She watched in amazement as Mr. Koay, with what looked like a cream-coloured woman’s swim cap on his head, stared intently at the two digital monitors in front of him. “It’s called an ‘electroencephalogram’ or ‘EEG’ cap,” he said over his shoulder.
The two screens in front of them performed separate but related functions. The one on the right displayed a variety of colour swatches, brushes, erasers, a digital pallet, and even charcoal crayons – which for Koay would be essential, she realized.
The second screen, to the left, was like a canvas, which could be changed at any time to represent rice paper, cloth canvas, parchment, oil skin, even wood complete with grains.
“So, Meadow Hartley, what shall we paint?”
“We?”she said with a laugh. “This is all your show, Sufi.”
He liked that she used the old Chinese term for master or teacher. “But you must choose the subject and so we must share the property rights.”
They both laughed until she grew quiet and thoughtful. His head remained perfectly still, as if in expectation of her next words. He kept his eyes shut.
“Let’s have a wooden bridge spanning the two sides of the Jackson River in winter.” She had no idea why she thought of that, but she had crossed many such spans when young, especially when traipsing across the Blue Ridge with her father.
She saw Koay open his eyes and she moved over to sit beside him. On the right-hand screen, the icon for a narrow pencil began flashing. Then near the top left of the screen on the left a rustic line flowed effortlessly across the white background. With nothing touching the screen in any way, drawing took shape, first with the mountain ridges in the background and crude trees, a winding stream, and a cleft of rocks towering over one of its bends.
Meadow’s eyes shifted back and forth between Koay’s eyes and the screen, almost like she was watching a tennis game on television. The thin lines continued until a rough sketch had been assembled of the crucial pieces.
“Now the bridge,” he said. Almost miraculously a transparent ruler emerged on the screen, but Koay shuffled it off to the side. “That’s for architects, not for painters,” he said seriously. Instead, the pencil lightly placed two parallel lines across the span of the river, with the outline of supporting logs running along the sides. Meadow realized that the ruler could have been used to draw perfectly symmetrical lines, but that was never her old teacher’s purpose.
“Please, can you get me some water from the fridge in the kitchen?” he asked. She was surprised to see the beads of sweat on his forehead and upper lip, until she realized that he was having to concentrate intensively.
When she returned with the drink, he returned to his screens and spent the next hour filling out the details of the painting. She was enthralled. Though it was on a computer screen only one-dimensional, there was something of the brilliant in it. The software, though never able to fully capture what the human hand could do had successfully layered the digital paint, giving it the appearance of depth when there was none.
“Explain, please, how it’s done.”
Koay turned to face her, cap still on his head. “When I focus on a particular tool, the computer picks that up by comparing the timing of the brainwaves to the timing of the desired flashing tool. Essentially, I control all my brushes with my brain, just as when it used to send signals to my hands. Only now those waves prompt digital tools.”
“I understand, but how does it know where to begin on the page, or the route that it should travel?” asked his guest, fully intrigued.
“You have to select origin points, shapes and colour by concentrating on the portion of the screen where you wish to work. It takes practice, and the software takes time to learn to adapt to your methods, but it eventually works and it is a wonderful thing, Meadow.”
“How did you discover it?”
“A friend of our family’s in Helsinki sent me a research paper done by a technology specialist at the University of Wurzburg in Germany. I have never been fond of technological equipment, but I wrote the woman and told her of my dilemma. She said she would be coming to Washington for meetings with the American government and that if I could come to the capital that she would show me her equipment. That is what we did. She was excited when I discovered my gift for drawing and painting with her equipment and modified some of the software to match my style, tastes and colour preferences.”
Silent for a time, Meadow finally said, “It doesn’t just connect you with these screens, but with your old life.”
She looked up at him, empowered by her own words; she realized that she was attempting to do the same thing by visiting her childhood haunts. Meadow wondered now if her old teacher had this in mind all along for her.
“I had heard of how technology helped the blind, or handicapped individuals to drive, but I had never thought something like this possible. How did you afford it?”
