The ministry of making art in Appalachia
–by Final Girl
Sleep, My Brother
For miles, I had been searching for a canvas.
All I had seen on the morning drive through Pennsylvania was one tag on a highway bridge. I had noticed it because of the typewriter-style letters. The tag was Sleep. Strange, I thought. I remembered it. Sleep.
And soon it was almost evening in West Virginia, almost home, almost too late to do a piece. So I went for it, turned off the highway into the unknown. I just drove. I didn’t know where I was going. When I passed a little gravel turnoff with a sloppy grouping of concrete pylons, I thought: a decent canvas; if I don’t find anywhere else, I’ll turn back.
All this time, I have been writing about graffiti as if it something I am giving to the world. To you. I am trying to reach you, to make you feel better, stranger. Stronger. So you may see beauty.
But what about me? What does graffiti give to me? Who writes to the writer? Who reaches me?
It was a rural cemetery, remote and treeless. There was a woman, weeping over a grave. On top of the hill, I could see farms, brittle fields for miles. The sun was bright, but the wind very cold. My cap did not protect me. I wandered for longer than I wanted to, waiting the woman out, trying not to bother her. I read all the names.
The woman left. Quickly, I pulled my truck in front of a shed. I did one glance, then worked without looking. Careful, careful. When wet, the pieces are delicate as webs.
I painted a lily: for eternal life. For resurrection. For the woman.
And after I had pressed my fingers into the seams, sealing the image into cement, after I had taken a photo, I ran. There is no time for a last look back, no matter what. In a few miles, I stopped to clean up at the turnoff I had seen before. I parked by the pylons, got out of the truck.
And saw Sleep.
Graffiti is my release. I don’t do drugs or smoke. I am too little to drink. I paint for you—but also I paint for me. Because what else would I do? What else is there to do? Go to the Silver Saddle? Go home with a fracker? Go to a house party and stand alone in the kitchen, staring into a solo cup? Go outside and lay down in the snow?
Sleep, I saw your tag. I saw your tag twice in two very different spots, different states and miles apart. We had thought alike. We had seen the same broken place and knew it for what it was: a canvas. I painted beside you, Sleep. I had to.
Flowers for you, Sleep.
His prostitute is back in jail. She violated parole, was pulled from the hotel the man I thought I knew had paid for, the room where he had visited her. She was imprisoned again. This made him call me, weeping.
I painted instead of weeping.
Do you too, Sleep? What led you to this life? What keeps you here? Is anyone listening to you, Sleep? Are you out there?
Do you put baked potatoes wrapped in foil in your backpack to keep your paint from freezing when you work in winter too? Or do you use bricks warmed in the woodstove? Do you tie the latex gloves whose fingers have been worn clear off? Do you blow out the paint from your caps to try and save them?
Winter is not our season, but I paint anyway in the cold. Let the snowdrops smear my paint. Let it look like a kind of crying.
This winter, I have met a kind-eyed man. I don’t know if he knows about me, what I do: the laws I break, the love that almost broke me. The red flecks on my nails are not blood but paint.
I want to talk to him. I am afraid to talk him. I want to know him. I am afraid for him to know me. So I ran. Put on my cap, left the lighted restaurant where steam hugged the windows, and ran alone down a dark alley.
There are things scarier than dark alleys, after all.
I knew I had to paint or scream. Paint though my heart was bursting. Paint to think. Paint to breathe. Paint to know. Paint to pray.
Do you know, you can’t make someone love you. You can’t will someone to want you, to choose you over crime, to be a good man. You can’t turn anyone into anything.
You can only turn cardboard into curves, plastic into words, the knife into negative space. You can only turn the stencils of your body into an image of your body, and the paint into how you would have stood up or laid down for him, what you would have done.
Do I deserve a man with kindness in his eyes instead of secrets?
I am with you, I painted at the busiest intersection in town. I didn’t even plan it; I just waited for a break in the headlights at my back. I just waited to be alone. Aloneness comes easily and often enough; in the alleys, in the woods, in the rail yard, I am alone with my memories of a man who would rather buy love than be with me. No one knows me.
But you know. Sleep, my brother, my sister. You know. You are with me. I feel your ghost. I see your tag. And its true name is comfort.
Final Girl is an Appalachian Street artist. Her essays have been published in Bending Genre, Hillbilly Speaks, and Apology Not Accepted, and her art appears in many secret places. You can see her work at and https://www.facebook.com/