Based on the exhibitions featured at the museum during the 2015-2016 academic year and works from the permanent collection, students submitted written work responding to individual pieces of art experienced first-hand at JCSM. Entry was open to graduate and undergraduate students. Prizes of $500 were awarded for two academic essays and two creative submissions. For information on the writing competition for the 2016-2017 academic year, contact Scott Bishop at 334-844-7014.
Peter Jansen stood on the deck of a ship, looking down on the cobbled streets in the port town of Paramaribo. The palm-lined wharves were bustling as sailors stacked crates and barrels, threw sheets of white canvas over the cargo, and heaved it onboard the ships that nosed their way toward the sea, anxious to cast themselves onto the blue horizon. Shouts rang out all over the dusty street, and the Atlantic wind whipped them away to join the seagulls that swooped overhead.
“Mr. Jansen?” The boy, a sandy-haired boy of about fourteen, dressed in old clothes that had once been very fine, tailored for him or someone just his size, waited at the end of the gangplank.
“I’m coming, Kip,” Peter said. “Let’s go hire a crew, shall we?”
They went together, a tall man from London and a skinny Dutch boy, down the street, and after making a few inquiries, they found a man with boats ready to go down the river to the heart of the jungle, where Peter would make engravings for his first book — his own book, not the university’s or some biologist’s — his book. He had been working on it for years now, working on it secretly. It wasn’t that it was so different from his other work, but it was his. Naturalists in stifling black coats weren’t stooping down, pointing to a weed and spouting Latin names while hovering over Peter’s shoulder, making sure he got all the details down right.
Kip had been the first to see his book, and Peter could have killed him for it. The boy had picked the book up out of a broken crate — it had fallen moments before — and opened its first hand-sewn page and smiled. “These are very good,” he’d said in a broken Dutch accent that Peter’s parents spoke. “Even better than Cradle’s.”
Peter had loomed up over him, his own sandy hair graying around the temples. Kip had looked up at him, and as Peter took the book from him, brushing it off with one hand, he’d said, “You know Thomas Cradle’s work?”
“Yes, sir, I’ve seen it.” Kip had hesitated. “You’re going to Surinam, aren’t you, Mr. Jansen?” Peter nodded. “You wouldn’t… you wouldn’t need an assistant, would you, sir?”
“You mean you?” Peter had looked him up and down — an urchin child on the stained docks of London — and shook his head. “I’m sorry, boy. No assistant is better than an untrained one.”
“I’m a fast learner. And besides,” he’d called after Peter, “I know about something you might like to draw!”
Peter turned, ready to be rid of the boy. “And what’s that?”
Kip had held up a sketch — obviously an old one, torn on one side like it had been ripped out of a sketchbook, but the emerald beauty remained untouched by time and rough handling. It was the daw, legs bent with tension, wings extended for flight, golden eye raised to the sky… it fascinated him.
“Where did you get that?”
“It was my father’s… he went to Surinam twelve years ago and brought this back for me. He’s dead now… I’d like to see it in person, go where he went… meet an old friend or two.”
Peter was captivated by the daw, and looking at the boy again, he liked the frank openness on the boy’s face, the simple smile, the thoughts he suspected were trapped underneath the overgrown thatch of hair. He had brought him on, and over the course of the voyage, Peter had begun to discover things about him.
Kip had said he was a novice at art, but Peter had seen him preparing paints in the soft light belowdeck on the ship, pinching dry pigments and mixing them with linseed oil, milk, or water with casual precision. He dipped his fingers in the paint, rubbed them together, closed his eyes… and added more liquid. He’d had training before… he was probably an aristocrat, yet he was passing himself off as an assistant. It was none of his business, but for the rest of the voyage, he had wondered. Who had Kip trained with? Joseph Emerson? Jean Belmont?
He remembered hearing about Cradle’s death in London. It had shocked him. Cradle had been a good artist with a good eye, and they had worked together when they were both young men in English gardens, pulling water lilies and newts up in nets to sketch them. It was a pity, what had happened to him. He’d had such a way of seeing things… There was something of that vision in Kip, too, and Peter saw it in the way Kip drew boldly with a bit charcoal, making dark slashes that outlined sea gulls while squinting up at them against the blue of the sky, or the way he dashed up the rigging, hooked a leg in the ropes, and looked out over the ocean.
One day, Peter glanced up from a sketch he was making of a sea bird resting on a barrel. “When we first met, you spoke of Thomas Cradle. What do you know about him?”
Kip shrugged. “I saw some of his work once in a scientific journal,” he said. “It was about snakes. They were from somewhere far away, I think in… it wasn’t New Guinea… it was —“
“Australia,” Peter said, tapping the charcoal dust off of his sketchbook. “He died in Australia last year.”
“Oh,” Kip said. “ I didn’t know… did you know him, sir?”
“That I did. He was a friend of mine. We worked together…” He shot a glance at Kip, who waited with his shoulders hunched forward over the rails, his shirt whipping in the stiff sea breeze. “Are you interested in my private affairs, Kip? Because I’m becoming interested in yours.”
