Naked People

DSC_0132 (2)Hillary (charcoal, 20 minute pose)

I took a Drawing I class at the University of Dayton, and we drew boxes the first class.  The second we drew a model wearing a bathing suit.  By midterm the models wore nothing, but by then I had become habituated to seeing nude men and women on the modeling stage.  The problems of figuring out basic proportions and drawing hands and feet outweighed any shock I felt from seeing body after body.

I took a life drawing class the next semester.  The process was familiar, but the instructor demanded more.  And my classmates drew on a much higher level.  I felt intimidated, so I learned to steal from the best.  Gary drew like an angel–I couldn’t figure out how he captured a human figure and it’s surrounding space with a few lines.  But I noticed that he always included a rug or the section of the stage on which the model stood.  He showed a bit of depth that way.  I stole that.  Dave made bravura marks for emphasis after he had the main forms down.  I stole that.  Violet accented junctions where two planes came together, pop-pop-pop all around the drawing.  The accents created points of tension that countered the long lines flowing along the length of an arm or a leg.  Beautiful.  I stole that.

The models had varying attitudes toward their work.  One emaciated woman cringed before dropping her robe.  She slumped onto a cushion at the shadowed back of the stage, stared at the floor the whole time she posed, and answered the professor in monosyllables.  I felt guilty drawing her.  A short man with a muscular body held his head high and relaxed into his poses.  He lost his detached composure once when he caught me glaring at his groin.  I was trying for a third time to correctly draw the juncture where the thigh inserts into the hip, but he mistook my frustration for an odd reaction to the sight of his privates.  I shifted my gaze and drew his knees after I saw him frown back at me.  A redhead struck long, languorous poses.  Her lips curled in a lazy smile as she directed inappropriate jokes at the male students.  She’d say, “Well, boys, what are you looking at?” and “See anything you like, boys?”  During breaks she’d don a robe and walk around the class to inspect our drawings.  She didn’t bother to use a tie, and her garment gaped open as she stood next to us.  She had a crush on Gary and lingered at his drawings.  One day she exclaimed, “You make me look so beautiful!”  After she returned to the stage Gary slowly, deliberately erased her face off the drawing.

I eventually became an art instructor and taught life drawing with nude models.  I learned from painful experience to give my students a lecture about art room etiquette before a first lesson.  I say, ” One:  the model has not come to class to socialize with you.  I am not running a dating service, and you will not ask for a phone number.  Two:  you will not touch the model.  Three:  you will not make personal remarks or jokes about the model.  Four:  you will not photograph the model.  Five:  treat the model with respect.  If you cannot follow these rules I’ll kick you out of class, and you’ll have to find a way to make up for the missing drawings on your own.  That will cost you time and money.”  Then I give them examples of bad behavior.  “A student stood three feet away from a model and told me that the model was too ugly to draw…A woman in a figure painting class made a bad sketch of the model.  When the model returned to the stand after a break the student tried to twist the model’s arms and legs to match the mangled contortions of her drawing…A student, an older woman wearing a baggy sweater and bifocals, confronted a model on the first day of class.  She shouted, ‘Jezebel!  Jezebel!’ when the model opened her robe.”

I believe that the close study of a face and body (scars and all) is a way of honoring an individual’s history and humanity.  But some of my beginning drawing students refuse to draw from a nude person, even if the model is of their gender.   Religious faith trumps acceptance of the human form.  I give my moral protestors an alternative.  I send them out of the classroom to draw nudes from old master prints and paintings.  They never complain about that form of nudity–it’s second hand nature doesn’t compromise their principles.  I no longer bother to tell them that Raphael, Rubens and Da Vinci drew directly from models, that Western Art is based on the unembarrassed study of naked people.  If I did they’d only think that I was making excuses for my sins.

DSC_0133 (2)Joyce (oil on canvas)

The Reality Party

s-p-painting-2Self-Portrait, oil/canvas, 12×9″

Reality is a slippery thing.  Every time I paint a portrait I discover that my mood and the mood of the sitter creeps into the paint. The expression of a painting can completely change if a slight twist of the lips or a squint in the eye is added.  How do I catch the reality of a person if they keep metamorphosing right in front of me?  Objects in still lives are easier to pin down, but if I look at them long enough I discover hidden shades and colors that I hadn’t noticed before, and my perception of the whole is changed.  Landscape subjects flicker and move continuously with every stray breeze or the passing of a cloud.  What then is real about a street or a tree?  Nothing is still and unchanging if I’m really paying attention.

