S.D. Watkins, Painter of Portraits
Steve Rasnic Tem, 2010
THE OLD PRIEST WAS DRUNK, but Watkins did not think he would pass out soon. The priest was pouring himself his sixth, or seventh glass of wine. The portrait painter had been so engrossed in his sketches of too many lines, too many choices, that he had lost count. But he had carefully watered the wine down beforehand so that the priest would get drunk, yet still remain conscious through this, the first portrait sitting.
Watkins himself did not drink at all, but after hours of intense drawing he would not have called himself sober. He watched as his wounded hand made lines that leapt away from the body, rose from the shoulders as if the old priest’s arthritic joints and twisted bones were reforming themselves into something that might launch the failing body toward Heaven. Here and there his blood spotted the page.
“So many lines, why do you make so many lines? Did they teach you that in art school?” The priest’s boozy breath against the side of his face made him feel ill.
Watkins twisted in his chair. “I told you this is all preparation. I begin the painting tomorrow. This is nothing for you to see. You should be in your chair—this is a portrait sitting, remember? You should be sitting, posing.”
The priest staggered back to his chair in front of the fire, his voluminous black cassock casting broad shadows over Watkin’s front room, alternating with the warm, sudden flushes of firelight. It brought an otherworldly illumination to the paintings covering every inch of the walls: all of them of angels in various poses, all of them gorgeous, and none of them by Watkins himself. They had all been painted by his father Martin, who had been a genius.
The priest had his hand affectionately around the wine bottle, gazing at this patchwork hallucination of angelic obsession. “When I came here looking for a painter, I thought it would be your father.”
“The fact that no one at St. Anthony’s knew my father has been dead more than ten years speaks volumes.”
The priest nodded sadly, tipping dangerously forward. “He painted most of the murals in the church, and the fine details in the transepts. Admirers come from thousands of miles.”