Come Up and See My Etchings

Rosemary, the printmaking instructor at the University of Delaware, insisted on taking as many students as possible to visit an artist in Philadelphia.   The grad students in her class knew they had no choice, but she even pressured a few undergrads to come along.  One offered the excuse that he had other classes on the day of the trip, but Rosemary dismissed it saying, “This trip is more important for your growth as an artist.”

The bus ride took us through grimy neighborhoods of trash strewn streets and boarded up buildings on the south side and dropped us off in Center City.  Fifteen would be artists dutifully trooped up the steps of a two story brick row house.  A quiet man in his late thirties opened the door slowly and greeted Rosemary in a monotone.  He waved his hand for us to pass inside, but left us milling around in the entryway.  He seemed reluctant to let us into his inner sanctum.  Rosemary said, “Can we see your studio?” He led us up a narrow, dark stairway to a room crowded with work tables, flat files of paper, and storage cabinets with wide, flat drawers.  Recently pulled prints hung by clothes pins on thin wires strung from one wall to another.

“So, am I right in assuming that you’ve all seen my work?” he asked us.  No one answered.  I barely remembered his name, and Rosemary had said nothing about the style and subject matter of his prints.  She simply told us that he was a etcher who showed his work at an important gallery in Philly.  He stared and waited, shoulders slumping lower.  He sighed:  another defeat.  “Then why are you here?” he asked.

Rosemary flattered him until he was sufficiently mollified.  He put on white gloves and laid out prints on a long, white table.  He combined imagery from several photographs to create interiors and landscapes that looked real but subtly wrong.  The perspective wasn’t completely consistent, but the individual details looked so accurate that the eye accepted the spaces as dry depictions of an uncanny world.  They reminded me of dreams I had of my Midwestern home town:  familiar streets and houses recombined with landmarks from other places.

I asked the print maker about his technique.  He told us that he achieved his photorealistic effects by pointillism.  He used a needle to meticulously prick tiny holes in the asphaltum covering his copper plates.  I asked him how long it took him to work on a plate.  I expected him to say months, but he replied, “Oh, about a day.  That’s the easy part.”  I followed up with, “But how many times do you etch the plate?  What about revisions?”  “I do it all in one layer, no revisions.  What takes the most time is designing them.”  He opened a drawer and took out a sheaf of preparatory sketches.  Each one looked like finished works of art.

Rosemary asked him to show us works in progress.  He laid out another pile of exquisitely rendered drawings and said, “These aren’t very good yet.  I hate showing you these things.”  We protested, and Rosemary said, “Really, these are wonderful.”  The man mumbled, “If you say so.”

He showed us a few more prints, an etched plate or two, and then escorted us down the stairs.  He stood on his porch and stared at his shoes as we walked away.  He retreated inside and firmly shut the door after he had said a quick goodbye to Rosemary.

On the ride home students chattered about classes at Delaware and argued about politics (Reagan’s Iran/Contra scandal dominated the news).  Some wore Walkman’s and listened to music.  I thought about the print maker and wondered if the effort he put into his images paid him back in the end.  How could a man with that much ability and accomplishment feel so discouraged? I had a tenth of his talent.  Was there any hope for me?

I was too young to realize that happiness often had little to do with success.

 

A Poet Wore Black

My friend Kathy wore black on the day after Ronald Reagan’s first presidential victory in 1980.  She told me that she intended to dress like a widow until she no longer felt the need to mourn a political world gone mad.

Kathy was an English major at the University of Dayton.  She wrote poetry and frequently used the words “bone” and “ash” in her free verse to give her writing an air of grim melancholy.  She lived by herself in an off campus apartment and kept her rooms dim by blocking light from the windows with sheets hung from curtain rods.  She cleaned and aired only when the smell of dirty clothes, sour milk and stale cigarette smoke overwhelmed her.  It took a lot to overwhelm her.

I had a crush on her, nonetheless.  I had spent three years dating Midwestern girls who expected me to conform to their middle class expectations, and Kathy presented a bohemian alternative.  But she remained steadfast in her resistance to my overt and covert maneuvers.  Instead she favored the company of Sheila, a fellow English major who glared at me with narrowed eyes whenever I spoke to Kathy.

Two days after Reagan’s election I came across Kathy smoking a cigarette as she sat on the steps of the student union by a statue of JFK.  She squinted through the smoke and coldly studied me.  She knew that I was a Dayton native and once asked me if the world ended for me just beyond the city limits.  She believed that the locals suffered from the delusion that nothing worth knowing existed outside of Dayton.  She coughed and ran a hand through her tangled hair as she continued to appraise me.  She finally said, “You wanna come to a meeting with me?”

“What meeting?” I asked.

“Reps from the Communist Party are giving a talk here at noon.”

“Okay,” I said.  I was glad to be given a chance to prove that I wasn’t a rube and to spend time with her.

The commies, a man and two women wearing gray and black coats, set up a card table in the square near the art building.  They had stacks of pamphlets and flyers at their elbows and looked as grim and determined as revolutionaries should.  The man spoke for twenty minutes and told us that capitalism was doomed and that our lives were exercises in folly until we genuflected before the teachings of Karl Marx.  He didn’t offer any evidence for the imminent downfall of the American system and failed to mention Stalin’s legacy of horror.  I asked him if Reagan worried him.  I knew that the president elect had testified against fellow actors during the McCarthy witch hunt era and had fought against unions in Hollywood.  The communist didn’t hesitate to answer and told me that one American president was much like another.  Reagan was no different than Carter.  I didn’t challenge him.  I thought, “Why argue with a fanatic?”

Kathy went to England during Christmas break.  I saw her at the beginning of the next semester.  She no longer wore black and looked almost cheerful.  I invited myself over to her apartment that evening, and we sat in her living room and drank wine.  I asked her to tell me all about her trip.  She hesitated for a long moment, closed her eyes and said, “I’ll tell you one thing, but I want to keep the rest of my experiences for myself.”  It appeared that anything revealed would lose its magic power to inspire her, and she was only willing to give me a scrap.

I no longer remember what she said–maybe she visited Charles Dickens’ home and saw his writing desk.  But I do recall that a little door closed in my mind as I listened to the rise and fall of her voice.  I made my excuses a few minutes later and left.

During that semester I no longer sought her out.  And whenever I ran into her outside a classroom I nodded a hello but said little.  I no longer considered her much of a friend or had any desire to pursue a romance.

A few years later I ran into an acquaintance who had known both of us at UD.  Pat knew that I had been interested in Kathy and told me that she was still in town.  I was surprised as she had vowed that she would never become trapped in Dayton like so many graduates of the University.  The town was a narrow minded, cultural wasteland that would do nothing to nourish her poetry.  Pat went on to say that Kathy worked at a bar in the Oregon District, a trendy strip of night clubs on the southeast side of downtown Dayton.  She dressed in gypsy skirts, wore a head scarf and did Tarot card readings for the well heeled patrons.  He waited for me to ask for the name of the bar, but I just started to laugh.