Homecoming

 

 

 

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Homecoming, graphite and colored pencil (in progress).

 

1989

I took a trip to visit a gallery in Wilmington, Delaware to show my dealer new work and discuss an upcoming show.  I sidetracked to visit a grad school friend and didn’t return home until sunset.  My wife Judy and daughter Annie happened to be outside when I pulled in.  Annie was about 18 months old.

She had fine golden brown hair, and the setting sun crowned her with a shimmering halo as she ran to greet me.  I knelt down, swept her into my arms and carried her back to Judy.

Judy always said that our girl was happy when she was with either of her parents, but loved having all three of us together.  Then all was well in her world.

Alan came along in 1990.  He was a happy baby who smiled and cooed when he woke up from a nap.  He began to explore as soon as he could crawl.  We would put him on the carpet in the living room while we ate supper, and after five or ten minutes I’d get up to find him in the bathroom.  He liked to lay under the sink and stare up at the shiny pipes.

1992

We bought a house in Winter Park in a working class neighborhood.  We’d been living in a tiny rental house in an iffy neighborhood on the south side of Orlando.  Judy and I gave the kids a tour, showed them their bedroom and an addition at the back designated as their play room.  They both looked excited as if they had discovered possibilities for new adventures, and Alan began to run from one end of the house to the other.  He had so much more space now and wanted to extend himself back and forth across it.

A few years later we took Annie and Alan out for a treat. Annie had recently turned six and had just performed in her first dance recital.  A drug store near an Italian ice stand sold toys, so we bought the kids ice cream and little stuffed animals.  Alan chose a panda bear,  and that night he held it tightly in his hand as he fell asleep.

1991

Judy and I slumped exhausted after a long day.  Annie chattered and chased fire flies. Alan, who was teething at the time, sat on a blanket on our front lawn.  He kept crawling to the edge to search for something to stick in his mouth, and I kept vigilant watch to prevent him from gnawing on a twig or a stray piece of gravel.

A fiftyish woman and her husband passed by on their evening stroll. We didn’t know them and exchanged perfunctory greetings.  Folks in the neighborhood held back from getting acquainted as the four of us lived in a rental in a college town–we wouldn’t be there for long.  The couple nearly reached the next yard, but the woman turned back to study our little family.  Her expression turned rueful, perhaps bitter, and she said, “Some day you’re going to look back and realize that these are the best days of your lives.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ohio Man and Vincent Van Gogh

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.

van gogh

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.

Burying a Dog at Midnight

When Judy and I lived in Wilmington, Delaware we met a woman in her fifties at the Alapocas Friends Meeting.  She was a divorcee’ with two daughters in college.  She had been married to an attorney at Dupont, and before their break up she went by the name of Barbara.  When we met her she had gotten deeply into yoga and new age mysticism and had changed her name to Sushila.

Sushila had a bright smile and a friendly, outgoing personality, and she introduced us to an interesting circle of friends.  An acquaintance of Sushila’s walked her cats on a leash. Some friends of hers were a couple who believed in pyramid power enough to build a wooden one in their backyard. (It could comfortably seat one or two people).  Sushila’s boyfriend was an artist who based his abstract paintings on the sound and light signals he received from an alien spacecraft.  His close encounter didn’t happen in a deserted stretch of wilderness–it happened when he was looking out the window of his apartment in New York City.

Sushila had an old dog that was one of the few things left over from her marriage.  One weekend she asked us to watch over it when she went out of town.  Judy and I took the dog for a walk the Sunday morning before Sushila returned, and it lagged behind and wouldn’t climb back up the stairs to Sushila’s apartment.  I was annoyed that I had to carry a thirty pound dog up a flight, but Judy stopped me, petted the dog and looked into its eyes.  She said, “I think that this dog is going to die.”  I dismissed her prophecy–the dog just looked old and tired to me–and we went home after filling its food and water bowls.

We got a call at 10:00 that night.  Sushila was hysterical.  Her dog had indeed died.

Judy and I rushed over to console her and saw it lying in a corner of Sushila’s yoga room.  The dog had been sick in various places on the carpet, and I had to step outside after starting to gag.  Sushila and Judy cleaned up the mess, and then we discussed the disposal of the body.

Sushila couldn’t bury it in her backyard.  It was just a patch of dirt a few inches deep above a partially entombed garage on the first floor.  She thought about other possibilities and decided that the dog had to be buried that night in the dog’s favorite park.  We wrapped it in a blanket and put it into the back of our car.  Sushila brought a shovel,  and we set out for a park on the outskirts of town.  It had woods and expansive lawns, and had once been the grounds of a Dupont estate.

