Dried Leaves and Sawdust

By: Joice Tentry Wijaya

For some people, colors are objects. Green is tree and blue is sky – or sea. For me, colors are equations. A perfect formula and a perfect amount are needed to make everything right. You had to have a precise percentage of red and precise percentage of blue to create the sky’s purple hue. For Winona, however, colors are magic.

My first sketch was scenery. The teacher asked us to draw anything that came first to our mind. I stared at the blank canvas for more than 15 minutes because I tried to think of anything but Winona. It was summer and the sky was clearer than ever that not even a string of cloud dared to stain it. It reminded me of my hometown in Bali, of how it seemed to be summer all the time there. I decided to draw a beach.

The teacher had glanced at the canvas I was working on, and she said something about me needing to “work extra hard”. I did what she told me to. Working extra hard. Sketching beaches in half of the total pages of my sketchbook. It took me four months before I eventually got a B+ from her. That, and a nod of approval.

My art class consisted of 15 people, including me and Winona. All the students other than me got that nod of approval since their very first brush. They were people who were certain of their paths and happened to be good at crossing those paths. I mean, why would you pursue for an art school if you’re not good at it, right? This was the question people around me asked me about so often. I, too, asked myself about it sometimes, but of course, I knew the answer.

When I first met Winona, fingers tainted with dozens of different colors and eyebrows furrowed into a concentrated frown, I just knew.

It was autumn in Adelaide during my second year of high school. The breeze swayed me to sleep and so I did, even when the bell rang and I was left alone. Or I thought, I was. When I woke up almost an hour later, a girl – my classmate whom I never interacted with – sat right across me, eyes glued to the sheet of paper in front of her. Her left hand was busy, moving here and there, making the wooden pencil dance on the paper. I didn’t know why I stared at her. I didn’t even know if I stared at her or at her fingers, stained with colors so many that I saw some new colors I had never seen before. I finished staring when she finished her sketch, and I pretended to go back to sleep. I could hear her steps walking out of the classroom. When I eventually got up for real, a sheet of paper was at my desk. On it was me sleeping on my desk.

That was the beginning of our friendship. We got close really fast, maybe because she liked arts and I said I did, too. I didn’t, but if Winona could love it to death, I would love it to death. I figured about this fact when we were heading home from school. We talked about future and Winona told me she was going to continue to an art school. When she asked what path I was heading to, I told her the default response I always told my family.

“I don’t know,” I started. “Maybe some community college. I’m not even sure what I’m going to be.”

“You can be whatever you like!”

Then, I told her I didn’t even know what I liked. It must have been easy for her. She adored arts since she was a toddler who could barely walk, and it was clear for everyone to see. She once drew and drew for 13 hours straight, appearing at school the next day with a sore wrist and band-aids around her fingers. I told her that her passion was burning. Like a wildfire.

She had liked the idea and told me that one day, I too, would find the dried leaves and sawdust.

“Huh? Dried leaves and sawdust? Doesn’t sound passionate for me,” I raised my eyebrows.

She smiled.

“That’s what starts a wildfire.”

It was mid-winter in Adelaide and it marked the beginning of my search for the dead leaves and sawdust.

The quest, however, was not so easy. It was March and I would be graduating from high school in roughly 3 months. I hadn’t found any sign of the dead leaves and sawdust. Not even one. Not even close.

I tried, of course. I tried learning music and although I had fairly liked playing guitar, I never pictured myself playing guitar in front of crowds of thousands people. I liked playing the guitar for Winona, and together we would sing silly lyrics matching with the tune of Westlife’s songs. Then, I tried Math. It was the subject I enjoyed most and I scored fairly higher than my classmates. However, there wasn’t much to do with Math. You got problems, you solved them, and that was that.

“What are you going to do after this?” She asked this question to me when we took a Sunday brunch at Subway, three days away from our graduation.

“I’m not sure…” I replied with a sigh. “What do you think? I don’t feel like I have anything I’m good at. Like you with your arts.”

Winona looked at me with her gaze softened.

“You can go to art school with me.”

I looked away from my chipotle chicken sandwich to look at her, trying to find any hint of joke from what she said. I didn’t find any.

“I can’t even draw,” I said reluctantly. That was true. Last time I remembered, my drawing skill was limited to stick figures. They were not even good stick figures.

“That’s why it’s a school, duh.” Winona replied, now with a wide grin. “You can’t do something so you learn until you can.”

I didn’t answer then. I only took another bite of the sandwich.

However, right a week after that, I enrolled in the same art school as Winona’s.

