Shortwave Magazine

Fiction / Short Stories

"Portrait of an Artist"

a short story
by Casey Masterson

December 28, 2022
3,070 Words

Artists thought they’d be the last ones laughed out of their professions by technology, yet they were amongst the first. What started as an amusing revolution of AI capabilities for content creators and web perusers was optimized to gain the attention of art critics and galleries. Every museum and worthwhile art show now heralds technology’s artistic triumph in “Modern Mechanics” sections, putting computers in the company of Van Gogh and Michelangelo. What stood as a monument to innovation doubled as traditional art’s mausoleum. None knew this better than Marley Quiston. He was in the unique position of having his hands bound as his successor carved out his heart. In spite of the pain, he could never look away. The attack was too personal.

MOMA’s newest exhibit of artificial artifice came from programmer Jazz Hart. Quiston stood before her piece Macaroni Astronaut. The cartoony shape of the space pioneer was generated onto the canvas; its legs bunched to its chest and arms spread wide in a parody of floating. The macaroni was a blend of photorealism and suggestion. Larger pieces looked to be pulled from a child’s art project while smaller, bunched together pieces were given the illusion of shape through texture. This was most apparent on the helmet, where Kraftorange was interrupted by black squiggles and lighter highlights.

Marley pulled a flask from his pocket. Most were content to let the relic act as he pleased to avoid kicking the man American Psycho style as he lay in the gutter. Besides, anyone who was anyone (namely the guards) knew it was only apple juice; a youthful vice traded in similar packaging.

“This one’s my favorite.”

Marley was silently insistent that the newcomer should be ignored at all costs. It worked on bullies and bees and other pests. It may as well work on Jazz Hart.

“Not the talkative type, huh?” The woman pursed her lips. “That’s okay.”

The artist allowed himself a glance in the direction of his one-sided rival. We look quite the pair. Although he was at least twenty years her senior, Marley only came up to the woman’s collar bone. His peacoat (at least ten years her senior) made up most of his bulk. It was a gift from his first wife. Call him cheap or practical, but he never saw the need for a new one—the coat, mind you, not the wife. The inseam of the right sleeve had split long ago. Marley now used it as a pocket. In short, Marley Quiston looked like someone you’d be happy to avoid on the subway. Jazz Hart, however, had a presence. Gravity. Her hair was short, yet every one of her tight curls framed her face. An emerald blouse was tucked into white slacks. Loose fabric fell in billows, cascading to add fluidity to her shape. A manicured hand moved its way onto the artist’s shoulder.

“Thanks for coming, Mr. Quiston. Really.”

“It’s not often you programmers remember your roots.” He turned his head to glare at the hand on his shoulder until it fell off. “Even less often that I’m invited anywhere anymore.”

“You don’t always accept invites.” The woman’s chestnut eyes forced him to hold her gaze. “Like I said, I’m happy you came. I’ve always been a fan. That whole death mask series was really something.

“Hrm.” Jazz’s magnetism lost him as he turned back to the macaroni piece. “I never would’ve thought of a mac ‘n cheese spaceman,” he scoffed. “And they say you kids don’t have any creativity.”

You say that.”

“Yup. To anyone who’ll listen.”

“That’s part of the reason I invited you. I mean—look at this!” Jazz gestured to her painting. “I can’t draw a stick figure, but with the right tools, I can make something incredible!”

Marley sipped his apple juice as his eyes wandered to the rest of the gallery: a spaghetti sculpture, an ocean in a coffee cup, a building made entirely of George Jetson. He had to admit the kid had imagination. . . but that didn’t fit into his internal narrative. “But you didn’t make it. The computer did.”

“Well, yeah. But I made the computer. I coded the AI. It’s because of me that it can distinguish, that it can create.”

“Uh-huh. And that’s why art is inaccessible now. The real artists can’t understand this junk, and the nerds can’t be bothered to learn the artform themselves. Now, if you got someone who could do both, well, then maybe the art world would be obligated to bow to them.”

A challenge glittered off Jazz’s teeth when she smiled. “What about you?”

