Artists

Time.com

SANDRA AND KAREN finished their orange juice, and looked out the window to the back porch. Their parents were deeply engrossed in conversation. Sandra could tell that the fathers were swapping war stories about their Army days, but she was surprised that the mothers were discussing an art exhibit at the Columbus Museum.

“Want to see my room?” Sandra asked her friend.

“Sure!” They rinsed out their glasses and went upstairs.

“Oh, Sandy, you paint!” Karen walked up to the pictures hanging in Sandra’s room. “These are lovely.”

“Thank you. Most of them were homework. My mother is the art teacher, you know. I call them her commissions. Sounds fancier.”

“Your detail is like a Renaissance master.”

“Oh, c’mon, Karen. I’m just painting what’s there. But thanks.”

“Who did the pictures in the living room and the stairway?”

“Everything else is by my mother.”

“My mother paints, too. Pictures make a house a home, I think.”

“Yeah.”

“You play viola, too?” Karen admired the instrument sitting on its case on the dresser. “I know you’re in orchestra at school.”

“Yeah. Dad’s the musician. None of us escaped piano and voice, and he made each of us learn another instrument.”

“Do you play together?”

“Sure. Although we play mostly quartets now, with Marty and Walter gone, and Arnie still learning.”

“I think that’s wonderful.”

Sandra smiled. “You said your mother paints. What about you?”

“Nothing like Mom, but she makes me work at it.”

“Could I come over and see them sometime?”

“Anytime. I’m sure my folks will be inviting you over. They’re getting along famously down there.” A loud burst of laughter floated into the open window. The girls chuckled. “But you can come anytime you like. It’s not like we live on the other side of town.”

Sandra’s father knocked on the door. He was smiling when Sandra opened it.

“You two better get out there. It’s turning into a parent-teacher conference. And you, young lady, are the subject.” He nodded at Karen.

Karen gasped, and the two friends walked quickly down to the porch. No one was there.

“Over here, girls.”

Marcia Billingsley and Samara Monroe were in the living room, standing in front of a landscape that Sandra’s mother had painted.

“You probably don’t remember this lady from Washington, do you, Sandra?”

“Uh, no, but there is something familiar about her.”

“Just what I said. And today, I understand why Karen here is so good in art class. You were eleven when we went to the exhibit at the Corcoran, but you were rather taken by some of the pictures there. Ring a bell?”

“Samara Majib. Deserts and highlands. Village life and African cities.” Sandra’s jaw dropped. “You, ma’am?”

“Guilty as charged. And I am flattered that you remember.”

“Oh, I wanted so much to be able to paint like that.” She turned to her friend. “Karen, I never knew!”

Karen smiled and looked down. “She’s just Mom around the house, you know.”

“Ms. Majib – I mean Mrs. Monroe, what happened to the portrait of the young woman with the Kilimanjaro behind her shoulder? It was my favorite.”

Samara arched her eyebrows and smiled at the Billingsleys. “You have a prodigious memory, Sandra. I still have it. It is my favorite, too, though we could have stopped saving for Karen’s college if I sold it.”

“Can I come see it? I already told Karen I want to come see her paintings.”

“Of course. Anytime.”

Karen had been watching with a nervous expression. “What’s this about a parent-teacher conference, Mom?”

“That’s my fault,” said Martin. “Sorry, Karen. It was a joke. These two will probably be having art conferences every week at that new coffee shop near the courthouse.”

“Oh, okay.” Karen said, with a sigh of relief.

“Sandra,” said Samara, “if you remember Bride of the Chief after so long, can you tell me why you like it so much?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Sandra turned and crossed the living room to the bookshelf. She selected an art history textbook and opened it to the color plates in the middle. The corners were worn from frequent fingering, and the book fell open to Young Woman with a Unicorn, by Rafaello. She held the book up to give it to Karen’s mother.

Samara looked at the picture in stunned silence, then lifted her eyes to Sandra’s mother. “Well done, Marcia, very well done.”