“Why do you paint your tree blue?” I glanced at Winona’s canvas. We were at The Adelaide Hills, practicing. My skill had gotten slightly better by then. Not even half as good as Winona’s, but my trees looked like trees and my hills looked like hills, and at some point I was even proud of what came out from the movement of my wrist.

“Can’t I?” Winona replied me, adding a lighter shade of blue to the leaves. I had never seen a tree with blue leaves. I didn’t know if they existed, but then again, I was never interested in plantology (later, I found out that the study about plants was instead called botany).

“I thought they were usually green.” I said, concentrating on my own painting, trying to find the correct shade of green for the grass.

“That’s what you thought.” Winona shrugged. “That’s what everybody thought.”

I glanced at her painting, before shifting my gaze back to mine. We painted the exact same landscape. A line of hills right across us, trees and bushes scattering on the vast meadow. However, there was something that was so blatantly different. I was not sure what it was – except for the colors, of course.

“And that’s not what you think?”

Winona shrugged again, narrowing her eyes into a slit to the distance before adding little strokes of white to her barks of trees.

“If ever you see a tree with blue leaves, or a lake with rainbow water, won’t you think it’s magical?”

I thought about it for a little while before it was my turn to shrug. It sounded like fairy tales, where they had mystical pond of water as black as a crow’s feather where witches read spells to look into the future, or a magical tree with golden leaves that would turn to golden apples if they fell down from the branches. So, yeah.

“Probably.”

Winona grinned and turned her head to face me. It made me look away from the hills to look back at her.

“That’s what art is. Colors are magic, Adrian. Art is magic. You take something from your boring everyday life and turn it into something wondrous. Just like turning pumpkins into a carriage!”

She made a swinging movement with her hand, and it took me a second to get that she was referring to Cinderella’s fairy godmother.

“That doesn’t answer my question.” I frowned. “So, why are your leaves blue?”

Winona sighed, the way my older sister sighed when she was asked about the neighbor’s 5-year-old toddler she sometimes babysat.

“In magic, you do not think nor reason. Things are the way they are. You think too much of why things are like this, or like that. You want to reason everything. Sometimes, things do not need reasons, Adrian.” She gestured at the hills. “Sometimes, you just need to accept and enjoy them.”

I gazed at the hills before diverting my gaze back to Winona’s painting.

Right then, I understood what made our paintings look so different. It wasn’t just the color, nor the technique. It was about how my painting was just a painting of The Adelaide Hills’ landscape, but in Winona’s, it was like a land of wonder where I would love to live in.

I could probably be a skilled artist one day, but I wondered if I would ever love arts as much as Winona did.

We practiced some more after that, going for trips around Australia and New Zealand. After more than a year, my skill was on par with my classmates. The teacher gave me not only a nod of acknowledgement, but sometimes, a nod of respect. Even my family who once doubted me (“Adrian, are you sure? What about community college instead? Business or law, perhaps?”) started praising me when I showed them one of my paintings, saying I could actually make it big one day.

After more than a year and a half of studying art, the same question I got in high school started to come at me again.

“What are you going to do after this?”

However, this time, the answer was easier. I did art, so I would do art. Right?

“Mm, I’m not sure.”

Winona replied, when I asked her the question. It got me quite surprised. After all, it was her future instead of mine that I had been certain of.

“You’re not going to be an artist?” I asked.

“I will, of course I will. Just not here. Maybe not here.”

I frowned.

“What do you mean? Then, where?”

She didn’t answer right away. She hesitated for a while and seemed to consider even answering it. That time, I didn’t know that she was making a life decision that would affect mine.

“Somewhere far away. Maybe Alaska.” She replied. A glint of excitement was clear in her eyes.

Alaska. That was far away. I found out that night as I browsed the internet that it was almost eight thousand miles away from Adelaide. It was 4 times farther than Auckland, which was the furthest I had ever been. The thought made me anxious.

“Huh? Why Alaska?” Winona had never mentioned the place before. Or maybe it was because our conversations never really left Adelaide.

“I want to see the northern light.”

“Oh? So you’ll go on a vacation?” I asked, relieved. Not for so long, though, because she replied, “Nope. I’ll stay there until I’m bored.”

“Then you’ll be back?” I asked again, hopeful.

Not for so long, again, because she then replied, “No. I’ll go somewhere else.”

I asked her why she had to go. Why she couldn’t just stay in Adelaide and took vacation every now and then. I asked her again why she had to go.

She said she just felt the urge. Said “there was so much in this world, Adrian. So much that I can’t find here. So much to see and paint. I just… I think I just have to go.”

