Art is nothing more than the shadow of humanity.—Henry James
The spider had been working on her web since dawn, excreting the long threads of silvery string that extended across the expanse of the window frame. The glass had been broken long ago and cardboard was the only thing dividing the world outside from the converted warehouse loft. Shimmering strands of sunlight cascaded through the cracks between the pieces of weatherworn cardboard illuminating the surface of the web with prismatic refractions. The spider dangled lazily. A slight breeze from the window danced her until a gigantic thump caused the windows to shake. The ancient tape gave way to the force of the quake and the cardboard was knocked loose. The filaments of the web hyper-extended and then broke under the weight. Barely escaping, the spider scuttled up to a vacant corner of the room and began to weave again.
Francesca stood before the block of marble that had just been delivered, inspecting its perfection. As she strode around it, her hands ran across the unblemished surface lovingly as if she were stroking a beloved pet. A gentle hum coursed through her fingers into her bones and dissipated throughout her body. The virgin stone beamed a brilliant shade of white under the glare of the florescent lights that were buzzing overhead. She felt a pull; whether it was in her heart or her stomach, she was not sure. It was the same pull that she felt each time that she looked at a blank canvas or mound of clay.
The loft was overcrowded with haunting paintings and extravagant sculptures that Francesca had created over the years. The walls were covered with charcoal drawings of sullen faced girls that all resembled their originator. Lining the staircase that led to her bedroom, there were enormous, richly colored, oil paintings with layers of texture so passionate they made their subjects seem almost alive. Boring tables and matching chairs were painted in vibrant shades to disguise their blandness. Even the ceiling wore a celestial mural. Francesca longed to make ordinary things somehow extraordinary. Her life seemed like a series of obsessions that overtook her, each a new perversion of her current state of truth. It was not just an expression when she created her art. It was a need that outranked all others.
Francesca glared into the stone. She knelt before it in penance, silently begging this marble to unveil its secrets. She always found this part of the creative process was one of the most frustrating, waiting for inspiration. She ached for the release, the beauty of creation. She could feel an idea swim almost to the surface of her mind and then dive back down into the depths of her subconscious where she could not reach it. For hours she just stared at the stone imagining all the things it might become, a blank surface with infinite potential. The statue’s fate was firmly in Francesca’s hands, and it was not a responsibility she took lightly.
She sometimes thought as Michelangelo did, that the media had already picked its own form. That is to say, that the fate of the marble was already somehow engrained in it, all she had to do was find the underlying structure and reveal it to the rest of the world. Art was not something that she made so much as it was something that she found.
She tried to feel it, to tap into the reserve of intuition to find her inspiration. As her eyes relaxed and her body loosened, the world went silent. She could no longer hear the hum of the lights or the rumble of the cars passing outside. She was no longer bothered by the wails of neighborhood children screaming or any of the other ordinary sounds of life that paraded within earshot. She felt almost like she was slipping out of her own skin. The rest of the world seemed somehow much dimmer than the mound of rock that sat in front of her. It was illuminated in a soft light that clung to it, giving it the ethereal radiance of an angel.
It was as if the stone became fluid in her mind, free from the confines of reality. She contorted the form into a hundred flowing images. One idea transformed into the next without her even being aware of the mutation. She saw a lion, an elephant, a siren, and many more but none of these struck her. They seemed an endless procession of the shells of forms that did not inspire the requisite passion to become a work of art.
Just when she was about to turn away, it came upon her like a revelation. The face of Venus, exiled, encased in the stone, and Francesca was instantly spellbound. This marble would become the image of beauty, the personification of perfection, the goddess of love, a symbol that had survived for millennia after the fall of her empire. Francesca heard the voice of Venus echo from the hunk of marble, pleading with the single word, “Help.” Venus’ lusty eyes danced in Francesca’s mind, burrowing into the archives of her psyche and unraveling throughout her soul. She thought of all of the art that Venus had inspired over the span of her history. She could not count the number of renditions of the goddess that she had seen in various museums, not to mention Venus’ continued appearance in poetry and plays. Francesca was awed by the idea. She saw Venus as an ever-evolving entity whose diversity of guises only underscored her constant reemergence. The divination of such perfect beauty shook Francesca, and she longed to become a part of Venus’ evolution.
Francesca sat at a table facing the block of stone. The radio lulled her into a trance with the rich timbre of Natalie Merchant singing My Skin. She sketched at an enormous piece of paper, planning her first cuts. A quiet, husky voice whispered instructions to her under the sound of the music. The sultry resonance of the words guided her pencil until she was certain of each amputation she would have to make. The voice of Venus enraptured her and without even being aware of it, Francesca stood up and strode towards the marble with an old saw in her hand.
