It’s hard to get yourself going in the mornings when every day your hopes and dreams slam headfirst into a brick wall (note: the only window in here overlooks a brick wall). I wake up to find myself in a cramped apartment in Brooklyn with all the charm of a public restroom.
The starving artist lifestyle doesn’t suit me. A mossy stain blooms across the ceiling in my “kitchen” and the floor permanently glistens with a sheen of water from the leaking pipe upstairs. My super swears it’s been fixed. I try to spend as little time as possible in here, mostly to avoid my roommates. I’ve attempted to decorate my area of our living space with kitschy throw blankets from street-side flea markets, convincing myself it’s Boho chic—at least that’s what I tell people back home. I have to make sure they’re appropriately jealous that I’m making my way in the Big City. It’s the only thing that makes this all feel worth it.
The walls I leave bare, with the exception of my favorite piece from grad school. It’s a large, square 36” x 36” canvas with bright swaths of coral and copper oil paints scraped on with a paint knife. My professor loved the texture; he told me that people like to be able to “see” the paint. I imagine it hanging above my fireplace one day, my faceless husband and children stopping to admire it and murmur in awe, “this is where it all began.” My only fear is that my apartment’s shrimpy mildew smell will seep into the canvas.
Most days I wake up before first light and gather my supplies to go set up a space before the other vendors take up the prime real estate. There’s only so much I can fit into a rolling suitcase: my folding easel, a blanket, a pad of watercolor paper, paints, brushes, and a makeshift display of some of my previous pieces. My work is abstract, and lately a blend of swirling watercolor patterns with bold dashes of acrylic for character. I feel like it captures my emotional state: turbulent, vibrant, and teetering on the edge of epiphany. Unfortunately, people aren’t usually in the market for an emotional state.
I originally wanted to set up “shop” in SoHo, displaying my art in the streets around elegant galleries, waiting to be discovered. In my first days in the city, I lugged the few canvases I was willing to sell from grad school, along with a series of prints (including the piece on my wall), to the famous art district. Before sunrise, the streets were already filled with vendors: one selling pieces made from stone, resin and crystals, another selling jewelry with handmade glass beads, and what seemed like miles of painters like me displaying thousands of prints and watercolors and sketches. The magnitude of it all was dizzying, and I suddenly felt so small between the latticed cast-iron buildings. I bounced from Spring Street to Prince, looking for anywhere I might carve out a space. Long-time vendors gave me side-eyes; they guarded their spots jealously. They were Artists, and I was just an artist. After a few weeks of this, I gave up and moved to Central Park.
Now, I gather my suitcase at the crack of dawn and slip out to the F train. In the morning chill, the streetlights still glowing, my street looks peaceful, and almost safe. I roll my suitcase down the few blocks to the subway—I use a hard shell to protect my wares, and also to avoid soaking up street juices with a cloth bag. I had learned that the hard way.
The atmosphere shifts drastically just a few steps into the subway station. The fresh morning air suddenly transitions into a stale, humid fog, like walking into somebody’s hot breath. I’ve mastered whipping out my Metro Card and swiping it without breaking stride. Another $2.75 out of my budget. Below, a few early office workers stand wearily on the platform. I drag my suitcase past—it echoes in the pre-train quiet. I walk the length of a few cars to end up somewhere less crowded than the car at the foot of the staircase. I stand toeing the yellow line. I peer down the tunnel to try and catch the first glimpse of a headlight. Then, the high-pitched squeal of metal on metal shrieks down the tube. I briefly consider jumping onto the tracks. I’m not suicidal, it’s just always fascinated me how close I stand to death in these moments. The train bursts into view and shudders past, blasting hot air into our faces.
The doors open and it’s early enough that I don’t have to push my way on. I snag a seat against the railing and lean—I’m riding all the way up to 57th street, so I’ll be here for a while. I start up a podcast. I’ve also found that if I fix my eyes on a single point, I can tune out my surroundings and get lost in the audio. I don’t notice passengers climb on and off. It’s by some miracle of muscle memory that I look up in time to get off at my stop. That moment when you climb up the subway stairs and emerge at ground level always feels like breaking the water’s surface and finally being able to breathe.
I’ve found a regular spot on 5th Avenue between 63rd and 64th. At first, I was surprised that I could land in such a heavily trafficked tourist area, but the vendors up here aren’t nearly as snobby. They’re more in the business of making cash than making art, and that’s more my speed right now anyway. I sit between a Statue of Liberty character who paints himself green every day and sells photos for $1 and a fairly successful caricature artist named Radhika. She and I have become close this past month—close as in friendly, not just proximity-wise. She’s been doing this for a while and gives me tips (“See the vendors who partner with military veterans? They’re selling merchandise and veterans act as insurance to protect against cops looking for vendor licenses”).
