Easel at the Ocean's Edge



She looks still while she is sleeping, but I know better. Head nestled on a makeshift pillow improvised from a rolled-up jumper and flat, second-hand sofa cushion – even now, diagnosis confirmed, she refuses to take to her bed during the day – Joan’s breathing steadies as she slips deeper into slumber. Unconsciousness is necessary to give her body relief from the gnawing pain that I can tell, however hard she fights to disguise it, increasingly ravages her while awake. In sleep, her limbs relax. Her lips part, poised as if in the heartbeat before a kiss. And yet even supposedly motionless, I see her eyelids flicker and twitch: lashes fluttering on the unseen breeze of a landscape that, for now, only exists within her dreams.

A few minutes more, and the pace of the spasms increases. Joan’s rich brown eyes roll back to expose white slivers of crescent moon while formless words seem to ripple from her pursed, pouting mouth: unspoken sentences swept away as if by a bracing sea wind. Dreaming of heavy weather, I suppose. But still I am not tempted to wake her. Joan has never been afraid of a storm. Instead I rise, creeping across the room on the balls of my feet to look out the narrow cottage window. Palm pressed to the pane, I scan the horizon for brooding clouds approaching the shoreline. It would not be the first time that Joan prophesized a change in the elements.

‘I’m glad I fell.’ Her voice startles me, hazy and hoarse as it drifts from that strange, liminal land between wakefulness and sleep. Sickness and health. Land and sea. ‘I’m glad I fell all those years ago, Lil.’

‘Only three years,’ I remind her, perching on the edge of the couch to take her hand. It makes me smile to find flecks of paint still stuck underneath her nails. Joan nods drowsily, deferring to the dull literal accuracy of my recollections, and yet I cannot shake the sense that she is correct in her way. A mind like hers – truly, a spirit like hers – must experience the ebb and flow of time differently to the rest of us. Through Joan’s eyes, centuries can come and go without leaving a single mark on a coastline. One brushstroke may last for an eternity. Perhaps it is that perspective, wisdom hard-won from years of fearless dialogue with ocean tempests, which gives her the courage to face her condition. It feels a cruel irony to me that such a brave, beautiful heart beats within the same breast that is killing her.

Joan’s thoughts are not troubled, though. Cool, pale-nailed fingers entwined with mine, she grins up at me from the sofa. An impish glint is momentarily alight in her bloodless face, framed by strands of dark hair as perennially dishevelled as any of her wee Glasgow urchins. I know by now that these times don’t last long, mere seconds remaining before malignant exhaustion submerges her once again. But thanks to her, I’ve learned to appreciate the fleeting moments of life more, rather than less.

‘I’m glad I fell,’ Joan repeats in a murmur, eyes closing as she is drawn back into the world that only she can see. ‘I’m glad I fell for you.’


* * *


She doesn’t mean it metaphorically. Joan really and truly fell. Off a ladder and into my arms, we used to laugh, our bare limbs knotted together in bed: one of those weak little in-jokes of the sort that only lovers find funny. I didn’t know two women could be lovers before we met, beyond a vague, inarticulate desire that I’d have furiously denied to anyone, including and especially myself. It is just one of many things Joan has taught me. Not nearly the most important.

I had thought my heart was already full when I arrived in Arbroath for the Summer School. The sole passion burning in me back then was for art. Twenty-two and wide-eyed at what the new decade before me might hold, I simply ached to create. Hungering to consume as much fresh knowledge as I could, I relished every titbit of technique gleaned from books, lectures and studio sessions lasting long into the night, until even the prospect of a four-year degree could not sate my voracious appetite. Summer School 1960 sounded ideal. I wanted to paint better, to be better, and Hospitalfield House was the place for my cure.

‘You should count yourselves lucky,’ Mr Neil told the silent ring of students encircling him. ‘Joan teaches very rarely.’ He paced the inch-raised platform where our models usually stood, a fierce prowling gait at odds with the fragility of his birch-thin limbs. He was hard to read, Mr Neil. Harder still to predict. War, people whispered, one word the ominous shorthand for a multitude of miseries that might have befallen him. Sometimes the man himself felt like a powdered keg: brim-full of nervy, fast-sparking energy that one sensed could detonate at any moment. How some of the other students dared call him Angus to his face was beyond me.

