...with a curving inducement of an arrow that beckons inward and upward. There is nothing more, no further explanation. In short, it looks just like any other of the dozens of short-lived galleries scattered through the artistic quarter of town. Just a little newer, maybe, bright before time has faded the crisp letters and peeled the fresh white paint. Typical-looking, maybe, but not at all commonplace. Fantastic events have happened here; on a day not unlike today. The memory is still fresh from the last time.M.P. Stone & Co.
Objects of Art - 5th floor
Traffic hooted in the busy street and the sidewalk was bustling with a mix of aging flower children, business people in three-piece suits, derelicts, and the gawking occasional tourist. It was mid-summer; the buskers, corner food vendors, and flacks were all in place. Another tedious work day in New York City, and not even a Friday at that.
Briskly walking along, a very pretty girl strolled up the busy sidewalk. She was clearly not a hooker — too casual — but instead looked wholesome and sunny in her white tank-top and loose-fitting faded jeans. Shoulder-length blonde hair bobbed with each long stride. Lacking that unique haughtiness that living in The City seemed to produce, this lady had a special something. All along the grimy block, heads turned as she passed. Looks of lustful appreciation and envy followed her along. Every now and then she would pause for a moment, looking at the advancing street numbers. Then she stopped, consulted a scribbled piece of paper, and entered the old brownstone building with the newly hung sign out in front. The skipping sounds of her rapid footsteps could be heard ascending the creaky stairs to the top floor studio.
At the uppermost landing, there was a single door. Here the lettering was also new, but a bit more descriptive: "The Stone Gallery" A carefully calligraphed sign tacked to the door on a string announced "is Open". Knocking once and getting no response, the girl entered. A bell attached to the lintel chimed cheerfully, its sounds echoing through the large open room. Sunlight flooded in through the huge overhead skylights and drenched the empty rough plaster walls and wood parquet floor. Up high, near the tin ceiling, a lazy ventilation fan cast a pinwheel shadow that chased itself around in an endless circle. Faintly, the cooling sounds of rooftop birds filtered in through the open window.
The girl glanced around as the sound of the chime faded out, hoping to greet the proprietor. There was nobody around. No one, that is, other than the artworks she had come to study. And they were some bodies, indeed.
A series of figures were displayed around the spacious gallery floor, some on low pedestals, others freestanding or recumbent. All were voluptuously female; occasionally nude but more often partially-clothed in the openly provocative style known in an earlier era as 'cheesecake'. Even from a distance, the lifelike appearance of each sculpture was striking.
The girl started to walk out to look at one of them, but paused when she heard a creak in the floor behind her. Turning around, she found an oldish man standing behind her in the shadows. Grandfatherly, he reminded her a bit of the character 'Geppeto' from an old disney. He had emerged from another section of the loft that had been partitioned off into a workroom.. His rumpled aspect was almost a cliché of an artisan's style of dress.
Clearing his throat roughly, he greeted her: "Well good afternoon, young lady. Welcome to Stone Gallery. Would you like to look around? He did not seem sure if he really wanted her to.
"Yes, if I could," the girl said, "I'm Cheryn Briggs; I called earlier. The course from GWU?" she prompted, "Remember, Alberto Vargas?"
The old man looked vacant for a moment, then smiled and nodded as he recalled the telephone conversation earlier today. She was just as pretty as her voice had sounded then. "Yes, yes; of course. You're the one who wants to study my ladies..."
"Actually, what I'm working on is a paper on 'Sexist Icons in Twentieth Century Patriotic Art' for my human-studies class. From what I've read, Vargas was the one artist who best exemplified the whole genre. Even more so than Petty or the earlier Gibsons." She paused while he took that all in "Up until now, I have had only the old prints from magazines and art books to go on, but Mr. Tompkins suggested I come see your artwork. You were an apprentice to Alberto Vargas?"
"More a colleague, in my view, but he wouldn't deign to admit it. Got all high mannered with his big Esquire and Playboy contracts; tried to call himself 'Varga' instead." Troublesome memories of the artist's previous experience clouded his features. He fumed a bit, putting old demons to rest, then continued. "See, 'the Master' only did paintings of the girls. Damn fine paintings, but paintings all the same. Sold them for big bucks, too, for that era." He seemed to fade back into the recollection.
The young girl prompted him again, "And yourself?"
