Posted on: March 8, 2016

In 1954 Jasper Johns painted his most famous work Flag. Forty two years later I would see it for the first time as a fifteen year old and it would carve a desire to paint into my heart. Twenty-one years and I suppose three months after that, I would see it again and wonder what the hell had happened to my life.

That sounds too dramatic. It probably wasn’t the way that, say, former heroin addicts wonder what happened to their life. It was more the way a middle-aged man, beer gut straining his belt, would look at his high school football picture and wonder where that kid went.

I was chaperoning a field trip when it happened. I was keeping my eye on the five kids I had been assigned to supervise. They were sprinting from room to room, eager to get the tour over with, more concerned with the day out of class than the art on the walls. I was trying to soak things in while keeping the backs of their heads in view when I turned a corner and saw Flag exactly where I had left it all those years ago. Have you ever run into someone you were once in love with? Not someone who left you broken hearted, but one you never actually dated? That way you have no bad memories of them, just some sense of things that never were? It was like that.

I stopped and stood in front of it. You have to stand in front of it to really appreciate its glory, all those underlying textures creating a depth that makes it so much more than a picture. The way that the white wasn’t really white and bits of text peaked through like secret messages, it amazes me and always has. And in that moment I remembered what paint smelled like. The sharpness of acrylic, the tantalizing asphyxiation of oils. I lived in those smells for almost a decade, and yet five minutes before I don’t think I could have brought them to mind. They lived in that painting.

“Mrs. Martin are you okay?”

I turned, seeing one of my students, Emma, looking at me.

“Yes, I just really love this painting.”

She smiled and nodded, “Oh, yeah, because it’s an American flag and you teach American history, right?”

No, not right. But how do you tell that to a kid who has to sit in your American history class the next day? Who probably sees you as the robot in front of the room that lives for nothing but to make them memorize the dates of the Civil War? Okay, that’s too depressing. Technically they know I have a life, but in the same way that I know George Washington must have snuggled with Martha; true, but hard to fathom.

“Yeah, something like that,” I replied because telling her any more wasn’t possible.

We looked at it together. She saw a flag. I saw the corner of my bedroom at my parents’ house, my easel, the paint stains on the carpet that made my mother crazy. I saw myself staying up all night in the summer trying to do what Johns did with Flag with as much success as one can expect at seventeen. I saw the stacks of canvases I have in the corner of my laundry room at home, covered with garbage bags because I just don’t know what else to do with them.

She moved on and I had the sense that I was slipping on my official duty. So I turned and hurried to find my group, looking back to give it one last glance. It sat there, waiting for its next admirer, and I said goodbye to it in my mind. I found my kids in the gift shop. They were laughing over a book of cubist nudes. Since they were at least trying to be quiet, I left them to it. And really, cubist nudes are pretty funny. I browsed near enough to them to still be a respectable chaperone. I thought about buying a book on Johns, for old times’ sake, but shrunk down in reproductions, they really are just pictures.

Eventually the rest of the students made their way through the exhibit and we left to wait outside for the bus. The November sky was gray and cold, and we huddled together for warmth in the bus loading zone.

“So what did you like best, Tariq?” I asked one of my students, trying to take my mind off the cold that was seeping into my sneakers.

“I liked the melting clocks one, although it was a lot smaller than I thought it would be.”

The others nodded in agreement.

“I liked the Jackson Pollock,” added Jordan.

“What? The drippy one? I could do that in my basement,” Tariq shook his head at Jordan’s apparent foolishness.

I laughed because that is what they all say, Pollock fans know that all too well. “No offense Tariq, but I doubt that. Maybe if you worked on it for a few decades.”

“Oh come on, Mrs. Martin. It’s just splattered paint.”

“No, trust me. Getting that feeling right, it isn’t easy.”

“How do you know?” Jordan asked.

I shrugged, “I used to paint.” I waited for someone to ask me about that, but no one did. Instead they turned and stared down the street, wishing the bus into existence. When that didn’t work Tariq turned back to me.

“So which one was your favorite? The drippy one?”

I gave him a smirk. “No, I liked the Jasper Johns flag.”

“Of course you do,” he replied.

“Hey, it’s not just because I’m the history teacher. I’ve always loved it, even when I was your age. It’s just so… deep. The colors and the textures. It’s a flag but it’s not a flag, you know?”

He blinked at me. “I don’t know, it just looked like a flag to me.”

Of course it did. And I guess in some ways he’s right. It is just a flag, a flag made of bits of paper, wax, and paint. And somehow, a piece of my soul, too.

Written by: Leslie Martin
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix

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