THE SECRETS IN THE MARBLE
It was the year our company decided to redecorate the three floors we occupied in the magnificent old Detroit office building.
On the level where I worked, the lobby had been modernized by adding a new reception desk, improved lighting, fresh carpeting.
The final touch was the installation of huge custom-made mirrors between the six elevators. The mirrors added a welcome expansiveness to the area. However, their wide brushed aluminum frames created a jarring discord against the elegant black marble walls. Obviously something had to be done.
After some deliberation, the management hired two painters to make the mirror frames match the marble walls. First, the offending frames were painted black. Then gray, rust and white veins, of varying widths, were carefully laced throughout. Where a line in the original marble came up to the frame, it was met by a matching line that continued the vein through the black field. After the job was finished, the walls and the frames looked as if they had been carved from one solid piece of marble. The casual eye would find it impossible to tell where the painted work left off and the real material began.
As it turned out, the obvious improvement was only part of the story. Soon after the job ended and the painters had gone, one of our engineers let me in on a closely-held secret: the company had acquired more artwork than most of us realized.
One of the painters, in a madcap salute to immortality, had artfully concealed two drawings in the seemingly random design on the frames. One was a Rubenesque nude, reclining in voluptuous splendor amid the wavering squiggles. The other was a curly-headed young boy, also nude, urinating—in the manner of the famous Brussels landmark, the bronze statue (Mannekin Pis ) designed by Jerome Duquesnoy.
Obviously one of our painters was more, much more, than just a maker of curling marble patterns. He was a true artist!
The drawings were each about four or five inches in size, and so skillfully integrated that they were virtually invisible unless one knew where to look. If you had discovered one by chance, you might presume it was an optical illusion or part of your own imagination–like seeing objects in a cloud formation (or the Madonna’s face in a pancake).
News of their existence spread discreetly through the lower echelons of our firm. By tacit agreement, none of us told anyone at the executive level. The paintings were not pornographic; they were classic art, cunningly concealed in the lines of the abstract motif. Still, we knew they would be considered far too risqué to be openly displayed in our conservative place of business. The bosses, had they known, would naturally have felt compelled to order the artwork painted over immediately.
These cleverly concealed pieces were more than simple drawings. They represented a break-away, an act of playful defiance against conformity. Here was a paintbrush virtuoso artfully thumbing his nose at ubiquitous corporate stuffiness.
How we loved it! As fellow guardians of The Secret we acquired a certain release ourselves–a vicarious independence—as if we were all helping the artist make his rebellious mark.
So, belatedly, thank you Mr. Artist, whoever you were, wherever you are. You added an aesthetic richness to my life and that of many others. I loved your outrageous little works of art and—in my personal gallery of memories—you have a place among the masters.
I cherish the visual experience you gave us, as well as the delightful opportunity to help put one over on the management.
I’ve kept your secret for more than sixty years. But it’s time to tell your story. All the people are gone from the place now—those who were privy to your impudence and those who were not. The lobby has probably undergone countless decorative reincarnations since then, so your work may be gone.
But the spirit of your artful rebellion lives on.
Now and then I experience a ripple of pleasure as I relive cherished moments of standing in that imposing lobby waiting for an elevator—I, a mere secretary, elbow to elbow with a pair of serious “suits”. While the men made high-level small talk, I relished the vision of the hidden-in-plain-sight art on display directly in front of us. In such a situation, I would occasionally meet the eyes of another waiting “insider.” We would exchange very small—very brief—smiles, then look away.
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© 2012 by Ruth Minshull