"I rather liked sculptures. Took many of the same models he used, often with the exact same pose, and made statues of them. A lot of trouble that was, back then. None of these fancy materials in the thirties and forties. But the results turned out okay, I think, once the technique came to me. Nobody would print them — said an image of statue in a magazine wasn't as real as his drawings, not as if a completed Vargas looked anything like his model did originally. No oil sheiks back in those times, either... So he got rich for some time before the publishers cheated him out of it. At least he had a certain fame; my only reward for the effort was these.." With a sweep of his arm he indicated the gracefully refined figures on display and the artistic history they represented. It was like looking backward in time, to a period when a glimpse of stocking was a bit shocking.
"Exquisite, aren't they?" His voice held no doubts, it was more of an affirmation. He started out toward the nearest display as Cheryn followed. The sound of their steps echoed off the walls hollowly as they approached the first of the Varga-girl figures.
Posed leaning dreamily against a bedpost, wearing a diaphanous jet-black wrap, high heels, an enigmatic smile, and nothing else; this seductive lady was doubtlessly treasuring a recent intimacy. While she gazed dreamily out into space, her lush anatomy and enchanting mien invited an encore. The level of fine detail in the likeness was nothing short of incredible, far better than any waxwork or hyper-realist figure Cheryn had ever seen.
Each individual eyelash and eyebrow was clearly delineated and the subtlety of body shading, especially around the replica's erect nipples, was uncanny. Even down to the flecks of pigment in her irises and the subtle textures of the skin, this facsimile was exact. The statue seemed to have been taken from a life cast, then painstakingly matched with the original. The elegant pose emphasized the flowing lines of her spectacular physique in a way that almost defined the 'pin-up' genre. Walking around the figure, Cheryn noted that there were no parting lines or other artifacts of the molding process that could be seen. This flawless reproduction would easily shame the present works of d'Andrea or Hanson, she speculated.
A sign placard near the display titled it:
"A good Knight well spent"
...clearly a reference to the overt sexuality displayed. To Cheryn it was so blatant an 'objectification' of this female that she almost gave up and walked out at that moment. But something made her stay; perhaps a lingering curiosity about the old man or to find out whether the other statues were all as perfect as this one, the first, had been.
They were uncanny. As she strolled among the gallery of incredibly gorgeous ladies in careful undress; past the exuberant "Acrobatics" and the studiously kinky "Post Time", where a dominatrix-costumed figure was clad in smoky black nylon complete with riding crop and calf-length boots. The statue that was Cheryn's favorite was the buxom, curvaceous form of a sultry maiden clad in only sheer black silk hose and velvet gloves entitled temptingly:
"The Martini's ready in case you're hung-over
...and I'm ready in case you're not."
The absolute mastery of the artist's technique struck her at last. Despite their demeaning poses and lewd captions, here were objects of art that had succeeded in capturing the essence of the subjects' beauty and demeanor in a manner that was practically eternal.
Oddly enough, Cheryn herself felt a bit envious of these bygone models and their good fortune to have posed for a virtuoso. She had done some casual figure modeling herself at the college but was never satisfied with the results. Now, in her mid-twenties, she imagined that she could see her supple body begin to wrinkle and sag. Not enough that anyone else would notice it; but enough. It started her thinking.
They viewed the final statuesque masterwork in silence for several minutes before Cheryn voiced her thoughts: "Mister Stone, do you still sculpt anymore?"
The figure before them, "Trick-or-Treat", was a leggy lass attired from head to toe entirely in luminous skin-tight black Lycra — a literal 'catsuit' down to the long tail and furry headdress of a risqué Halloween costume sensational enough that it could have gotten her arrested even in this day and age. Cheryn remembered the flat Varga painting. It did not begin to touch the versimillitude captured in this statue.
The old man was taking a long time answering; even then his words were filled with hesitation. "Once in a blue moon nowadays. I just don't have the spunk anymore to put that much effort into them." He pointed to the svelte feline figure, "Gwenny, here, took me about six weeks to realize." At the student's curious look he added, "All my ladies have nicknames; individualizing them helps me to get the expressions just right." He stroked the statue's cheek gently and it was clear that he was more attached than normal to this handiwork of his. And to the others too?
The circuit of the gallery was complete; the two had circled back almost to the entry and were standing before the door to the partitioned workshop. Cheryn could see into the room a little and glimpsed something that cast a sinuous shadow along the floor. A shadow that was clearly female.