We pulled over into the closed entrance and I cut off the engine.  It had started to rain, but this didn’t deter Sushila.  She wandered in the darkness through a thick tangle of trees and picked a spot in an area where the ground was mucky and covered with tree roots.  I started to dig with the shovel, but spent most of my time chopping roots with the shovel’s blade as I attempted to excavate a hole that was two feet wide by four feet long by three feet deep.  It took around twenty to thirty minutes, and by the end I was covered with mud and sweat. Cars passed us by, and we must have been visible to them, but no one stopped or called the police.  The park was an excellent spot for dirty deeds.

We buried the dog in her blanket and stood around the grave in silence for a few minutes as the rain continued to soak us.  We drove Sushila back home and stayed with her for a few minutes before retreating to our apartment for a shower and something hot to drink.  It was 1:00 when we finally opened our door.

I had a class the next morning at 8:00 and had a hard time staying awake.  The heat was turned up in the room, and the professor, while highly informative, droned in a flat, Midwestern accent.  During a break I leaned over to the guy next to me and said, “You wouldn’t believe what I did last night.”

Get the Hell Out of Delaware: Part II (Pecked by Blue Hens)

I toured the University of Delaware before applying to grad school, and had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I visited classrooms and looked at bulletin boards and hallway exhibitions of student work.  There wasn’t any tangible reason to feel uncomfortable with the surroundings.  I had a premonition of coming misfortunes.

Judy and I were invited before my first semester started to a Welcome-to-UD party for fine art grad students.  The host was a sculptor in his second year.  He was warm and friendly, but nearly everyone else there was antisocial and somewhat hostile.  Judy and I got some food and sat at a picnic table in the back yard of a two story, wood frame house.  I introduced myself to a few people, but they seemed unwilling to speak to me and Judy.  After a half hour of being ignored I leaned over to Judy and said, “I’ve got absolutely nothing in common with these people.”  We got up and left.

I was one of the few artists working realistically and had no allies among the grad students in painting and printmaking.  The group critiques could get harsh and personal.  If a professor or a fellow student ran out of negative things to say about the artwork, they would turn their focus on an individual’s personal weaknesses and engage in amateur psychoanalysis.  I found it particularly unsettling when it was acknowledged that I had successfully achieved a particular effect in my work, and was subsequently criticized for choosing that effect.

Certain students were singled out for more abuse than others, and I found out years later that the school had a reputation.  The professors tended to pick out one male student in each year’s class and would focus their hostility on him.  It had become something of a tradition, and I was the one chosen in my group.

One professor tried to run me out of the program.  He had been away on sabbatical my first year, and when he returned he based his opinion of me strictly on hearsay from the other professors.  I had learned by that time to shut up and refuse to defend myself during critiques (If you argued they made you pay all the more.), but he still treated me with animosity.  I finally asked him why he arranged field trips during times when I had to teach classes, and why he failed to tell me when guest speakers were coming to campus, and he told me that I had a bad attitude and no one wanted me around.  I said, “When have I ever argued with you?  When did I cause any trouble?”  And he answered, “I could tell what you were thinking.”

I had hoped when I started school to find a community of like minded people who would be willing to share ideas and support each other.  By the end of my first year I realized that the grad students had formed cliques and that I was mostly left out in the cold.  My one friend was a painter named George who was a year ahead of me.  He was the scapegoat of that class, but didn’t seem to be bothered all that much by the disrespect and abuse.  The department chair, who was sloppy drunk at the time, openly mocked George in front of a group of grad and undergrad students during a year end, final critique.  Another professor came up to a large mural that George had painted and used his fingers to isolate four square inches of canvas.  He told George that those four square inches were the only part of the painting that actually worked.  George was fully aware that he was being screwed in front of a crowd, but gutted it out.  He escaped with his degree, but I doubt if one of the professors wrote him a good reference or gave him a lead in finding a gallery.

I too escaped with an M.F.A.  I managed to put together a strong body of work in my last semester, found a way to defend and explain my work without offending the powers above me, and happily put up my still life paintings at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts for my graduation show.

I still hoped to find a friendly connection with my fellow graduate students during the last few weeks of school and was pleased when three of them invited me out to dinner.  We sat and talked through a meal at Jimmy’s Diner, and everything seemed all right.  But when we walked out of the restaurant they surrounded me and told me that they were going to beat me up.  I had no idea what they were angry about–they didn’t say;  I replied that they could give it their best shot, but warned them that I would do my best to hurt them if they attacked me.  They figured out that I meant business and backed off.  My personal motto after that incident became:  Get the Hell Out of Delaware.