“The children are often the teachers around here, right, Martin?”

“Absolutely.”

“Sandra, I have this same book at home. Your mother and I probably both used it in college.” Marcia nodded. “Have you seen Dama con Liocorno?”

“No. It’s in Rome. I’ll get there some day.” She looked sternly at her parents.

“No doubt. Meanwhile, when you come to see Karen, could we spend some time in front of the Bride with this photo? I would love to hear more.”

“Sure. That would be cool.”

***

Winter came with a vengeance on Monday morning. By Thanksgiving, Ohio had been buried twice in record snowfalls. Sandra found herself looking at a second semester with no required courses for her high school diploma. She decided to apply for early admission to college.

Her parents could hardly argue with her. Now that she was taller than most of the girls in her class, no one seemed to notice her age. She had met the academic requirements, with a 4.0 grade point average. The experts liked to write about the importance of social interactions, but Sandra exuded self-confidence. After handling bullies, mean girls and the occasional bigot who resented her friendship with Karen, she would come out of high school better prepared than her classmates would the following year.

“But where?”

“That’s easy, Mom.” Sandra said as she swept the snow off the front porch. Marcia shook out the doormats. “George Washington.”

“We don’t have any family in D.C., dear.”

“Why do I need family? The idea is to go away to college, isn’t it?”

“Let’s talk to your father about this.”

“Already did. He’s all for it. But if you want to have a threesome, I’m OK with it. Guidance won’t let me apply without your approval.”

“GW is a hard school to get into. And it’s private.” Sandra knew she meant “expensive”, but she had also researched the student aid and scholarship opportunities.

“If I don’t make it. I’ll have the whole next year to work on a re-attack or change plans.”

“Let’s talk to your father. I need it; apparently your mind is made up.”

Martin shouted from the pig’s enclosure near the barn. “Honey, could you spare Sandra from the light duty? Arnie will never get all that hay from the loft to the stalls by sundown.”

“Okay, dear.” She turned to her daughter. “Don’t forget your muck boots. Go.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She ran in and changed her footwear. “Coming, Dad!”

***

The week before the Christmas break, the senior Civics class boarded a bus for a field trip to the courthouse. This was Sandra’s last required course. With the holidays coming, attention spans were shorter than the days, and both teachers and students were glad for an outing. Sandra toted her heavy book bag; the older kids gave her space, knowing the blonde junior to be armed and dangerous. (*)

They filed in as quietly as twenty teenagers can file, and sat in the first two rows of the public section, just in front of the journalists. Sandra sat on the end near the windows, so the light came over her shoulder. She took out her sketchbook and pencil case.

The case before the court involved a murder stemming from an argument in a bar in early September. The class had studied the jury system, the burden of proof, and the process of jury selection. While waiting for things to start, most of the students were reading or trying not to doze. The room was full, because murder is always more interesting than a property dispute or tax evasion. The bodies added to the heat from the old radiators, putting some of the public to sleep.

Sandra was wide-eyed, taking in the neo-classical architectural details of the room, the expressions of the different groups of people. Her pencils flew over her sketchbook as she drew the room from different points of view. An artist can put herself in the front of the room and look back; a photographer can’t.

When the trial began, she focused on the people up front. She was particularly taken by the different reactions of the potential jurors during the voir dire. Sometimes she would close her eyes to picture a disappointed juror being rejected – or accepted, and sketch as quickly as she could before the next event.

At four-thirty, the judge called a short recess, “to allow the school children to exit.”

Sandra looked in alarm at her teacher approached her.

“Mrs. Schmidt, may I stay? I can walk home. I would really like to see at least the prosecution’s presentation.” The teacher’s face darkened like a bureaucrat about to miss her lunch break. Then the expression cleared.

“Okay, Miss Billingsley, but use the recess to call your parents. They need to know where you are.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” She shouldered her book bag and ran to the pay phones in the hall, almost knocking over a journalist in the aisle.

