Dress the Part

I stood before the desk of an elegantly coiffed and dressed administrative assistant and told her my name.  My sister had instructed me to wear a shirt, tie, Sunday pants and shined shoes, and to say very little.  The woman looked me up and down like a drill sergeant conducting an inspection, lip curled in distaste.  But she finally nodded and handed me papers to fill out.  The bank called me back for a second interview a few weeks later, but I’d secured another summer job days before.  I felt some satisfaction after I hung up:  I wouldn’t have to spend the next four months wearing ties and sweating as I ran errands for that unpleasant lady.

I applied the year before at a construction company, and wore jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt when I entered the employment office.  A lady at the desk surveyed my appearance:  my clothes suited the job, but my 150 lbs., 6’2″ frame did not.  She gave me a look of pity and told me to apply elsewhere.  I had done contracting work for my Dad, had decent strength and good stamina, but my muscles didn’t meet her expectations.  I should have pumped iron directly before walking in the door.

Churches have dress codes too.  I attended a Quaker meeting for years, and the rules for men were ill-defined.  Some wore suits, others t-shirts, sandals and khakis.  Shorts were accepted.  Colors other than beige, brown, gray and black seldom brightened the room, however.  Women usually adhered to the fashion guidelines of thrift store chic:  anything was okay as long as it bagged at essential areas and lagged ten years behind current styles.

I now attend a Presbyterian church, and the women mostly wear neatly pressed dresses running down to their knee caps.  Solid pastel colors and discrete floral patterns predominate.  Men wear suits, ties, dress pants.  I recently bought a pair of beige canvas shoes after getting new sneakers.  My old ones were black and could marginally pass inspection, but the new running shoes sport fluorescent blue trim unsuitable to the tone of the gathering.  I didn’t want to stand out as a gaudy bird whenever I crossed my legs at our Sunday school circle.

When I teach art classes I dress according to the collective attitude of the students.  Some classes require the art dude uniform.  I show up in paint stained pants and old shirts to assure them that I’m one of them, the avant garde, the cultural iconoclasts.  I leave a little stubble and don’t bother to trim my beard carefully.  Other classes doubt my credentials, and I wear a more formal ensemble and talk in distant, I-know-my-stuff tones.  Some groups are easily intimidated when I teach the fundamentals.  Direct statements, even if meant to inform and help them improve their drawings, are taken as harsh criticism.  In that case, I wear Hawaiian shirts or bow ties.  Fluorescent blue shirts with palm tree patterns overwhelm only a few.   No one feels threatened by a man wearing a bow tie.

The Steve Allen Show

I used to think that Thoreau’s advice, to never accept a job if it required a new set of clothes, was a good caution against hypocrisy and conformity.  Now I don’t care all that much, and dress for physical and emotional comfort.  Clothes are just a set of signals that introduce me to others.  By dressing the part, I acknowledge the terms of a social situation and show respect.

But sometimes I feel a bit contrary.  On the first day of a painting class, I wore a floral bow tie and a shirt patterned with blue, black, white, red and green.  I laid demonstration paintings on a stage in the middle of the studio.  I discussed the syllabus, showed materials, and pointed out the important qualities of the examples spread before the students.   I told them that the class would emphasize color theory.  “A limited palette,” I said, “let’s you create harmonies even between colors that normally clash.”  They looked back and forth from my clothes to the restrained demonstration paintings.  Their confusion was evident.  I thought, “These are the moments that make teaching worthwhile.”

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That’s My Daddy

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I shared my first bedroom with my brother Tony.  The walls were painted a cheerful shade of buttercup yellow, and sun streamed in on a Sunday morning and lit up a pile of clothes resting on a Danish modern scoop chair in the corner next to my bed.  My parents bustled in and out of the bathroom across the hall, and I could smell my Dad’s shaving cream.  I lay on my bed, hands under my head and relaxed.  Today was going to be a good day even if we had to go to church.

Dad hits the brakes of our old Dodge, the one with the oxidizing purple/blue paint that shimmers with rainbow iridescence in strong light.  He’s found a side path that leads from the top of the levee down to a strip of concrete and gravel on the shores of the Great Miami River.  We gingerly descend the narrow track and park.  I can see a dam farther upstream and tall buildings across the river.  Dad, Tony and I empty the trunk and carry a minnow bucket and two seine nets to the river edge.  We’ve changed into old tennis shoes and wade into the water with a seine.  The river bed is rocky, slimy with moss, treacherous.  We make several passes, water up to our knees, and snare some crawdads.  I fall twice and twist my ankle. When we have a bucket full we stow our gear and change our shoes.  My shorts are wet, but Dad doesn’t care about the car seats.  One of the blessings of driving old cars is that they become more useful the less they’re babied.

