by Crow Jonah Norlander
Crow Jonah Norlander lives in Maine with his family of humans and hounds. His work appears in BOMB, Hobart, and The Rumpus, and he edits for X-R-A-Y and HAD.
Molly on the Mantle
When my roommate Lyman asked for my camera, I gave it without knowing if he meant to use or to keep.
I like my camera, but I really like Lyman, and I want him to succeed. He may never give it back, may break, sell, or lose it, may move out of state without a word and take it along with him, and I’ve accepted that.
He’s a true artist, however unfairly snubbed; I’m just an opportunist with a reliable clientele. My craving for predictability is too high, and his presence in my life enough a taste of chaos to eliminate any impulsiveness of my own.
I still shoot photographs, and in fact have another camera that’s not as good but good enough for my purposes: mostly source images for pet portraits I paint on commission. For example, the level of detail in this wheaten terrier poodle’s pixelated black fur is giving me trouble, with so much of my ability to convey her personality riding on the way her mustache makes broad, descending curves, defining space for her glistening nose and mouth, the nearest whiskers rusty like soft wire never allowed to dry, just a slightly lighter hue than her chestnut eyes also framed by gentle arcs of inquisitive eyebrows. The purity of her expression sufficiently subsumes anything I might otherwise feel compelled to communicate. In nearly every case with these paintings, the cat’s, dog’s, or occasional rabbit’s, hamster’s, or ferret’s face comes first as the most distinguishing feature, and often, depending on their aesthetic sensibilities, the humans are satisfied with just the disembodied head. This approach lends itself well to a more graphic style and suits contemporary minimalist decor. While these are the easiest to produce and in highest demand, I feel less connected to the animal and its human(s), spared from having to study as closely.
Often, too much detail is a liability for these, where a simplified illustrative style satisfies the juvenile impulse to imagine one’s life as a child’s cartoon. I’ll never volunteer the option, but people do occasionally request speech bubbles on these, insatiably curious about what’s on their pet’s mind and enticed to assert a possibility, putting words in their mouths, almost always some kind of inside joke I’m fairly certain the animal would not appreciate. I do not decline.
The more formal and realistic pieces—the busts to a lesser extent but especially the full-lengths—require intensive seeing of bodies so easily reduced for mental convenience to mere symbols. Like trees and houses, dogs and cats are readily imaginable, with particular species and styles the first to occur, though adjacent variations easily swapped in in one’s mind’s eye.
Even the humans who live with these creatures are rarely able to articulate any nuance about their companion’s physique beyond basic coloring and patterns, a distinctive feature of a noteworthy paw or tail, a characteristic resulting from a memorable injury, or particular sounds they make which don’t help my rendering but I still appreciate knowing. Though even with only passive looking, they’ve internalized a comprehensive understanding of the animal’s material being.
All this to say, they’ll certainly notice anything off about the body.
Even if I’ve captured the essence of the animal’s soul with a few daubs of paint representing their eyes and been faithfully attentive to a droopy bit of exposed sawtooth lip, they will know: this rump is not my dog’s rump; this ribcage is invented and artificial, based on nothing real; I have seen haunches like these somewhere, but they do not belong on our Barkley.
So, left with a lacking reference image, I struggle for hours trying to render Molly’s deceptively simple, anatomy-masking barrels of tight curls down to her paws from her sturdy torso. Each of a hundred attempts comes out looking like the legs of a stool.
As I surround myself with exploratory sketches, sticking even the worst failures up on the wall to ensure I do not repeat my mistakes, I am faintly aware of Lyman’s presence in the apartment. The only way we’ve survived even this long in such a small studio is by willfully ignoring one another whenever possible. He’ll tuck into the small gap between the chair and the cocktail table—our only firm, non-fixed horizontal surface—clutching his bowl of cereal or paperback novel or change of clothes to make way for me as I exit the bathroom towards the kitchen wall or curtained-off mattress corner or to fetch my easel from the closet.
We tend to connect at mealtimes but otherwise allow one another to pretend we’re alone. Just because eye contact doesn’t happen doesn’t mean we avoid it. Even though we don’t bother with small, passing pleasantries, Lyman’s activity contributes to the meditative atmosphere in which I feel most relaxed, and, by extension, most productive.