‘Yes,’ he had muttered, more to himself than the class. ‘She dislikes teaching intensely, as a matter of fact. Joan believes you’ll learn all you ever need to know out there.’ Mr Neil gestured with the end of his paintbrush to the flourishing grounds we could just see through the window. ‘She wouldn’t have come here at all, if not as a favour to me.’ A wry grin lit up his face, fair moustache momentarily in motion. I felt a frisson ripple through the female students on either side of me and wondered mildly why such momentum always stopped before it reached me. ‘You’re lucky, alright…’ Mr Neil’s focus was fading from us, drifting instead through the nearby window to where this reluctant soon-to-be teacher was waiting. He’s in love with her. The thought struck me without warning, a drop of cadmium red in titanium white. So shocking, and yet so suddenly indisputable, I almost blurted it aloud.

It meant that I was already intrigued long before the studio door opened. Who was this woman whose promise entered a room before she did; who was this stranger who made taciturn Mr Neil’s pale eyes light up with a startling glow so compelling I felt desperate to capture it on canvas? I could not say quite what I was expecting. All I knew was that Joan was not it. Her size was the first aspect to take me by surprise. Small. Petite, even. From the legend of her critical acclaim, as much as from the atmosphere that had permeated the studio before her appearance, my naïve mind had built her up to be literally monumental: an Amazonian of the art world whose physical form matched her towering reputation. But Joan was wee, ‘peerie’ as my mother would say, the unassuming effect enhanced or maybe exacerbated by her loose-fitting slacks and shirt. The second surprise. This woman dressed like a man. Not as a man, you understand, not performatively or even openly challenging – the total lack of vanity about her precluded such showmanship – but practically. Efficiently. Freely. I studied the thick cuffs rolled up to reveal her snow-white inner wrists; the jumper hem snagged on a chunky man’s belt around her waist. Better late than never, the queer frisson from before surged through me.

Joan’s hair, too, was unconventional. Her short style was weighed down by none of the fussy, nut-and-bolt curls that were clamped to the heads of the women I saw back in Kinross. Joan’s crop was tousled, dark strands scattered at random across her forehead, and the style haloed her face in a way that made me think loftily of her namesake martyr, Joan of Arc. Whatever crusade she was on, it was clearly too vital for frivolities. And yet in those large, burnt umber eyes, there was a twinkle of unmistakable mischief. It felt familiar yet unplaceable, until all at once, I remembered where I had last seen that playful spirit. In the broad, lopsided grins of the tenement children she painted.

‘Go on, then.’ It transpired that Mr Neil had been talking to the room all this time, and now – with a wince – he braced before inviting us to ask our questions of his guest. A fir forest of hands sprung up.

‘Is it true you paint outside?’

‘Is it true there’s real sand in your seascapes?’

‘What’s the most your work has ever sold for?’

To that, Joan simply shrugged. ‘I’m afraid I couldn’t say.’ Her voice was light and erudite, a sort of Scots refined by learning that sounded much more polished than my own. ‘I prefer to steer clear of the money side.’

‘How dae ye get the weans tae sit still?’ A student like me, from a less salubrious background, blurted out that bluntly practical query. Joan smiled, dark eyes dancing with quiet delight.

‘A bag of sweets on the easel works wonders.’

Soon, she took to walking around our circle, watching us work in inscrutable silence while Mr Neil growled his own grudgingly constructive comments. My free hand gripped my easel, raw fingernails embedding themselves into the rough weave of my canvas. Sensing her approach, I felt my face flush an ugly puce, close to combustion with the building pressure of conflicting desires. To impress her. To shock her. To sacrifice blood, sweat and tears, smeared right here onto my agonizingly inadequate painting, if I could only hold Joan Eardley’s attention.

She stood behind me. Stayed there. My pulse throbbed, a painful double-time pace that made my palms slippery and sent my paintbrush skittering across the half-finished canvas. Needless to say, in the opposite direction to what I’d intended.

‘Damn!’ I cried aloud, my slickened fingertips turning the same ruddy shade as my face as I unproductively wiped at the blotch.