“What about me? I told you; I can’t code.”

“There’s lots of downloadable software and machines you could buy. YouTube has tons of tutorials. I could even help you set up.” Jazz placed a hand on his shoulder. This time it was not refused. “Think about it. That’d be an insane comeback.”

Marley hummed, dropped his flask into his secret pocket, and left.

Amazon reminded Marley of Mary Poppins’ bag: you could pull anything you wanted or needed from it. A friend of his bought an inflatable hot tub, which now sat in the middle of her living room. Her landlord hated her for that. His own purchase, however, was far less likely to invoke evictions and water damage.

HALLWARD sat on what could be classified as a dining room table in any other situation. Struggling artists, even those of former fame, could not afford the luxurious lofts held by Wall Street yuppies and programmers. His apartment consisted of two rooms and one bath. The sink was outside the bathroom door, joining the IKEA throw up in the dining-living room, which also had remnants of a kitchen and office scattered in mismanaged chaos. The new machine was given a luxury in this space: a clear surface. HALLWARD (whether that was the name of the product or company, Marley did not care to know) was a little under two feet long. It was a black box, with a little slit to insert the canvas into. He did not understand the mechanics, but a combination of cursing, slamming the table, throwing things, and prayer gave him a general idea of how to work it. Once turned on, a four-inch touch screen demanded a prompt.

“Gimme a minute, HAL. I don’t know what I want to make yet.” The question was a hard one to tackle: should he go simple or abstract? Machines are supposed to be smart, right? Let’s put it to the test. Marley typed in terror.

Insert canvas.

The artist moved some papers around on his desk before finding a canvas above his microwave. When he slid it into the opening, the machine clasped it with a metallic click before beginning its artistic process. HAL never worked on the same spot for more than a few seconds. It would start drawing (printing?) in one area, before moving to the opposite end to start again. Its process, although sporadic, was its own. Soon, a shape began to emerge from the black background. Red ripped though the dark in a 2D bite. A shape bled from the shadows. Its face doubled as an open maw, harsh lines contouring the face and gnawing the canvas simultaneously. HAL’s screen blinked. Complete. Remove canvas.

“Not bad, HAL.” Quiston lifted the canvas from HALLOWAY. “I like that I can’t tell what it is, but. . . All of my guesses are so generic.”

The meaning of this picture, the form, was as nebulous as stargazing or cloud watching. There were only images if and where you wanted to see them. Was this a figure? A mouth? An accumulation of raindrops, ones-and-zeros, and ink? He flipped the canvas around. Written on the bottom of the canvas was terror — HALLWARD.

Marley put terror down on top of the minifridge. “Let’s try to do a better one, huh?” He found another canvas between the couch and the wall. He slipped it into place before typing in murder.

HAL went to work.

It took some staring and mumbling for HAL’s newest creation to be understood by its new companion. Marley ran a finger over the foremost visage. The genius was in the simplicity, the suggestion. The machine gave the impression of a face without crossing any ‘t’s. Shadow, light, and imagination played with the canvas. Although the image was nearly as surreal as the first, it captured the feel of reality, the emotion, and the suggestion of action through tonal differences. 

He smiled. “You ‘n me, HAL? We’re going to have a lot of fun. But—” He placed the picture reverently down upon the table before continuing. “I can deepen those blacks. I can really make that ombre-glow of the murderer shine off the page. Not enough to offset the victim’s pure white, of course, but enough to juxtapose.” Marley grabbed his paints and brushes from the microwave. This’ll be the perfect partnership. HAL would do his magic with generation, and Marley could touch up the pieces, adding humanity to AI objectivity. He dipped his brush in the black paint that he squirted onto the table. Brush met canvas. Electricity met arm. Is this excitement? Is this the collision of greatness? The feeling ran from his arm to his spine, activating every nerve like a cool breeze on wet skin. Marley laughed, then cried, then screamed. “This is the beginning of a BEE-YOU-TEA-FULL friendship, HAL!”

