R-nnn-Argh

DSC_0184 (2)R-nnnn-Argh, oil/canvas,  30×40″

I completed this painting last week after putting in some intensive work this summer.  I completed the first stage in 2012 (monochrome underpainting), but had no time or will to consistently work on it the last four years.

I used a fairly painstaking method in the second and third stages:   glazing and scumbling colors over the monochrome underpainting (like tinting a black and white photo).  At times I put off painting because it seemed too daunting to finish, and I regretted trying something new (an old master technique applied to photo-collage subject matter) on such a large scale.  I realize a few years back that it would have been a lot smarter for me to do this as portrait on a smaller canvas in partial homage to Jim Nutt’s latest series.

I abandoned R-nnnn-Argh for a year after finishing the background figures and landscapes.  I felt exhausted just looking at it.  The central man’s face seemed like an endless terrain when I first began to work on it, and I remember the tedium of painting waves and the folds in the fisherman’s shirt.

I recently began to work on it again, and to actually enjoy the process.  The only thing that slowed down the final stages was the heat in my studio.  In the summer, my air conditioner fails to keep the temperature under ninety degrees after 1 p.m., and I have to quit when I start to feel the symptoms of heat exhaustion.

If you’re trying to decipher the imagery, try reading Edgar Allen Poe’s, “The Man Who Was Used Up”.

Last night I pulled out another long term project:  “Higgins Didn’t Make It”, a faux science fiction painting.  I hope it won’t take me as long to finish this one, but I believe that I started it in 2013.  Time to get it done.

Higgins Didn't Make ItHiggins Didn’t Make It

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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)

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

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.

Reading and Writing: A Growing Addiction

My mother is an obsessive reader.  She finishes every novel she starts even if she despises it after the first few pages.  She used to try to read all the novels in alphabetical order on the shelves of our local library, and succeeded for a short time to escape from the A section.  When she had gone a few books into the Bs, however, she noticed that the library had added new authors in the As, and she returned to them out of some need for literary completion.  She eventually abandoned her quest and began to buy piles of books at a local church festival.  I contributed to her addiction on her birthday, Mother’s Day and on Christmas by sending her novels, memoirs and books on fashion.  Friends and fellow obsessed readers have lent her additional books, and she always has ten or fifteen in her queue.  She’s often said to me that she doesn’t know how some people get along without books.  They are tools of survival for her, and she uses them as escape pods when her life gets difficult.

I read a lot when I was a kid and got the reputation for being a bookish nerd.  I played basketball on our school team in middle school, and was mocked for buying a biography about Connie Hawkins.  My classmates thought that I was trying to learn how to play better by reading instead of practicing.  I had a bookshelf in my room, and when a couple of guys came over for a visit they refused to believe that I owned and had read the fifteen or twenty novels on display.  I didn’t tell them that my Mom and Grandpa Reger had gotten me hooked at an early age on novels by Booth Tarkington, Mark Twain and Kenneth Roberts.  I had read hundreds of books by the time I hit eighth grade.

I’ve been an artist since the 1980s and am thoroughly aware of the ins and outs of creating visual art.  I got used to the mental and physical struggles that came with painting a landscape, a portrait, a still life. One of the plagues of doing such work is that my mind is free to roam at will as I apply my brushstrokes.  Subconscious crap rises to the top while I’m adding layer after layer of paint, and sometimes I’m busy battling enemies from long ago while also trying to figure out the shape and color of a model’s nose.  The background noise gets very loud and disruptive sometimes, and I dread going to my studio on days when I know that I’ve got plenty of mental garbage stored up.  I’ll sift and sort through memories, consider present difficulties, and worry about the future as the painting creeps along to the finishing line.  I’m like a marathon runner dragging bags of sand behind him as he tries to keep moving forward.

I began to write short stories, plays and novels about ten years ago as an alternative means of being creative.  When I’m writing I get lost in a world of imagination.  Characters and scenes take on an intense life in my mind, and there’s no space for my inner demons and trivial concerns to jump out of their hiding places and jabber at me.  For a time I can escape the prison of my preconceptions, obsessions and self-delusion.  I still paint, but can no longer claim that it is my favorite means of self-expression.

I read little when my kids were young, but books have become important to me once again now that I have a bit more free time.  I read a novel and enter a world that is not tainted by me.  I’m choosier than my mother, however, and only stick with novels that feel amenable.  Sometimes the attraction is based on plot, on interesting characters, or on rich language.  I’m a sucker for a redemption story (not religious redemption, but personal redemption) and hate novels that are slow motion train wrecks.  I love “Nobody’s Fool” by Richard Russo.  The main character, Sully, struggles to come to terms with his life and the influence of his abusive father.  He wins out, unexpectedly at the end, over crushing difficulties.  I hate “Children of a Lesser God” by Arundhati Roy.  She telegraphs a tragic ending from nearly the first page, and makes the reader wait a long time until the desperate moment finally arrives.  This book reminds me of childhood visits to a dentist who never used Novocaine.  I had plenty of time to dread the inevitable in Dr. Roley’s waiting room as I listened to a drill drone on and on while his victims whimpered in pain.

