I don't remember being created, but I know who created me. I don't know how long I've been aware, but I know when I started. I have no finite sense of myself, but I know what I'm made of.
This knowledge comes from a small card that hangs somewhere below me. I have heard the card read aloud enough times that I have memorized its inscription.
Johnathan Durhem, American, born 1838; The Fountain, 1860; oil on canvas; 35 x 48 inches; Bequest of William M. Durhem.
I have never seen myself, but I know what I look like. Docents, guides, and visitors have described me aloud many times.
My surface shows a fountain in the center of a town square. In the top right quadrant of the painting stand two soldiers. One admires the fountain while the other leans on him for support. In the bottom right quadrant, a husband and wife sit on a bench. The husband is turned toward the fountain and only his profile can be seen. The wife sits with her head on the man's shoulder.
In the bottom left quadrant, three enslaved men are being shooed away from the fountain by a man in a constable's uniform. My creator, rendered in self-portrait, can be seen in the top left quadrant. He stands with brush in hand and studies the fountain. Beside him, his easel is turned, and its canvas faces outward. On the canvas is a circle, painted with converging slate and silver swirls.
My namesake dominates the center of the painting. The fountain towers over the cobblestoned square. Its wide round pool reflecting the unseen clouds that float overhead. Three round basins, each smaller than the last, rise from the reflecting pool. Sunlight sparkles off the silver sphere that sits atop the highest basin. The flat surfaces of the fountain are carved with the images of fish.
The face of Johnathan Durhem, the artist and my creator, is the first thing I remember. My first clear memory his proud smile as he hung me on the wall of his two-room house. I presided over his table for many years and watched his family grow.
Eventually, my creator died, and Johnathan's eldest son came to collect his possessions. He removed me from the wall and placed me inside a crate. There, I slept for an unknowable length of time. Nestled in the lightless confines of that wooden box.
My next memory is being pulled into the light and laid on a cold steel table. A masked woman fussed over me for some time. When she was finished, I was moved to my new home.
I now proudly hang in Gallery 117 of the St. Louis Art Museum. I have heard it said that I'm part of a special, yearlong exhibition of American Impressionist paintings. As I take in my new surroundings, I cannot help but admire the room in which I now reside.
The gallery has a low ceiling. Its walls, painted a deep shade of blue, are lined with pristine white trim. The floor shines, aglow in the lights that hang in clusters above. The interlaid zigzagging slats reflect images of the paintings that hang on the walls. I can see my own reflection suspended in the sea of shining slats. The image is not sharp enough to make out the figures painted on my surface. To me, they are little more than blurred oblong blotches.
I gaze at the blurred figures for hours. Hoping that if I stare long enough, the blotches will clarify and reveal my true likeness.
A docent leads a tour group through the gallery. In the weeks that I've been here, I have heard the docent's speech many times. At first, I listened intently but now I find myself zoning in and out. As the docent's droning voice bounces off the walls of the room, I study the people who trail behind her.
"Here is one of the rarest and most unique paintings in this special exhibition. The Fountain may be one of the first examples of American Impressionism. Artist Johnathan Durhem traveled through France as a child and it is believed he picked up on the impressionist style as it was just starting to blossom in Europe. Durhem never became a famous artist. In fact, it seems he only painted for personal enjoyment. Decades after his passing, a cache of his paintings was discovered. The Fountain is his grandest piece. Renowned not only for its beauty but also its intricacies. Many of the fine details have become the source of much speculation in the art community."
Here the docent pauses and allows the group to observe the painting on my surface more closely. Clearing her throat to regain the group's attention, the docent proceeds into the next portion of her speech.
"Please turn your attention to the two soldiers. At first glance, the one on the left appears to be helping the other soldier stand, as if the soldier on the right is injured. Yet, his uniform is pristine, and he does not appear to be in pain. Rather, he has an enamored look on his face. You may notice that his expression exactly matches those of the woman on the bench, the slaves in the bottom left quadrant of the image, and the artist's self-portrait in the top left quadrant. Further, the soldier's body is shown leaning into the other soldier in the exact same pose as the woman on the bench leans into her husband."