Is it worthwhile to keep looking for reality?  I think so.  Reality is a process of discovery, of finding new things in what appears to be obvious and familiar.  It cannot be circumscribed or pinned down, but its open-ended nature makes life that much richer and mysterious.  Art critics have long ago declared that realistic art is dead, and those who persist in this tradition are morticians applying cosmetics to a corpse that should have been buried long ago.  But of course the naysayers are not practitioners in capturing reality and have no idea that it is an ever expanding field.

DSC_1215                         Bust, charcoal, 17×14″

I’ve been following the news about the Democratic Party and their search for a new message that will revitalize political fortunes for its brethren.  I’ve also been thinking about the Republican drift into fantasy and anger driven polemics.  The GOP has based its political fortune on stoking the fury of its adherents by offering them false narratives.  Scapegoating, denying science, flag waving in the service of suppressing dissent, and ignoring the facts of recent history are some of the tools they’ve employed to seize power.

If the Democrats truly want to distinguish themselves and to set an original agenda they could identify themselves as the Reality Party.  Search out the real, proclaim it, and offer concrete solutions in response.  Never try to recreate a world that has long past, but respond to problems as they arrive with a clear eyed resolve to do the best for the most people.  Never promise a one size fits all solution to any one dilemma facing our country, but attack any difficulty with all the tools at hand.  If there are no tools, then figure out how to make them.

Wouldn’t it be great if politics graduated from its current practice of engaging in ceaseless dogfights for cash, influence and power?  What if Lincoln’s vision of a government that is “by the people and for the people” came to fruition and our elected officials focused on doing practical things for the benefit of all?  I’d vote for any candidate that fit that bill regardless of party affiliation.

I sometimes tell my Drawing I students that I’m teaching them to search for What Is.  They often prefer to hold onto What They Think Is There.  They struggle with the basics of perspective because they refuse to draw what they see and hold tight to drawing what they thing ought to be there.  Some get upset when they discover that their assumptions about reality are wrong or do not predict all possibilities.  But if they stick with the process they discover that What Is is a wonderful field of open inquiry, of ever expanding horizons. And isn’t the “pursuit of happiness” most likely to succeed when it’s based on such a search for reality?

dsc_0112     Bougainvillea Looking West, oil/canvas, 20×24″

Landscape Painting Force Field

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Bougainvillea Looking West

I’m still working on a landscape that I started this summer and wrote about in “Front Yard Monet”.   I know that it’s nearly done as some areas are resisting improvement, and additional maneuvers only make them slightly worse.  I tell my students that each painting is a collection of missteps and corrections, and that with every new canvas a painter learns a new way to accept defeat.  But defeat does not mean discouragement.  It means that new territories of experience and expression still await.  A perfect painting means that exploration has come to an end.

I also tell them that painting a landscape usually involves more problems than changing light, fickle weather and attacks by bugs: a plein air painter is often beset by bystanders who comment on the work in progress and share their viewpoints about their lives, religion, politics, and art.  They persist unless discouraged.  On Friday I resorted to a desperate measure to fend off three onlookers and was partially successful.

I was painting a patch of grass in the left foreground when I heard the sounds of a motor and a radio approaching.  A weather beaten man with one lone tooth in his upper jaw who wore a baseball cap, shorts and a tee shirt pushed a mower slowly toward me.  Reuben stopped to look at the painting, but didn’t turn off his radio or the motor as he told me about his attempts at painting and photography.  He had a thick accent, and what with the background noise I had trouble understanding everything he said, but managed to pick out a few of the major points.  The man said that he had several regular customers in the neighborhood and helped them with their gardens as well.  Reuben enjoyed working as him own boss in the outdoors as it gave him time to appreciate the beauty he saw everywhere around him.  A recent sunset moved him so much that he took a picture of the red and purple tinged clouds above a glowing horizon. And then Reuben knocked on the door of a nearby house, showed a befuddled stranger his picture, and pulled his victim out onto the lawn to make him look at the splendor of nature.

