A Circle for the Pope

In token of his artistic mastery, Giotto di Bondone offered, simply, the picture of a perfect circle, drawn free-hand. Benedict IX, the Pope, seeing Giotto’s ‘O’ in a sea of audacious audition pieces, duly awarded di Bondone, the commission for new work in St.Peter’s.

This small, possibly, apocryphal tale stayed with Jasmine long after other memories of the BBC art documentary had faded from her mind. Eventually only the tale, and not how she’d learned of it, remained.

“If I could draw a perfect circle,” she thought, “that would be a fine thing. A fine thing indeed.”

It wouldn’t be until her 59th birthday that she would decide to achieve precisely that.

The next day she investigated the offerings of the internet; duly rewarded with videos of ‘hacks’ and shortcuts that would grant victory. Pen in hand, she tinkered with revolving a paper under the nub of her wrist. Whether it was the quality of her paper, or the insufficient smoothness of her table, the results where underwhelming.

She did, however, improve with each try. “Eventually, ” she supposed, “I will manage to copy that video, and have a circle. Yet, that wouldn’t satisfy me.”

She went back to the internet. Essentially it seemed, besides tricks, drawing a perfect circle, free-hand, was a product of practice and artistic skill. She toyed with abandoning her quest, and for a few weeks, Zumba, and the book club, were enough to keep her busy.

Yet a Sunday afternoon spent perusing bookshop shelves brought her face to face with art supplies, and, she went home with a new Maeve Binchy, a pad, and an array of pencils.

In one evening, she definitively established that success was not going to come quickly. Despite a variety of approaches, including taping paper to the wall and flourishing at it, the results were lacking. Nonetheless, Jasmine felt inspired; she had found a calling.

A quick peruse of the yellow pages and she had contacted S. Conrad a local artist, who offered lessons, and ran a weekly group class in a nearby church hall. Suki, “Ski”, it transpired, was twenty something, and Japanese. She’d grown up in a Buddhist temple, near Sapporo. Her father, the Abbot, had been disappointed that his eldest child did not want the mantle after him.

“Suki,” he said, in Japanese, “Suki, think what a fine example of diversity and forward thinking you would offer our visitors. If you go, it will have to be your brother. He is only seven, and yet I find I do not like him very much.”

Unmoved by her father’s words, she had promptly married one of those visitors, and moved to Edinburgh with him shortly after.

Jasmine found she liked ‘Ski’ very much, and invited her to join both her book club and Zumba class. Suki, in turn, supported Jasmine fully in her pursuit of the perfect circle.

“I think,” said Suki, “that my father would approve of you very much. The temple has a strong tradition of work with brush and ink. He is in high demand for his fine blessing and protective scrolls.”

Within weeks of contacting Suki, Jasmine could produce passable sketches of fruit. Her apple, in particular, drew the congratulations of her peers. After a year of dedicated practice, and of growing friendship with her fellow artists, the group presented her a gift for her 60th. It was her own work, an abstract nude in oils, beautifully framed, with her friends’ signatures on the back board.

Simon the local butcher, looked just grand over her fireplace. When she’d told him about his new pride of place, he’d asked her to, “make sure I’m well hung.” The campaign of cheeky winks and single entendres that followed, lasted three weeks, until she made him a gift of the picture, now reframed. A week later, stopping by for some stewing steak, she discovered Simon had managed to vac-pack the picture, presumably for hygiene, and hung it on one of the walls; up lighted. The affixed legend read:

Simon McTate, abstract in oils, by local artist Jasmine Starmane 2016. Gifted in perpetuity to McTate’s epicurean meats by the artist herself in token of years of fine service.

In the January of her 60th year, Jasmine reviewed her progress towards the perfect free hand circle. There was no denying that her ability with brush and pen was greatly improved, and her strokes even had a touch of flare. However, when she set pen to paper, her simple circles remained far from symmetrical; stylish, but plainly irregular. Action was required.

She asked Suki, who suggested a group trip to Japan.

She was overdue to visit home, and bringing friends would gratify her father, and his ambition to improve international footfall at the temple. Had she mentioned her father’s calligraphic skills?

Jasmine had spent the week between group meetings researching Japan, and became swiftly convinced of the potential of a combination of meditative practices, and exposure to that nation’s fine traditions with brush and pen. Money, however, was an object.

