Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Death in the Afternoon... and other moments of lucidity

“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” - Ernest Hemingway

I remember a moment in school when a group of track athletes, including myself, were supposed to run two miles across town, from the senior high to the junior high in order to attend practice. As usual, a number of us were trying to find someone with a car that could drop us off a few feet from the front gate and thus hide our laziness. We had located one of my fellow runners that actually had a truck to which we planned on using to get from point “A” to “B”. However, in the last few hours before school was to end, his father had hired an artist to drop-by and paint lettering on the hood in some manner of teenage male machismo, that lives on today in enlarged tailpipes and rear spoilers that purposefully offset-the balance of the ride.

The artist strolled-in after the final school bell had rung… probably more than a few hours later than my friend’s father had expected. He nearly fell from the front seat of his van, than took an exuberant amount of time searching his pockets for the perfect brush on which he had been seated just moments before. A Mason jar, with a Ball lid, half-filled with simple black acrylic paint was still sitting on the dashboard where he had placed it for safekeeping, when he slammed the van door caked with a number of pin-hole rust spots. He noticed it a moment later and started the process again in its retrieval.

In the daze of youth he seemed old as dirt and even now, I cannot recall if there was any actual truth to that assumption. In his disheveled state he could have been on slightly older than I am now and I would have been oblivious to his age. An old man among boys, he had been set-up to fail the moment he agreed to the lettering job. While we stood in a semi-circle around the artist, we mocked his obvious three-in-the-afternoon drunkenness and made non-existent bets on how the lettering would turnout. We spewed hate and degradation at his back, while he ignored us behind a haze of stale beer and whiskey. At the time I didn’t think he heard us, now I believe he was simply resigned to ignoring our young delusion of class distinction combined with his undeniable current situation with a ¼” square brush and truck hood. That recognition, despite its sad consequences… may have been the marker of his intelligence in a moment of hotheads and fools.

Where do we hide our inevitable sense of superiority until the perfect moment of weakness and opportunity is recognized thus encouraging one human to reign over another? On a more personal note… what drives an artist to work as a sign painter? How much distance can exist between the spectacle of public shame and the crutch of a lingering cause? At what point does a lingering career become a cause? …or is it the cause that becomes the career? – DN

1 comment:

Leslie Pearson said...

I've done my share of sign painting. Working my way through school in Missouri I painted signs for several business (some of which are still hanging...shamefully, might I add--as they have aged considerably). But I did it because I wanted to support myself with the skills I had as an artist. I never looked at lettering or sign painting as any kind of high art. Although it just occurred to me that I incorporate text into nearly all of my paintings now. Anyway, in school I wasn't selling any paintings to speak of...maybe a few bucks here or there. Even when I finished graduate school and moved to Kansas City I found myself painting signs to make ends meet even though I was selling a few pieces. Even recently I painted a logo on a wall (like a mural) for $200. It's basically a way to make money with the skills I have as an artist--something that not everyone can do so I am never really ashamed of doing it, but I never advertise it either. I'm so selfish with the time I have in the studio working on my own ideas and paintings that I hesitate to do anything other than that with my creative energy...let's just say I shy away from doing pet portraits and so forth. But, now I teach art part-time; is that any different than the signs? My husband and I are planning a move in the near future to Wilmington, NC. A place with a pretty involved art community. I am planning on working full-time as an artist from an established artist run art studio. Having said that, I was at a party a couple of weeks ago making small talk with a man who works as a locations guy for movies, tv, etc. in Wilmington. I was talking about my work and various exhibitions. With a straight face he said, "there's a guy I know who makes a great living as a sign painter. He's starting to age now and will probably need some help soon. I can introduce you to him and maybe he'll take you in to learn the trade. You could make a good living as an artist if you work with him." I was shocked. I thought he was joking at first but he was totally serious. His wife even continued on to say that a lot of "gallery" artists work several months out of the year painting sets and backdrops for movies there. I'd be lucky to get in on doing that though. I proceeded to say that I plan on working full time as an artist and earning money by selling my paintings. They laughed and said, "you and everyone else there". I know they didn't mean any harm but I was further insulted because I know I'm capable of doing many things other than painting signs to earn a living if my paintings aren't selling like hot cakes. I could teach art, in a school or privately, do workshops, teach continuing education courses at the community college or even go back to freelancing as a journalist for the newspaper...all of which I would still be earning a living on my artistic merit without becoming the used up artist you remember stumbling around in the afternoon smelling of stale beer and whiskey. I usually save that look for the weekends...ha ha. As a woman I have the advantage though because I don't carry the burden of being the provider for my family. Women don't usually carry that weight like men do. I think it must be a completely different feeling for a man who wants to support his family as an artist. Perhaps that's what led the crusty guy to do anything he could to get food on the table. Who knows.