Painting and sensation ended simultaneously. The artist rubbed his arm in an attempt to bring the feeling back, but his calloused hand only tickled his arm. Sensation and creation were bound together. The only way to recapture that feeling was to create alongside his mechanical friend. “Yes, HAL. A wonderful, wonderful friendship.”

He got to work. Continuously.     

Their portfolio grew.

Marley Quiston

green eyed monster – HALLWARD

Acrylic on canvas, AI generation

Green, emphasized with paint, provides contrast with the dark background to create the effect of the creature leaving the canvas.

Marley Quiston

happiness – HALLWARD

Acrylic on canvas, AI generation

Multiple eyes and a traced on smile suggest something sinister lurks beyond a satisfied expression.

Marley Quiston

agony – HALLWARD

Acrylic on canvas, AI generation

Often compared to the style of Beksiński, this figure’s jaundiced skin fades in from the dark, reaching out to the viewer with the figure’s face obscured.

Museums, at first, were tentative to give the shadow of their past the limelight of today. This was not the first time Marley Quiston was scorned by his benefactors. As technology shoved its way into the artistic forefront, Marley had watched his paintings be taken down one by one in exchange for modernity. Art needed an audience and the audience craved constant change. What satisfied them one day would leave them longing the next. Thus did Quiston see his life’s work, his passion, replaced by randomized conglomerations of AI perception.

Art was as masochistic a mistress as any: stepping on her worshipers and crushing spirits. To please her, one needed to draw on her hedonistic desires, present new experiences. Marley Quiston’s masterpieces were welcomed back as an old flame to a desperate lover. The audience was once again enamored. They told him they saw life in his pieces. The connection between human and robot, man and art, life and canvas, were all tangible. Marley could see it swirling below the paint, rippling like a disturbance on still water. HAL and Quiston captured something relatable. Something human.

The artist could once again stand proudly beside his creations. Not literally. The creative process had rendered him exhausted, so he sat on the marble floor next to agony. He stared not at the people as they approached, or as they stopped before his works, but at their shoes. He maintained that you could learn a lot about a person from their shoes: dirty sneakers meant travel, boots meant work, glow-up shoes meant children or fun-loving.

A pair of black flats stopped before him. “Are you okay down there?”

Marley looked up. Jazz smiled down at him, albeit more warily than friendly. He smiled back. “Just tired.”

“Your new stuff is wonderful, Mr. Quiston,” Jazz remarked. She took a step back from the canvas to take it in fully. “I don’t know what it is about that yellow, but it screams anguish.”

Marley reached into the armpit of his coat to grab his flask. “I added to it myself.”

“Whatever you’re doing, it’s working.”

He took a swig of his apple juice before proffering it to the programmer. She declined. “I have to say, I never thought I’d be working with technology like this, but boy was I missing out!”

“I hate to say I told you so.”

“You should. I deserve it.” The artist took one more swig of his juice before dropping it back down his sleeve.

Jazz chuckled and shook her head. “Listen, can you promise me just one thing?”

He cocked his head to the side far enough that his ear touched his shoulder. “What’s that?”

“Try and get some rest. I know you’re working hard, and that you’re excited, but I’d hate to see you burn yourself out.”

“That reminds me, I’d love to show you the machine, my process. I bet you’d get a kick out of it.”

Jazz smiled. “Sure, Mr. Quiston, I’d like that. Take care now, okay?”

The artist didn’t watch her walk off. Instead, he redirected his attention to the shoes of the next passerby.

Soon, his novel art would be just another creation and his recognition would be replaced by someone else’s glory. To preserve this moment, HAL and Quiston would need to get back to work.

So they did.

Marley Quiston

trapped – HALLWARD

AI generation, acrylic on canvas

A blocky figure melded to the bars stares outward with empty eyes from its cell.

Marley Quiston

terror 2 – HALLWARD

AI generation, acrylic on canvas

The mouth, split in jagged lines from the face, was given shape with the help of a palette knife.

Marley Quiston

desperate – HALLWARD

AI generation, acrylic on canvas

Reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s Scream, limbs and facial features mold together, eliminating the subject’s capacity for self-aid.

His steadily growing repertoire brought an old associate to the Quiston apartment.

