The town of Shimmer, Maryland, has drawn various African American artists for centuries. Although the artists used different mediums, from quilts to dolls to oil, they all use the same hauntingly unique, shifting color of a marsh bell orchid to create startling trompe l’oeil effects or dazzling light shows that call the viewer’s sanity into question.
To some people, the artwork housed in the town’s small museum is unremarkable, falling into the realm of folk art. Why does the art only sing for certain people, transporting them deep into the marsh to a world that is more beautiful than the one they inhabit? People like Xavier, an art student turned critic who goes the museum for research, Lincoln, a former meth head drifter who finds himself working at the museum, and others who view the art find inspiration and are compelled to create in any medium at their disposal, all attempting to render the same images of the swamp, which puts them in touch with something far greater than themselves, something perhaps insidious, terrifying in its beauty.
Gidney’s writing is strikingly graceful and dazzling, befitting of a book that considers art in every imaginable way, but it’s this contemplation of the impact of art, both on the creator and consumer, that will resonate with the reader long after they finish. How when you see a piece of art that truly resonates, it can be dangerous. There are “[t]things that can break you,” Gidney writes, “things that call to you. Things that make you see your true self.” The intimacy of viewing art, of truly understanding an artist–or even another person–can be devastating. There is madness and beauty, and something sublime in creation. Creative expression is addictive. All of us, no matter what walk of life we come from, can create something meaningful, capture an exquisite piece of our existence in the medium that speaks to us.
A Spectral Hue can easily be placed into a category of novels about art, the most notable in recent memory include Stephen King’s Duma Key and Chuck Palahniuk’s Diary. While both capture the artistic process in all of its chaotic glory, neither hold a candle to Gidney’s work because it celebrates many different kinds of art, from crayon-wielding folk art to creepy dolls, it recognizes that the call to create art comes from a universal need.
Chuck Palahniuk once told a story similar to this (my apologies, if you’re out there, Mr. Palahniuk). He was sitting at a diner drinking coffee and a window painter came along. He watched in fascination as the reversed–looking from the inside–image covered the outside world with streaks and smears of thick, translucent paint. The diners all commented in various fashion, some in approval, others accompanied by snickers. After a while, they could no longer see they artists working. They weren’t even sure when he left.
There will come a time when there is nothing left of us but the art we create. May Craig Laurence Gidney’s A Spectral Hue live a long, long time.