The world outside her loft went on, but she would not leave, and why should she want to? In this place, she felt like a goddess herself. Francesca cut away the superfluous chunks from the marble, working the saw back and forth so vigorously that her arms pounded with an aching that never ceased. Her back was stiff and tiny blisters erupted on the back of her knuckles from grasping the saw. Her hands were so dry they felt like they were covered in crumpled parchment instead of skin. Her eyes were so strained from staring that all she could see was the blur of white rock. She continued her work each morning despite these discomforts and went to sleep only after she had become so exhausted that she could not continue. A voice always disturbed her slumber and whenever it called, she descended the stairs to attend to the beckoning of her muse. Francesca worked all day every day, ignoring the calls of prospective art buyers and the queries from local galleries. She did not even listen to their messages. When the doorbell rang, she did not answer it. Venus was all that mattered right now.
The days began to meld together, an endless jumble of events that were no longer marked by the sun’s position in the sky but by the progression of Venus’ rebirth. Francesca thought perhaps if she could just finish, she might know some semblance of peace. The weight of her revelation felt heavy now, a burden and an obsession. It felt like an extension of ravenous lust but it had a draw deeper than lust and harsher than love. It was the insatiable tug of passion mingled with irrepressible power of creation. Francesca found this particular mix so intoxicating that her simple awe of Venus became fanatical reverence. Venus was not some idea in her mind, the goddess sat before her, demanding her devotion, giving her a purpose.
Francesca often said that creation, in all its forms, was something sacred. A revelatory, numinous kind of experience unlike any other she had ever known. Art was where she explored all of her sadness, all of her rage, and all of her love. Long ago, she discovered that in all the exhilarations and irritations of creating something, there comes a strange sense of peace. Not just peace but purpose as well. When someone asked her once why she painted, she said that she had never picked up a paintbrush without learning something about herself.
Art, as far as it has the ability, follows nature, as a pupil imitates his master, so that art must be, as it were, a descendant of God.—Dante Alighieri
A set of six spinnerets exuded with a viscid fluid that miraculously turned to silken threads upon contact with the air. The spider wove these threads with the diligence of instinct and the artistry of Arachne. It is sometimes said that spiders wove the veil of illusion that separates this world from the next or that they wove the very fabric of reality itself. Either way, this was her purpose, to weave. She had to weave to catch her prey. She had to weave to have a place to live. The spider spun with the patience of a being that did not know that time existed or that work was ever done.
Francesca did not want to be disturbed. She did not want to see anyone and did not want to do anything except work on her Venus, but necessity eventually caught up with her. The teeth of her saw had become too worn, it had never really been the proper instrument for the job. She had not worked with marble since art school.
Francesca looked down at her wrinkled clothing and wondered how long she had been wearing it. She removed her baggy t-shirt as she climbed the spiral staircase that led to her bedroom. She was usually very organized but the whole loft had been in an advanced state of chaos since Venus moved in, and the bedroom was no exception. Clothes were strewn over one side of the bed and all over the floor. Simple things like laundry were not important anymore.
Normally, Francesca took pleasure in taking a shower, but she took no pleasure in this shower; it was a means to an end. She wished that she did not have to leave. She wanted more than anything to stay with her muse. She tried to think if she had anything else to use to cut the stone, but there was nothing. She got dressed quickly, not paying attention to what she was doing. As a result, her shoes were mismatched. She did not even notice until she was selecting a saw from one of the lower shelves of an overcrowded aisle. Francesca saw Venus all around her, she could hear her muse whispering to her, summoning her to return.
Suddenly the whole store seemed to get smaller. She felt trapped by the rows congested with shoppers and clerks. The harsh wail of a child crying flooded her ears and drowned Venus out for a few lonely seconds. Francesca could not stand it. She had to get out of there and back to her muse. The line at the front of the store stretched on forever, and all the lines around her seemed to be moving much faster than hers was. She watched the middle-aged man in front of her hand the pretty, young blonde behind the counter his business card as he said,
“I’d love to paint you sometime. You’d make a ravishing goddess.”
Francesca wished that she had not laughed out loud, but she could not help it. The girl behind the counter blushed and would not look up until the man left the store. Francesca looked at the girl but it was Venus’ eyes that she saw shying away from her, it was Venus’ hand that took her money, and Venus’ voice that wished her a good afternoon.
The drive home was horrible. Stoplights seemed to take an eternity and the harsh glare of the sun was so brilliant that she could not see. Cars appeared out of nowhere and blocked her progress at every turn. Speed limits of twenty miles per hour were imposed at various intervals due to their proximity to schools. All of this annoyed Francesca so that she felt exhausted when she returned to her sanctuary. She grabbed the pile of mail that was spilling out of the box on her way inside but she did not bother to look at it before she threw it on the table. She was back at Venus’ side. Finally, she had a good saw and the job seemed much easier after that. Eventually what remained was the squared figure of a woman. It was a far cry from the flawlessness of Venus, but it was a start.
