Open Studio

I woke up at 3:50 yesterday morning, with an odd thought in my head: a thought about an unseen group who do unseen kindnesses. I lay in bed for a couple of hours, working things through, hearing key phrases, seeing examples. So when I got up at five thirty, I handwrote five pages of notes, then built the first draft of a story. I knew I’d be working on firewood all day and then on client work all day Wednesday, so I had only until about 9:30 to get a draft together.

This is what it looks like.

The Elizabeth Ida Page Fund for the Completion of Things Left Unfinished

It takes a special kind of person to be a Finisher.

Here, I’ll show you one of my favorite ones. We have a database, of course, but some of them I’ve looked at enough times that I can go right to the volume and the page. This one’s in book 1982b. Tom Clayton. The Finisher on this was Phillip Chen, he’s a locksmith.

Tom was ten years old when he drowned at a cousin’s swimming pool. He’d been working on a model car, and his parents talked about how much he loved cars. And they wanted this car as a memory of him. When Phillip talked to them, he started to realize that it wasn’t really a model car at all, it was his image of the kind of car he really wanted. It was a ten-year-old’s picture of being an adult. So the car kit, when Phillip got it, was a gluey mess. Look at this picture, when it came to us; I mean, that’s just what a ten-year-old can do. But Phillip knew that Tom had an image of himself as a master model-builder, and of himself as a young man who might have a car just like this one day. So he spent four days disassembling the parts of the kit that Tom had already done, finding a solvent that would remove the glue but not damage the plastic parts. Then he built the model the way that Tom would have if he’d been capable. See the seat-belt buckle on the seat there? Phillip used a single cat whisker to paint the center release button on that. Tom had already bought the can of metalflake blue paint that he knew he wanted, so Phillip painted three coats of that and then six coats of clear on top. Look at the finished picture, that little car just gleamed. Phillip built that stand that it’s sitting on, too. Lots of our Finishers make something else in addition to the thing they started from—something that frames the work, or responds to it in some way.

Tom’s parents are gone now. I think his sister has that model now.

Every one of these books, all the way back to the first one in 1907, is filled with stories like that one. We all have our favorites; you will too.

Although we have one namesake, there are really three founders of the Page Fund. Elizabeth Ida Page was a wonderful painter, she did portraits and magazine illustrations, some of her work is in private collections, there’s a small gallery at the Peabody. But when she died, she left one landscape in her studio that she’d worked at on and off for nearly twenty years. It was this romantic scene of her childhood, the creek behind her family’s summer cottage.

All unfinished projects are romantic, aren’t they? They express some great inner longing that somehow we couldn’t bring to fruition.

So when she passed, her husband James Wilson Page contacted another artist, a friend of Lizzie’s named Constance Mullen. Connie spent two weeks at the Page home, and every day, she’d spend hours studying that painting, and Lizzie’s other paintings, too. And every afternoon at six, she and James would sit in the studio with a glass of whisky and talk about that painting. About its techniques, its intentions, its spirit. They used that word a lot: spirit. Mr. Page thought that much of the disturbance of life, from wars to kitchen-table arguments, was worsened by the turmoil of the spirit world. In his letter that he wrote to establish the Fund, he wrote “What are grudges if not the lingering spirits of unfinished relations?”

That became the mission statement of the Fund: To release the spirits of those who have left, to ease the spirits of those who remain, and to fulfill the spirits of the things themselves. And in some ways, that’s our three founders. Lizzie’s spirit could rest with her painting complete. James’ spirit was comforted by having that painting with him. And Connie allowed the painting itself to fulfill its spirit, to come to the appropriate closure for its nature.

That’s what we’ve done, for over a hundred years, from Lizzie’s painting in 1905, before the Fund was started, to last month. Each of these books is a gallery of spirits fulfilled. An unfinished novel or concerto completed. A summer cottage built out. A wood blank turned into a bowl. We don’t privilege any kind of project. We’ll finish a sweater or a baby hat, or the studio of a fabric artist who’d wanted a teaching space for her technique, or a bed of irises that was the pleasure of someone’s lawn.

Our instructions to our Finishers are simple: to complete the thing in its spirit.

Phillip’s finished a few things for us; I’ve turned to him a dozen times. I like how he frames it, he says it builds his creative empathy—it’s a new way to conceive of the kind of work he already does. Our Finishers find the work enormously rewarding, and most come back for other projects. They refer their friends to become Finishers, too. Certainly it’s an intellectual challenge, which is fun. And some of them—not all, but some—accept the notion of the spirit world. But almost all of them talk about the liberation of being asked to see a work through the eyes of its own creator. To do it not as they themselves would have imagined it, but as its originator imagined it.

