Leah Gallant

My Painting Was Bad so I Brought It to the Psychic


My painting was bad so I brought it to the psychic.

I needed someone to tell me how to fix the painting because I couldn’t do it myself. For the past couple years I had dragged it around from one coast to another, making minor additions here and there, then removing what I had added, but now all progress had stalled. I was incapable of “resolving” my image. In an earlier era I would have brought my aesthetic grief to my professor, who would advise me which path to take to reach a favorable outcome. But now I was unmoored, I was out of school, and I knew neither how to paint nor how to live.

So I turned to Psychic Lori, whose sole Yelp Review, I discovered later, was a succinct ‘She told me lies.’ Her office was in Old City Philadelphia, a historic district of narrow cobblestone alleys made surreal by the sheer number of people dressed as Ben Franklin swarming any given block. It was like that scene from Being John Malkovich, the Malkovich Malkovich scene, but with Ben Franklins embedded in the occasional drift of tourists.

The day I was to visit it was pouring magically timed rain. It started as soon as I got on my bike and stopped as soon as I got off. I was locking my bike to a stop sign, the rain just slowing, when a black sports car, hunched so low to the ground I imagined it maneuvering under trucks, swerved into the spot in front of me. A round man in a polo and pointy oxfords got out and crossed the street to the psychic’s. He merged with the others I had seen of this stylistic type, they of the distressed skinny jeans and beak-toed shoes. The look seemed to hold great appeal in the economic periphery of the EU. If there was hair on the head it was gelled up into micro-spikes; otherwise the baldness could be concealed with a golf-hat, or minimized by close shaving around the head’s sides. If there were not actually tinted aviators hanging from the neck their presence was implied. The collar was popped, the buttons open to a fine mist of chest hair. In historic Old City, whose hyper-American nostalgia quickly became cloying, he was subtly out of place. Even a bro in translation holds the appeal of the exotic.

It occurred to me that I should have made an appointment. I didn’t know the social norms for seeing a psychic. I had assumed it was fine to walk in and get the reading done then and there. I had also assumed that the service itself would be pliable enough to accommodate my request, which was basically to have her look at the painting and tell me what to do to it, or to just interpret my future based on the image. I was open to ideas. The interpretive possibilities in random objects were endless, as I knew from the Methods of Divination page of Wikipedia. This page is right up there in my top ten accidentally lyrical Wikipedia pages. I love it for its lidded potentialities, the potentialities of not just knowing the future at all but knowing the different ways to extract it. There was divination by eyes (oculomancy) and divination by teeth (odontomancy). There was divination by navels (omphalomancy) and divination by eggs (oomancy). There was divination by cheese and by piss. There was urticariaomancy, divination by itches. Because there were words for these things their realness became harder to argue against. They were practices legitimate enough to get names. That these methods are organized only alphabetically on the page, with no distinction between those practices whose adherents are now presumably few (choriomancy, divination by pig bladder) and those of the tech age (shuffleomancy, divination by Ipod shuffle) only added to its appeal.

I assumed divination was bullshit but I assume all bullshit has its globules of truth; in the way that astrology might nudge you into declaring or revealing the character traits you already valued or perceived, I believed mystics had some fine-tuned sense for people based on the social cues they give off. I believed there was real hard fact in the slack- or terse-ness of a person’s face and the cadence of their speech. My trust in mystics was an extension of my trust in ethnography; I believe that its reliance on the qualitative—the ethnographer’s perception, the ethnographer’s body as instrument of data collection—does not diminish the value or truthiness of the research. Maybe every ethnographer should be trained first as a psychic, super-attuned to the social implications of the gestural and symbolic and minute.

The round little man had crossed the street and was headed towards the psychic’s, a narrow shop front with a darkened window. On the left was a red fluorescent sign reading Psychic Lori. On the right were four esoteric objects of equivalent size: a glowing ball; a glowing hand the size of a head; a plaster Virgin; and a golden Buddha. He climbed the two steps to the psychic with absolute certainty and pushed the door. It did not open. He stood on the top step and tried the door again, putting his shoulder into it, then peered through the dark glass of the door at someone inside and waved his upturned left hand in a half-circle, palm up, the universal gesture for what the hell.

The door opened. It was Psychic Lori, and she radiated an intense normalcy. She was 40ish, in bell bottom jeans, with the obligatory olive skin. She could have been looking me in the eye for an hour and nothing about her face or manner would lodge in my memory; she could have been a seatmate on the trolley or a salad dressing restocker at Aldi. She had the hallmark look of all great artists: she looked like no one at all.

I had crossed the street and was hovering on the sidewalk, uncertain whether to interrupt their conversation.

Over the round man’s shoulder, Psychic Lori saw me drifting and immediately donned her retail-face. The face transmuted from a register of real emotion--she was apparently well acquainted with this guest-- into the outwards emanation of helpfulness. I recognized this face because it was so often my own; when I re-enter the bookstore where I work from my lunch break, I rearranged my features from their default broodiness to what I can muster of a beacon of customer service. Under capitalism, even the psychics get retail-face.

Are you open? I said. The round little man slipped past Psychic Lori into the shop. Yes, she said, yes, come in, come in.

I hesitated on the sidewalk. I have a bit of an odd question, I said, and gestured to the parcel under my arm. It was wrapped in newspaper, with an IBM ad covering the front. I have this unfinished painting, and I was wondering if you could tell me how to finish it?

What do you mean, she said. Her face had not changed, it was both prepared for Customer and totally unsurprised by Customer’s bizarre request.

I switched tactics. Could I pay you to do a psychic reading of my painting? I asked. To, you know, sort of use the painting to scry into my future?

No, said the psychic.

Ok, I said.