Francesca grasped the thick handle of her chisel and angled it. She pounded the mallet, striking the blunt end of the chisel. As the wooden shaft of the instrument passed through her grasp, a splinter severed from the surface and lodged itself in her palm. She screeched with pain. As she plucked the sliver of wood from her hand, she thought it was a small sacrifice for the birth of a goddess. She put on a pair of thick leathery gloves before she resumed. The stone clanked and clattered under the force of her renewed assault. Great portions of the marble were reduced to rubble in a matter of minutes.
She chiseled away the edges to reveal the smooth outline of a goddess. With intricate taps, she uncovered a rough face, a main of long, twisting tendrils, the orbs of her breasts crowned with tiny bumps that would become the nipples. Francesca stared at the primitive form that stood before her and thought she heard a purr escape from the jagged contour of Venus’ lips.
Francesca filed the smooth curves of her Venus, scouring the edges away. Dust scattered around the loft and hung suspended in the stagnant air until white powder blanketed all that she possessed, even her own body. Her dark brown hair was flecked with particles of perfect white and the cold concrete floor was slippery. She replaced her protective glasses with a bright red motorcycle helmet but somehow the dust still found its way inside, causing her eyes to itch and a few random sneezing fits.
Francesca was devoted to Venus but patience was not a virtue that she came by naturally, it was an act of discipline. Patience itself had become a sort of art form, excruciating and exhilarating at the same time. She hated to wait, but the longer she spent working on the sculpture, the more she fell in love with it, and the more she fell in love with it, the fiercer her devotion became.
As she brushed the excess dust from the statue, she felt Venus lead her eyes downwards as if to point out that the breasts were not a perfect pair. She resumed with her chisel. When they were re-filed, Francesca’s gaze was led down to the toes. They looked too masculine, she descended upon them, determined that they should be smaller and rounder. She scratched the tiny indentations of the toes until even the toenails were flawless.
Once she stood up, Francesca caught a sight of herself in the mirror across the room. The reflection that stared back at her was not the face of the woman she remembered being, nor was it the face of her irrepressible muse. Francesca was a beautiful woman, but there were dark circles with the beginnings of little creases marking the edges of her eyes. Her hair was a tangled mess of mahogany waves, piled carelessly and held in place by a broken brown barrette. Her skin looked pale and greasy and there could be no mistake, she smelled. Her clothes were the same ones she had been wearing since she bought the saw. Her belly growled. She looked down at it with disgust. She had no desire to eat but it was clear from the sounds that her stomach was making, it was time.
Francesca made her way through the clutter of the kitchen. Every dish that she owned seemed to be sitting in the sink. The air was rank with the thick scent of rotting food and mold. She had lit a bunch of Patchouli incense to try and cover the smell; now the stubs hung with coils of ash curling across the dingy white countertop, and nothing in there smelled like Patchouli. The only thing left in the refrigerator was a variety of condiments, an assortment of very old milk, and fermented juices. She picked up a granola bar and hurried out of the room. She hated it that she let things get so gross, but that was not important just now, Venus was calling. She ate with the robotic gestures of indifference. She could take no pleasure in the act. Time that she spent eating was time that she had wasted.
All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance direction, which thou canst not see.—Alexander Pope
The spiders had one master and her name was Nature. She did not succumb to the passions of humanity when she met her mate. He danced around her web, courting her with movement. His legs twitched with rhythmic ticks that announced his intentions without the bother of language or the loneliness of love. He caressed her arms with his until her hind legs spread to accept him. There was no talk of love, lust, or beauty. No lies or guilt to forbid them from the act. Above all things instinct drove them, gave them purpose. They were not planning for the future, they were creating without the hassles of intent.
Francesca began the process of sanding. She sanded at the toes for ages, polishing the nails to a glossy shine. She eroded away the lines that the file had left on the stone and smoothed out the curvature of Venus’ muscles. She traded her sandpaper in for finer and finer grades. The electricity was turned off, but this scarcely bothered Francesca. She continued her work, often lighting candles in the darkness so she could see. Frequently this gave her headaches from the strain on her eyes, but she never stopped working, Venus would not allow it.