There’s one writer who works with us, she teaches in a big creative writing program, she’s won lots of awards. No one knows that she’s a Finisher. Her own work is short and abrupt; it’s been described as brutal, a description she doesn’t mind. But she finished a novel for us, a family epic that had been left behind. And she said that because the project was maudlin and ornate, she herself learned the logic and the pleasures of making a story that was maudlin and ornate. She was able to inhabit that way of writing, to inhabit that motive spirit. And now, when her students come to her with stories that she might have rejected outright as being sappy or soft, now she knows more ways to support the spirit of what they want to achieve.

All of our Finishers come to us by referral from other Finishers. They know a few friends who have that ability to keep their technique but let go of their own motives. To see what exists in a half-finished thing, and to finish it on its own terms.

Really, all of our work is by referral. We don’t make our work publically visible. When we called you a month ago, you’d never heard of us either. That’s our goal. Our clients come to us through a network of grief counselors and estate lawyers and hospice nurses, people who encounter unfinished spirits every day in their work. When people are near the end, they often talk about some great project that they’d never spared time to finish, that weighed on their closing days. After a death, families often talk about some great project that their parent or partner had always set aside in order to help others. Those conversations are the origins of our work.

Our donors all come by referral as well. Mr. Page left half of his estate to this project, the other half stayed with his family. Over the years, it’s grown, of course, but we’ve always wanted to keep our projects and our capabilities level. We have no need to be any particular size, we’re not Harvard; we just want to do the work we’re given. Our current donors know their own friends well enough to know who would be touched by our mission, and who don’t need their names on a building. Or who already have their names on enough buildings.

Some of the client families are in a position to donate to us as thanks for our work, and we welcome that, of course. But we take on any project that appears. And often, our Finishers donate their work, or reduce their rates, because they find the idea of spirit completion to be compelling. Phillip spent over a hundred hours on Tom’s model car, and charged only for the fifty dollars he spent in paint and glue and solvent. Tom’s parents couldn’t have afforded even that. It was our gift to them.

This whole library is filled with those stories, a book or two or three for every year. Every project has a statement about its original creator, and the status of the project when it arrives to us. It has the Finisher’s statement of guiding principles that they believe are the project’s motivating spirit. And then it has a record of its completed state—photographs, audio recordings, published texts.

The Fund is its own project of completion, just like all the others, and we find our own replacements to move our work forward. And now you’ll be the Finisher in Chief, as it were. I’ll be writing my record of the closing state as I’ve delivered the Fund to you, and you’ll be writing your record of the status of the project as you’ve encountered it, and the spirit that you believe motivates it as you carry it forward. Each of us has done the same at the beginning and end of our terms—only five of us in a hundred fourteen years—and that archive is here as well.

I’m looking forward to my retirement. There are a few things I’ve always wanted to get to but never made time for.

A few months ago, I shared a first draft of a much shorter work, again in the spirit of letting you see that what comes first isn’t necessarily what will be completed. I’m not convinced by the form of this yet; it came to me as a monologue, but it might be a fairy tale. The point of view might change away from the retiring director to that of the incoming director, or it might become a dialogue between them.

You could Finish it yourself, if you like. To take it in the spirit of its conception and move it forward.

There’s a long practice in Vermont on Memorial Day and Columbus Day weekends—the Vermont Arts Council puts on an Open Studio weekend, and publishes maps with the hundreds of woodworkers and potters and painters and jewelers around the state who are willing to host visitors in their workshops. There’s always work for sale, of course, but part of the pleasure of the day is being able to see the sequence of work that’s normally kept from us. To see the block of raw clay cut with dental floss into cubes that will be put onto the potter’s wheel. To see the dribbly pots of paint that become the landscape. To talk with the wood turner while the chips scatter on the floor beneath the lathe.

Writers don’t do open studio. We sequester ourselves until a story or an essay is “complete,” whatever we consider that to mean. We don’t make our notes public. And I think that’s too bad. The work starts to seem either mysterious (the writer as mystic) or plain (the world is full of text, after all, and it must be pretty easy to make), depending on the hubris or humility of the reader. And it’s neither. It’s work, like any other.

So welcome to my open studio day. Thanks for stopping by.

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