cruel, and has no remorse / And smiles at situations which it cannot see.’
Helen asks if I have spoken to my parents about the upcoming art show in which my work will feature. I tell her that they know and that they’ll even come along, I think. University beckons, a place far away from this school and town but the degree must be academic, and useful. I picture myself finally coming back to art when I’m seventy and living in the countryside, painting watercolours of barges by the river on a Sunday. I tell her that to them, a sensible degree will give me better prospects and a broader baseline for job prospects…Helen’s eyes go glassy and unfocused and she sticks out her tongue.
‘They just think if you do art you’ll end up frozen and penniless in an atelier in Montmartre with no windows or floor.’ I laugh as I swill my brushes in the hazy turpentine. ‘I can dream’, I say.
The bell rings and the other girls begin loading palettes into the sink and putting bags on shoulders in a rush to leave the room, to go up to the squash club for lunchtime, to smoke in the bicycle racks and hang out with the sixth form boys from St Simon Stock. I take my time packing up, and cast a look back at my work, at the extravagant layering, the luminosity. I remember how the first layer was thin and well diluted, how I built up the illusion of fluidity and have been painting my hopes, my identity, my teenage girlhood into stamen and convex glass all year. I let my eyes flicker across the canvas before leaving the room and closing the door behind me.
About the Author
Lucy Holme lives in Cork, Ireland. Her poems feature in The Stinging Fly, PBLJ, Bad Lilies, and Poetry Wales amongst others. She was shortlisted for The London Magazine Poetry Prize 2023 and her CNF features in PBLJ and Banshee Literary Journal and is forthcoming in The Well Review. Her debut chapbook, Temporary Stasis, is published by Broken Sleep Books.