Making money at art is as easy as jumping off a cliff.
Therein lies the rub, as has been said.
In high school, starting when I was about sixteen, I fell in love with pastels. Not those hard waxy kinds, but the good old fashioned soft oils. Some artists naturally gravitate towards figure drawing, and I was definitely one of those. People are ever interesting. Always different, every blessed one of them beautiful in some way. Being something of a jock, it came naturally to draw the football players practicing, the divers taking high leaps, the basketball players dunking, the cheerleaders dancing.
I became a regular fixture at practices, whatever the sport. I’d do these wicked fast gesture drawings, then take them home and work up some more elaborate studies. There I’d discover what parts of the figures I needed to pay attention to (the hands — geez) and watch and draw some more. Then I’d start combining the figures in multi person action scenes, and these would become pastels. I had only a little paper, and the pastels, given me by my mom, were dear, so I developed a deft, no mistake kind of style.
One day, one of the deans asked to see my finished stuff. I brought a portfolio to his office. He already knew I had no interest in art classes, so he wasn’t one of those dumb counselor types who thought I should be taking art classes. No. He happened to have some connections with a local newspaper and a gallery, but he insisted that if I wanted him to make some calls, then I’d need to become more involved with some school activities, like helping out at functions where he’d be happy to see my work displayed.
So that was my first show. A pep rally. All the adulation was pretty embarrassing to me. I was not comfortable with all the attention, but it got worse. I got a call from a gallery and then a newspaper reporter.
I went to meet the owner of the gallery, actual a couple. Two guys. Kinda weird for a country boy. The place was in the trendy part of the wealthier part of Fresno, what’s called the “Fig Garden Area.” They told me I was a better artist at seventeen than most people are their whole lives. I told them, “Yeah, so. Tell me something I don’t know.”
One of them laughed. “Perfect!” He clapped his hands.
The other observed that I seemed to bring a particular intensity to my male figures and this seemed to not quite be the case with the females.
He must have seen the blush, for I saw a gentle look come into his face. For some reason, I felt comfortable saying it out loud, “Well, a good part of my motivation is that drawing lets me stare at good looking guys, and no one thinks it weird.”
They both laughed good naturedly.
“You’re among friends, little brother,” said the other.
I relaxed. It was OK. No one was going to make fun of me here. We talked about the show. They were booked solid for another six months. I was do do more of the same, but I had no money for art supplies. They would sponsor me. All my pictures would be beautifully framed and matted. They would take a 40% commission and deduct the framing costs, but since they were part owners of a frame shop, I’d get a good deal. They sent me to an art store where I could get more paper and pastels and “whatever else I needed.” All I had to do was mention their names. It would all be taken care of. I was thrifty. I got what I needed. More paper, more of the kind of bright expensive strong colors I’d been lusting after, a new portable drawing board, some real fixative instead of Aqua Net.
Later, one of them, an Italian, said that was “a test” and I had passed.
I did several dozen more pictures. Freed of my inhibitions, I made the guys look as I saw them — really beautiful. It was swimming season. I had good models. All the jocks were happy to do stunts for me over and over. I got good at drawing water and sleek muscular forms. I became, for the first time in my life, a popular kid. A weird outcast no more. Then it was wrestling season. Even better.
Then came the reporter. I had an appointment. I was amazed at how dingy the newspaper place was. I was told to wear solid colors, but the only solid colored, non white shirt I owned had gone through the dryer with a crayon in the pocket, so there were these spots of bright green melted into the turquoise. The photographer chuckled and said it didn’t matter. The photo would be in black and white. He used this old twin lens camera, and the backdrop was from a roll of paper that when pulled down concealed all this old printing equipment. There must have been ten thousand staples in the chewed up wooden frame he used for the paper backdrop. I sat on this stool, all fidgety, and he told me lewd jokes to get me to laugh. I was impressed by his timing. He seemed to be almost ignoring his camera, just chatting, but then there’d be a FLASH, right at some particular instant.