I spread out my blanket so I’ll have somewhere to sit and prop up my display of prints and new pieces. I learned that it’s pretty impossible to drag canvas across the city, so I’ve switched to mixed media paper and lighter paints. I set up my foldable easel and fasten a clean sheet to begin my day. I like to look busy when potential customers walk by. I find that if they see me in the process of “making art” they’re more likely to stop and look at what I have to offer. I sell prints for $15 and originals for $30. Thank the 1st amendment you don’t need a vendor license to sell visual art in NYC—I definitely couldn’t afford it.
I pull a water bottle out of my suitcase and start to dip my brushes. I’m feeling olive and teal today. I pour some water into my hand and flick it onto the paper—if you want your watercolors to flower, the wetter the better. I work slowly as I mix my paints. I try not to look up as people flock past. You don’t want to look to desperate. I eavesdrop as Radhika works on a caricature (“So what are your hobbies? What’s your favorite food?”) and when she’s done, I can’t help but appreciate how much people will pay for a flattering cartoon that exaggerates their favorite features. No one looks bad in Radhika’s caricatures, yet some people swear she really captured their “essence.” She makes $50 per marker sketch ($75 for a couple) and has a steady stream throughout the day. The best I can hope is that someone waiting in her line or watching her work might glance my way and impulsively decide to purchase some abstract art.
I take my time with my watercolor. I tilt the easel so it lies flatter and the colors can spread more evenly. A blotch of peacock green bleeds toward the edges of the paper. I blow on the water to correct its course. I add more blue. Radhika chats with her customer (“Have you ever been to New York before?”) and I dilute the greens with small, dark rivulets of indigo. Today’s colors are jealousy, insecurity, fear. Radhika finishes thirty caricatures before noon. The sun reaches its zenith and dries my watercolor. I sell two prints and one original. By now, I have never needed to pee so badly in my life, so I know it’s time to pack up. I can’t risk leaving my spot to run to the bathroom—and where would I find one anyway?—which is why I try not to drink anything all morning. It’s about time to start my shift. You can’t live on two prints and an original (though $60 is nothing to sneeze at).
I work on 57th between 5th and 6th, just a few short blocks from my spot. It’s a bougie, upscale grocery store called Persimmons & Endive where all of the nearby office workers stop in to buy lunch from our overpriced hot bar—not the kind of hot bar you’d find in any corner bodega, we sell things like veal meatballs and grilled branzino. I had tried unsuccessfully to find a job in a gallery, but I do feel lucky to work in a place that gives me a free lunch. My boss lets me store my suitcase in the back, and once I put on my apron, I shed my artistic self and enjoy the simple pleasures of people watching and judging their choices. Who spends $20 on lunch? And upgrades to the gorgonzola butter? Someone who makes more than minimum wage, I guess. Five hours of cash register tedium, back into the hot air of the subway for an hour during rush hour, and enough time back at the apartment to shower off the city’s grime before bed. Up again before sunrise, rinse and repeat.
This morning I sit next to Radhika and ask her for some advice on how to land more customers.
“People like to feel ‘seen.’ If you can get them to believe that you understand them on some deeper level, you’ll have them eating from the palm of your hand.”
I consider this for a while as tourists stroll past. I usually have plenty of people stop to admire my paintings, maybe even snap a photo on their phone, but getting them to pay for the art is another matter entirely. School doesn’t really teach you how to market yourself. I always had this fantasy that I would be “discovered,” my paintings so captivating that some critic or gallery owner would notice me on the street and be so overcome that they would take me on as their protégé and introduce me to the elite art world. I know how that sounds, but it has happened to people, so why not to me? Now I know better. I have to be willing to dress up like the Statue of Liberty (metaphorically speaking) and sell myself.
I clip another piece of paper to my easel. Radhika has a few people waiting in line. I clear my throat and call out to one: “Excuse me, miss? Would you like me to paint you?”
She gives my paintings a once over. “What?”
The lie comes easily. “I have this heightened perception, like a sixth sense, about people. If you tell me a little about yourself, I can paint your true colors.”
She looks skeptical. I hold up one of my watercolors. Burgundy and rust-colored tendrils spread across the painting. “This man fought in the Gulf War. See? You can tell he has a lot of regret.” She hesitates. I press her. “It’s only $30.” The idea of saving $20 on a souvenir is enough for her to settle cross-legged on my blanket. I grab my paints and start imitating Radhika. “What are your hobbies?”
