Saint Anthony and Three Wrapped Palms
Alice Whittenburg
Hayward Fault Line Winner
During the first stage of his career, the artist was obsessed with palm trees. Though there was only a single date palm in his backyard in San Antonio, he struggled to capture its elegance and sultry sophistication. He painted it as a baccarat player in a casino; as an astronaut sampling the Venusian atmosphere with a probe; as a parachutist in an air show; as a piano player in a dimly lit bar; as driver of the lead car in the Grand Prixand in each case he felt that he had completely failed to capture the palm tree’s essence. One winter afternoon he painted himself hanging by the neck from a thick palm frond. 

As soon as she saw that canvas, his model Mona said, “Let’s go to Chicago.” The artist shouted, “Why in hell would we do that?”

Mona, because she loved the artist and also felt he often gave her slender young body short shrift in comparison to the palm tree, chose her answer carefully.  She didn’t say that her psychiatrist sister lived in Chicago and might be able to help him or even that there are no palm trees there.  She said, “You’ve never been there. We can have an adventure.”

The next day there was a cold snap, and the artist went out early. “I want to know how palm trees survive the freeze,” he said.  Down on the River Walk he saw, grouped around the statue of Saint Anthony of Padua, three palm trees wrapped in burlap to protect them from the cold.  The wrapping subdued the fronds of the palms and caused the trees to bow obsequiously toward the saint.  The artist found this to be a deeply moving tableau and thought, “This is the ultimate, the one true image of the palm tree.” The trip to Chicago was postponed indefinitely.

After he had completed no less than fifteen paintings of Saint Anthony and three wrapped palms, the artist asserted that the second stage of his career would be devoted to Saint Anthony and his temptations. Mona tried to tell him he was confusing Anthony of Padua with Anthony of Egypt, and it was the latter whose temptations were depicted by painters from Bosch to Dali. But the artist shouted that Mona was a fleshly distraction and banished her from his now ascetic life. 

After that the artist fixated on painting Anthony’s temptations, though he missed Mona’s affectionate presence much more than he was willing to admit.  Mona, on the other hand, went on to Chicago where she helped her psychiatrist sister write a best-selling book on obsession, and she came to know the peace of mind material success can bring.

First published: February, 2015
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