The reporter was this balding rotund guy who almost never looked at me. His “office” was in a cluttered sea of old desks, and the light came in from behind him through windows that looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in years. He seemed kind of bored. I asked him if he really wanted to do this interview because he didn’t seem interested. He really looked at me then and laughed. “Yes. Yes I do.”
He asked me about my family, all my brothers and sisters, about school. I told him about my life. Going rabbit hunting in the fields with my friends. Taking inner tubes down the rapids of the upper Sacramento, building stone deacks with my grandfather, trout fishing with my uncles, climbing Mt. Shasta with no shirt and getting all sunburned…
We talked about art. Or rather, he asked questions and I talked.
I told him all my favorite painters, how I loved N.C. Wyeth and Frank Frazetta and Leonardo’s drawings but not his paintings so much and how I wanted to understand all the old ways and how modern art was so boring because there was no place for one who loved to show how beautiful people are, that it seemed so disturbed and unhappy, so afraid to look at the real world.
I told him how when I was a kid there was one of my art books, and I taped pieces of paper over all the pictures I didn’t like so that when I looked through it I would never have to see them. Like Chagall, Picasso, and Klee, but that I loved Franz Kline and was always somehow moved by Rothko and how the strange power of these paintings compelled me and I likened them to music without words, so my imagination was freed. He asked me about all these popular bands, but I’d never heard of any. I listened to Beethoven and Rachmaninoff and I hade this tape of African drummers that “thundered into my soul.”
I explained that my nickname, Rex, was actually a dog’s name, and my sisters used it to make fun of me because I was like a dog. Mistrustful of their boyfriends, protective, basically affectionate but sometimes spoiling for a fight and sometimes a little wild and dangerous.
The whole time he was drinking coffee and fiddling with his collar and tapping his fingers on this old, old typewriter. It all seemed like an act. Like he was pretending to do an interview, like it was all a show, but he had this strange way of suddenly, sharply meeting my eyes and asking me these questions that would make me get suddenly nervous, like he was fishing for something, looking for something. I had the feeling that he didn’t really like me. It was peculiar. Those newspaper people all seemed so tired and though I would not have used the word at the time, cynical. Like it was all a bad joke. The whole world.
Finally, I asked him, “You haven’t even asked me about my work. Why am I here?”
This reporter had not even seen my work. He said he’d go to the gallery before the show and before peice was written and that it was standard to put together background information beforehand.
“But I’m just a kid. What kind of background do I have?”
He looked at me a long time then.
I was expecting him to say something superior, one of those ways adults have of insulting children that always translates as “You don’t know shit.”
But he didn’t say that. He talked about William Saroyan, a Fresno local, and how Saroyan’s work was informed by many of the same experiences I’d had as a working class kid and an outcast struggling to rise up in the world while at the same time being deeply connected to his roots and his family.
“Do not underestimate what you know,” he said.
I would have never expected that jaded old man to say something like that. But he did. I got quiet. He indicated the interview was over.
I still use that same expression he used, “His work is informed by …”
I pretty much forgot about the interview. Nothing came of it, or so I thought.
Over the next couple months, I kept taking my work to the gallery. I never got much in the way of detailed advice rather it was, “Oh! This thing with the green and the pink near the hands! How it draws the eye!” Or, “Yes, you’re definitely one of those who works better when you work quickly. Here, you try to get all detailed, but here you just toss it off. What do you think?”
“I like to work fast. Thinking too much about art hurts my brain.”
“Good. Don’t think. Do.”
I took the offending drawing and ripped it in half, then half a again. Esteban, the Italian, clapped his hands again. “Puuurfect!”
Even though both of those men thought I was lovely to the eyes and said so quite frankly, neither ever tried to hit on me. There was none of that. They were like trusted older brothers. I had none of the edgy, nervous feelings I’d get around lecherous older men.
I should have been more loyal.
But that came later.
Come show time, Josef (he was an Israeli), announced, “Rex my darling, we must get you out of those rags and into some clothes. We have a show to do, and impressions matter. Have you given any though to this?”
“You know I don’t have money for nice clothes. I spend all my money on art supplies, and I already owe you enough. People can take me as I am, or not.”
