The last time I spoke at length with my friend, the artist Viola Moriarty, was this past summer at an outdoor wine tasting. Referring to my years-long evasion, she smiled and wagged her finger at me as a school teacher might to an errant boy - one who was loved but still needed to be put in his place.
"One day, Telly," Viola said, "You're going to let me paint your portrait."
I never doubted her, but this past week, I was reminded that time is always working against us. While far from New England, in the warmer mid-Atlantic clime, I received notice that Viola had succumbed to her six-year battle with cancer.
In departing this life far too soon, Viola Rose Moriarty left a void in the region that will be difficult to fill. She arrived in Bennington, Vt. 15 years ago with husband Jon Lev, the current superintendent of North Berkshire School Union 43, and daughters Anna and Phoebe.
Viola taught at Drury High School, then gradually left the formal profession and embarked on her painting career. However, she never stopped being teacher or student.
Viola was a self-trained modern expressionist, and her talent brought her considerable regional acclaim in a short time, to include winning the People's Choice category at the Plein Air Vermont 2011 competition.
Her work appeared extensively in Williamstown, where Images Cinema was
Years ago, when the scourge of cancer invaded Viola's body, she refused to let it take her spirit. Instead, she became a paradigm for fighters and survivors everywhere.
It was then I published my first reflection, here in The Advocate, on her colliding worlds of cancer and creativity. The column considered Viola's upcoming battle as seen through the eyes of her painting, "Phoebe in Lime Green," which hangs in my home to this day.
The image captured Viola's daughter at age 16 following a traumatic illness which had left Phoebe hospitalized for several months in South America. It remains a brilliant work, but also a reminder of what Viola faced.
Given this memory, on the evening I learned of her death, I sifted through my files for every article I had written on Viola, her work, and family. What I found was something she had taught me but I had forgotten: Art involves some element of irony and fate.
In this light, the timing of Viola's parting didn't escape me; she left this world during a period of inordinate strife. With terrorist bombings in Boston, flooding in the Midwest, a deadly plant explosion in West, Texas, and a killer earthquake in China, I couldn't recall a more trying week in recent history.
Yet perhaps no other time would have been as fitting. Viola's genius, at least as I knew it from our many interviews on her life and art, was born of a passion for trying to sort through the world's friction as well as its beauty. While outwardly witty and engaging, she didn't sit at the easel just to put a smile on things, but also to search deeply for the source of our tears.
In doing so with vibrant directness, Viola concealed a shyness that gave her bravado the exclamation point for which she was so well known. And while she will never compose my portrait on canvas, Viola already had painted it many times, in the reflection of Phoebe's sapphire gaze, and in her own.
By dusk I had finished reading those past articles, and went for a hike through the woods to pay homage to my friend. Given that I was far from New England's April chills, I could stop to see nature give birth to springtime hues, as Viola often did on her palette.
It turns out I wasn't alone.
As I ended my trek, I came upon a lockbox soliciting donations for botanical stewardship. On top of the steel casing sat a small, plastic yellow egg, opened in half, containing a piece of paper.
In the waning light I unwrapped the parchment to find a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. It was an omen - what I believe in my heart of hearts to be Viola folding up her easel one last time, after painting a final self-portrait in words:
I have hymns you haven't heard.
There is an upward soaring
in which I bend close.
You can barely distinguish me
from the things that kneel before me.
They are like sheep, they are grazing.
I am the shepherd on the brow of the hill.
When evening draws them home
I follow after, the dark bridge thudding,
and the vapor rising from their backs
hides my own homecoming.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.