Last Saturday I went with Nemo down to Trebloc. It was a glorious day with the sun smiling and the air a lazy 70 or so. Geno had been spending a few days with Mrs. Elvira Steinwither, Nemo’s okra-painting grandmother.
“He wanted to do some painting,” Nemo said as we bounced to a stop in front of the dogtrot house. “He said Grandmother and he could talk about art and stuff like that.”
Standing on the porch looking at us as we got out of the car was Mrs. Steinwither’s bluetick hound, Cicero. Under Cicero, yapping in a high-pitched staccato bark, was Delacroix, Geno’s runty-looking dog.
We found Geno in the studio. He stood in front of a easel wiping a brush on a rag. He grinned at us.
“I got to see,” said Nemo eagerly, rushing to the easel.
I followed him. On the easel was a painting of a house, a rather plain house, white clapboard with green shutters and a rust-colored roof.
Nemo’s mouth dropped open and his eyes grew wide. “I-it’s . . . it’s . . .” He didn’t finish.
Geno nodded. “It’s the old place,” he said. Then, looking at me, he added, “We had to leave after Daddy died. It’s not there any more. They built a quick-stop place on that corner.”
“You go by a photograph or what?” I asked.
He smiled and shook his head. “Some things you never forget. Right, little brother?”
Nemo closed his mouth and swallowed hard. He didn’t say anything.
I looked around the studio at the huge canvases of okra. There was even a chartreuse squash from an earlier period. The squash, I understand, is not for sale.
“Where is Mrs. Steinwither?” I asked.
“She went for a walk,” said Geno. He squeezed paint from a tube onto his palette.
Nemo backed across the room and eased himself down onto a stool. His eyes were still fixed on the painting.
“Art is an amazing thing,” Geno said. “When I left California, I thought I wouldn’t paint for a while. Then, a few days ago, I felt the sap rising.” He looked at me, and I nodded that I understood. “So,” he continued, now dabbing the brush on the palette and smearing the colors together. “I came down here. This is where it all began.”
“It’s . . . it’s a nice house,” I said.
“Art’s a lie, of course, but it’s a lie that conveys the truth.” He paused and smiled. “Maybe lie is too strong. It’s just that the art isn’t the real thing. This painting isn’t a house, of course. But, there is power in this image to evoke something, something that’s more true than the actual house, even if it still existed.”
He made a few, deft strokes at one side of the house and a row of privet-looking bushes bloomed into existence. “It’s a lot like the Bible, you know.”
“What?” I asked.
“You think Paul knew he was writing Holy Scripture when he wrote Timothy and asked him to please bring the cloak he’d left at Troas? And, if he wouldn’t mind, to please get it to him by winter?”
I shifted from one leg to the other. I wasn’t sure where he was going. Did paintings of okra have something to do with Scripture?
He stepped back and looked at the painting, squinting his eyes. “Scripture, you see, like a painting – or a novel or a piece of music, for that matter – pulls us into its heart, and makes us interact with it. Only then can it speak, can it affect us. A closed Bible on the shelf is like a painting in a dark room.”
The door opened and Mrs. Steinwither stepped into the room. She looked at Nemo, then at Geno. A moment later, in quick steps, she crossed the room and exited through the other door.
I couldn’t be sure about it, but I could almost swear there were tears in her eyes.
John Armistead is religion editor for the Daily Journal.