Cheryn pushed the door fully open, revealing another curvaceous lady. This one was clothed in a present day lustrous Spandex leotard and contrasting tights along with Reebok sneakers and a wide team-colors headband. Her energetic pose looked like something pulled from the middle of an aerobic fitness program. As hyper-realistic as all the others, this statue was much less made-up and somehow looked familiar. The old man had trailed in behind Cheryn and seemed to be embarrassed for some reason. He ventured, "Uh, say hello to Sybill."
"So you're still creating them!" Cheryn circled the dancing figure twice, inspecting the same painstaking level of detail shown in the earlier works. "And you haven't lost a bit of your old touch. She's just so excellent."
"This is the first one in many, many years. I was not sure that I could muster up the materials." He, too, encircled the replica. "But there was really no problem, once I remembered how it was done before. Mostly it's all a matter of attitude — that and the right caliber of model."
Presently the nagging idea in Cheryn's mind had fully formed. But was it still too bizarre? It's now or never, she thought. The decision clicked to 'now': "Could you use me for one of your sculptures?" Cheryn blushed at her verbalized caprice, "I mean, uh, I know I'm not as pretty as these other models, but I've posed before and..."
"Nonsense," the old man proclaimed; Cheryn thought he was ridiculing her. He continued, "You would make a superb statue. Ach, all you feminists think that it's wrong to look sexy in public — it's just natural for a beautiful woman such as yourself to be provocative. As natural as a rainbow or the sunset; you can't hold that in always." He was starting to really flatter her. After breaking off with Jed a week ago, Cheryn could use some flattery.
"You really think so?" she said. He nodded and she continued , "but I'd want to look refined, not like your typical pin-up caricatures."
"I'm sure we can work something out, my dear." He mopped his brow; it was dappled with sweat. It was hotter in the studio than in the airy main gallery. "You can sit for me now, if you like. The first session is not long."
"OK, how about this?" Cheryn assumed an athletic stance with her arms akimbo that was vaguely familiar from a pose that the original TV 'Wonder Woman' had used. "Or—this?" a Diana-like regal stance. It was starting to get warm for her, too, as she exuberantly moved around trying poses.
The old man poured two cups of wine from a dusty bottle in an ancient coil-topped 'fridge and offered one to Cheryn. "Here, this will help prepare you." She took it and downed the glass in one swallow; he calmly sipped. The old man discreetly noted the time.
"I'm ready," she said.
"Not yet. You must be calm to look your best." They talked about her upcoming session and what sort of 'elegant' pose she had imagined. It turned out that her tastes ran to Victorian gowns and other such formal, courtly apparel. Everyone had their favorite era; she wanted to find hers.
A few minutes had passed when he remarked to her, "It would be so much easier if you undressed now." He took the empty glass away.
It surprised her that she went along with the suggestion and obediently started to remove one article of clothing, then another. Cheryn wondered what was in that wine that had sapped her inhibitions. Years ago she had been hypnotized on stage at a nightclub; now there was the same feeling of mindless acquiescence. Soon all of her intimate garments fell away to join the jumbled clump on the floor. Cheryn was now completely naked but it did not feel the least bit self conscious or improper to her. After all, he was an artist, had seen probably thousands of other women nude before her. Besides, she rationalized, it was much cooler posing this way.
He continued giving instructions to her, ones that she found she could not disobey. "Please sign this modeling release for your session, so I won't run into legal troubles if I might want to sell your statue afterward — of course I can't imagine that. You'll stay right here with all of the others." Cheryn started to think he was beginning to sound a bit strange, getting his tenses mixed up like that. She went along and signed the form in pen with her trademark flourish on the 'y'. By now she felt sort of drowsy too. Standing up at his suggestion, she had no willpower to do anything further so she simply remained there in a daze.
While Cheryn stood there daydreaming, the artist was analyzing her trim physique in an almost clinical manner, trying to decide upon the most flattering arrangement. Every woman had her better features; it was the artist's job to emphasize them and create a visual quintessence of beauty. This lady should be a breeze to illuminate, he thought.
Noting the narrow waist and slightly wide hips, the barely perceptible swelling of her abdomen, he was thinking of a classical — almost Grecian — upright pose. Her legs were a bonanza; surprisingly shapely and long (most girls nowadays hid their legs for good reason). Her pert face held no concern for him, although it would need some additional makeup. Only her average sized breasts were any disadvantage. A traditional cheesecake figure was always a bit on the pneumatic side. Fortunately he knew an easy way to get around that particular problem, and went off to the prop drawer to fetch her a costume.