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Dad and I go fishing at Caesar’s Creek a few days later with the crawdads.  We’re not getting any bites until we set our bait at a lower depth.  Catfish are bottom feeders, and soon my line bends over double and jerks in tight circles.  I haul a ten inch catfish out of the muddy water, and Dad snares it in a net.  I’m afraid of the spiked whiskers even though I’ve never been stung, and Dad obliges me by taking a pair of plyers out of his fishing tackle box to extract the hook.  The catfish looks up at me from the bottom of the boat and croaks.  He seems to be saying, “Hey, buddy, what did I ever do to you?”

My sister Carla and I are scraping paint off the side of a wood paneled house across the street from the Delco battery plant in Kettering.  The paint comes off easily in the blistered sections, but some flecks stay embedded in the ruts and crevices of the pitted wood.  We use a wire brush on the stubborn spots and worry whether we’re doing a good enough job.  Dad’s warned us that the new paint won’t stick to the side of the house if applied over a loose layer of old.  Carla and I talk as we work to pass the time as the job is boring and nasty.  Our shoulders ache, and scraped paint sticks in speckles on our sweaty arms.  We’re grateful when Dad shows up and appears to be satisfied with our progress.  He doesn’t say anything, but carefully scans the walls, points out a few patches that need work, and nods.  We hope that he’s brought some soda–it’s a high and dry summer day with feathery clouds floating in the powdery blue sky–and he tells us to look in a cooler in the trunk.  He’s bought a cheap brand of grape, but we don’t care.

I get off work at  three a.m. from a restaurant shift that should have ended at twelve.  A late rush pillaged a practically spotless kitchen and dining room, and it took two hours to restore order after we ushered the last customer out at 1.  We’re exhausted but hungry, and five of us go to an all night coffee shop to get breakfast.  We talk, smoke cigarettes and tell a few jokes, and it’s dawn when we walk out to the parking lot.  I pull up to the house just as the front door opens.  Dad trudges out carrying his lunch pail.  He stares at me for a minute, shakes his head, and gets into his car without saying a word.  He no longer thinks that a lecture would do any good, and it’s too early for a shouting match.

I shoot a photograph of my Dad for a class at Wright State University.  He’s wearing a t-shirt and work pants, and glowers at me.  Art classes are a waste of time.  I develop the 35 mm. film and make a large print.  A class mate asks me if I took the shot in a prison yard.  I said, “No, that brick wall behind the man is the neighbor’s garage, and that’s my daddy.”

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Rough Sketch: An Interview with Aimee Mamelon

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Here are some sections of an interview with Aimee Mamelon, the author of a new adult novel set in the Central Florida art world.  The book is called,  Rough Sketch.

JR:  I understand that Aimee Mamelon is a pen name.  Why adopt a false identity?  Aren’t you proud of this book?

AM:  Nice opener.  Let’s get to the hostility right away.

JR:  I’ll rephrase my question.  Aimee Mamelon is a pen name.  Interesting…

AM:  I’ve worked as a model, artist and art instructor in the Orlando area.  Some of the characters are composites based on people I’ve met, and the plot contains elements of stories I’ve been told and my own experiences. I didn’t want colleagues and  acquaintances and friends leaping to conclusions.

JR:  You didn’t want them to find out that you were writing about them?  Won’t they figure out your identity once they read a few passages that are about things that only you and they went through together?

AM:  Please listen carefully.  This is a novel, not a memoir.  None of the things that happened in this book are a blow by blow account.  The characters in the book are representative of certain types of people I’ve met in the art world, but none of them are direct portraits of actual people.  Got it?

JR:  So you’re not a sex addict?

AM:  No.

JR:  But your main character, Lizzy, is.

AM:  Maybe at the beginning.  I think of her more as a female Don Juan, as someone who’s desperately trying to find fulfillment, to patch a few gaping holes in her life.  She uses sex to take the cutting edge off of her loneliness.

JR:  Why did you open the book with a graphic sex scene?

AM:  Well, obviously, I wanted to get my readers’ attention.  And I wanted to introduce the main character’s core problem right at the outset.  The first chapter is really about playing out her frustrations more than reveling in her satisfactions.

JR:  She keeps trying to find some sort of escape from reality?

AM:  Yes.  Exactly.  She drinks and goes out clubbing and has one night stands to forget that she’s just scraping by, her family drives her nuts, and that she feels unloved and unlovable.  When she takes someone home she can believe for a moment or two that she’s taking control of her life and her needs.

JR:  But of course she just makes things worse.

