16

•• SLIDE – French Art Nouveau Pewter Centrepiece by Siot Decauville Signed L. Kann smaller

Our days evolved. For three weeks after La Circassia’s arrival, there was nothing for me to do but remain still and watch and wait. During that time, La Circassia didn’t settle into the space. Instead, while she scrubbed and sanded and polished the room and its furnishings, she camped there, working all day, listening to American jazz recordings on the phonograph in the evening, sleeping on the floor at night.

Her work began with the three café chairs. Common in the asylum, they all came varnished with a walnut stain, but on their arrival someone in the workshops over-painted them with sticky white enamel. Much of the earliest paint cured badly and chipped easily, so the varnished wood was uncovered in patches. Over the years, caretakers applied additional coats of paint. Occasionally the caretaker painting a particular chair prepared the chair for the new coat; more often the next painter was as careless as the first. In time I could measure the age of a chair by the crust on it: over-painted layers made a calendar of its days. As carefully as I could, I scraped that away. Now, she smoothed these scabbed-over chairs with oil and pumice powder and polish to leave no evidence of the white paint. The chairs took on a dull gleam, rich walnut, and their frames drew somber curving lines in the air. She did this work outside, in the gravel at the threshold of her room. She ripped off the original upholstery when she began, and when the chair frames were restored, she asked for a small hammer and a box of cut tacks, and re-upholstered them with fine gray corded velveteen, cannibalizing a winter skirt to do it.

She began with the three café chairs. Common in the asylum, they all came varnished with a walnut stain, but on their arrival someone in the workshops over-painted them with sticky white enamel. Much of the earliest paint cured badly and chipped easily, so the varnished wood was uncovered in patches. Over the years, caretakers applied additional coats of paint. Occasionally the caretaker painting a particular chair prepared the chair for the new coat; more often the next painter was as careless as the first. In time I could measure the age of a chair by the crust on it: over-painted layers made a calendar of its days. As carefully as I could, I scraped that away. Now, she smoothed these scabbed-over chairs with oil and pumice powder and polish to leave no evidence of the white paint. The chairs took on a dull gleam, rich walnut, and their frames drew somber curving lines in the air. She did this work outside, in the gravel at the threshold of her room. She ripped off the original upholstery when she began, and when the chair frames were restored, she asked for a small hammer and a box of cut tacks, and re-upholstered them with fine gray corded velveteen, cannibalizing a winter skirt to do it.

Next, she took on the three tables: the small stand beside the bed, the medium-sized table under the shelves, and the larger folding table in the window. I had done my best with these: each was entirely different in its way; each was enameled white like the chairs, except for the top surfaces, which were left bare and more-or-less unfinished. Like the chairs, these had been chipped and worn and were in need of care. La Circassia sanded and polished and waxed them in turn, taking care to leave the tops scraped smooth and unfinished.

When she took on the table lamp and the floor lamp, her approach changed. Instead of handling them gently, she attacked them like a harried mechanic. I borrowed pliers and a set of screwdrivers from the caretaker’s workshop, and brought the folding table outside, along with one of the new-polished café chairs. MacLeish seemed to read daily, almost athletic readings of several papers in three languages – years later I came to see why – and La Circassia spread these used newspapers over the tabletop to protect it. This was enough for her workbench. She sat there in the sun, pulling the lamps apart, reducing them to their bare bones, discarding anything that seemed redundant in them, even the lampshades themselves. After erasing all ornament, she waxed the iron elements and heated them with a blowtorch borrowed from the caretakers. Finished with this blackening, she wiped all the parts – blackened or not – with thin oil, and re-assembled what was essential to each lamp. And she put both back in her room.

With the bed, La Circassia pulled apart the entire frame. This was a modern hospital bed, one of those provided for every patient, built with a steel angle frame and a tubular steel head and foot, all assembled with stamped-iron gussets. Repainted several times, it took her hours, prying with the screwdrivers and wrenching on bolts with the pliers, to pull it apart. When she succeeded in this undoing, she indicated that she needed brushes, enamel, and spirits. In the early hours of a Monday, before the sun was too high and would spoil the work, she re-enameled the head and foot frames and put them aside in the shade outside her room where they would dry evenly, out of the dust.

All of this work – the chairs, tables, the lamps, the bed – went on for hours each day, on the doorstep of her simple studio, which had become a minor centre of industry. During the weeks of stripping, cleaning, sanding, and painting, she slept on her mattress on the floor at night, which distressed housekeeping and disconcerted Mr. MacLeish, but seemed to be of no concern to La Circassia. At the hottest hours of the day, she sheltered from the sun, sitting under one of the trees in the communal courtyard where the patients went to spend their time on such afternoons, but otherwise, the exercise and the effort seemed to fortify her.

While the bed frame dried, she turned her attention to the room. First, there was a general wiping and sweeping, with fresh paint applied where the wall finish was roughest. This was daubed on with brushes and rubbed in with rags, and the shelves where polished and wiped clean. Besides the principal window and doors, there were two small windows across from one another and high in the sidewalls, located to ventilate the space, originally built as a stable. Under the eves, shaded in deep walls, each cast a soft light into the room. Working with string, strips of wooden lath, tacks and a tack hammer, an improvised plumb line, and a soft pencil, La Circassia began to survey this space. She traced a line on the floor from the window to the shower bath tub, and another from side window to side window. From the intersection of these lines, she traced a circle the width of the room and from the edge of that circle she traced two more. Containing these circles, she laid out a grid, dividing the floor into three equal squares with extra space at each end. These survey lines regulated the location of each piece of furniture. She followed all of this by directing the caretakers and myself, relocating the two curtains across the space – dividing sitting area from sleeping area, sleeping area from bathing. Hung across the room, the linen screens now converged to make a narrow, acute, sunlit triangle of space with one window at the apex of the triangle and the opposite window in the centre of a narrow span of wall framed by the curtains. Under this window, in this room of linen and light, she installed her bed.

Above the bed, below the window, she hung a small plain eastern cross.

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