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.

 

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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