Josie Has a Secret, Chapter Seven

CHAPTER SEVEN

My Masterpiece is divided into three main sections, to reflect what Ms. Dopplemeyer explained in Religion class: The leftmost third is called Paradisio. That's where the good people go after they die. The rightmost third, Inferno, is where the bad people end up. And right in the middle is Purgatorio. That's for people who don't quite belong in either of the other places.

Aunt Leslie was just helping me put the finishing touches on Purgatorio when Josie walked into the kitchen. "That doesn't even look like me," she said, helping herself to a handful of cookies and pouring herself a tall glass of milk.

"There is something missing," Leslie agreed, looking Josie over. "How tall is Josie in your painting?"

"5 1/2 Skulls of the Damned," I said confidently.

Leslie nodded slowly. "That sounds about right. And how big is she compared to the Angels of Nauseatingly Cloying Sanctimony?"

I held one thumb up towards Josie and squinted, the way painters always do on television. Josie continued eating her cookies and reading from her magic book without looking up. "She's about 1/2 a wingspan, fingertip to fingertip."

Leslie smiled. "Good. I must say, your proportions are excellent, Darla. I think we're ready to move into the next major lesson -- lighting. You've made Purgatorio very well-lit, all from the same source...?"

"The Unrelenting Illumination of Divine Judgement," I said helpfully.

"...Which unfortunately for our painting illuminates everything the same amount," Leslie said. "The next thing you might try to add realism is to put in shadows and highlights. For instance, the Extremely Heavy Rock of Absolution which Josie is carrying would cast a shadow over Josie's head and shoulders."

"Like this?" I asked, dabbing a little gray here and there.

"Perfect," Leslie said. "And the Remarkably Steep Hill of Sisyphus has some lovely green grass. But remember that the whole reason Josie keeps slipping back down to the bottom is that the grass is covered with the Implausibly Slippery Oil, which would probably... may I?"

"Be my guest."

"...Would probably catch the light beautifully, giving us a few highlights like so." Leslie dabbed a few flecks of white paint onto the grass. I was amazed how just those few dabs made the Remarkably Steep Hill look almost real.

"Still doesn't look like me," Josie said, smirking with her mouth full of cookie.

Suddenly inspired, I smudged over the bored expression in the painting and replaced it with a smirk.

Josie stopped chewing, swallowed.

"Okay, now it looks like me."

****

"Darla," Leslie began as we were cleaning up, "It's a pleasure to work with a student who learns as quickly as you do. You've got quite an imagination."

"You don't have to say that," I told her. "I know it isn't true."

Leslie stopped running the brushes under the faucet, turned the water off. "What do you mean?" she asked seriously.

I suddenly felt embarrassed. "I just mean that Principal Laquit saw my Masterpiece, and I overheard him telling Ms. Dopplemeyer that I had 'a certain cleverness, but not the kind that would ever amount to anything.' I know he's been taking lessons from you for years, and he's been in art shows and everything..."

The kitchen was silent for a moment, then Leslie went back to rinsing out the brushes. "Darla, the only person you need to please with your art is yourself. There will always be a few people who tell you that your way of doing things is wrong, which is why it's so important to know your own..."

"I think he's jealous!" Josie blurted out.

Leslie looked almost as if she was going to laugh for a second, but then it came out as a weird cough. She kept coughing until I poured her a glass of water.

"Why do you say that, Josie?" Leslie asked when she had finished her water.

"Are you kidding? Principal Laquit draws better zombies than Darla, and he's not even trying to draw zombies! For weeks after he did that portrait of Ms. Dopplemeyer, I had nightmares that she was trying to eat my brain!"

Leslie started coughing again. I poured her a bigger glass of water this time.

"He can do all that proportion and lighting and stuff like Aunt Leslie taught him," Josie continued, "But it doesn't look as if he really cares that much about the people he paints, or even wants to. Everything lines up okay, but he doesn't have any..."

"Empathy," Leslie said.

"Empathy!" Josie agreed, pointing. "The Book says one of the main reasons stage magic works so well is cognitive dissonance -- the tendency people have to hold two contradictory ideas in their head at the same time. I'll bet part of Principal Laquit realizes that your paintings are dripping with empathy and all that, but another part of him believes that there's no way a fifth-grader could paint better than him. So his way of-" Josie paused to read directly from the book, "-resolving the dissonance is to decide that your innate awesomeness is somehow just a trick, so it isn't important. According to the book, all we have to do is recontextualize the dissonance, so that he..."

"Wouldn't that be...," I flipped through my sketchbook till I found the cloudbusting sketch page. "Antagonistic and adversarial?"

Josie looked like a balloon that someone had taken all the air out of.

"Well, maybe a little, but how else can we prove that he's wrong, and you draw great?"

"Are you trying to prove something to Darla, or Principal Laquit?" Leslie interjected.

"Darla," Josie answered.

"So you don't mind promising me that you can recontextualize the dissonance without directly confronting Principal Laquit?"

Josie hesitated a long time before answering.

"Sure," she said finally.

"Then I'm all for it," Leslie smiled. "Also, I hope you saved us some cookies."

****

Amanda didn't come to school the next day. Bobby refused to tell anyone where she was, but he just sat by himself at recess instead of playing ball. And he hardly touched his lunch. Weeks went by before Ms. Dopplemeyer finally told us that Amanda had been diagnosed with cancer. She would probably be out of school all year, but hopefully she would be back with us for sixth grade. Brianna Swanmaker visited her a few times, and said that Amanda's blond hair had all fallen out from the chemotherapy, and she was as thin as a skeleton.

