IT’S A LIVING • by Heather Holland Wheaton

Nick calls himself a ‘corporate artist’. He paints canvases that hang in the lobbies of Manhattan hotels, apartment buildings and multinational conglomerates. Huge abstracts that coordinate with the swatches of fabric, carpet samples and paint chips that are messengered over to his studio in white padded envelopes.

He always sits down at his worktable before he opens the envelopes. The table is long and scarred and stands in front of a row of windows that overlook the gray warehouses of 39th Street.

The envelope he receives today is for a painting that will hang in the lobby of the Orion going up on 42nd Street. Nick can see the building from the windows of his studio. He often watches the construction workers in their yellow hardhats — welding steel, installing glass, drinking bottles of Snapple in long, ferocious gulps.

The building will be 60 stories of expensive apartments when it’s completed. Nick thinks the developers are crazy. Who’s going to pay $1.5 million to live down the block from Port Authority?

Still, the building itself is going to be beautiful. It already is. A curtain of silvery glass wrapped with muted mint-green bands that pick up the blue-greens of the old McGraw Hill building next door. Nick likes the building despite the stupidity of its location. He quickly pulls the samples and sketches of the lobby from the envelope.

The wall where his painting will hang will be ice-green and the floors will be white marble with a strip of dark green carpeting leading to a bank of stainless-steel elevators. Sleek and modern, but not sterile. Opulent without being ostentatious.

Nick gets up from the worktable and gathers tubes of paint, brushes, a palette and a black-and-white print of the mural that Diego Rivera painted in Rockefeller Center, commissioned when Rivera was at the height of his career.  Its theme was to be ‘man’s new possibilities from his new understanding of material things’, but the finished piece included a portrait of Lenin surrounded by communist workers and a scene of the idle rich playing cards while venereal diseases hovered over their heads.

Rockefeller hated the mural when he saw it and had it destroyed, but it had still been created and it had still been paid for. $12,000. Quite a bit of money in 1931.

Nick squeezes dollops of paint onto his pallet. The thing he likes most about abstracts is that they can mean whatever you want them to mean — and for the Orion, he’ll paint an abstract of Lenin’s pointy beard and an army of workers demanding their rights.

He mixes up a velvety green for the background, similar to the color of the carpet that will lie on the floor. Lenin’s beard will be an inverted triangle of light green, the color of young grass in the spring. The workers will be splotches of egg yolk yellow, like the hardhats that Nick can see out the windows of his studio.

As he mixes up samples of the colors he’ll use, Nick decides he’ll spray-paint the entire canvas silver first and let it peek out from under the background. The silver will represent money. The cool, hard cash that the yuppies will spend to live in a high-rise overlooking an area that used to be slums and slaughterhouses, where the miasma of freshly-let blood mixed with the sweat of immigrant labor and the piss and shit of their families crammed into filthy tenement buildings.

The silver would also pick up the stainless steel of the elevator doors.

Nick always goes to look at his paintings after they’re installed. He stands in the lobby watching people as they walk by, seeing if they have any reaction to his work. They never do. They never notice it. His canvases are just part of the decor, like the carpeting and the over-sized vases of flowers and the ice-green paint on the walls.

Heather Holland Wheaton is the author of two short story collections: Eight Million Stories in a New York Minute and Wet Paint. Eight Million Stories has sold nearly 2000 copies and has been listed in the annual Time Out Guide New York as “Suggested Further Reading” since 2005. Besides Every Day Fiction, her work has appeared in P.I.M., The Morning News, Common Ground and Slipstream. Her stories “Rain” and “Coats” are from her new collection, You Are Here, coming in April 2011.

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