The marquees spread across the fields, centred within the fullness of summer and rolling countryside. On the perimeter where man had not interfered with nature, the long grass grew wild like tiny trees next to the giant trees that had stood for years and were once again filling their limbs with rich, green leaves. The place smelt of freedom and purity and soothingly washed you clean from the detritus of life. The sky and earth were one and the natural colours always complimented each other when maybe they shouldn’t. The green, green grass of home that spread in front of her, as far as she could see looked like badly stitched together tapestries but never failed to appease her. Life would not be long enough to ever get enough of this view. But she couldn’t stay here on the edges watching and expanding into the sky, she had to go and sit in the middle of one of the big tents, working together with all the other ants busily fetching, carrying and displaying. The venue was beautiful but the canvas cage was not.
She wandered through the linked marquees and took note of all the artists she passed. The theatrical sorts that were covered in paint as they set about a blank canvas. The silent sketchers that were lost in graphite detail, the vision in their minds desperate to emerge on paper and their steely eyes as dark as their leaded pencils. The milliners heads adorned with flouncy bright headwear and felted, cerise poppies and the silversmiths all neat and tidy, dressed simply and elegantly like their displayed work. The sculptors sat hidden at the back of their stands letting their giant pieces do the talking so they didn’t have to. Wise. She should have been a sculptor. The place was visually overwhelming and it became too tiring to take it all in. It reminded her of a circus with all the showmen ready to perform; all vying for attention and trying to be someone but melding into an everyone. Before she’d even reached her small 10’ x 8’ space she wanted to go back outside again where it was easier to breathe.
The sun was beating down through the white canvas and hurting her eyes with its glare. She sat ready on a small plastic chair just outside her exhibits. The air inside was hot from the sun and damp from the previous nights rainfall creating a sauna inside. It made her not want to smile but smiling was important because it made you seem open and friendly. The sound of the brass band outside drifted through the tent playing “Smoke on the Water.” that made her smile a little but then trumpets soon became irritating. Within minutes the coach loads arrived from all across the land and filled the tents with critics and analysers and fine connoisseurs of art. They were like snobby wine drinkers who had to pull every aspect apart in order to justify its worthiness; just liking something was not sufficient. They would stand in the aisles staring at pieces, hands on chins, reasons running through their heads. She felt like a goldfish in a bowl and it was uncomfortable. Should she stare at them? Smile? Leave them be? Start talking to them? She decided to just sit there quietly and try her best to look open, quickly unfolding her arms and every now and then glancing at them with a gentle smile. Soon the questions came. Some were so inane it made her remember why she hated this kind of thing. Some were interesting but not many. She’d always been fascinated by people but God, they made her weary very quickly.
“ What made you decide to take that picture like that?” Said a gentlemen staring at a photograph.
“I didn’t decide to take it a certain way I just took a part of it that appealed to me when I saw it.” A little too brusque, she thought, as she’d been told before in life but she didn’t mean to be, she was just answering the question as directly as possible. Making up some fanciful la-dee-da answer was not her way. “I suppose it’s just the way I see things…” she added to soften her first response.
“Very interesting.” He replied, standing for a while longer in silence before taking her business card and wandering off.
The people kept on coming through. Too many bodies and too many opinions. Which was right?
“Do you think photography is art?” Said another.
If she wasn’t enjoying the mouthful of caramel shortbread she might have spat it at him. It was a question she’d heard many times before. It was stupid.
“Well what do you think?” She threw back, wiping the crumbs from her mouth and smudging her red lipstick.
The idea she’d had of being all talkative and engaging, as she could so often be, had petered out by the early afternoon of day one.
Five days in a tent saw her get beaten into a shopworn, washed out, empty vessel. Fading into the bleached backboards, half there, half not. Wasted by the mob and the confinement. Too much time to think and discover new things about herself; or just remember why she worked for herself and not for some everyday, time kept institution. It would kill her. Freedom was her friend. Containment was not.
She began to leave her station often with nobody there or with visiting friends as she snook out the back of the marquee to sit amongst the wet grass and let it soak up her exhaustion. Trying to be something and make it work in the public field was too much effort. Maybe she should stop trying to prove something to the world or to herself and let go of everything, anything and anybody that was too complicated. Being outside and quiet was nurturing and allowed her busy head to release itself into the vastness of the sky.
Re-entering the fetid tent she watched a young woman as she gazed at a picture. Five minutes she stood there, absorbed and tranquil. Wandering back to her seat and taking her rigid place, the woman spoke to her. “Finally, some decent photography.”
“Thank you.” She meant it.
“I have to have this photograph and can not leave without it.” The photo was abstract, untitled as its identity had to be guessed. Most people asked, needed to know, but the woman didn’t. She didn’t care because she liked it.
That made her like the woman.
The woman deserved the picture.
Maybe the five days in the tent were worth it for that one moment.