The art department at the University of Delaware had a poster pinned on the office door: a reproduction of a Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait. The painting showed the artist puffing a pipe while wearing a bandage over the torn stub of the ear he had recently severed. Vincent looks haunted, like a man who has begun to realize that his life has just shifted permanently sideways.
One day I saw Professor Bob standing in front of the poster. He grabbed his scarf, wrapped it around his head, mimicked the act of smoking a pipe, and hunkered down. He sucked in his cheeks and looked mournfully up at us. Professors Larry and Steve shouted and laughed, and I asked, “What’s so funny?”
Larry told me that a grad candidate had brought along his wife on his interview. She was a hair dresser who most likely had never attended college. She had seen Bob standing near the door earlier in the day, pointed to the poster and asked Bob if the painting was a portrait of him.
I met the candidate later in the day and discovered that he was a small town boy from Ohio. He spoke simply about his work, and I asked him what projects he had planned for grad school. He told me that he painted portraits of anyone willing to model for him. He didn’t have any rationale for his selection process and didn’t wish to explore an underlying theme while developing his work.
I liked the man, but knew that the professors would reject him if he didn’t come into his afternoon slide show with a plan of action. I knew that the profs wanted to see a conceptual model. He might explore issues surrounding homelessness by painting street people. He might survey modes of masculinity by contrasting football players to poets, blue collar locals to high-toned academics. He could investigate the shifting standards of feminine beauty by painting women who fit the definitions of attractiveness in different times and cultures. Example: a Rubenesque woman contrasted with an emaciated Twiggy-like model.
But the man from Ohio gave me a blank look when I tried to coax him into picking a more complex project. He simply wanted to paint people and had never given much thought to issues inherent in the field of portraiture. I’m sure that he’d never heard of “The Male Gaze’, and didn’t understand that a person’s clothing, posture and expression revealed clues about their social status and group history.
I changed the subject when I saw that my efforts were pointless. I asked him how he liked Delaware. I remembered the difficulty I had in adjusting to East Coast culture after moving to Wilmington from Dayton, Ohio. I had been unprepared for the rudeness, the social preening, the thin-skinned hostility. Ohio Man jumped on the topic and told me a story about a waitress in a Delaware diner who yelled at him when he asked for more coffee. He said, “I was polite and nice as pie, but she’d like to have torn my head off over a refill. I told my wife, ‘Things sure are different here.'”
His paintings looked good to me at the slide show. The proportions were accurate and the draftsmanship sure, and the flesh tones shimmered clear and fine. His brushwork was lively, and the paint thick and juicy. The guy had talent. But he blew it when he started to talk. He pointed to a portrait of an old man and said, “This is my Grandpa. I showed it to him when I finished it, and he said nothing. I worried that he thought it was no good. But he smiled to show me that he liked it and that he was proud, and that smile meant more to me than anything anyone has ever said about my work.”
Ohio Man waited for the profs to say something pleasant in response, but Larry stared at the floor, Bob smirked, and Steve glared at the candidate. Ohio Man looked flustered but continued as before. He delivered heartwarming stories about subjects in forthcoming slides. Aunt Mattie suffered from diabetes, but that didn’t stop her from making decorations for the grade school Christmas tree. Uncle Jim sold shoes in a shop downtown, and he always remembered a repeat customer’s name. Cousin Jean planned to join the Navy after she graduated from high school because she loved her country and wanted to see the world.
I spoke with the professors after Ohio Man packed up his slides and joined his wife in the hall. I expected more jokes, but the three men had grown solemn. They couldn’t believe that an artist who had made that much progress had failed to develop one critical line of thinking. The profs couldn’t find a hint of ironic detachment in the paintings, not a scrap of socio-political thrust in his attitude toward his subjects. The man was simply a painting machine. He’d offer nothing but greeting card homilies in critiques, and would do little to challenge his fellow students.
Bob, Steve and Larry rejected Ohio Man and sent him back home. I sometimes thought of him when I passed the office and saw the Van Gogh poster. I hoped that he’d found a refuge among people who liked him and his work and valued his innocence.