After the first customer, the rest follow. People see a line and want to join it. I listen to their life stories and paint feverishly. I paint in a way I haven’t for years—these aren’t part of my “legacy,” they’re just street art. I don’t hold back or second guess myself. Each time I finish a piece, my subject smiles and repeats some version of “yes, that’s SO me!” and by noon I’ve made $480. Radhika is surprisingly proud of me—to be fair, the attention I was getting brought more customers her way too. I decide to buy some steak after my shift tonight.
These new paintings are starting to get a lot of buzz. I learned about this phenomenon called “synesthesia,” some peculiarity of the brain where the wires get crossed. Some people say they can taste names or see music. I tell people I have synesthesia. Once I get to know you, I paint your absolute essence, your purest self. People have been eating that shit up.
I’ve changed my sidewalk display to match my newfound niche. In addition to original “likenesses,” I also offer paintings of celebrity personalities. Taylor Swift is a roiling palette of ocher and cream, Bill Murray is a flurry of cobalt and ash. A famous blogger recently stopped by to take my photo and interview me. The post went viral:
Jackie Prindle Sees Your True Colors
When you think of getting a caricature portrait, you’re probably imagining a sharpie drawing of your giant head. Think again. Brooklyn-based artist Jackie Prindle has a rare neurological condition called synesthesia that enables her to see the world in technicolor. “I guess I’d describe it like I’m looking at a person through the lens of a camera, except the lens is actually a kaleidoscope. And then I just snap a picture.” People have been flocking to Central Park to have Jackie take that picture. One happy customer said: “It felt like I learned about this whole dimension of myself that I didn’t even know existed. I never would have guessed how purple I actually am!” I sat for my own portrait and was happy to learn I’m as tie-die as I feel on the inside.
The blog links to my website at the bottom. I haven’t updated my page, so it still just features a short bio, contact information, and photographs of a few of my more serious paintings. I have just one award listed: “Outstanding Student Achievement”. I dedicated an entire section to that one award, certain that more would follow. I can’t bring myself to change the site to reflect my street art, though people have been emailing asking to see my celebrity personalities. I’m not quite ready to give in to the demands of capitalism.
Friends and family back home have been sharing the blog and asking me about my synesthesia. “That’s so amazing! When did you learn you had this condition? Have all of your paintings been inspired by these sensations?” How embarrassing would it be to admit the truth now? I start telling them I’ve always had it, I just didn’t have the name or the words to describe it. “I didn’t know I was different, I just thought that’s how everyone saw each other.” My own mother starts telling people about how she knew I was special growing up. She loves talking about how as a baby, all I wanted to do was finger paint, and now she knows I was just trying to express the way I perceived the world. She even has this story she likes to tell about me being a toddler and referring to people by a color before their name, like “Orange Tom” or “Pink Sarah.” This never happened.
I feel like Radhika is the only one who really knows me anymore. I don’t have to pretend around her. She’s part of the hustle. I’m making enough money now that I was able to quit my shifts at Persimmons & Endive and focus on painting all day. Radhika and I keep an eye on the stands if one of us needs to take a bathroom break, and we take turns buying each other lunch.
The worst part about all of it though is how much I love painting people’s abstract selves. The colors spill across the page so naturally. I’m not worried about being taken seriously as an artist, or how the composition of a painting might be connected to some larger significance, or what a critic might think. It’s liberating. The only connection I’m making is between myself and the subjects of my paintings. They tell me so much about themselves.
A middle-aged man told me about a girl he got pregnant in high school. Her parents made her put the baby up for adoption. Twenty years later he dreams about his child every night. His painting looks feathered, dove-grey with amber highlights.
A young woman told me about her experience in rehab. She had been addicted to heroin and though she quit, it haunts her daily. Saffron waves with wine-colored shadows.
Sometimes they cry when they see their colors. They hug me and tell me I’ve been blessed with a rare gift, and I hug them back and tell them how beautiful they are. So much of my time in this city has been spent alone. They feel seen, and so do I. But then a voice in the back of my mind calls me a fucking liar again.
Over lunch I tell Radhika about how conflicted I feel.
“I moved here to be an artist.”
“What do you think it is that you’re doing?”
“Tricking people into buying something.”
“You’re painting. You’re selling your paintings. What’s the problem?”
“It’s not real art. It’s dishonest.”
She laughs at me. “What the fuck is real art?”
I don’t know how to answer her.
I get a call from a gallery on Broome Street, The Nouveau Collective. It’s one of the SoHo institutions I’ve always revered, an architectural marvel of wide, arching glass windows and an open white interior. The gallerist tells me she saw my profile going around online and they want to include me in their upcoming Emerging Artist Showcase. She asks me to come by at 2 o’clock with a portfolio so we can discuss my space in the exhibit.
