EVERY PRISON by Anna Hayes

~ by Anna Hayes ~

THE PORTRAITS on the wall stare at me – an eclectic selection of works ranging from macabre to psychedelic. 

I am transfixed by them; by their colour, their variation, the way they seem to reach inside my chest and squeeze my insides. Some catch my breath harder than others – in one instance, I can feel my pulse throbbing in my neck and I wonder if I am beginning to have another panic attack. 

The artist has signed their name simply as ‘Sam’, like Vincent van Gogh used to inscribe his canvases. Some of these works aren’t a far cry from his style. The whole series is a lesson in artistic versatility. 

I’d recently gone through the disintegration of a rather toxic relationship. Four years of volcanic passion had given way to distrust and paranoia – not all of it unfounded – and the inevitable realisation that we had never been right for each other in the first place. 

What I had learned from that experience was that no matter who did the breaking, you both end up broken.

‘Sam’ had garnered a lot of attention for him or herself. I’d been alerted to the show by a friend who, knowing that I had a passing interest in art, and aware that for the past few months my spare time consisted of besieging myself in my apartment, sent me a website link, thinking it might be good for me to ‘get out and about again’. 

The article, written on an arts blog by an unnamed author, theorised, ironically, about the identity of the artist, made a few veiled references to their ‘extreme’ methods, and encouraged those of an ‘open mind’ to check out the show.

Being honest, the prospect of free wine was what had drawn me to the riverside gallery on that rainy Friday night.

30 portraits – all of the same person, ‘Sam’, cover the largest wall in the gallery, which seems to wind around itself, slotting into nooks and crannies that also contained works, though I couldn’t imagine those artists were too happy to have been, literally, shoved into a corner. Despite the uniformity of subject, the style of each work is so glaringly contrasting that I find it hard to recognise the person from one painting to the next.

And I definitely can’t pick the artist out of the thick swell of people chattering excitedly in the room.

I scan the paintings once before reading the plaque beside them. 

The artist had, for a full month, taken a different drug each day and painted a self-portrait, the aim being to create a visual image of the effect of drugs on the human psyche. Beside that, there was a list of the drugs and dosages – I hadn’t heard of half of them, and the half I had heard of, a number of them were illegal. No wonder the artist was choosing anonymity. 

Despite that, I decided I had to know who the elusive ‘Sam’ was.

I scanned the images again, trying to link any of the 30 to each other. Four or five would be alike – I guessed the drugs were similar type substances – but then there would be others that you couldn’t reconcile with any of the other canvases. 

I was exhaling an elongated sigh of exasperation when I became aware of someone standing next to me – a woman with a short, bobbed cut of brown hair.

‘You’re not the first person I’ve seen glued to that spot,’ she said warmly and I smiled without looking at her.

‘Well, it’s kind of hard to tear your eyes away,’ I reply honestly, remarking that as someone who just about took some ibuprofen for a headache, it was eye-opening to see such a vivid exploration of ‘your brain on drugs’. 

She nodded along before stepping closer momentarily to inspect something on one of the canvases. I watch her intently. She’s dressed smartly, a suit pants and sensible shoes, a white shirt that’s simple but expensive – you could tell by the way it sat on her thin frame that it was tailored. 

‘Are you an artist? Or, more to the point, the artist?’ I ask, offering another, friendlier smile. She raises her eyebrows at the question.

‘Jesus, no. That’s a bit hardcore for me,’ she laughs before adding that I had passed by her work on the way in.

‘Really?’ I say, suddenly embarrassed that I hadn’t paid attention to any other work yet, and looking aimlessly behind me. She laughs as I scan back over my tracks.

‘Relax, it’s just the poster. I’m a graphic designer.’

I nod and glance around, trying to find one of said posters, if only to keep the conversation flowing. She points one out to me, on a pillar a few yards from us. It’s striking, featuring a colourful image of one of the paintings that I had spotted further into the room, with the exhibition title printed in vibrant yellow, sideways, up the right hand side of the page.

‘It definitely grabs your attention,’ I say, catching sight of a little flicker in her eye, ‘Art never called you?’

She scoffs at that, shaking her head.

‘No. Well, no, it did. I liked art and I was pretty good at it. But I also like eating and, for the most part, art and eating don’t go together. Graphic design, on the other hand, gives me the chance to be artistic...’

‘To a point,’ I suggest and she shrugs.

‘To enough of a point,’ she says, ‘And I can afford to eat when I want.’

I laugh, finally introducing myself and shaking her hand when she offers it. Her skin is clammy, something I attribute to the fact that she’s had her fist clenched in her pocket for the past ten minutes. 