All my life, I had always reasoned. That was probably why I asked Winona about her blue leaves. Why I needed to understand Salvador Dali’s melting clock. Why I needed to have a back-up answer when people asked “why arts?” because “for Winona” might not seem very reasonable for a lot of people. That was also why Winona’s reason of “I just have to” didn’t make any sense to me.

Inching closer to the days of graduation, the fact about Winona going to leave was like the spider web at my bedroom wall: it was painfully visible, but I tried my best to ignore its presence. None of us ever really brought up the topic. Not about Alaska, not about our future. We would still hang out, venturing to other parts of Australia, and practice together. None of us wanted to admit, but it felt like how you spent the last of your days with your closest ones knowing it might be the last time you saw them.

“This is for you.”

On our graduation day, Winona handed me a gift wrapped in Christmas-themed wrapper. There was no need of a second guess to know that it was a frame. A painting.

When I arrived at home, I immediately dashed into my room to unwrap it. It took me around two minutes to stop staring at her gift. It was a watercolor painting. Of a boy, sleeping on his desk in an empty classroom. Since then, the wooden frame would always decorate my bedroom wall no matter where I lived, even until 25 years later when I would have been far, far away from Adelaide.

“I’ll give you something in return.” I had promised after Winona handed me her gift. She only giggled and shook her head, but I had been determined to keep my promise and I had spent the entire evening at Rundle Mall. Four days after the graduation, I went to the airport along with Winona and her parents. I had almost tried to beg for her to think again about her decision, almost tries to beg her not to leave me. However, until it was time for her to board on plane and she eventually parted ways with me, I didn’t say anything and just smiled as I waved her goodbye.

“This is for you.” I said right before she boarded. I handed her a small velvet box and she opened it immediately. She looked at the necklace I had bought for her, with a color palette as the pendant, before gazing at me for a while. I swore that time, I almost thought that I could’ve kissed her. I didn’t, of course, because then she asked me to help her with to wear the necklace and so I did. Before she rushed into the plane, she had kissed me on the cheek.

The next days and weeks came out as strange for me. When you’re already so used to with a presence of someone in your daily life, not having them felt like not having a part of yourself. I suddenly understood why people said “I miss you”. At first I thought “missing” was just like “longing”, wanting the other person to be there. However, I realized “missing” meant “lost”. When you said “I miss you”, it meant “you are missing from me”. It meant you lost them.

Painting, too, had never been the same without Winona. The colors suddenly seemed dull and I couldn’t find any perfect shade. I supposed that was the danger in doing something out of reason. When you lost the reason, you also lost your purpose. I started arts because of Winona. Now that she wasn’t there anymore, I didn’t know what I did arts for.

There was a vacuum of nearly a month, when I didn’t hold any brush and didn’t face any canvas. When Winona called, I lied saying that I still practiced regularly. The thing about absence was that it made you greedy. Her voice alone was not enough and even when I could see her through video calls, it was still not enough. Even when we spent 4 hours talking and I fell asleep with her still on the other line, it was never enough.

At the end of the month, I started painting again because it was the only thing that kept me close to her.

Six months after that, all I knew was to paint.

I painted and painted, scenery over scenery, people, abstract objects. I once missed Winona so bad and started stroking lines over lines of grey and black and dark blue. The picture made no sense but a year later, it was bought for ten thousand dollar. Along the way, I met Drew, an enthusiastic art dealer. I painted and he sold. When all the paintings were sold out, I painted again. For once in my life, I finally painted because I wanted, and not because of Winona.

“I heard you’re having your own gallery?” Winona once asked over the phone, way more excited than I was.

“I heard you’re not doing so bad, yourself,” I grinned. And indeed, she wasn’t. She was known as the “sky painter” among artists. Obviously, it was because her favorite object to paint was sky. I remembered she once said to me, that it would never be boring to see the sky. It was like a giant canvas God painted with different colors every day. It sounded all fitting to me. Suddenly, everything made sense. Winona, arts, sky, and Alaska.

During the interview for the launching of my first art gallery, I was asked how I discovered my passion for arts. I took five seconds before answering. I didn’t know if after all of that, I could claim that I loved arts like Winona did. I couldn’t say that one day I woke up, enlightened, knowing that I was destined to be an artist. I couldn’t say that in 10 years, I would still paint and I would forever paint.

What I said was that for someone who wandered around the vast possibilities trying to find anything that I could love and live for, the only thing that could help was to try. Even when your reason to try was to attract your crush. Even when your reason was as ridiculous, it didn’t matter as long as you tried. Maybe, just maybe, you could end up as a great artist.

“You don’t discover your passion. It will find you.” I said, at the end of the interview. “All you have to do is to search for the dried leaves and sawdust to light up your wildfire.”