“I’m not an idiot, boy. I can see you’ve had some training. Come on, tell me something about yourself. Give me some context.”
“Yes, sir,” Kip said, frowning. He hesitated. “I told you my father went to Surinam several years ago. He was an officer in the navy — a captain. He died a few months ago.”
Peter softened a bit. He glanced up from his sketchbook. “I’m sorry, boy.”
Kip nodded. “Before he died, he gave me the sketch he made of the daw. He was an artist — not professionally, but he liked to make sketches, whole books of them, and when he’d come back from a trip, he’d give them to me. Except for a few…” Kip stopped and stood up a bit straighter. “Anyway, my mother died a long time ago, so I’m alone.”
“Don’t you have any relatives?”
“I have a grandfather. But he had a disagreement with my father over something my father did a few years ago, and I haven’t seen him since. I sent word that father had died, but he never responded. I don’t have anyone anymore, so… I’m going to go to Surinam, where my father went. And when I heard you were going there, I jumped at the chance to go with you.”
“You want to be an artist, do you?” Peter smiled.
“Why?” Kip raised his eyebrows. He looked away, thinking. “After my father died, I realized how sheltered I’d been. I’d never realized how hard life could be, or how I’ve treated others. His sketchbooks, the ones he gave me when he died, they showed me just how wrong I’ve been, how little I cared about others. I was blind, and his sketchbooks helped me to see.” He paused. “I want to do something of that effect with my work.
Peter chuckled. “So you think you can save the world with a few paintings? I’m sorry to say that you’re sadly mistaken, Kip. I wish it could have that kind of effect on people, but more often than not, people don’t really look at our work — not that way.”
Kip frowned. “Is that why you don’t paint people?”
Peter looked up. “No,” he said. “I don’t paint people because I’m a naturalist.” He brushed away some charcoal dust and nodded. “I think that’ll do.” He handed the sketch to Kip. “What do you think?”
Kip nodded. “It’s wonderful.” They inspected it together, compared it to the quick, gestural drawing Kip had made of it earlier and compared the two.
“You see, you want to tighten up your strokes,” Peter said, “If you want it to look professional. “But I like the confidence.”
“Thank you,” Kip said. He took a breath and held it… then he let it out with a whoosh and took another. Then he turned to Peter again. “Sir, you said you knew Thomas Cradle.”
“What about him?”
“How did you know him?”
Peter stood up, uncomfortable with where the conversation had gone. Why did the boy ask so many questions? “He was a friend,” he said. “I’m going below.”
They had sailed from the cold, littered waters of the Thames to this warm, inviting sea that sent its heart beat onto the sunlit wharves of Paramaribo, an ocean away from home, and Peter had to admit to himself that he liked Kip. After they engaged a crew to take them down the river, they got a room at the inn. That night, they slept with the lizards crawling over the wooden beams above their heads and sailors singing in the tavern across the street, and the next day, they set out on the river and began their way into the heart of Surinam.
They stopped by the plantation just outside of Paramaribo. Kip insisted.
“Father stopped there many times when he was in Surinam,” he said. “He said it’s beautiful there. And the man who owns it is interested in art. He has a collection.”
Peter had been intrigued. They’d stopped at a dock in the river bend and walked up a path through the dense trees and orchids to a house. It looked a bit out of place, that house, as though it had floated across the sea from London and washed up here. The plantation itself was beautiful, just as Kip had said, and the owner was indeed interested in art. He was a rotund, balding Dutchman who had seen Peter’s exhibition at the Royal Academy and was duly impressed. Peter didn’t like the man. He spoke too quickly, asked too many questions about Peter’s work, his methods, his techniques, wanted to see too many of Peter’s paintings and wanted to buy all of Peter’s future work on the spot. Peter assured him that nothing was for sale just yet.
“Everything’s for sale!” The planter insisted.
After a few minutes of that, Peter broke away and joined Kip outside. Kip had been giving himself a tour of the plantation.
“Looking for inspiration?” Peter said, shielding his eyes from the noonday sun with his hand.
“What?” Kip said. “Oh, no… It’s just, I…” he didn’t finish. His eyes locked on something before them in the field. “God, help them!” he choked out.
Peter stared at the scene. A slave girl a little older than Kip and a boy a little younger were being trundled past them. Peter saw the boy duck his head to miss a blow from an overseer. He was hit anyway, and Peter heard the force of it from where he stood observing. The slave girl cried out, reaching for what could only be her brother. Kip started to bolt forward, but Peter’s hand shot out and held him back.
Kip shrugged him off, eyes blazing, but he remained there — because the overseers were dragging the siblings toward them. Peter began to move out of the way, but suddenly the slave girl stumbled and fell against him.
