Toiling in America
Bev Vines-Haines
Hayward Fault Line winner

I clanged my mop handle against both sides of the bucket as I entered the dimly lighted East Gallery of the Detroit Art Museum. I didn't want to startle any stragglers. Or be startled. There was a new show in the room, Toiling in America.

Uh huh.

The gallery was empty.

Across the way, I spied a large canvas: big man, bulging muscles, row after row of laden tomato plants marching off behind him. Another painting, to the right of the first, featured glistening black men working assembly lines, rolling out pristine cars in a long straight queue. I ran my hand over that one, caressing brush strokes in thick paint, and tilting my head to study the splashes of light that fell on gleaming metal. The paintings were displayed a bit high for my liking, out of reach and out of touch.

I turned my attention to the tile floors. Already dustless and free of spot or stain, they shimmered as my wet mop swept over them. I made my way to each new painting, leaning close, inhaling the scent of oils and varnish, touching frames and letting my fingers trace bold signatures.

I closed my eyes, picturing my own work resting on an easel at home. I felt the fluid texture as I moved a mental brush through pools of color. I added rich tints and hues, matching the shades that relentlessly birthed themselves in my mind, begging and enticing me to set my chores aside and lose myself in their inherent ability to spill new realities onto waiting canvas. I smiled, studying my latest painting, Critic. It's me, back side out, standing in a darkened gallery, mop and bucket dangling from my hands. I've captured what I sought, a hunger and a thirst, both so great they compel the masters to whisper their secrets.

There is an alcove straight out from the main entrance. It's the prime location in this museum, and the spot where one day they will hang my Critic. I plan to keep it dusted until then.

First published: May, 2003