“Jazz! What a surprise!”

The programmer covered her mouth. When she drew her hand away, she gripped it with the other to steady her shaking fingers. “What happened to you, Mr. Quiston?”

“I’m successful again!” Marley retreated from the doorway, leaving the door open for the other to follow him. His apartment floor, appliances, and furniture had vanished. Canvases piled and towered upon every surface. A few were blank, but most were ornamented with the artistic duo’s masterpieces.

Jazz navigated carefully between the towers so as to not disturb anything. “You look—I mean, are you feeling okay?”

“Never better.” Marley wobbled, catching a pillar of paintings in order to maintain his balance. “Just tired. Busy and tired.”

“You look like it. Tired, I mean.”

Marley grabbed a blank canvas and loaded it into HAL. “I’ve been wondering when I’d see you, Jazz. I’ve wanted to introduce you to HAL.”


“My HALLWARD. He’s been helping me with my art. I think you’ll find it interesting, y’know, how he works.”

“I’ve never heard of a HALLWARD. Hell, I haven’t even seen a model like this before.”

“Got him on Amazon.”

Jazz pursed her lips. “Right.”

“Anyways, I’ll fire him up.”

Before Marley could tap the screen, Jazz put a hand on his arm. “I’m worried about you.”

“Me? Ha!” Quiston faced his visitor. “I’ve never been more prolific in all my life!”

Jazz pulled out her phone and faced the screen toward him. Selfie mode glared back. Marley Quiston was never a healthy man; in his youth, he was an alcoholic, and in his later years he was a recluse. Still, he had never seen himself like this. The skin on his face was like saran wrap over bone. His eyes were sunken into his head with gray bags protruding from underneath. Where his skin was not tight, it was carved with worry lines.

Marley waved the phone away. “You must’ve never met an artist in the old days. We got like this, but once we finished our collections, we would bounce right back.”

“That’s something else I’m worried about.” Jazz paused, chewing over her next words like a fatty steak. “Your subjects, your themes they are getting. . . Distressing. It almost seems like a cry for help.”

Marley scoffed. “Do you bug everyone who makes scary content?”

“I’m just saying. Look. . . I get art is your life, but you have to have life before pouring it into your art. You need to take better care of yourself.”

“I think you’re being a bit dramatic, Jazz. I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”

“Will you come with me to dinner or something tomorrow? For my sake—just so that I can tell myself you’re eating.”

“I might be busy, but I’ll try to make it. Call me.”

“I will.”

“And Jazz? I’m fine.

A beat of silence.

“If you say so.”

“I do say so. Now,” He gestured the way she had come in. “Can you scram? I’ve got work to do.” Marley ushered the woman to the door without consideration for any objection.

Marley Quiston did not show up for dinner, nor did he answer Jazz’s phone calls. She promptly called for a welfare check. The door was forced inward by police. At first, their search brought up nothing but macabre art, toppled towers of canvases scattering the floor, and a rank odor. The artist was found when an officer moved to turn over terror 2, as the dead eyes and open fangs disturbed him. His skin was ashen. Marley’s eyes were wide open and an open-mouthed smile was frozen onto his face. His time of death would later be determined to have been somewhere in the middle of the prior night.

Clutched in his hand was his final piece. The subject was only such by arrangement. The shapes that made it up were geometric: circles, morphed ovals, and rectangles. Museums were originally hesitant to claim it because of its similarity to desperate, but eventually relented in time due to the nature of its discovery.

Marley Quiston

Marley Quiston – HALLWARD

AI generation

In loving memory.

The featured image above is a painting by artist Daniel Drimal. Shortwave licensed the rights to republish the image here. No AI art was used.


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About the Author

Casey Masterson is a horror writer with her short stories “Shock” and “Portrait of an Artist” published in Dark Matter Magazine and Shortwave Publishing respectively. Her first book, an unnamed short story collection, will debut in 2023. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Montclair State University in German with minors in creative writing and mythology. Currently, she is working on a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science at Rutgers University.

Copyright ©2022 by Casey Masterson.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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