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.


  1. What a nice story this is. And your friends here are a treasure!

  2. I think they should have had spot lights if they wanted to show art work - don't you think? Aren't friends wonderful?

  3. Things so seldom come out as we plan... especially when the rich and capricious get involved. I had some early encounters with rich New Yorkers when I was a teen, and I have avoided people who obviously have money. My favorite part of the story is how you take delight in the beautiful and unexpected things that do happen. That seems to be the best we can do - and it's not shabby at all.

  4. Love the story about the Merry Widow with bad sculptures. Hilarious. She sounds like a talentless Jeff Koons. The drawing of her is my favorite. I love the humour you bring to her.

    Something about the framers in drawings #1 remind me of what I imagine Vlick and Clack from "Car Talk" look like.

    p.s. Many-many years ago I worked in a L.A. gallery and I could tell you some galleriventing stories only they wouldn't be as good as I would have no fantastic illustrations.

    p.s.s. Yes, much better without the chocolate.;-)

  5. What a rollercoaster of a ride, Susan. You mention, quite casually, that a few gallery owners bought your paintings for themselves. What an amazing endorsement that is. These gallery owners are looking a paintings all the time. They can't buy pictures from every artist they come across, only the very few who really stand out. You must have an extraordinary talent to appeal to such experienced art lovers. One of their opinions is worth a million merry widows, in terms of art appreciation.

    Thank you for visiting my blog, where I've posted about my own rollercoaster... Cut Short is available to preorder online and you are, of course, invited to my Virtual Book Launch - check out my blog next month for contact details. Please visit again before then. You're very welcome. And I'll certainly be back here to see more of your brilliant drawings.

  6. And on top of this wonderful story - amazing how in just a few lines you can imbue with life these characters - you have invented a new word that should become part of the lexicon of any struggling artist.

    "Whatcha been up to?"

    "Nothing, just gallerivanting."

  7. I think it would be very difficult to put your art work out there for commercial purposes.

    I love how your friends came through for you, though.

    I love these stories and the illustrations are like a wonderful gift. I have to look at them over and over and find new details.

  8. liberality - I've learned friends are the only treasure.

    lol - True, but the good news was it was a popular lunch spot.

    steve - Rich and capricious, yes. If I've learned to avoid a general group, it's them. I can't bear casual cruelty and there's so much evidence of that in our world.

    belette - She really was outrageous and I was ashamed of myself for not refusing the offer once I met her. I thought I needed the money but fate decided otherwise.

    It's funny you should have mentioned the 'car talk' guys because I thought of them too when I was drawing that one.

    I'm sure you'd do a great job of writing some gallerivanting stories. I have to draw because writing well isn't in my skill-set.. as it is in yours.

    leigh - When I first started blogging you were one of my first visitors so I thought I'd come to see how your book was progressing. I'm happy to hear it's getting published and promise to read a paid for copy. I appreciate you taking the time to visit again.

    Yes, a few people have always enjoyed seeing my paintings and I've enjoyed seeing the looks on their faces when one lights up some memory or feeling for them.

    randal - What a nice thing to say. These drawings were done especially fast since I was afraid of losing a tenuous thread. I'm glad they appear to have worked.

    Do you suppose I can get a copyright on 'gallerivanting'? It might help the retirement fund.

    lisa - There aren't so many great details in this particular set as there have been in others but I'm glad you liked them. I just wanted to explain why I no longer extend myself for public exhibition. The first gallery owner I met here after painting 15 new pieces told me my work wasn't west coast enough looking. Was I supposed to add totem poles? Screw that :-) I prefer the opinions of my friends.

  9. I read this again and I can't believe the attitude of that hideous beast. Humiliating artisans like that - by holding their jobs over their heads. I hope they found an escape. And your illustration and description of her makes her look like a rich, stylish lunatic. Taking her pent up frustrations out on the whole world. Fortunately no one was forced to buy her hideous lumps, I hope...

  10. Every cool person I have ever met has interesting stories to tell and yours rank right up there. I liked how you cancelled on the merry widow. You should have painted a dragon that looked like her and sent it to her as a gift.

