“Here,” she said as she splattered bright red paint on the right side of the canvas. “Now you can create anything you want.”
I sat on the hardwood floor of my apartment, holding a paintbrush between my thumb and index finger. My roommate returned to her ongoing project: a satirical Jeff Bezos mural, painted on an old Amazon package. She tiptoed along the edges, eyeing places that needed to be shaded, outlined and repigmented. Meanwhile, I sat paralyzed, shocked by the sudden red gash that appeared on the otherwise blank canvas.
Next to my feet, a laptop sat on a tattered piece of newspaper. Projecting a stream of Jack White videos, my roommate turned the device up to its maximum volume. The sweet screech of White’s voice extended outward with a punch — a Seven Nation Army couldn’t hold him back.
I was entranced. My legs went numb as I sat cross-legged on the floor, leaning forward to watch his jet black hair shake along to the music. I saw White as he became enveloped by his own sound. His guitar became an appendage that led him across the stage, pulling him back and forth with unabashed force. The man and the music appeared as one, and I couldn’t help but be pulled into his dimension.
The sound shook the room with an energetic pulse; it became the paint that splattered across my canvas, assuming a form that was both within and without my control. Pinks and greens dripped from my brush, deciding for themselves where they should fall. A spiral of blue made its way up and around the red gash, intermingling with inexplicable ease. Beneath my hands, there emerged a dance of color — a polychromatic spectacle of pure abstraction.
I couldn’t quite describe what I was trying to make. My paintbrush became a foreign extension that projected my internal state without my conscious control. In that moment, I was Jack White on stage, surrendering to that all-consuming compulsion to create.
“They put me down in the Lazaretto,” White sang from the dusty screen. “Born rottin’, bored rotten.” His romanticization of maritime quarantine chambers then sunk beneath the stormy swirl of a violin. The music lifted to higher heights before it crashed down in an unconstrained flood of frustration and fury.
I’d be lying if I said I fully understood White’s eccentric idealization of quarantine. Yet, I felt somehow connected to the push and pull. I understood the contradiction between enjoying stable confinement and wanting to break free.
As much as I found myself bored rotten in the monotonous bounds of quarantine, I also discovered that frustration breeds creativity. I never saw myself as a painter, but there I was, making something I could not fully describe in words.
Gradually, the scene of a peaceful meadow emerged from the abstraction. The soft greens blended together to form the grass, and the blues assumed the role of a cloudless sky. But still, the red gash held its ground on the right side of the canvas, serving as a symbol of lasting inquietude. Even as I found contentment in the act of painting, the threat of sudden disruption — say, in the form of a global pandemic — remained.
It took a singular streak of red paint to open up a range of possibilities, and it took a global pandemic for me to finally sit with myself. As I crouched over the canvas, I no longer felt the need to stay within the lines. As soon as I abandoned the need for perfection, I was able to embrace the spontaneity. In that unrestrained state, I was able to paint a version of myself.
It’s been almost a year, and this painting is one of my most beloved possessions. People have observed it with discernible confusion, trying to see in it what I see. I’ve even jokingly tried to convince my friends that it’s an original Pollock, but who am I kidding? A kindergartener could just as easily have made it.
Yet, I think there’s beauty in the inexplicability. There is something intimate that only exists between me, the paint and the music.
As I write this column, I cannot help but get distracted by White. I’ve spent the past hour and a half spinning in my desk chair, screaming along to “Fell in Love with a Girl” and “Steady, as She Goes.” White in his various forms serves as a comforting presence that reminds me of that magical night on the creaking wooden floor. Meanwhile, the painting hangs above my bed like a melody in material form.
I found myself down in the Lazaretto, but I found my saving grace in less than perfect paint. Jack White has pulled me into his boundless world, and I have no choice but to embrace the sound.