He had used up the memory in his phone and now carried a small digital camera to continue taking his photos.  With practice and persistence he had developed a sense of composition that allowed him to isolate the most choice elements in the landscape.  Now when he snapped a picture he framed hidden beauty in such a way that it revealed itself to his viewers.

Reuben also told me that he had financial difficulties and lived in a rented room a few blocks away, but that his life had grown so much richer now that he lived a simpler life.  I didn’t cut him off because he kept saying things about life and art that agreed with my own observations, because it would have been wrong to interrupt his joyous flow, and because the man had a huge need to unburden his thoughts to a willing  (and/or unwilling) audience.  After 20 minutes, however, I began to use a Buddhist practice of following my breaths to help me remain patient. He had begun to repeat himself, and I feared that the sun would set before Reuben finished his harangue.  Thankfully he walked on after he had taken three or four selfies with me and my landscape, and had apologized at least five time for taking up my time.

I painted a bit more after he left, but decided to go inside for a drink of water.  I remembered that I had a cigar on my dresser, a Christmas present from my daughter’s fiance’.  I took it outside with me and lit up.  Reuben returned pushing his mower just as I arrived at my easel.  He grinned and said, “I bet you’re smoking that to keep me moving on.”  I smiled and said nothing but thought, “Damn right!”

A man in a pick up truck pulled up a bit later and asked me what I was painting.  I pointed down the street to my view, and he looked at the painting on my easel.  He seemed surprised, gave me a compliment or two, told me he lived just down the block and promised to return later.  I puffed on my cigar and hoped that he would not.  He drove away, but swung back around the corner a half hour later and pulled up in his driveway two houses up the cross street.  He did not come back for a chat.  “Good cigar,” I thought.

A young woman stopped her car beside me just as I began to place a few touches on the clouds above a tree.  She asked me if I were a professional, and I said, “Yes, and I teach painting and drawing at Crealde School of Art and Valencia.”  She said, “I take classes at Valencia.  What’s your name?”  I told her and said that our department was a good place to  study.  She seemed bright and pleasant, but light was fading and it was time for me to pack up and start supper. I puffed on my cigar.  A cloud of smoke drifted in her direction, and she fled before she was engulfed.

Later that night I sent a message to my daughter on Facebook.  I told her that her boyfriend’s gift, a Quorum Shade from Nicaragua, was much appreciated.  And then I looked up cigar stores online to see if a local shop sold them.  I’m thinking about starting a series of landscapes in my neighborhood and may have to stock up.

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My Viewpoint

Dysfunction: One Thing Leads to Another

A few months ago I drew a charcoal drawing entitled, “She Spurned His Advances”.  It showed an gawky looking monster hovering near a woman who was not thrilled by his amorous attention.  I used a Surrealist technique to develop the suitor, and based his lady on a 19th century daguerreotype.

She Spurned

After I finished this piece I got the idea to show a couple responding to a man’s unfortunate tendency to spontaneously eject his internal organs at inappropriate moments.  (I know what you’re thinking:  when is there an appropriate moment for involuntary self-evisceration?)  This idea evolved into “Eruptile Dysfunction”, an oil painting of a man responding to his wife’s sexual overtures by suffering a volcanic eruption to explode out of the top of his head.

dsc_0015  Eruptile Dysfunction, Oil on Canvas

I decided to satirize the erectile dysfunction pharmaceutical ad campaign (the commercials annoy me), and I played around with puns.  I first came up with “T-Rextile Dysfunction.”  I envisioned a T-Rex couple in bed having unsatisfactory relations, but this idea seemed too cartoonish.  I found some illustrations of T-Rex running, and one of them showed a dinosaur looking back over one shoulder.  I wondered what could possibly make a giant predator look behind itself with apprehension, and I remembered a documentary about aviation disasters.  Judy and I watched an old report about airliners losing tail sections and wings in mid flight when their metal under structures failed from repeated stress. I got the idea that the T-Rex’s tail, elevated off the ground as the monster ran, might break off.

dsc_0034T-Rextile Dysfunction, Acrylic on Board

I’m brewing up a few ideas for more paintings in this series.  “Electile Dysfunction” could feature a prominent player in our current presidential race.  An angry couple could break up in a vivid way in “Rejectile Dysfunction”.  “Ejectile Dysfunction” could illustrate a faulty ejection seat in a jet fighter.  An architect might stand by the collapsed ruins of an unfinished building in “Erectile Dysfunction”.