I pull out a few unpacked boxes that have been filling up my corner of the apartment. I dig through the one labeled “grad school stuff” to find the portfolio I submitted along with my thesis project. I brush off the faux leather exterior, my school’s emblem embossed on the front. It contains 18” x 24” inserts with ten glossy high-resolution photographs of what I consider to be my best pieces. I had meticulously arranged them to show growth and a progression from sharp, angry pieces to softer blends of color morphs. My hands shaking, I flip through the pages to make sure everything still looks how I remember.
I want to look perfect for this moment: my big break. I own one blazer I had picked up from a trendy boutique on Smith Street. I pair it with a simple black dress and a necklace just funky enough to say “I’m an artist.” I can’t risk dirtying the outfit on the subway, so I decide to splurge on a cab.
Luckily the driver isn’t a talker, or at least he picks up on my nervous energy and leaves me alone. I open my portfolio to memorize the brush strokes and textures I had once created with a palette knife. Each painting reminds me of the girl I had been in those moments. One version was shy and anxious. The next was going through a break-up. Another was charming but arrogant. I feel like all ten Jackies sit in my lap and stare back at me.
At the end of the portfolio is my Artist’s Statement, the culmination of what I learned in art school, my philosophies, and my hopes. I haven’t read it since graduation. In the back of the cab as we crawl across the Brooklyn Bridge, I read it and hear my old self talking to me about how true art can change a life. Whose life I’m not sure anymore.
At Nouveau Collective I shake hands with the gallerist and we sit at a table in her office to look through my portfolio. She opens to a piece I had painted when my grandfather died.
She points to it. “Who is this?”
The question doesn’t really register and I clear my throat to go off on a rehearsed tangent. “This piece is called ‘Conscious’ and it’s an exploration of grief and confusion. The turquoise clashes with the gold shades to evoke a sense of how disorienting it is when something is truly lost.”
She furrows her brow. “No, I mean whose personality did you capture here? With your synesthesia?”
It dawns on me that my street art is what I’m known for, and that’s what she’s looking for. That’s not what I’ve brought her.
“I guess this one’s a self-portrait.”
We go through a few more like this before she closes it up and lets me know that these aren’t really what she’s looking for. Can I come back tomorrow with some of my celebrity portraits? They’re focusing on more contemporary art for this showcase. Flustered, I mumble yes of course, I’ll be back, and leave.
I walk up to Washington Square Park, the heels I wore for the occasion chafing my unpracticed feet. I collapse into a rare unoccupied chair at one of the chess tables. I clutch my portfolio. What am I doing? If I put my street art in the showcase, I’m locked into the lie. That’s my gimmick. I’m the girl with synesthesia who paints color portraits. If Time Out New York does a profile of the showcase, that bio will be cemented and I won’t ever escape from it. I imagine myself sitting for interviews, smiling through more bullshit about my brain chemistry.
And what if I turn it down? This could be my only shot at a SoHo gallery. Isn’t this what I’ve been working toward? I’ve come so far. I wouldn’t even know where to begin backing out of the lie. What would my former professors think? Am I a sellout, or is Radhika right that selling my paintings is good enough?
I wander downtown Manhattan all afternoon. My feet ache in the heels, but I accept the pain as some sort of weird penance. Finally, I pick up my phone and call the gallerist at Nouveau Collective. I’m not brave enough to openly admit my artistic sins, so I tell her some bullshit about how I feel it would be a breach of privacy to bare people’s souls like that in an exhibition, so I’m sorry but I won’t be showcasing my portraiture. Her response amounts to little more than “Sure, ok.”
I’ve stopped selling my paintings and I haven’t been back to my spot in weeks. I’m hoping that I can just never mention it again and people will forget about the whole synesthesia thing. Then maybe I can start my art career over. I got my job back at Persimmons & Endive. I haven’t heard from Radhika since I stopped showing up, so I guess we were never really friends anyway.
I have some time to kill before my shift. My curiosity gets the better of me and I head to Central Park to see the street vendors. I pass an off-brand Elmo, some cliché NYC photograph stand, and stop when I see a girl selling abstract watercolor paintings. She has a small line in front of her. I ask someone what they’re waiting for, and they tell me that she has this cool brain thing where she can see people’s aura colors and paint an abstract portrait of their personality. I get in line. After a short wait, I sit down across from her and get ready to tell her my story.
Carrie Lee South is a writer, editor, teacher, and MFA student at the University of Central Arkansas. A former New Yorker, she now lives in Little Rock with her husband and four parrots.
© 2021, Carrie Lee South