by Stephen Parrish

worked in four different jewelry stores. In each store were pieces so expensive, they’d sat in their cases for years. They’re probably still on display, touched only when moved to the safe at night, or when someone dusts their facets.

Also in each store were pieces so ugly, they’d sat in their cases for years. They’re probably still on display, touched … well, never, since they don’t go into the safe at night, and no one bothers to dust them.

I wondered why a store would stock pieces that never sold, why the owner would buy such jewelry in the first place. Turns out, one of the most effective ways to sell a commodity is to sandwich it between something expensive and something ugly. Next to the expensive thing it will look affordable, and next to the ugly thing it will look beautiful. We judge stuff by contrasting it with other stuff.

In fact we define stuff that way too: a peak only exists in the presence of valleys. There’d be no such thing as happy if we were never sad.

Visual contrast is the province of the art kingdom, where students learn that a hue is most visible and vibrant when placed adjacent to its complement, for example orange next to blue. But value, saturation, size, shape, orientation, and other compositional elements can also be contrasted.

The following is Ingres’s portrait of the violinist Niccolo Paganini:

It’s one of my favorite works of art, one I think deserves more attention that it has received. In the debate between Ingres (form) and Delacroix (color), I’m an Ingres man all the way. Notice how the face is drawn in detail, and how the rest of the figure, including the violin, is sketched in rough outline. Ingres contrasted detail to make the face appear more real, more alive.

As far as you know, I don’t draw or paint, I write. And I write very much with contrast in mind. The following is the first paragraph of a flash piece called “The Draftsman” I wrote for Boston Literary Magazine:

Dinner was almost ready, so she peeked into his shop. He was leaning over the work bench, as usual. Toying with compass and protractor. Doodling. She looked over his shoulder and saw geometric figures he had sketched, objects with faces, edges, and terminating points.

I received a surprise compliment when the story appeared. The reader pointed out the varying sentence lengths, and suggested the habit came naturally to me. In truth I write as crappily as the next guy when facing blank sheets of paper. Varying sentence lengths is something I do down the road, and quite consciously.

There’s so much more than sentence length to contrast when you write. There are sensations, like the smell of an apple when you bite into it, the smell of fungus in the woods, just as night falls. The smell of burning leaves in the fall.

The feel of tree bark, of wet sand beneath your feet. Of naked flesh gliding under the palm of your hand.

I like writing about storms, because they serve well as metaphors, and because getting caught in one contrasts so greatly with my ordinary routine. I know one’s coming when I see the restless clouds rolling in. But I needn’t even look up; my primeval ancestors had to know it was going to rain before they saw the clouds, and they’ve passed their genes to me. I smell the storm coming. I feel it on my skin. By the time thunder warns of its approach, the storm is old news.

But the experience isn’t. My string of dry days, of desk-bound days, of ordinary, to-do-list, pay-the-bills, brush-my-teeth, change-the-lightbulb days, is broken by jagged lightning scratching an irritated sky. Sizzle. Crack. I’m drenched, and my clothes cling cold and wet to my skin.

I lift my face to the bruised vault above me, and laugh. Belly laugh. From deep down, from where defiance and audacity spring, I laugh. Gimme-everything-you’ve-got laugh. The contrast is too beautiful not to celebrate. I stomp through puddles, and laugh. Because of all the things to experience in life, getting caught in a storm, one that pelts you mercilessly, refracts the scenery into a swimming blur, and reminds you never to take the simple and the natural for granted, ranks high, real high, right up there, near the top of all glorious adventure, and to think I started this piece with “I worked in four different jewelry stores.”

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