Esteban sighed and shook his head. “No. It doesn’t work that way my naif. People will take you as you wish, should you care to wish, and now dear one, I do SO wish you would wish to appear as dazzling as you are in soul and body, and Lord knows you look just ravishing in jeans and T-shirt, but now, now is the time for theater. Think again.”
Josef added, “You have been most frugal in your purchases. By my estimation, you could have spent another thousand dollars and neither Esteban or I would have batted an eye.”
Esteban batted his eyes.
“A gift. It is our honor. You will insult us if you refuse.”
I answered. “A suit. Shiny, dark gray with lighter pinstripes, but I want a black shirt and a white tie… NO! An ascot! And boots. Snakeskin. But I’m not cutting my hair.”
“By Betsy!” shouted Esteban, “I think he’s got it!”
He kissed my cheek. I blushed.
Josef nodded. “You’ll kill them.”
We went shopping that day. I got an off the rack suit, but it had to be tailored in the waist. I found a deep blue shirt I liked better than black, and we got black opal cufflinks. Yes. French cuffs. An ascot was not to be found. In fact, I had to borrow one from one of Josef’s English friends. We had to go to Clovis where the Western wear stores were for the boots. My feet were hard to fit, and I was so particular, but we found a pair of silver snakeskin boots that would do J.R. proud.
Two days before the opening, the newspaper article came out.
It was not in the “Around Town,” section. There, on the front page of the newspaper, in full color, was a picture of me laughing at a joke about a French prostitute. The caption?
“A Star is Born.”
I read the article.
And then I ran out of the house and through the fig orchards to the huge old Eucalyptus that I and my childhood friends had built and rebuilt endless tree houses and I heaved and retched and trembled and wept.
The words in the article were in the Arts Section where my show was announced and reviewed were already burned into my mind.
“Talouse Lautrec meets Leroy Neiman!”
“Pastels so refined and so brilliant you would think they were done by an old master, but he is just a boy. A cheerful sunny lad with a smile so huge it can light up your day.”
“Humble, quiet, thoughtful, he yet rattles the timbers when he talks about art, and he knows art.”
“To see this handsome youth, you would think he’s just the soccer player he is, but he is an ancient man, a primal man, a Paleolithic in the guise of the modern, and his is the skill, reborn, which gifted us with any wonder we have ever known as great art. One gets the impression that this young man would as quite at home racing horses with Alexander as he would be debating logic with Aristotle while his capacity to express ideal form would give Phidias a run for his Talents of gold.”
“If you thought that Idealism was dead, you have not seen this work.”
“He makes modernists look like buffoons, and their work less than that of baboons. You must attend the show. You must buy now. Because in a matter of months, only the wealthiest people will be able to afford his work.”
Little did I know that there was a sort of art war going on in Fresno between a cadre of traditionalists and a clique of modernists (this was before postmodern)
I had become the representative of the “New Classicism.”
No one asked me about that.
My motives were to use my drawing skills as a way to get near the hunky athletes. I considered what I was doing as a new way of seeing old themes. I used bright, pretty colors, but my lines were intentionally old fashioned. They were in fact, derived from the lines of ancient statuary because I thought those artists had similar motivations.
When I returned home, things were very quiet. My brothers and sisters stared at me. My dad (actually my step dad), said not a word about it other than a gruff, “Hmmph. Don’t think this changes anything. You still have to mow the lawn.”
As usual, only my mother understood.
“How do you feel, honey?”
“Sick. Weird. It’s all wrong. I was just drawing what I wanted to draw. Please don’t say it. Please don’t say you’re worried it’ll go to my head, and I’ll be too cocky too handle. Please. Don’t. Don’t say it.”
“You’ve always been too cocky to handle. What else is new?”
She made me laugh.
The show was a sellout within hours. All forty something pieces sold the first night. There were bidding wars. Not one sold for less than a thousand dollars. I made more money that night than my stepdad did in a year.
I can barely remember the show though. I was a little faint and feeling kind of spinny the whole time. I was introduced to so many people. All the richest most important people were there. A councilman, the conductor of the Philharmonic, the captains of industry, the kings of commerce, but it was the women.