It had been different before. He’d been in crowds before, and crowds lent him a sea of faces to hide behind, a hundred other targets, people who were surely more capable than he was of helping someone in need. But she was here, and she was looking at him — only him — and it was as though she’d pulled him down beneath the waves in the bay, down to the depths of the sea. She clung to him as though she were drowning, clove-brown fingers digging into coat. He tried to escape, tried to shake her off, but she clung, and he couldn’t reach the surface. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t see anything but those sinewy hands and those eyes, green eyes… why… why did she have green eyes… they were burning him all over with the terror he saw there, as though she carried the sun on her back like a child and had handed it to him.
“I-I… I don’t…” he said, gaping at her.
She didn’t say anything. She couldn’t have held him long — perhaps she’d only bumped into him and caught at his shirt to steady herself — could that have been it? — but she let him go, and turned without a word. She took her sun-burden with her, and held her brother in front of her, clutching his arms with the same intensity with which she’d held Peter. She left, and Peter felt himself rising to the surface again. He was breathing heavily, chest working like a bellows as he looked around him. He felt like the fields and the jungle were new, foreign, like he’d never seen them before. There were the palms, waving and green, and the river, churning placidly in the cool depths.
The blood was pooling in the dust of the tree-shaded field. Peter studied it — cadmium red oil paint, with a touch of linseed oil for viscosity — and without quite realizing it, he crouched, one knee setting down onto the warm, hard dirt, and reached out a finger toward the blood. What did it feel like? Was it like his oils, thick and lovely, or more like gouache, smooth like milk? Did it… he drew his finger away, so close to the red pool.
It was disappearing… seeping into the path, as though the earth was sipping it, slowly, with great satisfaction. He stared at it until he realized that he was looking at blood, not paint. It terrified him. He was a naturalist… he was a naturalist, and this was ridiculous. But he continued to stare, watched as the dust swirled in the blood. An ant approached cautiously. It sank into the dark stain.
“Mr. Jansen,” Kip said, facing the slave children and the overseers. “We have to do something.”
Peter lifted himself from the crouch and stood, holding his coat in his hands. He beat the dust off his trousers from where he’d knelt and glanced at Kip out of the corner of his eye. “It’s not our place to interfere,” he said. “Get your things and let’s go.”
He picked up Kip’s carpetbag for him and held it out to the boy, raising his eyes reluctantly. Kip was still turned toward the passing group, but his head had jerked around to face Peter, and there was shock in his eyes, and a slowly ebbing light that made Peter cringe to see.
The jungle was alive with sounds. Birds called overhead in the vast green canopies, and the river churned over sprawling tree roots and rocks on its way to the Brokopondo Reservoir. A green bird swooped over the river toward the camp, its calls piercing the warm forest mist.
Under the shade of his tent, Peter removed the lid of a wooden crate and took out a cold, wax-coated metal plate. He checked the wax for imperfections, grabbed one of his engraving tools, sharp like a bird’s talons, and walked to his chair. He seated himself in front of a cloth-draped box, and then, when he was ready, he removed the cloth.
He saw its feet first, leathery talons curled around the mossy stump the men from the village had put in the cage. They rested lightly, their hold on the branch relaxed… but then, as the stained canvas went up, they clutched the branch in terror and the legs that followed them tensed. Emerald wings were next, and they began beating against the sides of the cage with a fury, filling the air with the whoosh of air pushing past those green wings and the crash of metal as the cage rocked on the table. The light caught Peter’s eye as it sifted through the feathers and he reached out a hand to steady the cage. The cloth was up — now he could see the eyes, bright yellow like a candle’s flame that seemed to take in its entire surroundings at once, looking for an escape, and yet kept the man in sight at all times, watching for a threat.
Peter Jansen, British naturalist, explorer, and illustrator of everyone’s books but his own, settled back in his chair, wadded the cloth up in his hands, placed it on the table next to him, and waited for the daw to calm down.
He was finally making his own book, full of etchings of exotic creatures — mostly birds, like this one. All the same… this one had a gaze that reminded him of the slave girl he’d seen on the plantation. He’d though of her when the village boys pounced on this bird and shoved it in a sack, but the girl and her brother were none of his business, and the bird would soon be free.
He etched it as he’d found it — standing in a clearing, on the low branch of a tree stump, its ragged lip still pointing skyward, as the cutters had left it. The huts of the villagers were small in the distance, near the mountains. They’d left their farming to help him for the day, to catch live birds so he could etch their likenesses in wax and metal and show them to people across the sea. He etched it, washed the plate in acid, under the light of lanterns and from within the safety of his mosquito net, and studied its surface. He nodded, satisfied. It was a good image.
It was hot, and the men were singing outside over their fire. A lizard crawled on the outside of his mosquito netting. It was nothing like his studio back home.
Later, while mist curled from the wet forest floor and the deep smell of earth, smoke, and the chemicals in his tent swirled around him, he glared at his paints. Green water stood in a drinking glass on his table, caustic reflections being cast by the lantern through the glass, and he cast one baleful look at the bird. It had settled down, hunched its emerald shoulders and set its head down to rest in between the two frail bones, but the yellow eye still watched, half-cracked and wary. That eye… those feathers… the colors weren’t right.