Josie kept doing her tricks, usually anonymously but by this time even the other teachers had a pretty good idea who was behind it all. She had made it almost 3/4 of the way through her book by the time we went on our annual field trip to the museum, which always happened the week after Easter.

Visiting the museum was always my favorite part of the year. I could study the Impressionists, the Naturalists and the Fauves up close, and the other kids could look at the dinosaur bones. The only part about visiting the museum I had never liked was that we were always assigned partners, since it was usually someone I didn't get along with. But this year my randomly-assigned partner was Josie, so even that would be okay.

It occurred to me that Josie may have rigged the partner assignments so that we would be put together. But she was also assigned to carry the class flag, a long metal pole with an especially dorky-looking orange flag at the end. The flag said "Forest Hill Elementary -- 5th Graders." No one in their right mind would want to carry that dorky thing around all day.

Principal Laquit always guided the class through the museum. We were still in the Natural Wonders part of the museum when Josie raised her hand and asked to be excused to use the bathroom.

"Have you ever heard of Hans Van Meegeren?" Josie asked as we slipped away from the group.

I shook my head "no."

"Van Meegeren was one of the most talented painters of the twentieth century," she told me. "But he was snubbed by the critics. They said he had talent of a sort, but would never amount to anything. Sound familiar?"

"This isn't the way to the bathroom," I told her.

"Without the support of the critics," Josie continued, hurrying along, "Van Meegeren couldn't persuade galleries to carry his work. And without the support of galleries, he had a difficult time selling his paintings at all. He was barely earning enough to feed himself, and people suggested that he go into advertising."

"Look, there's a bathroom over there," I pointed out.

Josie took my hand and started walking really briskly. "C'mon, we don't have much time. Van Meegeren was insulted by the idea that he was only suited to 'sell toothpaste.' He believed that he was just as gifted as Jan Vermeer, or Pieter de Hooch, or any of those guys. But he was convinced that the critical world couldn't see past their idea that he was only suited for advertising. So do you know what he did?"

"We weren't really randomly assigned together, were we?" I asked.

"They say coincidence is the raw material of magic," Josie quoted herself. "Anyway, Van Meegeren painted forgeries of Vermeer. At first he just copied real Vermeers, but after awhile he started creating entirely new paintings, and signed Vermeer's name to them. He made millions of dollars -- in the 1940s, when was even more money than it is today -- and the same critics who had told him that he had no artistic talent all agreed that his supposed Vermeer paintings were the work of genius."

Finally Josie came to a stop. We were in the "portraits across the ages" gallery, which was mostly deserted. Josie pulled the rubber plug from the bottom of the class flag and started pulling something out from inside.

"The art world doesn't talk about it much, but of course it's almost certain that some Vermeers hanging in museums to this day are really Van Meegerens." She raised her eyebrows at the painting behind her, which was called Pilgrims. It looked like a Vermeer to me.

Josie began unrolling the something that had been inside the flag. "Would you mind throwing together the frame from my backpack? We're in kind of a hurry."

Inside Josie's backback I found pieces from Leslie's frame shop. I snapped them together to form a frame. Then Josie stuck the unrolled painting which had been inside the flag in the middle. It was the painting I had been working on of J.P. She was sitting in a rocking chair and staring off into space. (Actually she was watching women's beach volleyball on television, but you couldn't see the television in the painting.)

"Hey!" I exclaimed.

"Don't worry, it's not the original. I had them make this at the photocopy place," Josie told me. She applied two-sided tape to the back of the whole apparatus and stuck it up next to the Vermeer. Then she took out an aerosol can of hairspray, shook it, and sprayed it over the surface. Then, just when I thought she was done, she took out a white index card and stuck it under the painting.

"Whistler's Grandmother," it said. "James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1872."

"No one is going to believe this," I told her, folding my arms across my chest.

"Cognitive dissonance," Josie said, tapping her temple. She scooped up the flag and her backpack, grabbed my hand, and dragged me into the bathroom in the hallway just outside.

"Sublime, exquisite, sublime," we heard someone subliming their way around the corner just as we ducked inside. I peeked out the door and watched our entire fifth-grade class go by, impatient to get through the paintings so they could go look at the dinosaurs. Principal Laquit happily led the group, alternately pointing out paintings as either "sublime" or "exquisite."

"Ah, now this will be a treat," he said just as we snuck back into the group. "A Portraits Through Time exhibit." He clapped his hands twice. "Drink it in, children, after this it's all just chocolate milk and soda." At the mention of "chocolate milk and soda" all the kids cheered, which didn't seem to be the reaction Principal Laquit was hoping for.

Josie stood next to Principal Laquit just as he was strolling by my painting of J.P..

"This one's not very good, is it?" she asked off-handedly.

Principal Laquit gasped.

"My Dear," he said, "Whistler is one of America's greatest painters! Perhaps the greatest!"

Josie leaned in as if trying to get a really good look at the painting. Principal Laquit looked as if he was worried Josie might scratch the painting with the flag by mistake.

"But this particular Whistler isn't one of his best ones, right?" Josie asked. "I mean, the Forest Hill museum couldn't get a really good Whistler, could it?"

"Forest Hill has a great deal to recommend it, young lady. A great deal. And I would easily rank this as one of the finest paintings in this museum."

"So is it sublime, or exquisite?" I couldn't help asking. Josie winked at me.

"Neither," Principal Laquit announced, regarding the painting again with a big smile. "It's genius."

How did Josie prove to Darla that Principal Laquit would compliment her skills, given the right circumstances? See "cognitive dissonance" on the page with all the answers.
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