‘Don’t.’ Joan reached over, resting her hand on my wrist to still the movement. My frantic pulse grew fevered. She must have felt it beneath her fingers. ‘Perfection’s not a patch on the truth.’ I turned to protest – to say what, I have no idea, knowing now how profoundly right she was – but she had already walked on and away from me.

Outside, catching my breath after the exertions of the class, I lost myself in maudlin self-recrimination. Scribbling angry half-formed shapes inside my sketchbook, I barely registered the crunch of footprints on the gravel behind me.

‘It’s Lil, isn’t it?’ Heart racing again, I spun to see her silhouetted in green: the full-bloom summer grounds of Hospitalfield framing her small, boyish build. She belonged in the outdoors. Physically, visually and almost spiritually. The breath I had been working so hard to catch was instantly lost.

‘It’s better out here, don’t you think?’ Joan asked me softly, nodding towards my sketchbook whose meagre contents I tried to shield with my spare arm. ‘Even the children are best observed playing outside, at least at first.’ The children. Those wee Glasgow weans in her paintings. She spoke as if they were hers. In a way, perhaps they became so. ‘Do you paint outdoors often, Lil?’

‘Sometimes.’ Seldom, that was the honest answer, but the encouraging look on Joan’s face meant that I couldn’t bear to admit it. Back at art school in Dundee, my focus was on siphoning off hours of coveted studio time: a highly prized commodity that provoked ruthless competition amongst the students. Late-evening slots were not uncommon, and I had learned to feel perversely proud of the indigo shadows that cradled my eyes after spending yet another sleepless night at my inside easel. Work in the wilds instead? No fighting for space, no wrestling over subjects? It was hard to think it could be so simple.

‘I should do it more often,’ I confessed, scrunching the corners of my sketchbook page to ameliorate my awkwardness. I expected Joan to shame or scold me. Instead, she seemed only energized by what I had said.

‘I live in a little place that couldn’t fail to inspire you.’ She gestured in mid-air to somehow conjure the approximate shape of Scotland. Transfixed, I followed her index finger as it traced the edge of her imaginary map, intuiting that she was pointing to a spot in the North East. ‘A tiny village. Humble and ramshackle. But oh, if you could see the way the storms lash against the cliffs. The way the white gulls whirl and spin above the salt spray.’ Her hands had started moving, although she seemed unaware of it: instinctive sweeps of fluid motion that suggested to me she was painting without need of her brushes. Spellbound by the sway, I knew that Joan was not just describing what she remembered but what she could see, here and now. Invisible yet undeniable, a painting was already taking shape. ‘If you could only feel the crash when the waves strike the coast.’ She struck her palms together, a cymbal clash of climax. ‘It’s like baptism, Lil. No, rebirth. Reincarnation. Understanding where one fits in the ebb and flow of everything.’

I’d been holding my breath again. That was how I explained the dizziness. Awestruck into silence, I could think of no worthy response. A few stilted seconds passed before Joan took pity on me.

‘Write if you should ever like to see it,’ she offered as she turned to walk away. She told me later that my letter made it to Catterline before she did.


*


I clattered along The Row laden with my supplies, weighed down like a seaside donkey but with none of their easy placidity. The wooden legs of my bulky borrowed easel struck against my thigh with every step.

‘Folding,’ Mr Neil had assured me, but without knowing which screws to loosen, I felt as if I was far more likely to collapse than it. The bruising impact became worse when I started to run: hurtling past the sand-lined cobblestones and tattered salmon nets that marked the edge of human habitation and down to where the untamed seagrasses surrendered themselves to the water. There she stood. At work only inches from the ocean.

‘Joan!’ Keenness overcame embarrassment and I called out, waving eagerly and ignoring the repeated thumps from my easel struts. Joan raised her own hand in greeting, paintbrush still clasped inside her fist, before returning her attention to the sea. Her serious expression was intent upon a canvas – no, a hardboard – of vivid sapphire blues, bottle glass greens and cotton cloud whites mixed with feathered greys. Drawing nearer, I felt alarmed by the way the overarching waves sent scattered droplets across her half-finished work, speckling it with sea foam flecks that even now were seeping into her creation.