At the following group meeting, every group member expressed enthusiasm for the trip, and concern over the cost, in equal measure. Colin, the volunteer (only) fireman out near Humbie, suggested they fundraise to subsidise the trip.

“Why not,” offered Brenda from Morningside, “hold a group exhibition? A few sales and we’d be well on our way!”

Suki said that this was “an idea,” and suggested they all go home and brainstorm ideas before the next gathering.

When that day arrived, Brenda turned up prepared. Her oldest school pal was chair of the board at the Assembly rooms on George Street. They could have the main hall free gratis, two weeks on Sunday, due to a cancellation. The venue could provide all the basic apparatus for the exhibition, all the group had to do was bring themselves, their art, food, and drink.

Now, not all the group members were instant enthusiasts. It was, Colin suggested, quite a leap from hobbyist anonymity to an exhibition at a cultural hub.

Jasmine simply asked, “What do we really have to lose?”

When Colin suggested their dignity might be the price, Brenda replied, “You printed ‘Fireman Col’ on the side of your Skoda Colin.”

The coup de gras delivered, the group prepared to exhibit.

Two weeks of frantic promotion, preparation and self-doubt later, and they were only moderately unprepared when the day came. From seven a.m. when they were let in, till around four p.m. Jasmine viewed turnout as ‘modest.’ Friends and family dutifully turned out, and a light smattering of red sticky dots began to appear on the cheaper works. At four however, the Lord Provost, James McTate, turned up, bringing with him quite the glamorous entourage.

“Just call me Jim” related to Jasmine, over a glass of Lidl Prosecco, that Simon, his little brother, couldn’t stop talking about her talent or generosity. He’d wanted to come himself, but there was a meat traders’ convention in Leeds this weekend, at which he was to be keynote speaker. He’d asked James to come in his place. “Now I’ll be honest Jazz,” he said, “I wasn’t totally sold on the idea, until Matilda (his lady wife), pointed out we were hosting the Mayor of Stockholm this week. Your little event here ticks so many boxes on cultural richness and outreach, it was a no brainer.”

This unforeseen delegation, featuring many of the city’s great and good, did however empty their boxes of special offer booze in prompt order. When Suki had apologised, “Just call me Jim” just smiled and whipped out his phone.

Twenty minutes later, a local wine trader turned up with supplies. The attendees now sufficiently lubricated, swarmed the various works on offer with red dots, and, later, both the Lord Provost and the Mayor of Stockholm gave impromptu speeches. When the caretaker politely ask that they wind things up, the Mayor made the counter-suggestion of a lock-in.

Jasmine, not a regular drinker, discovered a new love for Keir Royale, and imbibed champagne and framboise sufficient to pay her bills for 6 months. Once all he works were sold there really wasn’t much else to do that socialise and sip.

Jasmine would never forget the site of the Mayor of Stockholm, and her husband, commenting earnestly over a particularly bold attempt at performance art. The piece in question featuring Suki, and her husband Stephan, passed out on the floor, prompted earnest debate amongst the viewing, and swaying, dignitaries.

The result was a fine selection of hangovers, headaches, secrecy pacts; and more than enough money to pay everyone’s way to Sapporo and back. That, and an invitation for Suki, and partner, to recreate their powerful piece at the Wetterling Gallery when the Lord Provost made a return visit to Stockholm, in July.

The resulting trip to Japan was as amazing, as it was unforeseen by most of the club. Ritu, showing initiative, contacted local artists in Sapporo prior, and arranged for some cultural exchange. Suki and Stephan, for their part, took responsibility for their travel to the temple.

Ritu’s artists, local manga producers, evinced some surprise when the party of Edinburgh hobbyists descended on them. Jasmine imagined their studios hadn’t seen such a concentration of grey hair in, well, ever. Still, when Izumi, proud creator of ‘Hard Metal Gun Guru’ heard Jasmine’s tale, he thought it”pretty cool.” He related his own story, and how he had gone every day, for six years, to a local café to draw everything he saw, till his style was perfected.

“Why, Izumi,” she asked, “for six years?”

“Because five hours a day for six years is over 10,000 hours. That is the magic number for mastery Jasmine-chan.”

Izumi insisted they take a trip to the local Manga oasis. “You want to know Japanese art? You go to Animate!”

A short taxi ride later, they were touring a multi-story building dominated by Manga and Anime stores. Animate, by far the largest, occupied the ground floor. Despite both Suki and Stephan warning the group of potential shocks, most emerged from the tour with the wide, haunted eyes.