It was the women who actually made the men buy. Little strumpet that I was, I recognized who made the art decisions, and I consciously charmed them, disparaging all the “hyperbole” — a word I only had just learned. I pretended to be modest. I thanked people graciously. I was careful to never actually express my genuinely strong aversions to some kinds of art and artists because I sensed that as a public person, the rules had changed.
I quoted English Romantic poets. I remember I talked about Pericles and how the Parthenon was a communal effort that reflected the spirit of the age. I sighed in all the right places. I laughed just the right amount…
And I met Thomas.
A little bit drunk by the end of the evening, I told him I was a virgin.
I didn’t go home that night. I went with him to his hotel. He was so cool and calm and perfectly beautiful, a dark brunette to my bright blonde, older, sleekly strong yet exquisitely and ironically feminine to my butch, tough boy, aggressiveness. I tried cocaine for the first time. Suddenly, I wasn’t drunk at all. I knew what I wanted. I got it.
It was a big night.
I still hadn’t even shaved but once or twice.
I did not sleep until the sun was up, and I slept all day, waking to an awful headache, a headache that a little scotch and coke instantly cured.
I called my mom. I told her I’d spent the night downtown, that I couldn’t deal with school, that I didn’t want any attention, and that if she was serious about the divorce, I had money for her.
“Where downtown? Who are you with?”
She’d been to the show. It was overwhelming for her. All those people. “You must be very proud.”
“He always had it. It wasn’t me. I just gave him tools when he asked.”
“Nonsense, Mother. You have always been my best teacher. Who was it who said that “Art is not how you use your hands to draw but how you see?
“And who showed me how to hold a brush? Who gave me books? Who took me to museums? Who introduced me to all those artists? Mother, you are too modest.”
I could see the women eat that up.
I’ve done some shitty things in my life, but that wasn’t one of them. I know where it came from. I was lucky to have the teaching of a great artist.
So my mom knew the show was a sellout. She knew exactly how much money was involved. Her signature was on all the contracts. I was still a minor, after all. I had insisted that we make seperate account for her and I that my stepdad could not touch.
“Darling? Where are you?”
“I got drunk. There was a party at the Dell Webb. I slept all day… No. I’m fine. It’s just some people from the show. Mother? I’m OK. NO! I’m not going to school. I can’t handle being around all those… those children. Call them and tell them the truth. Talk to Mr. DeWitt. He’ll understand.”
She made me give her the hotel number and the room.
Then I told her, “You can get that divorce now. You don’t need him any more.”
She said we’d talk about that later. I told her I’d be home tomorrow. She knew better than to contest me too much.
I turned to Thomas. “You see? This is what you get when you consort with a minor, you pedophile.”
“Huh. You’re more man than any ten thousand men, you brat.”
“Say it again! No one says “brat” like you.”
Thomas was in advertising. He lived in San Francisco. He’d driven to Fresno because he’d heard about my show in ‘the grapevine.”
“Come to The City. Fresno is no place for you.”
He was, even then, a heroin user. It was his ulcers that got him started, just like Kurt Cobain. Only heroin would take the pain away.
I found that out only later.
I went to San Francisco the next day and stayed for two weeks. Drinking, dancing, getting shown off. Making all the guys jealous. It was only when my mom threatened to call the police that I returned home.
Big fight. Ugly.
But 12,000 dollars in my mom’s bank account went a long way towards smoothing things out. Thomas had bought me a bunch of nice clothes. If left them at his place and returned to my T shirts and jeans. I would be eighteen in a couple months.
I never did graduate high school.
My mom did get her divorce.
I saved my money, buying, as always, only things i could use to make money, like art supplies.
But strangely, I had no will to draw.
Everything was different. My classmates seemed infantile. My brothers and sisters were aliens. School was a waste of time. I stopped doing sports. I attended no school functions. I spent most of my time reading. I went for long, long, long walks, twenty miles or more at a time, full of restless energy, I could only rest after such marathon walks. I spent hours and hours in my room, brooding, planning my escape.