‘It’s getting wet!’ I exclaimed when I reached her, abandoning my heavy load on the sand in my haste to raise the alarm. ‘Look at the waves, they’re…’

‘They’re doing their job.’ Joan smiled without raising her gaze from the artwork. ‘Like me.’

‘But…’ Suddenly, her dark windswept brows met in the middle: focus fixed on some minute detail of the piece that was, for whatever reason, dissatisfying her. A succession of brushstrokes followed. Loose, bold and decisive. I had the oddest sensation that the painting had spoken first and I must now wait my turn to be answered.

‘You found the place then?’ Frustration eased, Joan’s gentle grin returned as, at last, she broke off from her painting to look at me. I simply nodded, deciding that to elaborate on my missed train and multiple wrong turns would do me little credit in her eyes.

‘The village seems quiet,’ I observed rather obtusely. ‘Quiet and… conservative.’

‘Aye, but they’re kind folk.’ Joan was already returning her attention to her artwork, moving a still-damp patch of impasto pigment beneath her thumb.

‘I’m sure they are, but still…’ They don’t seem the sorts to embrace an artist. That’s what I wanted to say. Not an astonishing, visionary, unconventional artist like you. I knew a little more about her life now, or so I thought: my ears attuned to whatever snippets of gossip I could surreptitiously glean from my tutors and fellow students. Mrs Audrey Walker. The only name, other than Angus Neil’s, that I’d repeatedly heard tied to Joan’s. A Court Sheriff’s wife who visited her often. Unnaturally often, some said, their thin lips coiling into sneers. The sneerers refused to elaborate on what was so unnatural about the arrangement, and I was no wordsmith either: ill-equipped to express myself in any other medium than paint. Certainly, I lacked the language to say what it was about this particular rumour that had started keeping me awake at night.

‘Don’t people mind… what you are?’ What we are. That’s what I should have said. Yet despite having travelled alone for miles up Scotland’s coast just to be by this woman’s side, I lacked the courage to claim it as my own.

‘What I am, Lil?’ The first hint of sharpness I’d heard in Joan’s tone. I flinched. A gull cried overheard, the grating shriek giving voice to my shame.

‘A… a…’ Scrambling, I tried and failed to cover my mortification, each bungled attempt as unconvincing as a weak drawing destined to be scrapped. ‘An artist. Just so different to the rest of them.’ Joan sighed, as if she had decided – quite possibly against her better judgement – to exercise patience with me once again. Why? As I later learned, she had a gift for seeing past flaws to find the truth.

‘Well, between you and me,’ she confided, voice low and conspiratorial to match the whispering rush of the waves. ‘I am different.’

My pounding heart seemed to stall inside my chest. ‘Different how?’

‘I’m half-English.’ Joan grinned, brown eyes shining impishly bright. ‘I keep that information to myself here.’

Her invitation to stay in the cottage had come with an advanced warning about its primitive conditions. No heating beyond a smoke-heavy log fire in the main room. No electricity at all. No indoor sanitation, for that matter, and yet I found the uncompromising ruggedness actually enhanced its escapist charm. I told Joan so. I thought she’d be pleased.

‘You wouldn’t say that in winter,’ she quipped, busying herself with hurling another splintered log into the grate. The thought of being here six months from now felt warming enough for me. ‘I’ll take the couch,’ Joan told me. Polite as I could, I tried to protest. ‘I insist,’ she said with surprising firmness. Only when she pointed did I realise that she still had hold of her paintbrush. ‘There’s the bedroom.’ Her bedroom. I carried through my jumble of possessions and, daring to perch on the threadbare blanket that was laid out over the small bed, I opened my sketchbook. From where I sat, I could see the sea. The light over the ocean was failing, silver highlights momentarily illuminating the gloom as charcoal shadows rolled in over the coast. Still, I could just about discern the outline of Joan’s makeshift shoreline studio.

‘It takes shape where I settle,’ she had explained matter-of-factly when, to my shock, we walked away and left her painting outdoors to the wind, rain and sea smir. ‘The elements will complete what I can’t capture.’ Now, straining my eyes to see through the dusky half-light, I started to sketch. Smudging, rubbing, pressing with all my might and then caressing, coaxing, enticing the more delicate forms to transform into what I desired. Only once I stepped back, graphite stained and exhausted, did I realise that I had drawn Joan too. Standing beside her easel on the cusp between shore and sea.