“I’ll never,” stuttered Brenda, a tear on her cheek, “look at teddy bears the same way again.”

The trip to Suki’s temple was, by contrast, serene and non-traumatic. The countryside was beautiful, the song of the cicadas relaxing, once you transcended the urge towards genocide. The temple was ancient, and Suki’s parents genial hosts. They stayed for three days, the communal bedding simple, but not lacking in simple comfort.

On the second day of their stay, the Abbot, Shiro, stopped by their residence at 5am and inquired whether Jasmine would care to join him for his morning walk. Jasmine, also an early riser was somewhat conscious when he gently knocked on the door frame, and was glad to consent; asking only a few minutes to prepare. Once Shiro had retreated to wait outside, Jasmine removed the pillow from Brenda’s enraged face, slipped on shoes and a and tip-toed out in her entirely modest M&S pyjamas.

The blossom was truly beautiful, and by the dawn’s light, Shiro led them in a meditation to welcome the day. Then, he led her to his workroom and introduced her to the Japanese art of calligraphy. Her quest for the perfect circle was, he explained, entirely sympathetic with Shodō, the way of calligraphy, intended as a path towards understanding life and truth.

Jasmine had to confess that she had not conceived her quest as one for truth or meaning.

Shiro asked, “Do you, then, think to create something perfect, simple, and beautiful, without first discovering it within yourself? Can you give something you do not possess?”

The group returned from Japan filled with vim and vigour. If, on their first attempt, they could achieve a fully paid field trip to Japan, the sky must be the limit. “Just call me Jim,” sent the group an email expressing his gratitude for the best civic night out he’d known in years, and hoped for an invite to their future endeavours.

By a majority vote, it was decided that the, now renamed, Suki’s Art Collective or S.A.C. would hold bi-annual exhibitions. Debate arose, however, over the use of any proceeds collected. Several members, not unfairly in Jasmine’s opinion, felt they should be allowed to profit directly.

Stephan, however, made a compelling case for the role of their advertised purpose in making a success of the first event. “Without, a grand conceit,” he orated, “we’re basically a bunch of hobby painters with not much cache. Even Suki, with letters after her name, makes more money from her part time call-centre job, than our art shop on Etsy.”

Having dealt a spoonful of realism, Stephan did pour on the sugar after. They could, he said, use the exhibitions to build their profiles, and gather a potential paying clientele.

For her part, Jasmine saw potential in the pressures of exhibiting, and the educational travel it might afford her, as spurs to her flanks. It provided a clarity of purpose that might just drive her to that perfect circle.

S.A.C. got busy, and successful, improbably so. Within the year, their shows were a feature on the civic calendar, and the summer show was adopted by one of the lesser festivals. The support of both Provost, and the newly elected Counsellor Simon McTate, ensured they never lacked a crowd with deep pockets. The S.A.C. travel blog went viral shortly after Colin’s auto-correct debacle in Bangkok, when he led them to a late-night ‘Painters’ commune. In the pictures Ritu posted, Jasmine found it difficult to see how it had taken so long to realise they were culturally exchanging with a brothel.

The BBC felt them out for a fly on the wall documentary

#DoingaColin began to trend. Suki’s online store blew up into a full time job. Jasmine’s art definitely improved. Her deadline achieving instincts, hard worn in her past career, returned with a vengeance. She produced better work, more efficiently, and with more confidence.

When, around three years on from her initial efforts, she drew free hand circles, they weren’t bad at all. Suki claimed that from any distance, they appeared perfect. Someone on twitter had dubbed her “The Mondrian of the Circle.”

Almost perfect, however, was not enough. Jasmine found her thoughts dwelling on Shiro upon his mountain, in lifelong pursuit of that perfect brush-stroke. After nine months of cogitation, she was convinced her circles had hit a plateau. It was time to go it alone.

Two years later, Jasmine was in Rome, alone, painting scenes on the Via Margutta. Two years she’d filled in pursuit of the perfect, the simple, and the beautiful. Her brush was currently paused over the canvas, whilst her mind enjoyed those earlier days, a small smile on her lips. There had been other adventures with the club, many of them. She’d become God-mother to Suki and Stephan’s baby daughter. She’d held Brenda’s hand at her husband’s funeral. She’d even started dating the retired professor of linguistics who’d joined the club only last year.

