The Artist’s Contest by Theodore Olivieri         

Sixty eight hours over five weeks. That’s not to say that sixty eight hours was all it took. That was the amount of time he spent holed up in the garage from the late evening until the magpies started their dawn serenade. That was the amount of time he spent going through canvas after canvas, smearing paint over and over until there was no room left on the canvas or in the garage or in his mind. All the other hours of the days were spent speculating on how he could choose a better subject, make a more striking artwork that would leave all his others in the oily pigment-stained dust. 

These migraine inducing contemplations were only briefly interrupted by his trips to the back porch for a smoke. He’d never touched nicotine in his life (as anyone who smelled him would know) but had never bothered to share what he made them with, leaving those details to the imagination of anyone who cared. Sometimes while he was out there, Edith from the the other side of the duplex would come out to hang her laundry in the warming air. She would tell him about her latest trip to visit her husband, about what flowers she took and the effort it took to kneel down and wipe the dust and bird shit off the epitaph, about how the incomplete date next to his made her feel a little bit less scared of her own passing. He would tell her about his art, and what he had for lunch, and how his fat tabby (called Walnut) was starting to get too big for the cat flap and had thus resorted to wailing at the front door after her afternoon session on the dog bed next to the steps. Then he’d make an addition to the ashtray and go stick a damp, slightly mildewy load of towels in the dryer.

Mornings barely existed, as far as he cared. Especially when he’d had a late night. A quick trip to the bathroom (with a detour on the way back to serve Walnut a half scoop of dry food) concluded any early activities, and unless he was rostered on at work, the hours between dawn and brunch-time were spent blissfully semiconscious. One of his mates had even bought him a sleep mask, which was bright green and had BED BUG in big letters on the front. He would never admit he actually used it, because he didn’t. He’d invested in blockout curtains and sleep masks made his eyes itch. It did come in handy when he needed something to wipe his brushes on, though. Once the sun was well overhead, he’d move the cat off his arm and wander to the kitchen for a cup of tea and some toast.

He worked down at Jacksons four days a week. He wasn’t much help to customers unless they were after paints, and even then he had the poor habit of gatekeeping his favourite brands in favour of recommending the second or third best options. Charlie was usually scheduled on at the same times as him because they were a sculptor, and together they formed an almost complete understanding of art theory. One day he came back from his break to find a new flyer in the puddle of paper that covered the inside of the door. This one stood out a bit, because whatever kook had put it up had used an entire unaltered strip of Blu Tack to stick it to the glass. There was a competition at the arts centre, with a prize of a thousand dollars worth of art supplies of the winners chosen medium and a half page shout out in The West. Wow, a whole half page, he had thought as he’d stepped back into the air conditioning. Unfortunately, he had never been known to back down from a challenge, so once he’d seen the flyer, the seed had been planted and a feeling had started forming. Now, he was leaving every shift ten minutes early and leaving someone else to count the till. 

He met his friends down at the esplanade twice a week to eat hot chips and drink homemade cocktails out of picnic cups while the sun set. Out of the five of them, three were in a relationship. Two with each other and Blake was seeing some girl named Lucy who no one else had even laid eyes on in the seven months they’d purportedly been a thing. Often everyone joked about Lucy the Loch Ness monster, and Blake always insisted she was just busy with work stuff. Charles and Stef couldn’t be trusted to bring the drinks because they always managed to make it a one to one ratio of liquor to lemonade and nobody could hold their drink quite as well as those two. Once they’d all gotten sick of feeding seagulls and watching skaters eat concrete, they’d wander back to Stefs to watch an episode or two of whatever cheese-ball comedy was on telly. If the TV got boring, he’d wander off and try and teach her galah how to swear. In a fortnight, any canned laughter would elicit a loud string of colourful language from the next room and he would get a couch cushion to the back of the head.

One evening, down at the esplanade, he’d found inspiration. Now, it was the middle of a twilight heatwave, and the arts centre was filled with the kind of people who drank seven dollar coffees but refused to pay for their own air-conditioning. Art pieces lined the walls and everyone oohed and aahed at the ones they liked best. Some of them were for sale, including his, but he’d put the price just marginally too high, so he’d either get to keep his work or get a bunch of money, and both options sounded just fine. He’d been milling around with a glass of wine for an hour or so, eavesdropping on the people talking about his painting. It was a metre square of oil paint, and it was a scene of the ferris wheel at sunset, the view you’d get if you stood by the train tracks next to the skate park. It was fantastic, with hundreds of vivid colours in the sky and the lights on the supports almost made the canvas glow. He stood and regarded it for a bit before draining his glass and returning it to the drinks table. He left before the winner was announced. If it was him, they’d call. He’d given his name and number along with the painting and its title. After all, he had to get home and feed the cat.

The 2023 North Lake Senior Campus Short Story Writing Competition

First prize:

Theodore Olivieri

The Artist’s Contest

Second prize:

Asha Macfarlane

Little girl

Third prize:

Morne Tosen

The Unleashing Nightmare of Deathwish