I considered taking my business elsewhere, such as to Psychic Readings by Divinity (Yelp rating: 4.8 stars) or Psychic Sandra on Rising Sun Ave. (Yelp rating: 4.6 stars; described by one user as “THE BEST READING I'VE EVER EXPIERCENED!!!!!!”). But it looked like it was about to rain. And I needed something to happen now, I needed to make something happen right now, my frustration or my image’s frustration could not wait any longer.

Ok, I said again. In that case, can I just have the $5 palm reading special?

The psychic basically operated out of her living room. It had wall to wall navy carpeting and the little round man, who was either the psychic’s son or younger brother or duteous apprentice, had pulled out an Ipad and lay reclining on his side on a white couch. A teen boy at a desk by the stairwell sat engrossed in a computer game, the volume off; its graphics had that kind of forced three-dimensionality which affords no curves or points, so that even the breasts of the flag-waving girls were squarish and angular, as though folded from sheet metal. On the walls, hung way above eye level, as though the psychic’s average client were eight feet tall, were two framed Alex Gray posters illustrating the chakras and a pastel image of a flowered path which lifted off from the ground and led curving into the clouded blue sky. It was the esoteric response to Thomas Kinkade.

She led me over to two grey-green upholstered chairs in the corner, set at an awkward sixty degree angle to each other. I leaned my painting against the wall.

Open your palm, said Psychic Lori.

I opened my palm. There was a speck of clay in the center, right in the middle of the lifeline.

Aha, I said, removing it. I just came from the ceramics studio, I said, in order to forego any mystical speculation about the sudden appearance of a foreign object in my hand at the very moment it was to rise to its highest calling as surface which concealed the entirety of my life. I wasn’t trying to throw off the reading by planting any omens or pulling a rabbit out of my helmet or anything like that.

You’ll have a good life, a long life; said Psychic Lori, and she was not holding my hand, she was only hunched over it; You’re in good health, you and your loved ones; I see no death or sickness; no hospitals; (it was odd to have specified this particular location, but what did I know of the ways of the psychic); she was not meeting my gaze, she stared into my palm; she spoke slowly, and I could not determine if the tone was one of intense concentration or intense boredom.

Lately you’ve been feeling a little off, maybe you’re not eating enough or sleeping enough, (what was this maybe, didn’t she speak with the certainty of fact), you’re trying to decide something and it worries you, but it will solve itself over the next few months, so don’t worry about it. You have a strong personality, a good heart, a long life, (this I already knew, I had been informed), you’re having some romantic trouble, you’re a little lonely, you try to be social, sometimes you feel alone in a room full of people, you try to force yourself to smile.

A human life—coincidentally, my own—was being discussed in the most watered-down terms possible. These aspects, selected at random, were turned over and dealt with one by one – work, family, love, health, whatever. It was true that I was a person and that my life was composed of such things. She would not have been too far off had she foretold bowel movements in my future. This was another part of the art form, also common to ethnography, the ability to seem to say something very specific while actually saying nothing at all.

Just stop worrying and everything will clear up, she said, and I wish you the best in everything and God bless you.

She looked up. I handed her a five.

Just clean I mean clear your mind and everything will be fine, she said again.

I left them to their video games and glowing mystical symbols of equivalent size. I am leaving the psychic’s, I thought, as I pushed open the darkened glass and descended the three steps to the sidewalk, and though the people waiting at the stoplight and putting coins in the meter may think I am just another of those suckers, the people who empty their pockets to be assured their contents are human, they are wrong, the future is bright, I am leaving buoyed on the current of a rarefied task, a task relating if not to the creation of Art then at least to its resolution. I tried to get a psychic to tell me the path to a finished painting, to show me a path much like the framed one on her wall that led up into the sky, and the sky was Art, for if I was not making it or writing it I could at least be living it. The clay speck had presented itself in the center of my lifeline; it was my $5 proof, I was lifting off, I was truly an Artist.

I jay-walked without fear across the street to my bike, for I was to have 2x a long life.

That night I lay on my bed-of-two-sleeping-bags, the fan on three, the upstairs neighbors doing what they did best, moving furniture around between the hours of two and five AM. I considered for the first time that they were not actually sadists whose sole desire in life was to torture the ground floor residents, but engaged instead in an elaborate predictive ritual. Perhaps it was, unbeknownst to me, a form of scrying akin to musical chairs, in which it was the chairs that moved and not the people, and when dawn’s first ray pierced their apartment-as-divining-board, the scraping and banging and dropping-of-blenders stopped and they assessed where the Ikea bed lay in relation to the beanbag chair and from there knew exactly how the day would pan out.

I drifted off.

Then: a hat!

A vision of a hat flashed before my eyes. It was a top hat and it was presented in three quarters view. It was composed of black and white squiggles, and these squiggles moved all around the form of the hat in the manner of TV static, a “program” I refer to affectionately as “the worm dance,” although upon closer inspection, these “black” squiggles were some other subtle color, a sort of maroon layered to the point of almost-blackness; or perhaps they were not snakes at all but lines of text blurring before the vision of their sleep-deprived reader until they seemed to be not strands of words but strands of basket, frayed and dovetailing out of each other and fraying some more.

I loved my hat. I would do as Psychic Lori commanded and clean or clear my mind; indeed, she had dropped a hint as to the circumstances in which my epiphany would occur by inserting what I had foolishly believed to be a mere slip of the tongue into her farewell. It was actually a clue that would show me the Path; the vague rolling-around-of-rice-cookers and dragging of bureaus that went on above my head every night, which could be construed as “cleaning” in a broad sense of the term, had actually primed me through sleep deprivation for my deeply meaningful vision of a hat. Now I could begin a new chapter in my life and in my art in which I stopped worrying about bad images and just embarked on new ones. They glittered and beckoned on the horizon. And I would begin by painting a hat.

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