I Am No Artist

I smile when anyone refers to me as an artist.  I’ve known artists;  artists have been friends of mine, and I am no artist.


Like most kids, I scribbled, finger-painted, and watercolored as a little fellow.  I guess I was as good as most first graders, but no one called me Picasso.  Some time during my youth, I must have been exposed to the art bug.  I don’t remember how I contracted it, but the disease has been with me most of my life.


When I was in high school, I acquired some oil paints, brushes, and some of those canvases wrapped around cardboard.  I sat in the middle of the kitchen floor messing up a few of these and  quickly realized the one thing I was missing was talent.  You can’t go to the store to pick up a pint of ability.  Damn you, Walmart!


When I was a young fellow, my mother encouraged me.  She would probably have encouraged me to be the best serial killer I could be if I had shown any interest in that field of endeavor.  My dad, I think, was a little embarrassed by my efforts.  Years ago I entered one of my annual artistic efforts in a local art show and received an honorable mention.  Dad’s response was, “With that honorable mention and a quarter, you can get a cup of coffee.”  Not high praise.    He was just not a nurturing person. 


The opinions of others was not my problem.  The problem was that ding-dang talent thing.


Nevertheless, I pushed on painting about one work a year hoping the talent I needed so badly would miraculously appear.  No such luck.


When I was at LSU majoring in English, I went to an artist’s exhibition on campus.  I was excited by the experience.  That was the day I decided that art was a worthwhile career.  Not for me, but for talented folks.  It was worthy of a man or woman spending  their lives producing art.   


My friend Jim was the best artist I ever knew.  Although we went to high school together, we didn’t become friends until we were attending LSU.  I was still “dabbling” in art and Jim was going at it full force.  Jim’s art was intimidating, and, I suppose, the reason I reduced my efforts to about one painting a year.  Jim,gave up art for more mundane pursuits.  Bless his heart, he passed away a few years ago with so much unused talent.


As I got older, I started painting a little more.  Just a time filler.  I set up a makeshift arrangement in our utility room with fluorescent lighting without any natural light stuck between the washing machine and a storage cabinet with my canvases flat against a wall.  I began to see a little hope for my art.  It was not that my talent had suddenly appeared, but I seemed to have gotten smarter about what I was doing.  I actually did some pretty good works, mostly semi-realistic, impressionistic, most of which I still display in my home today.  At the time I was working in oils, and oils in an unventilated area is not a good thing.  I guess it caused me to be confused enough not to give up.


It was about this time that an incident gave my pursuit of my art a boost.  I don’t think I’ve ever shared this with anyone, but I’ll share it with you now.  I always considered myself a reasonably good teacher of English.  I, at least, worked very hard at it for twenty-five years hopefully getting better at it each year.  The hour in which I probably had my best session of teaching in my career coincided with an evaluation of my efforts by an administrator who gave me a very poor evaluation.  We had had a history: she basically didn’t like me because I more than once had unkindly pointed out to her that she was a moron.  I appealed the evaluation to the school board knowing I would lose.  It’s just the way things work.  I appealed it not for me but for other teachers hoping that it would deter other evaluators using the process as pay back.  During my appearance before the board, I was visibly shaking.  I couldn’t understand this because I had never lost my nerve in my life.  A few days later I realized that it wasn’t fear, it was conflict.  The conflict was between needing to present myself in a dignified, respectful manner and my true feeling which included contempt for the school board and superintendent.  I would have found it much easier to have told them to jump in a lake.  It was at that time that I began to devote more time to my art.  That winter I gained forty pounds and started developing my art skills. 


Working in a small school can be very gratifying, but one must be careful not to let folks know what you’re good at.  Very few people even knew I painted.  My fear was that someone would get the bright idea to assign me to an art class.  That’s the last thing I wanted.  Teaching English had pretty well ruined my desire to write or read.  There is so much energy expended on reading bad, although often interesting, writing that it somewhat spoiled me for both pursuits.  Now that I’m retired, both interests have returned.


My goal became seeing how good I could become at painting.  I painted, painted a lot.  I didn’t have any goal of being someone in the art world.  My art world was me, paint, canvas, and a garage where I stacked them up after framing.  Painting, I hate to disillusion any of you, has never been fun to me.  Satisfying at times but not fun.  Occasionally I found myself spinning around and giving myself a high five after accomplishing something that surprised me, but most of it is, well, work.  Not a bad thing.  I’ve always liked work.  I really don’t believe the Lord created me so that I could just eat, crap, and sleep. 