Her name is Alex, short for Alexandra she points out, adding that her parents were fond of all things Greek and had been told that they were having a boy in the early stages of her mother’s pregnancy.

‘At least they only had to change one letter to get the name they wanted,’ I chuckle and she frowns, before explaining that she was supposed to be called Damon. I raise my eyebrows, watching her face for any further reaction before I finally risk a response.

‘I think fate was on your side...’

‘It definitely was!’ she laughs; a raucous, booming explosion that seems to emanate from down around her knees. It feels like a joyous expulsion of tension. I smile as I listen to her. I notice her perfect, gleaming, white teeth. I feel like I’m staring for too long, as if I’m intruding on something that has become a personal moment for her, so I look back to the kaleidoscopic wall of colour in front of me.

She quietens beside me and stands for a moment, both of us feeling something drifting in the silence between us. 

‘What do you see in them?’ she asks finally and I scrunch my face in concentration, my eyes flitting across the 30-painting exploration of a complex mind, raking over the clean curves of the works drawn while on supposedly ‘safe’ drugs, and the jerky, unhinged lines that stab into the canvas in others.

‘I think I see fragility...’

‘Well that’s a given,’ she replies.

‘...and freedom,’ I add.

She looks at me, a look on her face that’s not too dissimilar to ‘Sam’ on Ritalin.

‘What?’, I say, smirking. She takes a step back and looks at the paintings again before looking back at me.

‘You see freedom in those?’

I look at them again, as if to convince myself otherwise. I nod my head and tell her that I do.

‘I think...the idea of getting out my own head for a few days, or longer even, is a very appealing idea. No responsibilities. Well, other than ‘don’t die’. Sometimes I feel...I just feel so tired with everything. So these paintings, images of someone who has just pushed all of their worries and little, internal prisons aside for a while...yeah, I think they depict a kind of claimed freedom. However fleeting it might be.’

When she doesn’t speak for a moment after that, I feel the need to add that I’m not a drug addict and haven’t smoked a joint since I was in college, something which didn’t appeal to me then, and had never done since. She stifles a laugh at that, remarking that she had figured that out.

She stays silent for a while, wistful almost, and I begin to wonder if my little interlude with her is over.

I am about to walk to another part of the gallery when she eventually speaks. 

‘Do you not think...I don’t know. Don’t you think that something like this is just...swapping one prison for another?’

I reach to scratch a spot above my lip, just above a small scar I got when I fell on a tin can as a child. I watch her emotions and thought process play out across her face. Her brow furrows as she scans the images in front of us; her lip quirks when one of the paintings grabs her eye for a more positive reason; she catches her bottom lip between her teeth, before taking a deep breath and looking at me. 

She seems unperturbed by my observation, so I hold her gaze as I answer.

‘I suppose so but...at least it’s a prison of their own making.’

She smirks, her eyes darting from mine down to the ground, before she looks back to me, her eyes seeming brighter somehow, more vibrant, and I suddenly feel compelled to speak. When I open my mouth, however, the words die somewhere in between the wall of canvases, my brain and voice box, and her. I know they won’t come back – they were a fleeting sentiment with a particular lifespan, and their time had passed in that flicker of her eyes.

‘Every prison is of your own making,’ she said sagely and I nodded along, as if suddenly everything made sense, as if she had flicked a switch and illuminated a secret passage that I’d merely stumbled around in the dark for years before.

I curse my sudden reflex to check my watch, which she takes as a cue to put some distance between us.

‘I’m keeping you from something,’ she says quietly and I tell her no. 

‘You’re not keeping me from anything,’ I say firmly, turning away from the paintings to look directly at her, the dim lighting away from the exhibits serving to frame her like some glowing deity. I take a deep breath. 

‘I was thinking...what you were saying earlier about being able to eat...’

She raises an eyebrow, clearly wondering, as I am, where the hell I’m going with this. 

‘What I’m trying to say is...I want to have a quick look at the rest of the exhibition but, after that, do you think maybe...oh here, would you like to grab some food and a drink somewhere?’

She tilts her head in amusement, a wry smile stretching across her face. I tell her quickly that it’s ok if she’s not interested. I berate myself internally – throwing offers out only to immediately pull them back. 

But, as I’m doing that, she’s nodding her head which, eventually, I notice.

‘Yeah?’ I say incredulously and she nods. 

As we walk further into the gallery, she bumps her shoulder off mine and we exchange smiles. I don’t look back at the portraits again.