***

When court adjourned for the day, the sun had long gone down. Sandra stood and turned around to put her sketchbook and pencils away. A journalist was standing there. Just under six feet tall, sandy hair, clean shaven with his hat crushed under his arm and his notepad in his right hand.

As he stuffed the pad in his coat pocket, he asked, “Miss Billingsley, isn’t it?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Randy Schmidt – no relation to Doris, your teacher.” He smiled. “I’m with the Messenger, and our sketch artist called in sick today. I couldn’t help seeing you drawing. May I look?”

Sandra pulled out her sketchbook. “They’re just sketches, I have to fill in the details from my notes and memory later.”

“I know how it works; I’ve watched Mirella. These are amazing.” He reached into his pocket. “Here’s my card. I am sure that the editor would like to run some of your sketches with the story tomorrow. May we call you tonight?”

“Sure. We’re in the phone book.”

“Thanks.” He shook her hand. “Can I give you a lift?”

“No, thanks. That’s my dad at the back of the room. I’ll be fine.”

“Good. See you tomorrow?”

“Only if I can get off my afternoon classes. Your editor may have to call a school official in the morning.”

“He can do that. Later, then.”

The editor did call about nine, and came to the house with a freelance contract. They would pay twenty dollars for each picture that they used. They would return the originals unharmed. He would call the school in the morning. Sandra would make her way to and from the courthouse. Martin gave permission for Randy Schmidt to drive her home if necessary. He knew Randy from church.

The next morning, Mrs. Schmidt found Sandra at lunch and told her that the court would convene at one p.m. each day, and she had permission to attend. It would be counted as a special term paper for Civics.

“Congratulations, Miss Billingsley. I’ve never had special work in Civics before. Would you mind giving a talk to the class when the case is over?”

“Not at all, ma’am. Thank you.”

Karen had seen the exchange. “Sandy, that’s so cool! You’re a freelance court artist now.”

“Here, Karen. I can’t finish this.” She gave her cherry pie to her friend, and rushed to her locker. She had ridden her bicycle to school, hoping that this would happen. Lucky for her, they lived off Highway 38, which the Department of Transportation kept cleared all winter.

The case ran for the rest of the week. The jurors filed out on Saturday morning, having found the accused guilty of a lesser charge.

The letters to the editor that week were filled with praise for the illustrations. Sandra had captured the emotions of the parties, they wrote, in a way that made the proceedings come alive. Many wrote that they had never appreciated the personal stakes for the people in the room until they saw Sandra’s sketches.

School let out, and the Billingsley family could relax for a couple of weeks. Only the cow and the goats needed to be milked at dawn; otherwise, they could stretch out their chores. The church asked them to provide the string quartet for the Christmas Vigil service, and they extended their rehearsals at home with an hour or so of each of their favorites. Some of those were even Christmas pieces.

On 23 December, the editor called. He asked to come by the house again.

When they were settled in the living room with coffee, the editor said, “I have some bad news and some good news – at least I hope it’s good.”

“I hope the paper isn’t closing,” said Marcia.

“No. In fact, advertising and subscriptions increased after the court case coverage. Thank you, Sandra.”

Sandra did not know what to say besides, “you’re welcome. Could we have the bad news first?”

“Mirella, the artist you replaced in the courtroom, is quite ill. She is not only sick; she’s pregnant, and it will be a dangerous pregnancy. Her husband is taking her to New Mexico to be with her extended family and in somewhat warmer weather.

“The good news, for the paper at least, is that it’s not permanent, and there is an excellent artist in town.” He looked at Marcia. “Two, actually.”

“I don’t do on-the-spot sketches like that,” said Sandra’s mother. “She has amazed me as much as everyone else.”

“Sandra, we’d like to hire you as our court artist for the rest of Mirella’s pregnancy. She is due in June, so we are talking about the rest of the school year, and maybe some of the summer.”

“What about my classes?”