As the docent drones on, I see a pair of men walk into the gallery. They hold hands as they glide clockwise around the room. The docent leads her group to the next part of the tour and the two men become the gallery's sole occupants.
The men eventually stop in front of a painting to my right. Although I can only see them at the periphery of my vision, I can hear them clearly. With no one else to focus on, I listen in on their conversation.
"So, Tyler, this is your favorite painting, right?"
"You know it is, Tim. I've always wanted to see The Song in person."
"I can see why you like it. There's something haunting about it. I also love the guy playing the piano in the background."
"Not as much as I love you. Thanks for coming with me today. I'm used to visiting museums on my own. Having you here makes it special."
"That's not going to be the only thing special about today, Tyler."
I watch as the man called Tim reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small box. I hear Tyler's sharp intake of breath as Tim kneels down in front of him.
"Tyler. You make me happier than I've ever been. Will you marry me?"
It has been several weeks since the happy couple became engaged. Nothing as exciting has occurred within my view since that day but I can still feel the warmth of the men's love for each other. I feel as though the happiness they exuded has left an invisible veneer of joy over the layers of paint on my surface.
The docent stands in front of me once again, leading her last tour of the day. This time, I focus on a different portion of her memorized speech.
"Another interesting detail can be found in the enslaved trio in the bottom left quadrant. When this piece was painted, slavery had not yet been abolished. As you can see, the men wear chains. Yet, if you look closely, you'll see that although they are shackled, the end of the chains hang loosely, unconnected to anything. All three men wear the dreamy expression common to half of the other figures in the painting. The one on the right is looking at a small key he holds in his hand. The one in the middle seems to have his eyes on the horizon while the one of the left is looking back wistfully at the fountain."
Here the tour group murmurs as they look at my surface and process what they've just been told. After the briefest of moments, the docent forges on.
"Another odd quirk of this painting is the size of the constable. You'll notice that he looks very diminished. There is some debate as to why this is. Some think it's just a mistake by the artist. Others think it's meant to make the fountain look all the larger."
The docent continues but I tune her out. The remainder of the day passes quickly and soon, the museum closes for the night.
Nighttime is my favorite part of the day. No people tromping through the gallery, noisily chatting. The overhead lights dim. Even though there are no windows in the gallery, it's easy to imagine the twilight that has overtaken the world outside has slipped inside the museum as well. I like the silence that falls over the gallery while the museum is closed. The peaceful tranquility is a welcome respite after a day full of bustling bodies.
I hang dozing in the semi-darkness when I become aware of voices drifting through the gallery. Jonah, the night-shift security guard is speaking to a janitor named Zev.
"You alright, brother?"
Zev heaves a heavy sigh and responds, "worried about my kid. Had his first run in with the police earlier. Just got off the phone with him and he was in tears. I ain't heard him cry since he was a little kid."
Jonah steps forward and places a hand on his friend's shoulder before saying, "That's rough, man. They let him go?"
"Yeah, but not before slamming his head on the hood of their car and cuffing him. All cause he flinched while they were patting him down. I told him, a hand by your junk will make you jump."
Crossing his arms in front of his chest, Jonah says, "I wish it weren't the case, but it happens to all of us eventually."
"Ain't that the truth," Zev replies, a rueful smile playing across his features. “Least things are better than they once were.”
“I hear that,” Jonah says, as he claps Zev on the back. I lose the thread of their conversation as the two men move to a different part of the museum.
Months have passed since that twilight conversation. It is the middle of the afternoon and the docent is leading her fourth tour of the day. It impresses me how the docent always speaks in the same upbeat and informative tone, even as she repeats the same speech multiple times, day after day.
During this recitation however, the docent is thrown off track when a small girl unexpectedly blurts out a question.
"What's the woman on the bench reading?"
I'm surprised when the docent turns and looks at the painting, amazed that she doesn't have it completely memorized. Collecting her thoughts, she turns and answers the girl's question.