When I began my earnest effort to get better at art, I did a lot of paintings of groups of people.  Most of them were based on old photos: musicians, laborers, school children.  I was still working in oil.  The more I worked with it, the more I disliked it.  It was the smell and the cleanup and the extensive drying time.  Hell, each color has its own pace of drying.  I’ve never been a patient person, although I’ve gotten better at it with age.  I decided to give acrylics a try.  Hell, we matched up really well on our first date.  There’s no odor to acrylics, the cleanup is with soap and water, and the drying time, particularly with a hairdryer, is almost immediate.  Old impatient guy had met his soul mate.


Subject matter didn’t matter much to me.  I was trying to teach myself to paint.  We had cats; we liked cats; cats would do.  At least I didn’t have to think, “Duh, what will I paint today?”  The answer was already there each morning: cats.  Realistic cats, abstract cats, handsome cats, scary cats, beautiful cats, homely cats...you get the picture.  About two hundred and fifty cats later, it was beginning to be hard to paint cats without throwing up a little.  On to people.


I certainly wasn’t developing talent while painting all those cats, but I was developing skills and techniques.


Only a handful of folks knew that I painted.  I certainly didn’t discuss it at school.  I gave a lot of paintings away to close friends and family members.  I remember once when a friend took seven or eight one evening.  I had so many I never missed them.


If an art gallery had not opened about a block and a half from my home, I guess I’d have over five hundred paintings stacked up in the garage by now.  I might have found it necessary to build a second garage.  Two ladies, Cheryl Wooten and Cathy Schuster, in a moment of questionable judgment, bought an old building, remodeled it, and opened a first class art gallery in the middle of Burleson County.  For those of you unfamiliar with Burleson County, although it definitely has some really nice folks in it, they are folks more likely to purchase shotguns, tractors, and coon dogs than they are to purchase art.  Frankly, I took the gallery opening in Somerville as a sign from God that he either liked me or that the Apocalypse was near.  I wasn’t sure.  For a couple of years, I visited the gallery each time they had an art show.  I concluded that they must know everyone in the art world because the art was first rate, world class.  I’d view the art and go home saying to myself, “You’ve got to work harder.”


I never mentioned to Cheryl or Cathy that I painted.  However, to my dismay, my wife kept mentioning it to them encouraging them to come by our home to see my work.


One day about four years ago, Cheryl and Cathy called and asked if they could come by to see my work.  I strongly suspected that they didn’t want to alienate Linda by not at least looking at my work.  They could at least look at it, and that would be the end of Linda’s harping.  We had coffee and chatted for a while.  I had a few paintings which I had not yet taken to the garage and started dragging them out.  To my surprise, they seemed to like them.  We agreed to having two shows: one cat show, one people show.


Before the cat show, “Cats, Cats, and More Cats,” Cheryl asked what my expectations for the show were.  I looked at her blankly and replied that I had no expectations.  It was just nice to see my paintings hanging on a wall rather than leaning against the base of a wall.  To say the show was a success would be an understatement.  I knew that that would never be repeated; I know how much people love cats.   Just now, four years later, I’m able to paint an occasional cat without wanting to slit my wrist.


We had the second show, “Pinkerton’s People,” a year later.  Successful, but not the kind of success the cat show was.  The bottom had fallen out of the economy, and people like cats a lot better than people.


A year later, we had a third show, “Dogs,” which I did in conjunction with Jane Dubose of Houston.  By then the bottom had really fallen out of the economy, and I learned something about the difference between the way folks perceive dogs and cats.  Cat folks can look at the most abstract and bizarre painting of a cat and relate to it.  The different breeds of dog I painted very realistically.  In fact I was rather pleased with my dogs.  The problem with dogs is dog folks only relate to their dogs.  If the dog is not exactly their dog, they admire the painting but move on without being tempted to part with their money. 


I had and still have so many paintings; I needed to find other places to attempt to sell them.  I got on the internet and searched for galleries in the local area.  By local I mean within 30 miles.  I have what I refer to as my “30 mile rule” which prohibits me from showing beyond that distance.  The pick up and delivery is just too difficult beyond thirty miles.  I have a bunch...a bunch of abstracts which I did several months ago.  None of the local galleries, those within 30 miles, show much interest in them, so I’ve stored most of them away in the garage thinking that I may some day break my 30 mile rule.


Having so many paintings caused me to look beyond Art C’s, the local gallery.  Bryan-College Station, 25 miles from Somerville was the obvious choice.  Bryan-College Station is a twin city of about 100,000 folks and a major university, Texas A&M.  You would think that they would have a gallery dedicated to local art.  Not so, but there is Frame Gallery which is essentially a frame shop which has a lot of left over space where Greta, the owner, can display local art.  She basically turns the art over each month which makes visiting her place fun.  I’m thankful Greta accepts my work, and I deliver from one to a half dozen works each month.  Thanks, Greta.