“We thought of that. I’ve already had a meeting with the principal and your curriculum committee. I didn’t realize that you have already finished the coursework for your diploma.”

“Yes, sir, but I have to attend school for another semester.”

“We found a solution to that. The school is willing to schedule all your classes in the morning, and release you in the afternoon.”

“This sounds like a proper job, sir. You’ll be paying me?”

“Yes. The same twenty dollars for each sketch we use, and the same wage we pay reporters: five dollars an hour whenever you are on the clock.”

“When would I be on the clock?”

“In court or the premises of the newspaper, or – this would be unusual – if you go out on another assignment.”

“Taxes?”

The editor looked up at her parents, and smiled.

“Your choice. As a freelancer, you’d pay all your own taxes; we would not withhold. Some reporters want to be part-time employees, so we withhold Social Security and income tax for them. Simplifies their tax reporting at the end of the year.”

“I get Social Security credit if you make me a part-timer, don’t I?”

“Someone was awake in Civics and US Government class, I see. Yes, you would get Social Security credit for two quarters.”

“I’ll take term employment if you don’t mind. It will be cool to have my Social Security record starting already. What about when there are no court cases?”

“You’re free to do whatever you need to, as long as we can call you in if there is something urgent to cover. Those are rare here.”

“Anything else I should know?”

‘Yes. Filling the hours of school required by the state. I reached out to my college roommate, who is on the Journalism faculty at Ohio State University. You can register for their extension school, and earn three credits for JRN505. It’s an independent study elective focusing on images. All you have to do is submit the portfolio of what you sketch, which we will have at the newspaper. My recommendation as your advisor is all they need.”

“Cool, I’m already in college!”

“I thought you’d like that.” He looked to Martin and Marcia. “Is all of this okay with you? We’ll need your signatures on the employment contract and other paperwork. And she’ll need a Social Security card.”

“She has that, but I guess we’d better dig it out of her baby papers and give it to her.” Martin smiled at his daughter.

***

Sandra’s last semester in high school passed in a blur.

Between cases at the courthouse, Sandra followed Randy on his city beat, when he did not have a photographer. Mostly this was to the police station. In late March, Sandra pitched the idea of a story about life in the criminal justice system, using her sketches, from arrest, through the police station, the City jail, the courts, and, finally, prison or release. The editor loved it, and the newspaper ran three extra printings, all of which sold out. They prepared a special-order edition of the spread, which continued to sell long after Sandra left town, notably to high school teachers throughout the state. In addition to her chores on the farm, she played with the school orchestra, and made time to ride her bicycle with Karen out to Choctaw Lake.

To her mother’s surprise, George Washington University offered her a full scholarship from a little-used endowment in the Department of Fine Arts. Samara, the editor, and even the judge wrote recommendation letters. Her portfolio of sketches and the painted “commissions” for her mother the art teacher impressed the Faculty. One of Samara’s friends on the committee called her to say that the criminal justice spread put Sandra over the top. “Few artists can also write that well. She’ll be an asset to the school.”

Arturo and Maria Menendez, lead bassoonist and clarinetist in the National Symphony Orchestra, offered to have Sandra stay with them. The Menendez were close family friends, and lived in Foggy Bottom near the University. Sandra and Selena had been best friends until Martin’s retirement. That eased Marcia’s worries in part.

Working around the newspaper, Sandra not only learned to write copy on deadline, compose articles and type very fast, but also to operate the new machines that were becoming ubiquitous in newsrooms everywhere: fax machines, telexes, and photocopiers. Her attention to detail caused her articles to sparkle. Little did she know how those skills would shape her future two years after the family piled into the station wagon to drive her to Washington for her college adventures.

***

© 2020, JT Hine

(*) In American secondary and undergraduate schools, a freshman is a first-year student; a sophomore is a second-year; a junior is a third-year; and a senior is a fourth-year.

If you enjoyed these backstories about Sandra, you might enjoy the novel Lockhart (2020) and its sequel, Enemies, (coming in 2021). Available here.

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