“It’s exactly what you think it is,” she tells you with a quick smile, “You’re just not thinking wide enough.”

You furrow your brows, concentrating hard on the small painting in front of you. It’s a sardine sticking out of a container with a confusing label on it — and you’re hopelessly lost on what it’s supposed to be.

The young woman’s booth is full of paintings like this one. Whimsical, odd, teetering right on the edge of mental recognition until the viewer notices just one small eccentricity — one odd idiosyncrasy — that puts the whole piece in a new light.

Quirky. That’s the word you were looking for.

Her art seems perfect for the setting. A sunny morning in an airy, green park. You’re just passing through the area, not quite a local, though you live nearby. The park and bustling street are full of vendors from all walks of life, selling things that are near and dear to them.

Dresses from their home country…

Homemade breads and jams…

Wine and coffee…

This little weekend market is full of young hopefuls putting on a smile and an air of professionalism. Behind that smile, they secretly hope against hope that the soaps, dog treats, and other trinkets they’re selling could be the ticket out of their endlessly mind-numbing, safe office jobs that barely get them through each month.

Her paintings are something different, though, as evidenced by the…sardine berries?

“Nope, not sardine berries,” she smiles, shaking her head as walks around her tent, adjusting pieces, affixing prices. “Tell you what, you guess what it’s supposed to be, and I’ll give it to you for free. I’ll warn you, though, no one’s ever figured it out on their own.”

You look around and see that none of her paintings seem to follow a common theme. There’s a beautiful wintry mountain scene with a skier gliding down it on one wall. Across the booth is a portrait of a girl eating pizza. On the table is a painting of a geisha at the foot of a hill with a shrine at the top.

All of them look fun and straightforward at first, until you notice just one thing that’s odd in each piece. The mountain in the skiing picture looks…misshapen..as if it was pulverized recently. In the background of the girl eating pizza is a man — dressed fully in religious robes — standing on a …crocodile? And the geisha is holding a book that says, “The Works of Shakespeare” on the front.

You notice that every work is like that — recognizable and normal at first glance, strange and unfamiliar with the second. You ask her what her inspiration is for such odd and fun (yet bizarre) paintings.

“I paint things that I wish would come true,” was her short reply.

You wait for her to elaborate, looking down at the priest standing proudly on top of the crocodile, wondering how on earth that could be the answer to someone’s wish.

Are you on drugs? You want to ask her. But, no, you have some tact. Instead you comment on her creativity.

“It’s not creativity, really. None of these paintings are made up. They’re all based in reality, or at least, they were at some point in history. Pictures of happier times.”

You point to the painting of the skier in the mountains.

Utah?” you ask.

“Afghanistan,” she promptly replies, “You know, only a handful of decades ago, Afghanistan was a promising tourist spot for the whole world. The western Himalayas. Snow-capped mountains bigger and more magnificent than the Alps. Beautiful gardens in sprawling Kabul. It could have been a skiing mecca, a land of adventure, romance, and luxury. In the 50’s, you’d take your family there for the perfect vacation, if you had the money.”

She gazes at the picture with sad eyes, “It just takes the wrong person with the right words to change the course of history for millions.” She sighs. “So, that painting is one of my wishes. That countries who have seen lifetimes of war can re-live their peaceful happiness. That the right person can come along with the right words.”

The woman goes back to arranging her other paintings, smile slightly hollow now. You comment on how beautifully detailed the painting is.

“Well, I’ve been there before and saw how pretty it was.” She turns her back to you to look at a different piece, “Those were my Army days, though, and those mountains were a curse to operate in. We re-arranged the landscape so many times, bombing those ridgelines every day for what felt like an eternity. Those mountains were a hell, but a beautiful, majestic one.” She looks off to the side, “I’d love to go back as a tourist on a ski trip, though.”

Curious at this point, and maybe eager to switch from an uncomfortable subject, you ask her about her other paintings.

She points at the girl eagerly digging into her pizza, “This is my daughter in Venice. The man on the alligator was Venice’s patron saint hundreds of years ago, before the flooding go too out of hand. They say the city won’t be around for much longer, but I’d love to take my girl there one day. She loves the water and the idea of a floating city where you ride boats everywhere…and pizza, obviously.”

She goes on to explain her other paintings to you, and you find yourself on a tour through hopes and dreams as big as the world itself. The geisha depicting her desire to run away and live in Japan’s ancient traditions while diving into its modern, underground art scene. A man in an astronaut-like suit diving into volcanoes in Iceland. A sailboat in the middle of a midnight ocean full of stars. Cultures long forgotten and countries — heartwrenchingly broken now — depicted as paradises in her art. Paintings of odd places, different people, and lives being lived, all with a twist — some whimsical, hopeful dream of something better.

You look at one painting she hasn’t mentioned yet. It’s a brilliant, fiery, explosion that fills the whole canvas with intense oranges, reds, and whites.

That one’s my ex,” she smirks, giving you a side-long glance. “Hey, I never said all my wishes were pure.”

That just leaves one painting left unexplained. The one in your hand. The sardine berries.

“Give up? I already gave you all the hints — my paintings are based on the real world and they’re all things I want,” She points at the strange, sad sardine. “That one’s pretty simple. It’s an animal — no, not a sardine — that I’ve always wanted to see in real life but never had the chance. It’s not a rare or exotic animal or anything like that, so I don’t even have that excuse.”

Defeated, you pay for the small, fun painting. Maybe you can show it to your friends and see if they can guess it

“When you finally want to know what it is, the answer’s on the back,” She tells you as you pay.

As you turn to leave, an old, wrinkled man shuffles into the booth with his granddaughter and the painter turns her attention to her new patrons. The granddaughter sees the painting you just bought and chuckles with light in her eyes, “Oh, that is the cleverest jellyfish I have ever seen!”

Drink pairing: The Jellyfish (vodka, blue curaçao, white samba, cream)


-Liam Brodentel

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