He returned before she had really noticed his absence, carrying a pair of off-white spike-heeled shoes, silk stockings, and what appeared to be a goose-down lined brassiere. There were also several other items of slinky lingerie. He began placing the bra around her torso when she realized what seemed to be going on — was her earlier wish being ignored?
She tried to speak, but the words came out blurry, "You-say—said- no — pick... pin-ups!"
He thought for a moment, then replied, "Once your pose is correct, it will be simple to fit any clothes you like, but the essential posture must always be suitable. Relax, I know what I am doing." Cheryn was uncertain for a moment, then nodded slowly. The drugged wine was still in control; she did not balk further and silently donned the push-up foundation garment (decidedly sexist, she thought abstractly,) noticing how tightly it fitted.
The artist continued his increasingly less subtle commands: "Be quiet now and dress yourself up properly, my dear. I simply wanted to help you on with the clasps." Stepping back, he handed her a skimpy satin G-string and garter belt; letting her finish the chore herself. Watching her flowing movements, observing how she moved into different stances, he noted which ones were the most suggestive. It was not too late yet to change.
"And put these nylons on; and the heels too. Then we can start your posing." Sitting up on a convenient wood cube, she slid the skin toned stockings slowly up over her smooth legs (another memorable position) and clipped them to the garter belt circling her slim waist. Handing her the shoes, the artist assisted Cheryn as she slipped them on and regained her tip-toe balance. His quick glance confirmed that the high heeled pumps had shaped up the calves nicely and made her long legs look even longer in the classic Varga style. The garters were a bit of a distraction, though.
Cheryn was still concentrating on not toppling over when something stung her on the left buttock. There was a brief twinge, a swelling sensation, then only a patch of spreading coolness from the spot. She looked behind her to see the old man extracting a oversize medical syringe from her derriere. A single drop of milky purplish liquid started to fall from the tip of the needle, but congealed instantly into a clear amethyst-colored bead. The bead broke off, dropped to the floor and shattered into myriad tiny sparkles. Was that what she had been injected with?
"Now just stay relaxed and let me guide you into position. Any location that I place your arms or legs in, you will want to hold them there. You 'll feel your whole body becoming heavy like clay — let me sculpt you." The cues were rapid and confident; soon she was posed stunningly like a high fashion runway model with one hand balanced on her hip and the other raised in counterpoint high overhead, holding a silver serving tray aloft. As time passed, she found it easier and easier to keep her position.
Cheryn gazed passively back at him. Her features had been arranged to hold a look of knowing smugness though surprise still widened her eyes. She had never known anyone to spend so much effort on initial position. It seemed like such an odd technique to her, but after all he was the master. When would he start on the statue after all these preliminaries?
The artist moved back and surveyed her from viewer distance. Here and there he adjusted elements of her stance; increasing the tilt of her rounded hips, broadening the saucy smile she now wore. Finally it seemed he was finished with the posing, and Cheryn dreamily wondered what was next. Then she realized the numb feeling in her posterior was spreading through her body and finally understood what was happening.
Where previously she had not wanted to move from her intended pose, now she could not move! A tingling sensation in her extremities was rapidly turning to a paralytic stiffness. She felt her hand tense up while still holding that foolish platter. Her fingers had frozen in place. As the potion coursed through her veins even the slightest movement was completely suspended. Standing helplessly in place, she felt her very flesh being crystallized in some arcane fashion.
She was becoming a statue — a uniquely precise statue of herself!
The muscles in her shapely legs had stiffened up already, leaving Cheryn unable to balance herself. Fortunately the stance of the pose was very secure and there was no chance of her falling over. Her eyes were now fixed in position, but she continued to see. A shape flashed across her field of vision and she recognized the artist. He seemed to be speaking to her as he adjusted her posture, but she could barely make out the words.
"You should feel very fortunate, young lady. To be able to become one of my masterpieces. There are not so many of you; only a few chosen ones." He swept his arm out to encompass the gallery and its static inhabitants. "Once, I could only had crude materials to sculpt; clay, plaster. The results were never flawless enough for my inner vision. It was exceptionally disappointing, and I almost gave up several times. I studied the masters: Leonardo, Michelangelo; but they were no different. No better."
He was droning on, but Cheryn was now very much a captive audience. Stiffness reached her lungs and she felt the breath stilled in them, but oddly had no desire to breathe any more. It was very peaceful. She did not blink; did not move in the slightest way. Her eyes looked far away.
