Friday, May 1, 2009
When I was painting all the time, following the hints and flashes of inspiration that showed the next three or ten pictures or maybe just parts of another complete watercolor, there were always two things I looked forward to. The first was taking all of them out of the portfolios, where they'd been stored within a day of recognizing one more line would cause ruin, and looking at 12 or 20 all at once. Seeing where I'd spent the past year or two in imaginary worlds was always the best moment and I'd start making plans toward a gallery show, imagining the delight they'd bring to others and hopefully, enough money to allow me the peace and long silences required to stay in watercolor land.
The next best part was going to the picture framing shop where, naturally enough when I think about it, the guys who ran the place were always delighted to see me. As is normal in such places it was decorated with multiple examples of picture framing arts throughout the ages, and since my favorite store in RI had been in business for more than a century, it was an old fashioned wood floor, tin ceilinged place that offered feelings of security and harmonious gentility. Since framing for galleries meant sticking to clean lines and simplicity we'd spend the time it took deciding on the shade of white museum board mattes, whether to edge the separate pictures in gold, silver or copper frames and the benefits of regular glass compared to the non-reflective kind. Framing then wasn't as expensive as it is today but I was still happy with the professional discount and always satisfied with the result when I went to retrieve them a week or two later. The only problem then, of course, was that they were now huge, unwieldy objects.
So followed the next part. Although painting always has been a pretty intense part of my life I never really connected with the marketing side. I'd start making phone calls to the few people I knew in the New England arts scene. I tend to be pretty shy when it comes to such things but there were a few gallery owners who'd bought some of my paintings for themselves and were happy to hear I'd finished another selection. Since art shows are usually booked a year or more in advance it wasn't a surprise when I learned there were no venues currently available. One friend, having opted out of showing the work of contemporary artists, had turned her gallery into a showcase for dead nautical painters, since even if the paintings weren't good, at least they had historic value.
Two days later she called me back to say she'd met a woman who was planning to show her sculptures at the Providence Watercolor Club and required watercolors to comply with their rules. Would I be interested? I agreed with no hesitation since it was a great opportunity to have my work shown to the rich and well connected old New England society members who belonged to the place.
Accompanied by my friend I met the sculptor at her palatial home on Providence's East Side one early spring afternoon. Have you ever heard of a merry widow? This woman was the epitome of the title and having inherited her husband's factories and fortune, was using her newly gained money and power to make a frontal assault on the previously mentioned society. Her husband had not only owned a ceramics business that mostly made lamp bases but also owned one of the jewelry factories that made Providence famous in the 50's and 60's. What he hadn't let his wife do was to follow her artistic tendencies and after 45 years of marriage she felt she had no time to lose if she was going to make an impression.
What she'd done was to turn the ceramic factory into a production center for some of the ugliest lumps of hardened clay I'd never imagined seeing. She was quite proud to tell us the workers had to make these (poorly designed, acid colored giant lumps) sculptures if they wanted to keep getting their regular paychecks. Two of them were delivered and uncrated while we were there and a couple of her maids were dusting and polishing them so she could add her own unique artistic signature, namely, gluing large pieces of colored cut glass to each one in random patterns while dancing around her studio drinking from a large glass of wine. She called them her 'Dragon' sculptures and was happy to know I'd painted dragons too.
She came by to see the paintings and told me they'd make an excellent counterpoint. Just a week before the show was scheduled to open she called the friend who'd introduced us demanding I paint dragons into the pictures that had none. She'd donated $100K to the Club in order to bypass their watercolorist rule so if I couldn't comply she planned to cancel my part of the show. Well, since that was not only outrageous but impossible, I cancelled. My friend offered me a corner in her dead seascape gallery and a few of the paintings went there for a month. It was a pretty funny juxtaposition.
Late in the summer I got a call from a woman who owned a restaurant gallery in Newport wondering if I'd be interested in hanging a show for the autumn season. I'd never dined there but knew the place had a good reputation. Arriving on a beautiful sunny day I met the owner and checked out the gorgeous space, finding windows galore, even tall clerestory ones all around the dining area, linen tablecloths, antique carpets and tons of flowers. Feeling buoyantly hopeful we went back and hung the paintings a few weeks later.
My friends at work were excited about the show and had insisted on making reservations for a big dinner party on opening night. It was after 7:00 pm when we arrived, the first time I'd been there after dark. Remember I told you about the windows? Well, it turned out they only let in light during the daytime and what I hadn't noticed the other times was something that struck me immediately when I walked in that evening. The place was dark. Well, it wasn't grope around, black dark but the only lights were tiny ones high up in the ceiling and low ones at the front counter. The tables were all lit by candles that at least hid any disappointment I may have been showing.
We ate, laughed and told silly stories. The owner introduced me to the other diners who all applauded, much to my embarrassment and delight. Just before dessert the waiters brought out several dozen more candles in their little holders and my friends led a procession around the room examining each painting in turn. It was a wonderful night.