I’m not sure if I will actually make these paintings, but it amuses me to think about them.

Why Artists Get Snippy

Sandhill crane

Artists have a reputation for being a bit touchy.  Their egos appear to be easily bruised to those in professions in which work has no personal value beyond earning cash and prestige.  Artists work for those goals too, but their production is tied to their personal creativity, to their internal values.  When someone tells a painter that he or she doesn’t like a painting the artist often feels a twinge of rejection that an administrator in a food packing plant doesn’t feel when consumers say that they don’t like a particular brand of canned asparagus.

The skills that artists use and the work they make are consistently undervalued by the public, gallery dealers, and officials in arts organizations.  We’re fresh meat until our work gains enough clout so that we can call some of the shots.  But even then there are instances of exploitation.  The situation truly reverses only when the artist’s work is so in demand that a gallery, museum and the buying public have more to lose than the artist.  Then a painter (Picasso got away with this quite often) can take his or her revenge by fobbing off mediocre work on fools willing to pay for anything bearing the artist’s signature regardless of its quality.

I’ve told a few of the following stories to newby artists who are beginning to consider using their talent to earn a living.  Most think that I’m being incredibly negative until they’ve had a few experiences of their own. 

I once received a phone call from a stranger who heard that I painted murals.  He wanted to hire me to paint scenes of an ancient Roman bath on the walls of his bathroom.  I was appalled at the idea of trying to work images of Roman columns and marble statuary into a composition that would complement this guy’s toilet and bathtub, but I politely told him that I wasn’t the right man for the job.  He was angry that I turned down the project and sneered, “You artists are all alike.  My mother was an artist, and she was way too sensitive.  She always got huffy when I said anything about her art.  You’re just like her.”  Our conversation ended badly.

On a another venture I drove down to Kissimmee, Florida to a janitorial service company.  They wanted a mural on the inside wall of their office to brighten things up.  I got lost and arrived a bit late, and my reception by the manager wasn’t all that friendly.  He pointed to a five feet wide by eight feet tall gap on a dimly lit wall between gray metal shelves holding cleaning supplies.  My mural would have to fit in that space.  I asked him, a secretary and an accountant what kind of imagery they wanted.  One wanted a teddy bear flying a biplane pulling a banner with company’s name.  One wanted a giraffe (she liked giraffes) dressed in a company uniform pushing a broom.  The final request was a pink dolphin leaping out of a pond in a clearing of an Amazonian jungle. (I swear that I’m not making this up.)  They would have added a few more things, but I told them that that imagery was more than enough to make a compelling composition.  I went home and actually began to do some sketches for the mural, but they didn’t contact me again as they had promised.  I decided to forgo forcing my services on them out of a sense of self-preservation.

I went on a fool’s errand several more times in hope of landing mural painting jobs.  One was to a juvenile detention center in West Orlando.  I was told that I would be paid $300 to paint the front facade of their building, which ran about 50 yards long and was twenty feet high. At best, once I took out the cost of the paint, I’d make five dollars per hour for the job.  The committee that met me to discuss imagery had not convened before, offered no previously agreed upon theme for the mural, but unanimously disliked the drawings I brought.  We brainstormed.  One woman wanted me to paint happy, skippy families walking hand in hand on a path in a park.  She didn’t like it when I questioned the propriety of putting a greeting card message on the front of a jail.  Another thought that beige stripes might be nice.  The other two committee members stared blankly at me.  We reached no agreement.  I killed that deal by telling them to call me when they figured out what they really  wanted.  They never did.

The last attempt to win a mural contract was negotiated with a young mother living in an uppity upscale neighborhood in Winter Park.  She wanted a floral garden for a wall in her dining room.  I showed her several of my landscape paintings, and we discussed a composition.  She paid me $40 to do a small scale mock-up canvas for the project, and she was thrilled when I brought it over a few days later.  She held onto the painting to show it to her husband, friends and decorator.  The next time I met her the deal fell through.  The colors in the painting were too bright.  “I can add white to make them more pastel,” I countered.

“You added an arch along the garden path.  We didn’t talk about that,” she said.  Her tone of voice accused me of trying to pull a fast one on her.

“The arch makes the composition better,” I said and added, “But I can take it out.”