“The woman had never intended to use the technology for painting, but more for writing. But as my expertise in painting and drawing was fascinating to her, she decided to provide me with the software package, as long as I was willing to cooperate with the university on further refinements. It has been a wonderful partnership.”
“Do you need a special computer or something?” she asked.
“Just my Apple desktop and these special screens. The power is in the software, not the computer – for the most part, at least.”
She walked over and looked at some of his work on the easels. “I’m confused,” she said at last. “These paintings of yours are actually layered and I can easily see the brushstrokes. But that’s not possible on the screens there. Do you refine them afterwards, and how could you even do that if they are only on the screen?” The more her questions kept coming, the broader Koay’s grin grew.
“What?” she exclaimed at last, feigning anger.
“What you saw here today, Meadow, is only half of the process; the rest is all in the printing.”
She comprehended in an instant. Printers these days could make chairs, cars, even houses; surely what she spotted in her teacher’s works would be possible.
“How … how does it work?” she asked, a tinge of wonder in her tone.
“If I paint a stroke and then paint over it again and again, the computer not only registers how the colour changes with each stroke, but also that depth would be added to the work. It can’t show it on the screen because it is flat glass, but it can store that information and use it to good purpose when transferring its data bits to the printer. Actually, the printer is the most expensive part of the operation.”
She could believe that. Meadow recalled seeing on one of the “How’s It Done” episodes how large 3-D printers could precisely cut out entire doors and windows from material, the entire thing driven by software. If a printer could cut into something, then surely it could also build up something – like paint layers. It all made sense, and it was magical.
They retired to the kitchen and worked on making some small sandwiches and prepared soup. It was only then that Meadow realized that all the tension she had once felt about the visit had disappeared long ago. In its place was a re-discovered joy, not only at being reunited with her old teacher, but to be engaging with art again.
“Is it the same?” she said quietly.
“What?” Then he understood, adding, “No, and I don’t think it ever could be. The tactile aspect of painting is its most rewarding part. It would be like touching someone’s face on a computer screen instead of the real thing. But that is still better than what I experienced all those years of only being able to teach art without painting it. I am happy.”
“You know, it never really occurred to me, or the other students I think, that your paralysis was really that big a thing. It would be to you, obviously. But what you could do with words, with gestures on your face, your remarkable wisdom, and even the little bit that you could do with your hands, were more than enough. You were an inspiration; my God, you are an inspiration. Mr. Koay, you …”
He stopped her there, his eyes expressing a certain intensity. “There is no need for that name anymore, Meadow. I am Duyi, and that is the way you will greet me from now on.”
Meadow shook her head from side to side. “That doesn’t feel comfortable, doesn’t feel right,” she said. “I will always see you as a wise teacher, far advanced in years, and worthy of my respect as one of your students.”
“But you aren’t my student any more, are you? You say you have given up on art, on your gift, your passion? All we have in common, then, is the past and we are no longer in such a teaching relationship. You are now my friend, my good friend, and you will call me Duyi.”
It was awkward, they both knew. Something in Meadow didn’t like the implication in his voice – that she had somehow let her art go, along with that part of their relationship centred on it.
“However, there is always the possibility to return, to learn, to create. I have learned much since you went away, Meadow – wisdom I can still pass on.”
She suddenly felt chilled inside. Opening herself up to painting again meant being vulnerable to memories of the accident, the pain, the horror. And Koay would notice how much she would have lost in the way of fine motor skills and, perhaps, even talent. She would never want that.
“Well, it’s getting late and I should get back,” she said suddenly.
Knowingly, he looked at her and asked, “Back to what?”
Meadow knew the answer to that – nothing. She’d be returning to an empty room with only meaningless television programs to entertain her. But, still, it felt more comfortable than what she was experiencing at present. The tension had returned, and what she needed was to get out of the cabin.
He merely watched her from his seat as she rose and moved towards the door. “I will always be here,” was all he said. The door closed quietly behind her and the fissure of light that had opened in her soul only the day before covered back over, leaving her in inner darkness – lost.