I was invited to show my works at one of the local restaurants in Bryan, The Village Downtown.  Each month the owner invites different artists to fill her walls with their works.  I didn’t really want to do it because art usually doesn’t sell well in restaurants, but she was pretty insistent and a nice lady.  I’m glad I did it.


By searching the internet, I found one really great gallery in a little community within my 30 mile limit.  It is the Gallery at Round Top.  Round Top is a very old community which primarily consists of an old town square.  Somehow Round Top became the center of a lot of celebrations and other activities which draw many folks from great distances.  One of its biggest activities is the twice a year antique fair which is the second largest in the United States.  Karen and Ken are the gallery owners.  They have art as good as anyone in the United States, and they are world class artists in their own right.  It’s a pleasure to visit their gallery.  I made a cold call on them one day armed with some photos of my work.  They looked at my photos and agreed to let me show there.  They didn’t seem much interested until they realized I was the guy who sold over 165 paintings in my first show.  They are great people, and I still try to provide them with works which at best are marginal when compared to their other artists’ works.


Another place is Blues Alley in Navasota which is owned by Russell Cushman, one Hell of an artist and a fellow I met and liked years ago when he and a couple of other artists had a gallery in Navasota.  Blues Alley is hard to describe.  Navasota sponsors a blues festival each year, quite a big deal.  Russell is one of the chief movers of this event.  Blues Alley looks as though the contents were put together by a committee.  It’s really charming with antiques, blues memorabilia, guitars, jams and jellies, flat art, etc.  It seems to be constantly changing.  Russell emailed me after my second show.  I don’t know if having the show had anything to do with his calling.  He had decided to add art to his place of business.  I supply him with some of my works and recently provided him with some Texas blues art works.  I think I’ll continue to produce blues paintings for his place.  Russell’s a nice guy.


One thing that you’ve probably recognized as a characteristic of the art dealers I work with is that they’re nice folks.  Life is too short to work with any other kind.


A few years ago I decided I needed a real easel.  Real easels are not cheap, so I built my own.  It really is a great easel if I do say so myself.  I recall after completing the easel, my wife and I were standing together admiring it.  I turned to Linda and quietly commented, “I don’t think I can paint that well.”  The easel set a pretty high bar.


The new easel went in my new studio, the old studio being the unventilated utility room.  The new studio was something of an accident.  After remodeling the existing house, I decided to add a bedroom, utility room, Linda’s doll/sewing room, a bathroom, a great back porch, and at the end of the porch a room for Linda to pursue her interest in horticulture.  My construction skills are pretty good, and I did all the work myself; unfortunately, I’m also one of the world’s slowest construction guys.  Being slow gives one a lot of time to think, and as I was slowly working on Linda’s horticulture room, it occurred to me that if I bumped it out a couple of feet, I could have a darn nice studio.  Linda lost her horticulture room, but I gained a studio.  I added a TV, a couple of wicker chairs, my new easel, and I was in business.


About a year and a half ago, I accidentally developed my own website.  I say “accidentally” because it resulted from a computer problem.  My ding-dang computer crashed big time.  I had to have the hard drive replaced.  When I went to pick up my computer, I noticed that they had left off one of my most prized programs.  Being impatient, I asked if they had it on a disc.  “Yeah, it’s over there on a disk with a couple of other programs.”  I bought it without inspection and headed home.  While I was loading my missing program, I noticed that there was a program called Iweb on the same disc.  Hmm, that sounds like some kind of a website program.  I loaded it, and it was.  A couple of weeks later, I had a website.  What a world!


I must admit that I love my website.  Thanks, Apple.  Each month I add my latest paintings and my latest essays.  It makes an old guy feel relative.  I’ve never tried to sell paintings or prints from my website.  I’ll leave that to the galleries.  I just enjoy sharing my art and essays with folks.


Retirement can be pretty rough for a lot of old guys.  I once had many interests in which I had developed knowledge and skills, and I thought I would pursue them in my golden years.  In reality, it was reduced to my no-talent art and my essays.  It’s not a bad deal for an old guy. 


Recently the Arts at the Lake association sponsored an art trail that ran through several small towns along Highway 36.  It was my opportunity set up an art gallery on my back porch and on the side of my T-model garage.  It was really enjoyable; it gave me an opportunity to speak with a lot of nice folks.  There was an incident during the show with a ten-year-old girl with her mother that pretty well sums up my view of my art.  The little girl found a plastic box with unframed paintings of fish that I had labeled as “Bad Fish.”  The little girl asked me about the label, and I explained that they weren’t as good as some other fish I had painted.  Later her mother told me that the little girl was interested in purchasing one of the “Bad Fish,” and I offered her two for the price of one.  As I was writing out a receipt, the ten-year-old was admiring her purchases, and she commented to her mother, “This is better than anything I’ve ever done.” 


I consider that high praise.

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