I was at work again the next day when the crash came. Increasingly frustrated by the genteel translucence of pencil, with Joan’s encouragement I had moved straight onto painting: slashing at my unprepped surface to evoke the tempestuous conditions around us, changeable and dramatic even at the height of so-called Scottish summer. My fingers worked themselves to a frenzy, compelling my brush to mimic the wild swell of the waves until, driven half-mad with the thwarted desire to capture all that I couldn’t articulate, I discarded my tools altogether and worked with my bare hands right in the paint. But even swept up by such passionate, violent enthusiasm, I couldn’t fail to hear the clatter when the ladder fell to the floor.

‘I’m a bloody fool,’ Joan groaned, struggling to hide a grimace as I extracted her already-inflamed ankle from the ladder struts between which it was twisted.

‘Telephone, telephone…’ in panic, I scanned the room, before remembering the cottage’s charmingly basic amenities. ‘There is no bloody telephone!’

Despite the pain, Joan shot me a wan, watery smile. ‘I’m teaching you bad habits.’ The alarm was eventually raised in what Joan called ‘the old-fashioned way’: me charging along The Row in only my wool socked feet, battling with the winds as I shouted for someone, anyone, to fetch the doctor. A tweed-clad older gent with a weather-beaten leather bag duly presented himself at the cottage door and Joan’s swollen ankle – by now, the same width as her paint palette – was attended to.

‘Mind, you won’t be up and about for a few weeks yet,’ the doctor warned her, dourness dissipating in favour of the cheerful camaraderie that Joan alone seemed able to beguile out of anyone. ‘Can your friend stay here to take care of you?’

‘She can,’ I said before Joan had the chance to speak. ‘And she will.’

Together, we took to hobbling down to the shoreline each day, Joan’s arm slung over my shoulder as I helped her compensate for the uneven slant of her injury. The pressure should have burdensome, physically as well as emotionally, yet I bore every step with gladness. To feel her pressing into me, our limbs linked and our heads bowed, I could have walked ten times that distance without complaint. The idea that Joan might take a break from painting to convalesce had not been broached, even by the doctor. He was evidently well acquainted with the quiet yet implacably headstrong nature that I was only starting to appreciate. Without fail, Joan and I went down every morning in our strange, three-legged formation to the coast. I set up a miniature studio beside her own artistic encampment: learning more from her proximity than countless classes with other ‘experts’ had taught me. Hours passed while we remained there, side by side as we each entered our own creative worlds. Determined to paint and delighted to be beside her, still it was always me who capitulated first: admitting temporary defeat to a growling stomach or the imminent threat of darkness to which Joan herself showed little heed. Without my weakness holding her back, I often wondered if she would have stayed in position all night, a visionary sentry keeping watch over the ocean until dawn.

Indoors, Joan was forced – with no little frustration – to assume the conventional role of an invalid.

‘You should find something left at the back of the cupboard,’ she promised vaguely one evening as I headed into the tiny kitchen to prepare our next meal. ‘Cheap and cheerful, of course. Habits taught by the ration book. Although I suppose that was before your time.’

‘I’m not so young that I don’t remember rationing!’ I spotted the teasing smile on her face too late. Then I realised how well I could now read her smiles and started to grin myself.

After tea – with no need for pretentions, why bother to call it ‘dinner’? – it was time to change her bandage again.

‘Leg please,’ I commanded, and Joan dutifully raised her foot until it was nestled in my lap. I had never been maternal, disdainful of dollies even as a girl. Who cared for rock-a-bye babies when there were drawings to be done? This sensation of caring for someone was a new and confusing one. Pleasurable in its power. Painful in its tenderness. Delicately, reverentially, I undid the tiny pin, then gently unspun the bandage until my fingers were resting on Joan’s bare skin. Pale and rarely exposed, I watched a few downy hairs above her heel spring up from the shock. I let my hand trace the soft curve of her ankle bone, telling myself I was checking for swelling. It looked perfect now. It felt perfect. Only after a few seconds did I notice the brilliant splashes of paint.