I have lots to do in the concrete world around me, and can’t afford to live in the land of imagination constantly.  But there are days when I’m in the middle of an excellent book and it’s difficult to disengage to go to work or do household chores.  I feel like a deep sea diver who must slowly rise to the surface in slow stages.  For ten or fifteen minutes after closing a book I live in a world that’s tinted with the colors and emotions of the printed page.  I see things through an author colored lens.  The full weight of duties and responsibilities eventually presses down on me again, and it’s a sad moment when the glow of an alternative light fades away.

 

Front Yard Monet

I set up my easel in the front yard and start to work on the second layer of a landscape.  The first layer was painted wet into wet to block in basic color shapes and looks fairly crude.   My view is straight down the street, and I’m painting it as is, so I’m confused for a second when a pick-up stops at the curb and the driver, a gaunt man with a deep tan and sweat running down his face, leans over toward me and asks, “Whatcha paintin’?”  I point to the canvas, then point up the street and say, “That.”  “Oh,” he replies with a slightly confused look on his face.  He pulls away and I return to work.

The sky is giving me some trouble:  cumulus clouds roll by and constantly change shape.  I’m forced to adapt the shapes and colors of one cloud to fit the contours of a cloud that passed by a half hour ago.  There are overlapping bushes and trees in a distant yard, and they look like a blurry lump on my canvas.  I’ve got to find a way to use different marks and colors to separate them out, but my efforts are only partly successful at this point.  The road feels a little too narrow when I look at the painting.  I compare its width to the yard next to it and realize that I’ve shortchanged the road and made the yard too wide.

An attractive young woman walks up the road toward me.  She’s wearing a tight blouse and short shorts.  She notices me working at my easel and looks at me intently for a brief moment.  I wait in the fond hope that she will stop and inspect my progress, but she pulls out her phone as she passes by and begins to talk and giggle.  My ego rapidly deflates, and I feel like I’m intruding on a private conversation.  My realization that I am mostly invisible to women under the age of 45 is confirmed once again.

Sweat is starting to soak through my shirt, and gnats and one very persistent mosquito are buzzing around my nose.  I close my mouth and swat the air in front of my face.  I’ve inhaled a bug once before, and am not in the mood to repeat my performance of coughing, choking,  and attempting to hack up an insect stuck to the back of my throat.  A sudden breeze comes up and I notice that some of the cumulus clouds in the west are a darker gray.  It might rain.

Two boys ride by on bicycles.  They’re ten or eleven.  One looks back at me and then says to the other, “Did you see that?  I could never paint like that.”  The other says very loudly for my benefit, “He better not paint me.”

I recognize his voice.  He’s the fat little prick who taunted me and my wife when we were out for a walk a few months ago.  We were taking our time heading home, and the little brat sped by with his buddies on their bikes.  He waited till he was out of reach before he taunted, “I bet you had good time in bed last night.”  He apparently took me for an impotent old geezer because of my white hair and slow gait.  I eventually thought of a reply that wouldn’t upset my wife too much and yelled, “Aren’t you a lovely young man!”  He thought a bit as he circled on his bike one block away from me and answered, “At least I don’t have to use Viagra!”  I knew better than to inquire if he’d ever had a boner.

The boys turn a corner and disappear, and I go back to painting muttering curses at the little bastard while envisioning the satisfaction I would get from clotheslining him off his bike if he passed by again.

The clouds clear and the bugs go away when the heat returns, and I make some good progress on some trees in the far background.  I’m beginning to enjoy a sense of peace that I sometimes get while painting outside.  I get the feeling that I’m part of something bigger than myself, that I’m participating in the general flow of life around me.

But my happier mood is broken when the same two boys appear at the end of the street and start to come toward me on their bikes.  I grimly continue painting as fatso comes nearer.  I can tell that he’s going to say something again, and he does:  “Hey Mister, you better not paint me,” he warns.  He glides by with an expectant look on his face as if he hopes that he can goad me into a reaction.  I simply stare at him, and his smug attitude falters a bit.

I paint for another hour before going inside to drink a beer, talk to my wife and start supper.  It’s been a pretty good painting session–I’ve made reasonable progress.  I know that it’ll take another three or four layers before I get close to the finish, but paintings grow like children.  They mature in their own time, and it helps to be patient.