She would, she was sure, see the club again; would return to her home in Stockbridge. For now, though, she had her simple room, firm mattress, an easel, brushes, and the most beautiful city in the world. Every evening she concluded with drawing circles, and her walls hosted the sequence to mark her progress.

A passer-by stopped to peruse her work; something not in itself unusual. When he commented, in Italian, she smiled and nodded, and returned to her brush. The man spoke again however,

“English perhaps?”

She looked around to see the man dressed in black, shades propped on his forehead, smiling down genially.

“Why yes, why do you ask?” she replied.

“Well,” he replied through the smile, “when most artists are asked how much they would like for a piece, they react quite differently.”

Jasmine laughed at that, “Well quite! Why English though?”

“Well I cheated. You see, your bag is lying a little open, and I can see your packet of contraband tea within.”

“Well, aren’t you Sherlock Holmes made flesh?” she joked.

He raised a finger, “Daupin, I think you’ll find! Yet, let’s set Conan Doyle and Allen-Poe to one side. May I ask, what brings you to my city?”

“Your city?” she replied, “Well, you’ll think me crazy, but I’m here to draw the perfect circle.”

The man flicked the cane he held, and it became a seat. He asked her if she minded; she did not. It had been some weeks since her last conversation, and it might be nice. She had already decided that she liked this man, of years perhaps senior to her own. He might be dressed in monochrome, but his face was kind, and his eyes bright with, what she took for intelligence.

“I’m Ben, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” He extended a hand, which she shook, offering her own name in return.

Ben spent the next hour asking her about her journey to Rome, and her pursuit of the circle. He laughed at her adventures with the art club, and displayed genuine interest when she led him through her sketch book and her latest attempts to produce the O of her dreams.

Towards the close of their chat, he said, “You are so very close now Jasmine, to drawing that perfect circle. Soon, I believe, you will achieve it. But have you asked yourself, why you will have achieved it?”

She confessed that she did not know, truly, why she was doing any of this; only that it felt right.

“Jasmine, may I ask what happened the day before your story with the circle began?”

“The day before, Ben, I finalised my divorce from my husband of 40 years, and drank a bottle of Vodka sans glass.”

“Ahh,” he replied, showing no shock or even evident pity, “indeed. So now, the perfect, the simple, and the beautiful.”

“Yes,” said Jasmine.

“Have you considered, Jasmine, that you may already have found it? In your tales, I hear only the perfect, the simple, and the beautiful. I see it the gorgeous works you’ve made, the wonderful places you visited; but most of all I see it in the love of your friends.”

“If, Ben, I accepted your thesis, would that not make my pursuit of the perfect circle, rather a waste? If I abandon it, will I not always wonder what would have happened if I’d tried longer; had tried harder?”

Instead of a straight answer, Ben, instead, told her another story of Giotto.

“Did you know, Jasmine, his circle was not quite perfect? He drew it in one stroke of his brush. Where his line met, there was the slightest of incongruity in the overlap.”

“How,” Jasmine asked, “would you know that Ben?”

In response Ben produced a dog collar from his jacket pocket.

“How, Father Ben,” she asked again, “would you know that?”

In response, Ben held out his hand and the ring he bore. A ring that bore the image of a man, a boat, and a net.

Jasmine stared at the ring, and then up at “Ben.”

Ben smiled, standing, and collapsed his seat to a cane once more. She closed her eyes as he laid his hand on her head, and whispered something she didn’t understand.

As she raised her head, she noticed the 2 rather large men stepping out of shadowed doorways to survey the street.

Ben, his eyes twinkling brighter, spoke again, “Now, I’m sure you’ll understand I’m terribly busy Jasmine. Still, before I go, would you be kind enough to show me your best O?”

Jasmine flicked through her folio, finally settling on one she’d produced earlier that day. She offered it up, and having received it, ‘Ben’ subjected it to careful study.

Finally, he spoke, “May I keep this?”

Jasmine nodded, asking why.

“Well Jasmine, it’s been around 700 years since an artist offered the Bishop of Rome something so perfect.” He emphasised ‘perfect’ to leave no ambiguity.

The sensation that swept over her was something like the desire to laugh, but also cry; whilst like neither at all.

“Now, Jasmine, go home. Take up thy easel, and walk.”

With that, the Pontiff bowed slightly to her, raised his hat, and walked on. He did so silently praying for forgiveness for a white lie.

When Jasmine saw Suki, Stephan and little Annie waiting for her at the arrivals’ gate, she knew her circle was complete.



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