Years later I returned to U.D for a visit.  The campus was mostly deserted and I had a gallery in Recitation Hall all to myself.  I wandered around and looked at the framed photographs.  A woman came in and asked me if I was ready to lock up.  I recognized her.  I had a studio on the second floor in this same building in my second year, and she was a professor of weaving and worked across the hall from me.  She had since become the department chair, and apparently had called security to lock up the building.  She didn’t recognize me, of course, but somehow assumed that I was a guard even though I wasn’t wearing a uniform.  I identified myself and told her that we used to have friendly chats in the hall, but she bum rushed me out of the gallery and building.

This disregard for an alumnus wasn’t all that significant, but I recognized the treatment as something that had happened to me before.  One day during my second semester at U.D. I was standing outside my studio watching a fellow grad student give a drawing class.  I was looking for ideas for my own lessons.  A professor, who I had met at a couple parties and social gatherings, mistook me for a maintenance man.  He walked up to me and told me to fix the air conditioning unit.  I ignored him at first, but he tugged on my shirt sleeve and demanded that I do something.  I let him know that I was a grad student and that we had met.  He didn’t apologize or acknowledge his error, but turned on his heel and continued his search for the missing fix-it man.

As I left campus after being expelled from Recitation Hall, I connected the two moments of being mistaken for a guard and a workman, and decided that I had been sent a message.  I clearly wasn’t ever going to be recognized, wanted or appreciated by my alma mater, and there was no point in ever visiting or communicating with anyone associated with the institution ever again.

I have never returned to the campus since and plan to stay the hell out of Delaware until my dying day.

Get the Hell Out of Delaware (Part I)

Five months after our wedding my wife Judy landed a job doing research at Dupont’s Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware.  She had to pass through locked gates to enter and leave, and her car could be searched at the discretion of the guards manning their posts.  The company distrusted its workers and assumed that equipment and research data were being smuggled out on a regular basis.

Dupont had a rigid caste system.  People were acknowledged according to their power and status within the company.  When Judy greeted researchers and administrators in the hallways of her building she got a mixed reaction.  She was ignored if judged to have no political use to the person addressed.  And by ignored I mean that no acknowledgment that she existed and had spoken was detectable in the facial expression and body language of the bigwig passing by.  On the other hand, if she greeted workers somewhat below her status they responded, and Judy was thus reassured of her continued, physical presence on this earthly plane.

We met a man named Bob Waring when Judy and I began to attend the Alapocas Friends Meeting.  He was a Quaker and an engineer at Dupont who had somehow managed to retain his kindness and humanity.  He and many of his colleagues were offered an early retirement deal by the company.  Management had decided that a lot of the researchers and engineers over the age of 55 were dead wood and needed to be cleared out.  An unexpectedly high percentage of workers enthusiastically seized the deal, and the administration discovered that there weren’t many employees left who actually knew how to do research and run departments.  Bob formed a consulting company with a few of his recently retired friends.  He sold his expertise back to Dupont at a much higher rate than his last pay scale, while still collecting his retirement check. Bob was our hero.

Nearly everyone hated working there, and the misery spilled over into the rest of the town.  We lived in an apartment just north of downtown Wilmington and had trouble finding grocery stores, laundromats and gas stations at first.  (This was in 1985 well before the advent of the internet and search engines.)  When I called up the telephone company and politely asked if there was a way for us to pick up a directory, a man in customer service yelled at me.  Supermarket shoppers wearing fur coats and expensive jewelry tsk tsked if their access to items on shelves was temporarily blocked. Attenders of a church a few doors down from our apartment glared at us when we parked on the street on the day of a service.  They apparently thought that they had a prior claim to every space on a public road.  Drivers were rude and impatient and often put themselves and others in danger.  I remember being passed on a two lane road that curved downhill and to the right by a woman who didn’t seem to care that trees blocked her vision of oncoming traffic.

An old, Dupont family mansion halfway between our apartment and the Experimental Station sat on a wooded lot of about twenty acres .  There was a wrought iron gate blocking access to the drive leading up to the house.  The French words for friendship and love were scrolled above the topmost bar.  The stone walls enclosing the compound gave passersby a different message, however.  They were topped with shards of glass cemented so that they pointed straight up.