Curious, I park and walk in.
The room is square with hardwood floors, white walls, and dramatic lighting. Soft music is playing, and everything smells new, like leather and wet paint.
Covering the walls are 10×10 boards with pictures pinned to them, a name under each.
There’s a skinny man sitting on a stool behind a skinny receptionist desk, his nose in a book. I ask him what this place is.
Looking up from the book but not rising from the stool, he tells me to take a look around.
I approach the first board.
“What you see on the walls are life boards unique to each artist. They put up pictures for people like you to look at. They want you to buy their board.”
The slim, gold plate under the first life board has the name “Jane Rogers.”
Her board is a collection of strikingly beautiful pictures of a girl — most of them selfies. She’s smiling in them all, laughing with friends. And I can tell she’s a great athlete by all the pictures of her in uniforms holding trophies, wearing medals.
I begin to walk around the room.
The “Austin Price” is next.
He’s also smiling and having fun in his pictures — except, of course, the workout selfies. In those he’s flexing, looking intimidating. In some he’s holding a guitar.
The “Erika Martinez” is just like the “Jane Rogers.” But instead of volleyball, she’s an accomplished ballerina who also played the flute in marching band.
The “Mark Samuels” is like the “Austin Price,” but he’s a surfer who was on some sort of math team that went to nationals in high school.
“Are these even real people?” I ask, flushed at the perfection I see on each board.
The clerk looks up from his book. He knows I said something, but not exactly what.
“Oh, aren’t they impressive works? The artists put a lot of work into them. They constantly come in to switch out their pictures with better material.
“You know, I think they come in here sometimes just to bug me. They’re always wanting to know if anyone’s made a bid on their board and for how much and (mimicking their voices) ‘How much are the other boards going for?’ ‘What did this customer say about my board?’ ‘What did they say about his board?’ ‘Her board?’”
I go back to looking at the life boards while I listen to him rant.
The “Melinda Draper” depicts a girl shaking hands with the governor. And smiling, of course.
“Sometimes they just walk around and stare at the other boards,” he continues, “or they scribble about them in notebooks. I’ve seen them break down in tears before.
“I can never read in peace when they’re in the gallery.”
I can’t imagine the pressure on these artists.
“There’s a room in the back they like to work in — sometimes through the night. Some of them are there now, but they lock the door whenever a customer walks in.
“They prefer not to be seen in person.”
“I don’t get it,” I tell him as I study a picture of a girl scuba diving while still managing to look cute. “They put their lives out here for strangers to see every day. Why would they hide back there?”
He shrugs. “Go see for yourself — first door on the right.”
I walk to the back of the gallery, passing hundreds of brilliant smiling faces with pins in their foreheads.
I find a door with a window labeled WORKROOM, try the knob, and it’s locked like Bookworm said it would be.
I peer through the foggy plexiglass and see the backs of nine artists. They’re sitting at desks in front of screens mulling through photos. One of them rises and shuffles to the printer, shoulders hunched over.
They are slaves to their boards.
I’m about to walk back when I notice another door in a shadowy part of the hall — it’s marked DESIGN.
I try the knob and this one turns.
I flick on the lights and almost cry out when my surroundings light up.
Every inch of the small square room is covered in pictures.
There is a single square table in the middle of the room sectioned off to each artist — the walls are split too.
Thousands of rejected pictures fill the DESIGN room. And instead of a board, each artist pins to the wall and piles on the table what didn’t make the cut.
There are pictures of everything.
I begin another gallery walk.
Pets, single pictures of best friends or mentors, pictures of food, scenery, memes, hobbies, religious material, quotes.
There are discarded selfies with visible blemishes, bad lighting, awkward smiles, silly faces.
Erika Martinez, the ballerina, has a nasty scar on the left side of her face. I didn’t see it once on her life board.
Here there are dramatic pictures of her in black and white, hair pulled back, scar on display. She’s not smiling in these, but I wish this was on her board. It shows her courage.
I realize the 10×10’s aren’t actually their life boards — this is real life.
As I’m studying a picture of Melinda Draper laughing and taking a bite of a massive piece of pizza, Erika walks in.
Reject pictures in hand, she sees me and scrambles to cover her scar.
I stop her from ducking back out into the hall when I say, “I like your board out there.”
She smiles a gentle smile.
“But I really love your black and whites in here.”
Her hand slowly moves back to her side, but she’s still frozen in the doorway like a deer in headlights.
I tell her I like this room a lot more than the gallery.
Her smile gets bigger, and she walks over to the table to toss pictures on her pile.
She joins me in my walk around the room.
“Sometimes I come in here to remind myself that none of the other artists are actually as perfect as their boards,” her soft voice breaks the silence. “I just want someone to buy mine, you know?”
“Actually, I would be more interested in buying a board with pictures like these,” I laugh as I point to a picture of Mark Samuels sticking his tongue out at the camera. “I can actually relate to this stuff.”
She’s silent a long time before speaking.
“I could never put stuff like this out there, though. Everyone else’s boards would be different…. And perfect.”
I turn to look at her.
“Just think about it, okay?”