Free market, with conversation

Last summer, when the hummingbirds stood shimmering in hot suspension, and swallows taught their young how to make aerobatic attacks on the cat, and the highway shone in pondlike patches, my wife persuaded me to place a sign down by the road, opposite our mailbox, announcing that I had original art for sale. Her reasoning was logical and sound: your dealers are feeling the economic crunch, she said, and aren't moving much work; other people sell from the farm gate, so why shouldn't you? An awful lot of tourist traffic from the ferry passes this way; and, if nothing else, she said, it will do you good to talk about art with people from away. It was several weeks into summer before I could feel comfortable with the idea, and by that time it was her last point that really motivated me to act.

I found a battered old barn door, made a sign with red, white, and blue house paint left over from more practical chores, lugged it down to the road, and leaned it against fence posts at the mouth of our driveway.

The first visitors to respond to the sign were two bright, energetic ladies from the local tourist association. The sign, they said, was not easy to see; what I should do, they advised, was erect a proper sign, with a message on both sides, and position it so that it could be read from a distance by motorists driving up and down the road. ''I am sure you are right,'' I said, ''but it's actually only an experiment at this stage. It's just something I'm trying, to find out if there is much interest . . .'' ''Yes, well,'' they said, impatient with half measures, ''we nearly missed the sign altogether.'' I saw their point. ''If I get serious about this I will do as you suggest and put up a more effective, permanent sign,'' I pledged. They thought I should, said so, and left.

A carload of visitors from Nova Scotia, across the straight, arrived. They remained in their car and stared at the barn. The man who was driving asked how many acres we had. I told him. An old gentleman sitting beside him asked if we had any livestock. He had a farm, he said, but he was too old now to care for livestock. The lady behind, with three young children, said it was a lovely setting. How much were we asking for the place? the man who was driving enquired.

Several days later an anti nuclear couple from Connecticut drove up to the house. They were warm, friendly people, interested in the artist but not in the art. We sat in the parlour and philosophized, they gave me some peace-and-disarmament literature, and departed, and I felt I wanted to know them better.

A keen-eyed youth from the locality brought his girlfriend and five or six of his own paintings. He was selling his paintings down at the ferry terminal, he said. I congratulated him on his initiative. His brother was a very good painter too, he remarked. His girlfriend was shy and quiet. She knew nothing about art, she murmured.

Summer faded. A local businessman dropped by. He was interested to know what kind of art I did, and described in detail, with enormous pride, the house he had built not far from our place. A family from Quebec came up, and one of their children - the little girl, according to the mother - showed real promise in art at school. We talked about art from the standpoint of a child. A neighbour, four or five miles away, had visitors staying with her for a few days. She was showing them around. As she knew of us, but had never met us, she used the opportunity to call in and introduce herself and her visitors to us. We talked life styles. Another man from Nova Scotia rattled up our drive in a half-ton truck, asked a few questions about the property, and sought confirmation that we were selling.

September, October. Wood smoke spiraling up to a cool, clear sky, geese leaving in uneven flying ''V's.'' The bluejays have drawn closer to the apples fermenting in the orchard, and to the house. No longer the steady drone of traffic to and from the ferry; instead, the swirl and crackling sound of toasted leaves, the thump of an ax splitting wood. November, December. . . . Watchful stars, snow, silence.

Down at the roadside an old barn door, silver-grey and weathered, leaning against fence posts, tells of a summer past, reminding of the off-island world, the world away. Here in the parlour it is twilight; the stove, its mouth open, glows red in the throat and its breath is warm. The lamp at my side illuminates the walls and my work - the paintings no one bought. The couple from Connecticut faces me in see-through suspension, murmuring words of peace and disarmament; the Quebec family plays ghostlike to my left, kneeling on the floor, their little girl drawing things; and some other people must be coming, for I hear a truck on the grassy-banked summer drive.

I think I'll hang on to my paintings awhile longer. The walls, after all, would look drab and bare without them.

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