She was a furtive creature in dark blue sweatpants, her hair in a bun, her feet in socks in sandals in a room full of the fumes of dry things: tubes of paint, clay, baloney. My friend Ross kept telling me I had to meet her, see her, peep at her paintings. He said she was a brilliant abstract expressionist, and in the way he had of making every human being sound like a quaint tattered rag doll, he said I just had to look at how dumpy she was and boggle at how such paintings could come out of a sad sack like that.
Ross and I were both in our thirties. He was getting an art degree, and I visited him in the PSU painting studio with its high ceilings and fluorescent lights and the view outside the windows of people smoking on concrete under maple trees. Even with the impending doom of missed deadlines and failing grades, people seemed to move in slow motion, as if they were embroidered on the sidewalks, cups of triple macchiatos in their hands.
Min looked like she was in her late thirties or early forties, her black hair streaked with veins of white, the worry lines that had formed around her mouth and eyes in a bloated moon-shaped face.
I did not see Min drink any triple macchiatos. Min was poor. Min was on a leash. Her husband and she moved from China, and they were poor there, let alone here. Her husband was her master, so much so that he didn’t know she was taking these art classes. Every day, so Ross told me, Min told her husband that she was going shopping for groceries, or taking a walk. She would sneak around his work schedule, use whatever excuse would work for the day, so that he would not know she was in painting classes.
She had secretly saved the money, over a course of YEARS, to take these painting classes. Her husband knew that she had talent, but he held firm to the ideological position that art for one’s emotional edification was wrong and a waste of time. If one was going to condescend to doing something as frivolous as art, it would have to be to make money.
What this meant was that four days a week Min was covered in a cold sweat, in fear of being found out, and in anticipation of losing herself in each of these paintings—phantasmagoric scenes of hell-pits, naked women on fire, and ghostly creatures creeping through forests full of fog; a world of rites, biting, bloodletting, skin-shed-release.
I tried talking to Min about her life, but the language barrier was too much. I have always been terrible at deciphering what people are saying through thick accents. Min knew that her grasp of English was no more than that of a child. The sentences we exchanged were accompanied by smiling and nodding, hands shrugging and eyebrows raised in empathy, as we both expressed the failure of words to be understood by either of us.
(Read the rest of Min in Death Confetti: Pickers, Punks, and Transit Ghosts in Portland, Oregon, published by Feral House.)