“My decorator says that the focal point of the room is the French door.  She thinks that a mural would be a distraction.”

I didn’t tell her what I was thinking, that what she really needed for that wall was wallpaper.  Instead I waited for the final shoe to drop–she was building up to something.  She looked at me shrewdly and said, “Well I did pay you $40, and I’d like to keep the little painting.”

“We agreed that that money was to pay for my services in coming up with a design for the mural, not for the painting itself,” I answered.  I usually sold my landscapes for $200.  She insisted that she deserved something for her money, and I gave in.  She was more determined to rip me off than I was to wrestle the canvas out of her hands.

I’ve also been treated poorly while minding my own business painting landscapes.  Ex-frat boy business men out on the streets to get lunch mock me with “Yo, Picasso!” when they see me working at my easel in downtown Orlando.  Random passersby like to stand in front of me to block my view.  They caper and dance up and down and ask, “Want to paint me?  Want to paint me?  How much will you pay me to pose?”  This has happened so many times that I’ve learned to ignore these prancing idiots and work on the sky until they go away.  If they are persistent I tell them, “No, sir.  I really, really don’t want to paint you.”  Some folks will stand a few inches behind me and look over my shoulder as I work.  If they linger they inevitably begin to tell me, their captive audience, all about their personal history, love life, troubles at work, etc.  One guy, an unemployed nurse who had difficulty getting along with supervisors, bent my ear for twenty minutes.  Then he graced my unfinished painting with a disparaging glance and gave me a grade:  B+.  A woman murmured a few condescending pleasantries before advising me to add figures to my painting of Central Park in downtown Winter Park.  When I didn’t immediately start painting the oldsters sitting on the park benches she added, “Your painting is dead if you don’t add figures.”  She had a smug, cruel smile on her face as she spoke–she apparently knew a lot more about painting than I did, and she was used to having her wishes immediately obeyed–and was surprised when I waved her away with twinkly fingers and said, “Bye bye.”

Outdoor art festivals are other public sites of humiliation for artists.  I gave them up long ago, but a friend of mine, a fellow landscape painter, endured several years of intermittent abuse as she waited on potential customers in her canvas tent.  I witnessed one such moment.  Brenda loved sandhill cranes and had done several paintings of these unusual birds.  I listened in as a customer, a middle aged woman with a red face, exploded in outrage in front of the crane paintings.   She cried, “Sandhill cranes!  I hate those birds!  They land on my car and leave claw marks.  They shit all over my lawn, and they tear up golf courses and they’re a nuisance down at the docks where we keep our boat.  If it were up to me I’d shoot every last one of them!”  She stormed out of the tent convinced that Brenda had schemed to paint those birds in order to personally insult her.

Brenda’s tent and the tents of several other good painters were mostly empty that night.  But down the row from Brenda’s booth were a man and a woman doing brisk business.  They had figured out that a fair number of budding alcoholics in Orlando were sentimental about booze and dogs, and had brilliantly decided to combine the two subjects into improbable but popular images. When a patron walked up they asked, “What’s your favorite dog?”  Then, “What’s your favorite drink?”  Then they would use a laptop and an inkjet printer to run off an image of a miniature dog curled up inside a drinking glass (a chihuahua in a martini glass or a beagle in a wine goblet) and would charge $25 for the print.

I once comforted a student who was upset that one of his paintings wasn’t selected for a show.  I told him that he would get along fine in the art world as long as he accepted the following adage:  In art there is no god, and in art there is no justice.

 

 

Stammering Dan and Lulu Du Lit

stammering dan interior

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Stammering Dan Weber was a soldier long before he became a senator.  He served as a sergeant in the Indiana State Militia during the Menominee Uprising of 1843, and suffered a grave wound at the Battle of French Lick  when a fourteen and a half pound cannon ball struck his body two inches above his navel.  He was carried to a field hospital, and his torso was surgically removed.  He retired from the army as his new condition made it difficult for him to salute, point toward enemy positions, and to properly aim a rifle.