On days when he chooses to catch up on his neglected pile of dishes or has to do lots of rummaging, I become slightly distracted and impatient for him to leave, which he does almost every day, but without fail, within an hour after his departure, I grow lonely, hungry for the bustle he brings to the environment. Lyman’s domestic negligence is somehow endearing, not offensive. I wonder where he’s gone, what brilliant image he’s scheming to capture. I think about what it would be like to see the world the way he does, to instinctively know what should be in frame and in focus.
I conjure my memory of the fluffy dog, more vivid and inspiring than any static image could be. The Molly in my head gnaws at a stick, begging me to steal it, and I do.
She rears, snaring my forearm with her own clinging paws. Given her gangly manner of bounding, she’s deceptively dexterous when it comes to play. Her head weaves side to side, her eyes wandering around their corners to see through tousled bangs. Hooked, she hangs there until I yield the stick.
The Molly in my head won’t sit still until I ask her, so I do and she does, allowing me to begin my inspection. Stationary, Molly seems unreal. Life is nearly impossible to represent without an allusion to motion, so I leave hints. I play with light sources in an attempt to wrest depth out of uniformly glossy black hair. She casts so many shadows on herself that the shape on the canvas begins to look like a silhouette, a dog-shaped portal.
Of course, I’m not actually painting with black. I swing wildly in the other direction and make Molly glow from the inside. Radiating from amidst the obvious reds and browns are surprising streaks of blue and green. I lace these perceptions into the vacant form. I continue revising, seeing and re-seeing my subject. The portrait accumulates, seeming more and more right with each risk I take until nothing else occurs to me, which is how I know it’s done.
I wait until it’s safe to transport and then take it straight to the commissioners, calling Molly’s humans on the way. “We’re here,” they say, and so I do not turn back.
Eager as I am for them to see, I’ve learned a bit of showmanship, so as I knock on their door I hide the painting behind my back, hanging by its frame from my fingers. The door opens and I enter, sidestepping to evade their gaze and maintain mystery.
The room is full of expectation, physically pushing me towards the mantle, which, as I glimpse over my shoulder while backing towards it, is conveniently clear. Not wanting to drag it out any further, I skip the part where I ask if they’re ready and hoist it up, propping it on the ledge, stepping away to clear their view.
They are alarmed, I can’t deny it. This is not a reaction I’ve ever received, just as this is nothing like any painting I’ve made, and yet I am confident in what I’ve done and so I do not panic. I wait.
Then it occurs to me that when I arrived, Molly did not greet me at the door as she had last month when I came for our photoshoot. I look around their living room and see no signs of her. Even the hook in the entryway from which I’d removed her stringy red suggestion of a leash to walk her through the park is missing.
“This means everything to us,” one of the people eventually says.
“She’s almost alive,” says the other.
I choose not to imagine where the real Molly is. Or rather, I do, but limit myself to only the pleasant possibilities. I thank them for the privilege. I ask no questions. I refuse payment. I abandon them in their contagious stupor and return to the disarray of mine and Lyman’s apartment, a mess I left for a change.
My frenzied completion of the portrait was all-consuming. I’ve not eaten or slept in what seems like days, though I don’t feel tired or hungry. Once I composed my mental model of Molly, I’d worked feverishly, afraid to lose it, until it was complete. I’d watched the work dry, unable to take my eyes off of it for more than the duration of a blink, during which I compared the image in front of me to the one that spawned up in the front of my skull. The Molly hovering behind my forehead could rotate about each of the three axes. I could and did zoom in on any minute aspect of her, and from any perspective.
Lyman must be out, shooting, processing, printing, or whatever it is that he does when he leaves.
On the now vacant easel, he’s left a small snapshot. He prefers 3x5” prints of 35mm film. It’s black and white, and the field of view is centered on the very corner of the apartment in which I now stand. The angle is high and wide. A stampede of Molly’s mistaken legs fills the walls on both sides, and in the middle is me, my messy tangle of hair silhouetted against the still-blank canvas, the brush visible in my hand.
I am about to begin. She is still in my head.