AM:  Yeah, it takes her a long time to figure out what she really needs and how to get it.

JR:  Have you ever modeled in the nude?

AM:  Yes.  I’ve modeled for art classes, and I posed for a boyfriend who is a figure painter.

JR:  So the scenes where Lizzy models are fairly accurate?

AM:  Oh, yes.  The first time I modeled in a class I thought that I was going to throw up or faint.  It feels pretty strange to be the only naked person in a room of 25.

JR:  Does that get easier the more you do it?

AM:  I was a little nervous every time I modeled, but not nearly as bad as the first time.  It depended a lot on the instructors and the students.  Some teachers were very demanding and didn’t care if my leg went into a spasm during a pose.  They just expected me to keep holding it.  They acted like I was an object.  Some were a lot more kind and took my needs into account…One creepy guy wanted to date me and called me up at home at all hours and asked me what I was wearing.

JR:  That had to be awkward.  What were some of the stranger moments you faced in class?

AM:  I was modeling at a little, nonprofit art school, and all the students were in their thirties or forties.  I relaxed.  Usually it’s younger college kids who show no respect.  Well, anyway, I’m standing on the modelling stage wearing a bathrobe, waiting for the male instructor to stop talking to one of the female students.  He finally says a few words, I drop my robe and hit a pose, and this old bat in the corner looks me straight in the eye.  Her face is red and she’s glaring at me.  She throws down her charcoal, points a finger at me and yells, “Jezebel!  You brazen Jezebel!”

JR:  Really?  What was the class?  Watercolor still life? 

AM:  Figure drawing.  I guess that lady had no idea that artists draw nudes in a figure drawing class.  Go figure.

JR:  What did the instructor do?

AM:  He was pretty cool.  He asked me to put the robe back on, and then he told the lady to pack up and leave.  She demanded her money back, and he opened up his wallet and peeled off a few bills.  He apologized to me after class and said that the school gets some odd balls from time to time.

JR:  Is the art world as tough as you’ve portrayed it in the book?  Is it all about finding out a way to sell out in order to make some cash?

AM:  I’ve understated some things.  It’s intensely difficult to make a living doing anything creative.  Some artists try to tailor their work to a market.  In Central Florida there are a lot of artists doing old fashioned still lives and landscapes.  I see lots of flower paintings and landscapes with a palm tree stuck dead center.  Sky, water, palm tree.  This kind of work usually sells a lot better than scratchy, dark abstractions. 

JR:  Do you look down on the sell-outs?  You went to art school.  Didn’t they teach you to look down your nose at realism?

AM:  I don’t blame them at all.  If they figure out how to turn a buck selling art I’m ready to applaud.  One thing you learn in the art world is that it’s not a meritocracy.  Some of the best artists I’ve known have a huge collection of their own work.  They can’t give it away, and the only ones who really like their work are fellow artists who can’t afford to buy.  Sometimes the least talented artists get to the top of the heap by relentless self-promotion.  But there are times when crap art gets exposed and the good artists get shows and sell.  It’s all random…If someone can figure out how to make the money flow in their direction, even for a short while, then I say, “Go for it chickee!”

JR:  That sounds a little bitter.

AM:  Just trying to be realistic.

JR:  Are you still working as an artist, or are you devoting all of your efforts to perfecting your craft as a writer?

AM:  It’s about even.  Sometimes I feel less inspired to go into my studio and work on a painting.  The computer looks more inviting then.  And sometimes I get tired of digging around for the right word, the right turn of a phrase, and it’s nice to pick up a brush and turn off the words in my head.

JR:  Are you modeling anymore?

AM:  I trade off with friends from time to time.  They pose and I paint, and vice versa.  Mostly it’s just for portraits.  I can’t remember the last time I posed in the nude.

JR:  But not for college classes?

AM:  No.  I gave that up when I put on a few pounds after I had my first baby.  A lot of models quit when they no longer feel confident in their body image anymore.  It takes guts to get up on stage and have twenty pairs of eyes poring over every square inch of your body…And the joints get achy.  I did yoga to stay loose and limber, but after a while I started visiting my chiropractor more often than I wanted to, and modeling seemed like a less attractive way to pick up a few extra bucks.

JR:  At the end of the book Lizzy gives up a lot of her independence to take care of her lover.  Do you think that she made a good choice?

AM:  She learns to give more of herself, to expect less from others.  But I’m not sure if Peter is a good bet in the long run.  He’s an alcoholic with personal issues of his own.  But I think that their relationship gives Lizzy a chance to figure out a different route for her life.  When she’s with him he presents enough of a challenge to force her to make different choices.


