Poppy Fields’s dorm room was a mess—sketch pads and class notes lay scattered across the floor in haphazard piles mixed in with previously worn clothes and kicked-off shoes; a pepperoni pizza, ordered two hours ago, sat cold and forgotten on a cluttered desk, its open box covering a digital desk clock proclaiming 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 13, 2007. Poppy herself was an even bigger mess. She’d been creating art for as long as she could remember, but this was the first time she had shown this direction in her work to anyone.
As Devin Lee studied the full-sheet watercolor that was propped against the wall by Poppy’s bed, he felt the surrounding mayhem disappear. He considered the luminous night scene, where a woman stood beckoning beneath a stone archway covered with cascading white roses. Everything was bathed in moonlight. One could not help but feel something secret was about to happen, and should look away. But, the alluring figure and what lay beyond were too compelling.
Devin, a recent graduate from Albert’s Art Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina (where Poppy would also graduate from in May), had always had a high regard for his friend’s work, even if it was a bit too nice at times. He guessed, if he were being honest, he admired Poppy’s work ethic more than her actual work. But this painting was altogether different. It was spellbinding and he could feel himself being pulled into its mystical reality.
“Pops, you’ve been holding back. This is like nothing you’ve done before.”
“I know,” she said, wringing her hands. “What do you think?”
He walked closer to the painting and inspected the soft-edged, glowing shapes. “I’m transported.” He stood to face her. “And I haven’t a clue how you achieved those glowing effects and random textures.”
In that moment, Poppy loved Devin. His open admiration of her work made her feel sweet and warm, like a chocolate chip cookie fresh from the oven.
He ranked right up there with Meagan Richards, her college roommate and childhood best friend, whom she depended on for honest feedback, even if they often disagreed. Meagan’s comments were usually critical and harsh while Devin’s were encouraging and kind. It made for a balanced blend.
Devin and Poppy had gotten to know each other during team projects before he graduated last year. When she graduated, she hoped to become his colleague at ArtViews, an innovative, grant-funded program that employed visual artists.
Poppy had it all planned out. She’d turn twenty-one on May 3rd and graduation was May 11th. Her father had always let it be known that when she turned twenty-one, she was on her own. Well, dear Dad, guess what? I want to be free of you too.
But everything hinged on getting this painting juried into the annual student exhibition, or else her plan didn’t have a chance. The exhibition, entitled Albert’s Best, was held every January. Entries had to be created within the previous calendar year. Max Albert, Director of ArtViews and Founder of Albert’s Art Academy, was the Juror of Awards. The artist who won Best of Show received the opportunity to have studio space at ArtViews for one semester. During that time, the student was required to meet certain criteria in order to pass, and if they excelled, they were offered a job.
Winning Best of Show was a long shot, but the accepted paintings would receive a personal critique from Max Albert, and if this painting got accepted, she hoped he might notice her art and consider hiring her at ArtViews when she graduated.
Poppy thought Max Albert was already aware of her because in September, when he was at the Academy for the quarterly board meeting and visiting classes, he had stood by her shoulder and watched her work longer than any of her classmates. When he’d nodded and said, “Shows promise,” before moving on to the next person, she had thought she would explode out of her skin.
But later she had wondered if he’d meant it. Meagan had been in class that day too, and when Poppy had been practically floating as they’d packed up afterwards, her roommate had said, “Well, one thing’s for sure.”
“What’s that?” Poppy had asked, still glowing.
“Max Albert’s a perv.”
“He’s a perv. He only stood by you the longest because you didn’t wear a bra today. He wasn’t looking at what you were painting. He was peeking down your top.”
“That’s not true,” Poppy said, turning as red as her hair, making her freckles almost disappear. She rarely wore a bra. She didn’t think it mattered. Meagan only knew because they were roommates, no one else could tell.
“Well, he wasn’t standing by you because of the tired bowl of fruit you were painting.”
Meagan’s comment had hurt, but was probably true. Her work was boring. She knew she chose safe subjects. Being a PK (Preacher’s Kid), she felt restricted and always worried what others would think. But, from that day on she’d stopped censoring her art and hadn’t painted another piece of fruit since.
She knew she had to stand out somehow— She had to get hired at ArtViews. Then she would be in the city where she belonged, free to live her life free of her parents, Pastor Wayne and Shrinking Violet, her mousy mother.
But there was one huge problem that made her stomach lurch every time she thought about it. How could she submit this painting without her parents or any of their church members eventually seeing it? Even though Crider, her rural hometown, was only two hours northwest of Charlotte, it was a different world elevated on Bell Mountain at 3,000 feet near the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Living in Crider was like going back in time twenty years. People were much more into each other’s business, imposing their judgmental, narrow views. And the preacher’s family was under the worst kind of scrutiny.
If her painting got accepted into Albert’s Best, it would be on the Albert’s Art Academy website, and if it received an award, it might be in the Charlotte Observer along with her name and maybe a photo of her standing in front of it. She could just imagine the fallout if the outspoken conservative church members of King James True Believers ever saw what their preacher’s daughter had painted. In their eyes, mystical fantasy came straight from Hell. Meagan’s mother, Mary Beth, was the church secretary, and could probably calm down the conservatives, but Poppy still worried. And worst of all, she feared her father’s wrath.
Devin had been watching Poppy for the last few minutes and was beginning to realize how anxious she was over this painting. He could see why. It wasn’t the typical rainbow-hued, happy art of a little Miss Goody Two-shoes. This watercolor was from Poppy’s other side, the one she tried to hide; but this other side was clearly fighting to get out every time her brush touched the paper.
“Poppy, who’s your muse?” Devin turned back to the painting. “I don’t think she’s ever sat for any of my classes.” He whirled back to her. “You found someone new?”
“You could say that.” She had created a series of paintings of this mysterious woman in different poses, who wanted Poppy to follow her through an archway beyond rose-covered stone walls. Poppy had told no one of the dreams that had begun in September after Meagan’s hurtful comment. Or the near-trance state she entered while painting from them.
“And you’re not sharing,” he teased. “Can you at least tell me the title?”
“I haven’t decided.”
“Poppy, I know you. You’ve got ideas swirling around in that mind of yours all the time.”
“Well, there is one that keeps coming up.”
“I’m not sure.” She knew she sounded terribly uncertain. Which was something she would have to overcome if she was ever going to show this series of sixteen paintings she had begun to call Her Midnight Dreams. The watercolor that stood before them was the first she’d painted. The other fifteen were safely hidden away.
“C’mon, Poppy. You can trust me, I’m not going to ridicule your ideas like Meagan or condemn your art like your old man.” He gestured toward the watercolor. “It’s magnificent, whatever you call it.”
“What do you think of Bella Rosa?”
Devin smiled. “Bella Rosa,” he repeated slowly, getting the feel of it. “Bella Rosa is a perfect name for this work of art. Absolutely perfect!”
“Do you really think so?”
“Pops, it’s great! Your painting will definitely get into Albert’s Best. Max Albert will be as transported as I am and probably hire you opening night.”
“I don’t know. The values behind her right hand are a little weak.”
She was about to tell him why she was really hesitating when they both jumped at the key turning in the lock of the dorm room door.