He began a prosperous career as a side show attraction after several years spent on the road in a futile search for his once beloved fiancee’, Delores Del Frio.  (She had fled French Lick shortly after visiting him in a field hospital where he lay in bed recovering from his traumatic disfigurement.)  As his enthusiasm for the entertainment profession gradually waned his interest in law grew stronger.  He intended to earn large sums of money trying medical malpractice lawsuits, to use his profits to hire Pinkerton detectives to find Delores, and to sue her for breach of promise.  Daniel believed that her flight was a cowardly abandonment of him at his lowest point, and he wanted to see her grovel in the dust as he demanded her last penny.

He studied at Harvard, and as a law student he became all too familiar with the seedier bars and clubs of Boston.  He drank to dull the chronic pain from his war wounds and to drown his spiteful longing to reunite with Delores.  One night he happened to spy Lulu Juteux, or Lulu Du Lit as she was billed on her signboard, dancing in the Chez Piaf.  Lulu’s ample beauty, for a moment, dispelled Dan’s fixation on his wayward fiancee’.  She stirred nearly forgotten feelings inside him even though he no longer had insides capable of being stirred.

Lulu was a calculating young woman with ambitions for her future.  She noticed Dan’s striking lack of physique, his persistent obsession with her figure (he sat down front at every one of her appearances), and the quality of his clothes.  She could spot a gentleman of means at fifty yards.  She invited him back stage one night for a chance to get acquainted and offered him brandy.  He sat at a little table in her dressing room and sipped his drink through a straw as she changed clothes behind a screen. She took a chair beside him after she had donned a revealing dress made of loosely woven peacock feathers.  She toyed with the curls in his hair above his ears, drank from his cup, and listened to his war stories. She kissed him on his forehead after he told her how it felt to be struck by a cannonball (“Bad–most unpleasant.”).  When the bottle was empty Dan led her away to his carriage and told his man to drive them to his rooms. They spent the night together, and in the morning he proposed marriage.

They lived happily as man and wife by following a few simple rules:  she was allowed lovers as long as she was discreet and didn’t cause a scandal;  he was the only one permitted to enjoy her dancing as long as he refrained from mentioning Delores Del Frio’s name.  Dan had confessed his lingering obsession shortly before their wedding, and Lulu had surprised herself by becoming passionately jealous of the fugitive fiancee’.

Dan became a prosperous lawyer even though he acquired the affliction of stammering when speaking in public.  He compensated by taking a ponderous long time to utter each word, and developed a reputation for gravity and wisdom as an unintended consequence.  Word of his growing stature spread beyond Boston and throughout New England, and he was eventually elected the United States Senator from Massachusetts.

He served his state and country to the best of his abilities with the support of Lulu, his beloved wife, until one fateful day in 1851.  As he delivered a speech to the Senate he happened to spy Delores Del Frio seated in the gallery.  He lost his composure, began to speak rapidly in an attempt to finish his speech quickly as possible, and stammered his way through a five minute address that should have lasted twenty.  Delores, true to her character, ran out the door as soon as Daniel spluttered the last word.

The senator, his obsession fully reawakened, would have pursued her to the ends of the earth if he hadn’t been accosted in the lobby of the Senate building by Lulu.  She too had been seated in the gallery and had seen him lose his self-command as he stared with bulging eyes at a strange woman.  Lulu knelt before him on the marble tiles as legislators and pages passed by.  She looked him in the eye and demanded, “Was that Delores?”  He nodded his great head and nearly toppled over, and then he collapsed in her arms.

She carried him home, sat him down in a kitchen chair, and left him for a week.  She considered divorce but found that she missed the sound of his rasping voice and the sight of his boulder like head.  She had grown accustomed to his pate.  When she returned she found him passed out on the kitchen table.  The floor was littered with broken bottles of brandy and bent and shredded straws.

He was never the same again.  Lulu tried to nurse him back to health, but he fell into a deep spell of melancholy and soon took to his bed.  She danced before him in an attempt to arouse his spirits, but failed.  She brought him newspapers to try to keep him interested in current events, but he let them fall from his lap unread.  She invited fellow politicians such as John C. Freemint to argue with Daniel about the state of the union, but even the most spirited repartee with his friends and rivals failed to inspire a lasting passion capable of sustaining his life.

What Lulu didn’t know, and Dan refused to tell her, was that Miss Del Frio’s unexpected visitation had filled Daniel with a hopeless longing for the simpler days he had enjoyed before the Battle of French Lick.   Her second appearance and flight dealt him his final wound, one more dire than the cannonball’s, and soon he wasted away until he was nothing more than a shriveled, gnarled head.  Lulu laid him to rest in the Granary Burying Ground in Boston.

