In the midst of a 21-day road trip and trying his best to get some sleep in the car, the artist Brian Haverlock gets a phone call in the middle of the night. It’s Mark Caragiulo. He’s opening a new restaurant—Veronica Fish and Oyster—and wants to commission Haverlock for a series of four paintings dedicated to Elvis Costello’s Veronica. Haverlock, a former Ringling College professor and founding member of the SARTQ artist collective, doesn’t normally do commissions. And a lot has changed since he left Sarasota in 2012, including a stroke two years later leaving him paralyzed on one side, to be followed by two years of slow rehabilitation with braces and canes and electrode stimulation. Haverlock’s work has changed—no longer the collaged and illustrative character cards with the Monty Python touch that Caragiulo used to collect, but a more narrative and abstract exploration. Still, Haverlock counts Caragiulo as a friend—he trusts him—and takes the job.

The plan called for five weeks. Haverlock flew down from his new home in Columbus, OH and stayed in Caragiulo’s guesthouse, transforming the garage into a studio looking like something best described as “aftermath.” The story at first seemed simple but rich, guided by Costello’s verses about a woman named Veronica whose childhood sweetheart and betrothed joins the Navy and never returns, leaving her in a perpetual “widow’s watch” as she imagines the family and life that could have been. But the further he delved, and the more questions Caragiulo asked, the less certain everything became. “It was the whole five weeks just to begin the research and flesh out the narrative,” says Haverlock. Were the two childhood sweethearts? What if the man did come back? Did he ever love her? Did Veronica invent the whole thing? “Is her name even Veronica?” asks Haverlock with an exasperated laugh. The project stretched into months, but he was already invested in the character. He just had to find her.

Working on wood panel and ultimately employing everything from vintage newsprint and tempera to graphite pencil and acrylic, Haverlock begins from the found photograph, sifting through mountains of old-timey portraits to find the face of Veronica. Then her betrothed. Then the children. They may evolve as the work progresses, but for now they stand as visual signposts. He glues them to the panel with house paint, which bleeds the edges and creeps into the photographs. “It disrupts the clean cut and immediately you get a sense of history,” says Haverlock. “These are nuances that I have to figure out and get right if the work is to be successful.” For atmosphere, he layers the background with Victorian-age newspaper, old sailors’ letters and bits of nautical wallpaper. Haverlock’s process thrives on layers, with the artist immediately deviating from preliminary sketches to add a photograph here or collage a figure there, experimenting with different motifs to explore through the four panels. In this period, the piece is in constant flux. “It’s the freaking kitchen sink,” confesses Haverlock. He regularly overworks and overbuilds his painting as part of the process, pushing it to the point of collapse in order to strip it back down and create a more refined version. “When I do that,” he says, “it just gets richer and richer.”

The finished product, currently hanging from the walls of Caragiulo’s restaurant, tells Veronica’s story in four parts—broad strokes enriched by smaller vignettes dotted throughout the composition, like a chaste first kiss. Building the mythology upon minutiae, Haverlock asks more questions than he answers. The distorted figures and fantastical settings inject an inherent uncertainty to the story like a tale well traveled. The recurring tentacles coiling through the panels offer a visual through-line while simultaneously invoking both the mystery and fantasy of Veronica’s confession. It’s not so much a story to be told as one to be pondered, and Haverlock’s interpretation brings a scale Costello likely never imagined.

Caragiulo wants to know more, hinting that a fifth panel to continue (complete?) the story of Veronica may be necessary. “Yeah, yeah,” Haverlock agrees immediately. “And this is how I want to do it…”