"Then I realized the answer might not be mundane; but magical instead. Legends of Pygmalion and Galatea, Midas, finally Medusa. There was a passage in one of those long-ago poems that sounded like a formula, from an occult standpoint. The Gorgon may have been a sorceress. Over the course of years, while 'Bert Vargas was becoming famous, I learned more about her, picking up the language and the techniques. Finally I was able to recreate Medusa's achievement in the realm of alchemy. The legend of her power was true; she had once transformed unwary mortals into ossified likenesses of solid stone. Now I could do so as well.
Then it became so easy to make my statues directly from life. One sip of the Gorgon's tonic, a couple minutes for the enduring result to take place. All so effortless. Voila! At last they were perfect — as you too will be."
"You won't die now, my dear. Not ever. The elixir now filling your body is the ultimate preservative; you'll be beautiful forever, for-ev-- e..."
Cheryn could hear him no longer, the tiny bones in her ears had stiffened too. Even though she had lost all movement throughout her entire body, thoughts continued to flow. The wave of numbness had passed, leaving a heavy feeling of absolute immobility. Now the transformation had reached her very consciousness and time itself seemed to be slowing down along with the petrified cells of her brain. It would soon require a days for her to completely register that instant of surprise as she realized that all of the 'statues' in the entire gallery, including Sybill, (had that girl once been one of her classmates?) were formerly living people.
Contemplating the irony of her sudden transmutation from a pin-up scholar to a pin-up would occupy months of calendar time in the universe outside her perfectly preserved state of suspended animation. Days and nights would begin to blur together; only the static walls of the gallery and the other motionless statues could seem real to her anymore. Everything else would soon become flickering shadows in the sea of timelessness.
A timer on the workbench went 'ping!' and the old artist looked up from his efforts on lettering a signboard to regard Cheryn in her ultimate pose. Should be pretty firm by now, he thought. Going up to the figure he tipped her whole hardened form slightly backwards, pivoting it on one leg, to confirm that she was indeed sufficiently rigid to continue. There was no sign of any flexibility. Only a few short minutes remained before her body became entirely solid, so he quickly finalized her expression, leveled the serving tray a tiny bit, and removed the tight-fitting bra. As he had planned, her breasts had been molded upward into prominent peaks; now they had solidified there. The faint remaining strap marks were easily smoothed away, leaving her skin unblemished.
What a good subject this one is, he thought; she won't need much touch-up at all. Some stronger highlights on the lips and a bit more shading to those cheeks. A touch of mascara to bring out her long eyelashes; a bit of dusky shadow. The additional makeup was easily added with a soft brush and palette. She looked so much better afterward — why was it that most modern women never understood the advantages? A strong application of hairspray secured her coiffure in position.
The potion had now fully accomplished its function. Her once pliable curves had completely hardened in place and there was no possibility of changing her pose any further. It was time to finish up this composition.
He dressed her rigid figure like one would a display mannequin, adding lacy dress cuffs, a thin satin ribbon around her supple neck, and other accessories to complete the intimately risqué maid's costume. The look of the garters still bothered him; they broke up the graceful line of her thighs., Fortunately the belt had not gotten pinched (how could it, with such a lissome waist?) and could be removed easily. The now unsupported nylons fell down around her trim ankles, but with a few spots of spirit gum he was able to hold them up permanently and invisibly. Stretching the sheer mesh back into full tension, he savored the flowing contours of the muscles in her shapely legs. The sensation was almost like sculpting. Her body had started to cool down and the petrified flesh was rock solid to the touch.
Stepping back, he regarded his 'creation' anew; the result was striking: Another Varga had been revealed in all her natural glory.
"Yes, you really do have what it takes, my dear. What was your name again? Sharon? Cherry? Hmm..." While he talked idly to the brand new statue, he was moving an empty pedestal base into the studio. Lifting the solidified figure onto it, the artist marked the places where her shoes touched the clear plastic. It was only a few minutes before she was affixed securely in place by quick-setting cement, along with the serving tray and a single serving cup-and-saucer. "No, never mind any past names; they're gone. You look more to me like a — hmm — Monique. Yes, a foreign touch! Ah, bewitching Monique; you have given me great pleasure already whilst creating you. Now you can be my perfect maid of the house. Always."
Trying it on for size, he placed the new sign card next to the stiffened cheesecake figure. The placard read:
"A little Sugar with your Tea?"
Cheryn's research had gone a lot deeper than she had intended. Possibly some future student would arrive to study her.
A tradition had been preserved...