Saturday, May 25, 2013

Don't Forget the Whiskey Whore

I had an inheritance from my [grand]father,
It was the moon and the sun.
And though I roam all over the world,
the spending of it is never done. 
~Ernest Hemmingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

(Artwork by A.L. Childress - year of creation unknown)

My friend Tim took one look at her hanging on my wall and said in his most dramatic, southern drawl, “Well she’s nothing but a whiskey whore…” summing up the scantily clad woman reclined against the sofa with a half-empty bottle of booze on the floor in front of her; and so she became known around our house.  But to my grandfather, she was an erotic gem; painted on a canvas torn from an old World War II military jeep and hidden beneath a bland landscape painted in gray, given to my grandfather as collateral for a $2 loan he made to the artist after the war. 

For years the Whiskey Whore had been concealed beneath that drab landscape, stashed in the basement of my grandfather’s house.  Then one day as we discussed art, I confided that many pieces in my personal collection were erotically inspired from cultures around the world.  He couldn’t resist the temptation to share his secret.  “There’s an erotic painting under there…” he whispered, pointing to the dull gray landscape.  I was certain that I had misunderstood. 

But I hadn’t.  Eager to share his treasure, my grandfather had placed the framed painting face down on the table and removed the back with a screwdriver, gently pulling the layers of canvas apart to reveal the vibrant Whiskey Whore underneath what appeared to be so dull and lifeless.  That’s when he told me the story of how he had won her by default for an unpaid debt.

He gave me the painting that day; he made me carry it out the back door, up the hill and round the house to my car so that my grandmother wouldn’t see.  But she had been looking out the kitchen window as I schlepped through the yard with the painting tucked under my arm and she knew straight away what I was hiding.  A bit of drama followed:  “Why Karl Mason!  What kind of grandfather gives a painting like that to his granddaughter?  I’ve never heard of such!”  Grandpa calmed her down as only he could while I quietly placed the painting in my car.  We never discussed it again.

Yet this controversial work of art has become so much more to me than paint on canvas.  It reminds me of the many layers of life waiting to be revealed—the vibrant colors of the soul—and the gentle wisdom my grandfather shared with me so freely in the time we spent together.  And though I’ve traveled the world and discovered my own great fortunes, this simple painting on tattered canvas hangs above our fireplace as a gentle reminder of the depth and breadth that is life.

It has also become a metaphor for remembering what matters most—is it the painting or the story behind the painting?  As my sweetheart reminds me from time-to-time when I get caught up in the chaos of life:  Don’t forget the Whiskey Whore!