‘How on earth did this get here?’ I laughed, unable to draw my eyes away from those bright flashes of blue on a background of porcelain white. Joan joined me in smiling.

‘I guess it’s what I’m made of,’ she said, placing her hand over mine. Our fingers knotted together. The motion made me think of a Celtic cross or an old handfasting ceremony. Soon, I could think of nothing but Joan. Her kiss tasted sandy, I remember, like she was one of her own visceral creations. That exquisite wildness of the elements embedded into every cell, mixing with the paint until both had become a part of her.

'Is it always like this?' I asked afterwards.

'Never,' Joan replied.


*


Summer swept by in broad, bold brushstrokes, my sheer and sudden delight making it hard to distinguish one day or one night from all the rest. Making art. Making love. Every conscious moment was spent in some form of passion. Creation or destruction in the hope of recreating something better; each intense new intimacy heightened by the shocking savagery of summer storms. To pluck out one day from their midst would be as meaningless as insisting that a single grain of sand could represent the beach. This was no lone scribble or isolated practice drawing. This was the whole, immerse seascape. Quite naturally – indeed, nothing could have felt more natural – I found myself starting to dress like Joan, wrapping paint-stained men’s shirts around myself and shaking out my choppy, self-cut hair as I took my place at her shoreline studio.

‘I’m not going back,’ I announced one morning near what should have been the start of my term. The water was tranquil, remarkably mellow when glimpsed in the glinting light of the sunrise, and as an undulating wave reached the shore, I caught a hazy hint of my messy reflection. Running wild, I thought, as the ragtag shimmer was swept back into the sea. With no desire to be tamed again. ‘I’ll quit my course,’ I insisted, gripping my salt-scratched paintbrush for emphasis. ‘Stay here as long as you’ll have me. I’m learning everything from you, after all.’

I thought she’d be happy. Hold me close and kiss me hard, or so I hoped. How little I understood. How poorly I had grasped what she truly had to teach me. Instead, Joan’s face grew serious and stern.

‘Don’t be daft, Lil. You have to go back.’

‘You don’t want me here?’ To think of that petulant tone now makes me cringe. But yet again, Joan was patient with me.

‘It’s hardly a question of that, my love.’ She reached over to brush my cheek. My skin prickled from the moisture of ocean droplets on her fingertips. ‘But I couldn’t forgive myself if I held back your painting. In time, you wouldn’t forgive me either.’

‘I…’ My objections flowed away unexpressed as I realised how right she was. To remain here indefinitely, however much I craved it, would be to admit that something mattered more than art. Choosing personal love over our shared calling to paint, and demeaning myself in Joan’s eyes through the process. To stay would be to lose her. Just as surely as even the strongest tide must recede if it hopes to return. To keep her, to honour all we had found together, I had to go.

‘Just say the word,’ I pledged, ‘just say one word and I’ll be back.’ A diminutive spark of defiance in the face of a wider fate I could not fight. ‘I mean it, Joan. A line from you to say you need me is all it’ll ever take.’

‘I know,’ Joan murmured, already recommencing her work. She was never interested in sentimentality. Still, it soothed me, comforting me even as I forced myself to turn away: teardrops mingling with the sea drizzle to stipple and dampen my plump young face. Heartbroken. Or so I thought. How devastatingly innocent I must have been to believe that this sort of separation – both alive and well, albeit briefly parted by circumstance – was a genuine heartbreak at all. Mournfully gathering up my paints and brushes, I recall consoling myself with the fervent hope that life would wash me back here, given time. And it has. God knows, I should not have wished it so.


* * *


She is still sleeping. I am still keeping watch. I see the dark eyelashes of her pallid complexion twitch again as if windswept, buffeted by the breeze within the deep dreamscape that she alone inhabits. I believe she is back there. I believe a part of her will always be out there, long after I and the rest of her inspired, imitative disciples have left this immortal coast. Anticipating the coming storms; finding truth while creating beauty. Her paintbrush in her hand and her easel at the ocean’s edge.


This story was inspired by Joan Eardley: A Centenary of Life and Landscapes at Glasgow Women's Library and is available to read in the exhibition space, alongside several brilliant books exploring Joan's art, life and legacy.



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