Francesca dunked a fresh piece of sandpaper into a bowl of lukewarm water and began scratching it gently across the sculpture’s face. As she stared into the eyes of Venus, she noticed that they were slightly crooked. She picked up her chisel, only perfection was acceptable. She chipped away the lines of the face and tapped out a smaller nose and a pair of perfect eyes. They tilted upwards slightly so that she looked like she may have been related to an elf. Francesca remodeled Venus’ features to reflect the image of perfection that lingered in her mind’s eye. She was not a classical statue like the kind one might see from ancient Rome or Greece. Nor was she the plump muse of Botticelli. She had the slightly jaded features of a modern woman. Her face was long and thin, vaguely sunken in as if she were malnourished. The twist of her smile suggested some deliciously mischievous plot was brewing in the depths of her soul, and something about her eyes made her seem somehow impenetrable.
Francesca appraised the face lovingly as she filed it into sharper detail. She sanded the definition of beauty into the face and when she was satisfied with the smooth arch of the cheekbones, glassy sheen of the eyes, and full curl of the lips, she stood back to admire the effect. The face was indeed flawless but the goddess could not be so easily satisfied. Taking in the beauty of Venus’ visage, Francesca felt her eyes tugging away from the face to the thick stalk of Venus’ neck, over her chubby arms, to the hefty curve of her belly, around her ample hips, and down the stout camber of her thighs. She decided the body of the goddess looked a little plump under this new, slimmer, facade.
She started at the shoulders, fading them into lines that reflected the slender curves that the goddess demanded. She followed these lines erasing the details of the neck, to create them anew, with fainter, more feminine creases. She glided down the arms bestowing them with frailty. She slid to the fingertips, where she refashioned the shallow indentions of her fingernails, giving her longer, skinnier fingers. She transformed the hips, which led her down the legs, ebbing away the excess flesh of the thighs. The form of the goddess surrendered to leaner calves and ankles. Francesca returned to these areas with sandpaper and refined the shadows of the muscles, smoothing out the scrapes that marred the surface of her skin.
Once the legs were perfect, she revisited the breasts. Touching them up with some light sanding to reveal the areolas and the shadow below the breast, where the folds of her skin met her ribcage. From there, she made her way down, shaving the love-handles, and redefining the abdomen. She sloughed away the surface, creating the intimations of a washboard stomach. It was nearly finished, she thought excitedly. She looked over the sculpture spellbound for a moment; this was the most beautiful thing that she had ever created. Everything was perfect except the belly button. Francesca paused for a moment and wondered if it really mattered, she intended to dress the goddess in her own little black dress and no one would even see it. She decided that Venus would never approve of such an oversight.
Francesca spent over an hour gently etching at the navel before she heard it. The chisel had found a flaw at the core of the marble when she tapped it a bit too hard. A sharp crack echoed through the loft as the body of Venus split and the two halves crashed onto the cement floor. Shattered fragments of the crumbled statue littered the ground, a heap of white rubble and dust. One of Venus’ perfect eyes was staring blankly up at Francesca, desolated by the destruction of her own image.
Francesca stood suspended above the remnants of her masterpiece. She felt as if a part of herself was missing, lost forever. She was defeated, bound by her own imperfections, and she hated herself for them, convinced that she had betrayed her muse somehow. Her mouth tasted bitter and tears perched on the brim of her lashes ready to drip. It felt as if all of the breath had been knocked out of her. She was gasping, intoxicated by her misery and drowning from the burden of an unrealizable vision. All of her sacrifices meant nothing, her devotion had betrayed her, and now the statue was ruined. The face of Venus haunted her and the image of the goddess taunted her with the unobtainable virtue of perfection.
Art is not a handicraft; it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.—Leo Tolstoy
A fly whizzed through the air, disturbed by the quake of Venus’ fall. It toured the scene of the tragedy before ascending. It circled the room until it met with something strong and sticky. It was caught in her web, but the spider did not move. She hung on a string next to an enormous egg sac, worn and withered from the exertion of spinning. She thought it was the most beautiful web that she had ever woven, not because it was aesthetically pleasing but because of how much it had cost her to weave it. The fly flailed against the gummy cords shredding them in his fit, but still the spider did not move to secure him. Her tiny form had gone limp. Francesca felt the grief inside of her climax and then die at the same instant that the spider had perished. Miraculously, the veil of illusion was lifted and the catharsis of Venus reborn.
Six months later, Venus stood guarding the lobby of a little old theater on Banks Street. Red paint had been added to the thick glue that pieced her back. It seeped through the cracks, coloring her imperfections so it looked more like she was falling apart than glued back together. She was left naked in this state. Prying eyes appraised her flaws while waiting for the show to start and at intermission. Some people found her grotesque, others intriguing. When Francesca looked at Venus, she thought the statue was still perfect, not because it was beautiful but because she believed that it reflected truth. A bronze sign gilded the end of the clamshell that the goddess was standing on. It said, Venus’ Web.
What is most beautiful about life is that it is imperfect.—Jennifer Alexander