  11. I love your art AND your writing.

  12. steve - There are two very sad groups of people inhabiting the world we all share. The first we'd all have to agree are the very poor; the other is the ultra rich. Too many of the former suffer at the hands of the latter.

    spartacus - Now THAT would have been a real waste of time. Besides, my dragons have always been somewhat bemused characters.

    scarlet - Thanks and THANKS ;-)

  13. i seriously don't know why the world doesn't make a path to your house, for the beautiful things you create.
    and after reading your experiences, i understand why so many people set up art walls at street fairs and sell their watercolors to passers-by. rich galleries don't always deserve their reputation.
    you have great friends.

  14. Hi Susan – I live in a very artistic area in Melbourne which once housed an artist’s residence colony whose founder was a very good painter ( his paintings were exhibited in all of the leading galleries overseas) he refused to ever sell any of them. His unusual stance was based upon his idea future work would be compromised once he painted for a market. Instead he established an artist’s colony complete with a small farm to try for self sufficiency.
    To me both of your stories are also all about not compromising and being accepted. Although the latter story has a happier ending they both illustrate to me the real life outcomes that often fail to match up to our dreams which I think echo the lot or burden of the artist more often than not when dealing with the fickle public. As Albert Schweitzer said “the most valuable knowledge we can ever have is how to deal with disappointments.”

    Best wishes

  15. susan, you must be the master of rolling with the punches ;)

    i think even without the great drawings, especially i loved the crazy rich widow with her lumps of acid colored clay, lol, i would adore your have such a wonderful way of spinning your tales, real or imaginary, i think you are a wonderful writer and your experiences as an artist are so rich and varied for those like myself, who have barely gotten off the farm, i just love reading's that for a "run-on" sentence for you??

    can't wait for the next installment...btw, my favorite part is at the very end where everyone traipses around the restaurant with candles, so they can view the lovely art!!

  16. sera - You mean nobody's coming over to buy this mousetrap? Damn, I thought I finally had it made.

    lindsay - That sounds like a very wise artist and one whose philosophy I could relate to. I've only ever been as good as I'm able to be so my fall-back was working. I'm willing to compromise by showing up at a job most Mondays for a paycheck on Friday.

    linda - I appreciate your saying you enjoy my writing since it's the half I most worry about. Too many declarative sentences? For years and years I wrote letters only but I'm having fun with these and I haven't written one about Paris yet :-) Stay tuned..

  17. i love the idea of working with lumps of clay while swilling wine. it's how i want to retire someday.

  18. sera - That sounds perfect but I'd be just as happy with a mud puddle and a couple of sticks.

  19. it's bedtime, and i came by for a bedtime story. this one has gentle shades of deja vu. i once had aspirations of 'making something' of my art. short-lived, as i already had children to feed. but in the process i acquired a love of framing shops. i'll frame anything. i once had a robin's egg that fell out of the nest and was abandoned, and a magpie egg found in a nest in a tree that had been felled, framed separately in deep shadow box frames, with beautiful matching mats. i made the framer cut out a hole slightly smaller than the size of the egg, from foam core backing and insert the egg part way in that way. they hung on my walls for years, along with abandoned birds' nests. i still doodle a bit, and have ideas simmering for a couple of children's books, once i get the ReStore running, have a place to live, and collect all my stuff in one place again. you're inspiring. when i look at your stories and read your blog, i believe i can do it.

  20. gfid - I'm glad to came back to read and I'll try not not hold up your bedtime story for so long next time.

    The framed little birds' eggs do sound beautiful. Somehow I'm sure you could do anything you set your heart on.

  21. Got to know ur blog from Mumbai Daily Photo Blog....Loved your Pen/ink illustrations....loved how you have used a combination of contours/stippling/ it....

  22. What great stories! And delightful illustrations.

    I wonder where I can get one of the nifty hardened clay lamps? I know somebody that I would like to throw it at...

  23. dr. zaius - I'll be glad to help with the throwing since it's likely our lists are similar.

    An award for Adventures? How very nice :-)