I made sure that my mom was OK, financially, but a few days after my eighteenth birthday, I left. I went to see my natural father for the first time in twelve years. I discovered that he hated bullies too and used to attack them when they picked on younger kids even though he was outweighed and outnumbered, just like me, and just like me, the fury of his onslaught would usually win the day.
Interesting, huh? My stepdad was such a wimp. I used to get in so much trouble for fighting, and I know, that’s a strange anecdote to tell in the middle of this tale, and were I a better writer, I’d leave it out, but somehow, I feel that’s important because I would do some serious fighting the years to come, not with people, but with the dark side — the weak side — of my own nature.
I stayed with Thomas for two years.
Unlike him, I had no affection for the effects of heroin. Unlike so many in our circle, I never got the Plague. I was always particular, and I was always careful — even when I was drunk or stoned.
But I could not draw to save my life anytime within weeks after doing any serious drugs. They just stole my soul. There I was though, really a country boy in the big city, dazzled by all the admiration and not equipped to deal with it. I got an office job. I bought a camera. I studied photography. I memorized poems. I learned to dance the way I liked to fuck. I was a boy toy, and I started to hate myself.
I am not sure how Thomas died. The coroner report said it was an OD. He’d taken to mixing the H and the coke so he’d not get the nods because it was taking more and more. I preferred to smoke pot. It relaxed my muscles and made me horny and never sleepy, but when I couldn’t get it, I’d drink, and I was drunk the night he died. I was passed out on the floor with my face and hair smeared with puke.
I thought he was asleep. He looked so peaceful. He’d so rarely been peaceful for several months. He was laying there, nude, the sheets knotted up by his ankles when I stumbled by him to the bathroom to take a shower. I did not want to disturb him. I took a couple aspirin and showered. I looked in the mirror. I needed no shave, but I looked like hell. Dark circles under my eyes, a frown line in my brow, pale, blotched.
When I came out and looked at Thomas, I decided to cover him. He had such dignity. He wouldn’t like to be left that way, and then…
I saw his eyes were open. Dried. His lips were parched and I could see a bit of his tongue sticking out, dried too.
I covered him. I was thinking, “So this is what a dead person looks like.”
There was an emptiness where Thomas had been.
I felt eerily calm. It was like a book had just been read, and now it was over. The sadness was more of a vague longing…
I go to the window and open the curtains. It is a beautiful day. The sun streams brightly in upon us as it does in winter time in San Francisco. I see a ship in the bay. I watch the cars on the Bay Bridge. Below, I see our neighbor Mrs. Morgenstern working in her garden. I open the window. The breeze is cool, and it carries the scent of freshly turned earth and as always, the wet kiss of sea water. There are little birds chirping and hopping about in Mrs. Morgenstern’s cherry tree.
Thomas is dead.
The light shines on him now. He is beautiful still. He will always be beautiful.
I go to my desk and take out my sketch pad and pencil. I consider. Yes. Charcoal. Chiaroscuro. The pastel of blue and gold Conrad kicking that rainbow soccor ball hangs on the wall behind him.
Thomas bought that one at the show. It is in shadow.
A drawing in a drawing. No colors now. Only light and dark. Perfect.
I wonder how much drawing I will be able to do before the police come. I do not call them. I draw. I know every inch of his body. I know how to draw.
I feel fine. It is a good drawing. You just don’t see dead people every day. Dead lovers are rarer still. I can not waste this moment. Moments are precious. I draw until the drawing is done.
I call the police.
They think I am crazy, the way I draw him like that instead of calling right away.
They let me go, eventually.
But they are right about one thing. I am crazy.
I went home. There was really nothing for me in the city. My mom had a new man and new house. At first things were quiet. They were all curious about my adventures, but no dared to ask too much.
Later, when I was alone with her, I sat down on the couch next to her and snuggled up. I hugged her and laid my head on her shoulders and finally, I cried.
A few weeks later, I got a job working in Yosemite National Park as a cashier. I started doing packpacking again to strengthen my body and cleanse my mind. That was the beginning of my Impressionist period.
This is not a sad story. We are either broken or strengthened by our travails. I was unbroken. We humans are made of stronger stuff than we give ourselves credit for.
We are, all of us, beautiful each.