Daniel’s widow donated a portion of his burial policy’s dispensation to a war veteran’s relief fund.  The undersized casket had cost half as much as expected.  And then she went off in search of Delores.  She didn’t know how she would manage it, but she intended to dance on Del Frio’s grave while wearing a white bustier trimmed with a beaded leather fringe.  Dan had asked her to wear it when she had shimmied for him on their wedding night, and she had, of course, complied.

 

 

 

The Big Night: Art Opening in New York

supreme chicken                                                        Supreme Chicken, Oil/Canvas, 1987

In the late eighties I showed my paintings and drawings in a little gallery in Wilmington, Delaware.  Susan Isaacs was the owner and dealer.  She was sophisticated and catholic in her taste and willing to take chances on new artists.  She called in a dealer from New York to jury a show at her gallery, and Joseph swooped in and raided her files.  He picked out several of Susan’s artists as potential exhibitors in his gallery in a dodgy part of the East Village.  When I received a summons to show him my work I talked to Susan about it.  She diplomatically reported that Joseph never lied, but often didn’t tell the whole truth.  I decided to take a chance anyway, and told myself that Susan was probably worried that Joseph might clean out her stable of artists.

A friend drove me and a box of paintings to New York.  When we passed Cooper Union I saw a group of homeless men spreading rags on the sidewalk at an intersection near our destination.  I asked Jim what was going on, and he explained that the rag men were selling their rags to other rag men.

Joseph buzzed us into his gallery and lined my paintings up against a wall.  He trained color adjusted spotlights onto them, and they looked good even to me.  I felt like a professional.  Joseph made a few positive noises and seemed to be heading in the direction of offering a one man show.  Then he reined in his enthusiasm and said, “I’d like to put you in a try out show first, a group show with a few more artists.”  He put a finger alongside his cheek as he searched for an appropriate title and said, “I think that I’ll call it…Representations.”  I left feeling both disappointed and hopeful.  A show in New York in any form might open the door to an actual career as a painter.

A few months later I received another call from Joseph summoning me to New York.  I brought along another box of small paintings and met with him in his new location in SOHO.  This gallery was much larger, was sleek and airy with broad white walls and a huge window looking out on a sweeping view of Manhattan.  The old place had been a grubby hole in the wall in a marginal neighborhood.  Joseph made a selection of work for the show and picked only the most traditional still lives in the group.  I began to suspect that he saw me only as a conservative painter of kitschy Americana and didn’t understand my subversive intent.  That was the first alarm bell.  The second was his announcement that I would have to pitch in $500 to help cover the cost of the show postcard and the refreshments at the opening.  I felt that I had come too far to back out at that point and agreed to write him a check.

In early December my wife and I drove to her parents’ home in eastern Pennsylvania and dropped off our one year old daughter.  Judy and I took a bus to the Port Authority in New York on the night of the opening reception for “Representations”.  We found the bus station in its usual state of disarray with dirty, trash strewn floors, graffiti sprayed walls, beleaguered and angry guards, and the typical New York mix of both respectable and extreme characters.  I had to pee and got in line for a urinal at the nearest men’s room.  I could hear someone mumbling and cursing behind me.  When I got my turn and opened my fly the voice became distinct and disturbingly close to my ear.  It growled, “What are you doing what’s taking so long quit jerking off buddy hurry up!”My wife took one look at me when I exited the rest room and asked, “What happened?”  I was too angry and embarrassed to explain and said, “I couldn’t go.”

We were running a little late and scurried out the door and into a subway station at 7th Avenue.  We asked for directions and found our platform.  While we waited a tall, well-groomed man in a elegant coat walked by with a wooden box.  He stopped ten feet away from us, stood on the box and began to deliver an incoherent sermon.  I didn’t worry too much about the raving preacher until I noticed that the folks around us had begun to back away from him.

Our train arrived and we made our escape.  I could tell that we were headed south, but the line curved in a serpentine fashion and I had no idea where we were really going.  We need to head southeast to SOHO.  When we got back on the street we were both disoriented.  I happened to look down a long avenue and saw the twin towers.  I realized that we were a mile too far to the west of our destination.  As we walked along Houston Street in the darkening winter gloom I felt overwhelmed once again by the size and intimidating aura of New York.  I was an ant in a gigantic anthill.