"Good eye, sweetheart. As you can see, the woman in the bottom right quadrant of the painting is holding a book behind her back as she leans against her husband. From a historical context, it's most likely her own diary. However, notice the bookmark that sticks out from between the pages. It is a woven cord with a tassel. Some say it's a regular bookmark, the tassel simply used to mark the place where the woman last stopped writing. Though others think it resembles the cord and tassel used to award achievement in higher learning since the fourteenth century."
I stop listening to the docent as my attention is caught by a young woman. She wears a large knapsack on her shoulders. The bag is bulky and heavy. Even from my vantage point on the other side of the gallery, I can tell the knapsack is stuffed full.
The young woman makes her way to a bench to my left. She drops her knapsack with a thud and the docent glares at her. As the tour group moves on, the young woman pulls out a notepad, a folder, and a wide tome.
She sits in front of a painting that shows a girl in a light blue dress cradling a white seashell. The young woman spends some time flipping through the tome and folder. Occasionally she scribbles briefly on the notepad.
After a time, the young girl throws aside the tome and folder, flips to a new page in the notepad, and begins writing furiously. Hours pass as she fills page after page and the gallery empties around her.
When the young woman is the only one left, Jonah approaches her. She is so engrossed with her writing; she doesn't notice as he walks up and taps her on the shoulder.
"Excuse me, miss? The museum is closing."
"Oh my God! Really? I totally lost track of time."
"No worries. You working on a project for school?"
The young woman giggles sheepishly and says, "I was supposed to be working on a project for my art history class. Instead I spent like three hours drafting short stories."
"You want to be a writer when you finish school? Or are you planning to do something with art history and just write for fun?" Jonah asks as he and the young woman make their way out of the gallery. I manage to catch the young woman's answer before she moves out of earshot.
"I don't really know what I want to do. I'm taking a bunch of different classes and trying out a lot of different things. That's what college is for though, right? Figuring out who you are and who you want to be."
My time at the St. Louis Art Museum is almost finished. On my last day in the gallery, I notice a man. I'm sure I've never seen him before and yet there's something about his face that is familiar. He takes the docent's tour twice. During her speech, the man stares at me intently, absorbing every small detail painted upon my surface.
To commemorate my exhibit closing and a new one opening in a different gallery, the museum throws a lavish soiree. Toward the end of the event, the man from earlier comes and stands in front of me. After several minutes the museum’s curator joins him.
"You're William Durhem, are you not?" the curator asks. At the mention of Durhem, I realize why the man seems so familiar. His features spark a memory within me. This man looks remarkably like my creator.
"That's me," William responds as he offers the curator his hand. "It's nice to finally meet you. I believe up to this point you've only spoken to my assistant."
"Indeed. Remind me again, how are you related to the artist."
"I'm the fifth generation of the Durhem family. Johnathan was our family's original patriarch."
Nodding toward me, the curator says, "it really is a fine piece. We've been very pleased to have it as part of the exhibition."
"I'm glad the painting finally has a chance to be displayed. You know, I've been doing some research on Johnathan, reading through some of his journals. He originally intended to call this painting The Fountain of Possibility."
"Really?" the curator exclaims, the amazement clear in his voice. "I wish we'd known that sooner. I would have made sure it was included in the tour."
William nods and says, "The tour was grand just as it was. Your docent did a great job of highlighting the small details. Although he never explicitly says it in his journals, Johnathan's writing has led me to conclude that this piece was less impressionism and more futurism."
"How do you mean, Mr. Durhem?"
"I think all the small details, like the matching expressions, the key in the man's hand, the woman's bookmark, represent Johnathan's hopes for the future of this country. At first glance it appears that the artist in the scene is painting the top of the fountain. Yet, I like to believe that it's a crystal ball. Johnathan modeled the artist in the painting after himself. I like to think this piece was his way of projecting his dream of what America could one day become."
It has been a year full of wonder and discovery. Tomorrow I will be transported to a new home.
The museum is closed for the night and I mull over all that I heard William say to the curator. I reflect upon everything I've seen over the course of the past year. I've come away with a new appreciation and admiration for my creator. Yet, a feeling of melancholy has also washed over me. After several hours of contemplation, I realize the source of this emotion. I am saddened that my creator did not live long enough to see his predictions come true.