The Digital Cocoon

I’ve taught college classes in drawing and painting for the last fifteen years and have noticed changes in students as the generations have passed by.  The X generation was rebellious and sometimes lazy, but would engage directly with me.  I could tell them something and get a response that let me know whether the message had been accepted, rejected, scorned or appreciated.

The Millennials wanted me to be their buddy.   They wanted me to praise their efforts first and then introduce a few minor suggestions for improvement.  They sometimes felt hurt when they got a bad grade because they thought that we had built up a relationship that precluded any negative judgment of their work.  One young man broke down in tears when he got an F on a homework drawing that was supposed to be a realistic depiction (fully developed in tone to show light and volume) of a still life object.  He turned in a sheet of paper with three smears of charcoal on it that signified nothing.  He told me as he dabbed his eyes that he thought we had such a good relationship in class, but that it upset him when I turned against him when I graded his homework.

The latest generation is somewhat like the Millennials.  They still want a lot of praise (sometimes for very little effort), and any negative assessment of their progress has to be introduced slowly, carefully and with endless tact.  They’re less concerned, however, with being my friend.  They are much too busy managing their existence inside their personally customized, digital cocoons.  With some of them I don’t truly exist as a physical entity–I am a ghost fading in and out of their awareness.

The worst cases are lost in a haze of stimulation and see me as just another instructional video playing on a multilevel platform in their brains. As I do demonstrations and give them personal instruction they sneak peeks at their iphones or gaze off into the distance while lost in their daydreams.   And they seem unable to work in a calm, quiet environment.  They constantly wear ear buds.  They bob their heads slightly to the beat of the noise blaring in their ears, and the world around them becomes passing images in their private music videos.

It takes longer, obviously, to build up a good working relationship with this new generation of students as I have to constantly compete for their attention.  If I get impatient with them when they don’t follow directions after failing to listen, they look at me as if I’m a programmer who has presented them with a puzzling and unpleasant video that they wish would run to its end and stop.  They see no cause and effect relationship between their self-absorbed inattention and the bad grades they receive.  They seem to think that I am the source of their vague discomfort, but they can’t figure out what they’ve done to merit my disapproving response to their lackluster efforts.  They’re sure that I’m the one with the problem, and that the class would go much better if I let them alone so that they could get on with being geniuses.  And being a genius means that they can ignore class rules and my instruction while maintaining an intent focus on their digitally mediated life.

Last semester I had a student who was always an hour behind the rest of the class.  His work wasn’t too bad, but he produced it at a snail’s pace.  I went over to discuss his drawing, a charcoal rub-out of a still life on a stage in the middle of the room, and he nodded vacantly as I pointed out the five things he had to do immediately.  I attended to a few more students and came back to him ten minutes later.  Nothing had changed.  As I repeated my instructions I happened to glance over at his easel.  He had his smart phone half hidden under the ledge on the cross piece of the easel.  I saw movement on the screen and realized that a movie was streaming on the phone.  I told him (not quite believing that I had to say it) that it was impossible to draw from life and look at a movie at the same time.  He never came back to class again, and I had to drop him from the course.

This semester I have a young man who pouts and stops working if he feels that his drawing hasn’t been praised enough.  He tried to leave the classroom one and a half hours early the first day this happened, and I warned him that I would take points off his grade for attendance if he continued on his way out the door.  He trudged back to his easel, made a few desultory marks to a drawing that had several gross errors in the measurement of proportions, and then pulled out his phone and texted.  He frowned at me whenever I made eye contact with him, and I got the impression that his mentality was that of a five year old boy who resented being put into a time out for an offense he didn’t understand.  I’ve come to realize that he believes that when he’s finished a drawing to his satisfaction, or when he’s gotten bored with a long project, that my demands on him to refine and correct his work are excessive and possibly cruel.  His only refuge is to pull out his phone to escape from the torment I visit upon him when I attempt to get him to go back to work.

Not all of my young college students have succumbed to digital addiction.  They don’t all wrap themselves in electronic cocoons.  And the ones who do may be somewhat aware of the problem.  A young woman recently told me that she and her friends play a game when they go out on the town.  They put their phones in the middle of the table, and whoever reaches in and grabs a phone first has to pay for the drinks.

I plan to teach my students who still pay attention as best as I’m able, and to let the media zombies stumble along on the path they’ve chosen.  I realize that I can’t help an addict until he/she realizes that they are compromised.  My current class is about one third addicted, and the two thirds who are still functional are mostly older and more mature.

I only hope that this class isn’t a harbinger of things to come.  I’m not sure how I will handle it when I’m addressing a class of twenty and just three of them are paying attention.