Entering Into the Retirement Zone

I recently turned 58, and one of my birthday presents was the realization that I only have 7 or 8 more years to officially belong to the workforce.  I can continue on after that if I still feel some drive to teach and exhibit my work, so the end doesn’t have to be in sight just yet.  But the promise of an upcoming choice made me feel positively lighthearted.

And I had another realization:  my professional ambitions have largely gone unfulfilled.  I am not a tenured college professor, I’ve made nearly no impact in the world of fine art, and I’ve never earned more than chump change selling my art.  If I had known how things would turn out when I was twenty-five I might have chosen to become an accountant or a biological research technician, but I’m happily surprised to say that I’m not bitter about my choices.  I’m largely satisfied by the experiences I’ve accumulated as I made my artwork.  The sweetness of applying paint to canvas is addictive, and I’ve had 30 plus years to scratch that itch.  Teaching has been a trial at times, but helping students still satisfies me.

And it’s good to know that most accounts have been settled, that I’ve gone about as far as I’m going to go.  It’s an odd relief to accept that a final sink into oblivion is probably my natural arc.  I’ve never been a fan of suspense, of waiting for the moment when my professional fortunes would finally start breaking good.  The overwhelming evidence suggests that they never will.

I still remember how I used to torture myself when I was twenty-five about every move I made as an artist, how I questioned and doubted my abilities and potential whenever I finished a painting that didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped.  Now I know that it’s just a matter of averages.  Like a baseball hitter I’m bound to succeed and fail according to a percentage.  I’m happy when I do well but no longer hope that a streak of good work will continue indefinitely.  In my personal life I also have realized that I will inevitably screw up from time to time, and be thoughtful and kind other times.  I have fewer illusions about my ability to maintain a state of benevolence, and also know that I have a penchant for snarky cynicism.  I still feel guilty when I say or do something hurtful, but am aware that there’s another side to the ledger.

It helps of course that I’m married to a woman who accepts who I am.  The one blessing that I desperately needed when I was 25 was to find someone who saw me in my entirety and still loved me. It took another couple decades for me to figure out that she hadn’t made a self-destructive mistake by volunteering to live with me.  Now I finally can relax in the knowledge that we’ve had a mostly happy marriage and have been good for each other.

The next decade or two may consist of a long downward slide, but at least I’ve gotten some altitude (thanks to Judy) from which to descend.  To quote Edith Piaf, “No, I don’t regret anything.”

judy-and-dennis

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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.

 

 

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.

Rough Sketch: An Interview with Aimee Mamelon

rough sketch cover

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.