We passed by a church and saw a man standing by a lighted outdoor creche.  He had no coat on but didn’t seem to notice the cold.  His body was as rigid as a statue.  He stared and pointed at something that horrified him, something that was invisible to us.  As we hurried on I felt guilty for not stopping to try to help him.  I was afraid of what he might do if he suddenly came to life.

We came to within a few blocks of the gallery and stopped at a Blimpie sandwich shop to get our supper.  Judy and I finally got a chance to catch our breath and for me to relieve my  bladder.  We walked into the reception feeling a bit more confident, but our hope faded as we toured the show.

My paintings and the artwork of four other artists in “Representations” had not been given an opening devoted to our work as expected.  Instead we were a sideshow in a small area near the rear of the gallery.  The main event was the reception for an installation of large metal sculptures of horses done in the manner of Deborah Butterfield.  Joseph and his staff appeared to have developed cases of situational deafness and blindness.  They were unable to see or hear me when I came to say hello, but were able to respond to potential buyers of the life size mechanical horses.  Judy and I drifted over to the area where my paintings hung on a wall.  We tried to blend in and look casual.  The only ones looking at “Representations” were the artists and their families.  Judy encouraged me to strike up a conversation with my fellow victims, and I got into a few abortive discussions.  One young man who did Picasso-esque drawings of still lives and cityscapes asked me where I was from.  He was originally from Rhode Island but had a studio in The City.  When I told him, “Pennsylvania,” he rubbed his chin and looked up at the ceiling as if trying to recall a vague memory.  He said, “Pennsylvania.  I’ve heard of that…”

My bladder beckoned once again–visits to New York always seemed to stimulate renal productivity–and when I returned I saw a pack of wolfish young men closing in on my wife.  She had worn a slinky black dress, held a wine glass in her hand, and stared thoughtfully at a painting.  She looked brainy and gorgeous.  I rushed up to her, took her hand and reclaimed my exclusive rights.  She had noticed the attention and was amused.   Her wine glass was filled with water, not white wine, and she was a research scientist and mother, not a bored socialite or an art groupie looking for action.

As the reception went on I began to sink into a depression, but Jim and his wife Sally showed up unexpectedly.  Sally introduced me to an artist from Delaware, and we had a long and somewhat comforting discussion about art world economics.  Jim and Sally ushered us out of the gallery long before the reception ended.  I had no desire to hang back:  I had long since realized that my $500 check had been used to pay for the horse sculpture opening and that my presence was not required or desired.  The four of us drove in Jim’s car to a restaurant in midtown Manhattan and ate a meal together.

I was immensely grateful that Jim and Sally had made the effort to support us on a night that had turned into a rolling disaster.  They continued their kindness by saving us from another subway misadventure:  they dropped us off at the Port Authority. Judy and I picked our way through a crowd of homeless men and women who sheltered in cardboard boxes set over grates in the sidewalk at the entrance of the station.  Clouds of steamy air rose around their makeshift hovels.

The bus trip took two hours, but I was glad during the ride to be putting distance between us and New York City.  When we got back to Judy’s parents late that night we looked in our little girl.  She slept snug and warm in a crib.  I thought, “Here’s my real life,” and some of my disappointment faded.

I sold nothing in the show.  Joseph professed to be puzzled by my hostile attitude when I came to pick up my work in January.  A few months later I looked in a gallery guide for New York and saw an upcoming show advertised at his gallery.  The title was, “Representations”.

I got a letter from him the following year in which I was invited to participate in another group show.  The bait was a promise that I would be allowed to choose which paintings would be displayed.  The fee was $750.  I got a phone call from one of his assistants a few weeks later when Joseph noticed that I hadn’t responded.  I didn’t say much when she invited me to air my grievances about the December show.  I didn’t tell her that I was aware that the proposed show was scheduled in July, a time of the year when most buyers, art aficionados and critics were vacationing out of town.  I didn’t say that I wasn’t stupid and desperate enough to help pay the gallery’s summer rent, or that I had no faith that the opening reception would actually be dedicated to the show in which I would be participating.  I only said, “No, thank you,” and hung up the phone.