Joy—It’s What’s In The Head

My wife and I celebrated our crystal anniversary on Thursday and I was able to carry the weight of good feeling into the weekend. Just barely.

Five years ago we bought land in the country for the price many Americans would pay for a Toyota 4Runner. 16 acres surrounded at three cardinal directions by 1400 acres of the county nature center. Just a few humans every couple of square miles. The cool cloudy day of our anniversary was good medicine. Marie suggested that I paint her, which I did on a piece of 2 x 4′ luan. It will be hidden in the basement until our teenage daughter is not that grossed out by it—probably forever. I drank expensive local craft beer followed by local Finger Lakes Red Wine (dry like my humor, thank Dionysus). We picked blackberries, cooked dinner over the fire, and went for a rare bugless walk at dusk, to finally fall asleep with sunset still marking the treeline.

Unfinished meow!

We can’t afford the land anymore. It’s paid for, but our debts in other places not nearly as valuable, are bearing down on us. The “for sale” sign has been up for several months without any takers. Lucky for us, for we’re getting cold feet—especially after a crystal anniversary cementing silver and golden ones to come so long as our bodies can hold out that long. I am a stubborn creative fool hiding in happy failure. I have arrested development, a youthful optimism that is challenged day after day—not without realization. I know what culture I am up against, and sometimes it thinks me to be a village idiot. A damn lucky one to be sure—a wife to subsidize his gross maladjustment, children who respect and love him, and yes, even a dumbed down culture that thrives in a super economy, where the daft painter can purchase expensive supplies on easy credit.

Living roof hut. Doesn’t leak.

But geeze Louise, just stop for a day and assess the treadmill. The status house, the wealth lie. Lately I have been sitting on my life “Indian style”, that is, with adult lifelong conviction that we are all living on the “Res” in one way or another. Supposedly, after shelter, food, clothing, fuel, and modern medicine, we are educated to free our minds, find our place, and flow helpfully in society. In my extended clan of the past or future I would fit in as one of the radical-clowns, one to see the black and white of the situation, react to it, voice it, color it in the proportion that I see fit, and send it over to the wise council for deliberation. However, this reservation is casino corrupt. It silences many good Indians with humiliation that is usually enough to set them on a path to unrighteousness, to unlove, to uncourage, to unjoy.

I am getting off track. I want to write about the writer and painter as radical-clown. But first, to clarify my position above… A distant Indian relative of mine said it best:

Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. “Do you wish to buy any baskets?” he asked. “No, we do not want any,” was the reply. “What!” exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, “do you mean to starve us?” Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off—that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed—he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man’s to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?

—Thoreau

Exactly! Hence, the Indian in the country, weaving his baskets.

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Books for sale to the song of crickets.

After a near-perfect anniversary celebration I had the usual rush of “fear in the financial future” that afflicts all of the unmade artists of the world. It is the downside of happy delusion, and I think a very needful sorrow for the creative mind to be up against. Without it, there can be no fight, and it is the fight that can bring you back to right-thinking. The next day I decided to bring some self-published books and lessor paintings out to sell along the land’s impressive road frontage. Businessmen always ask about road frontage before buying. Very important consideration. It can make or break what seems to be a sound business plan. Anyway, the seasonal Renaissance Faire is a quarter mile up the road and brings an enormous amount of traffic past our country property on weekends in summer. We let our friend Dan sell his tie-dyes there, and he does quite well. Last year I joined him three times, about 25 hours of retail work, and made 40 dollars total. I sold one book and two paintings. (Actually, just the two paintings. I threw the book in for one customer because I was just so damn happy to sell a painting.) In comparison, Dan made about $400 during the same period.

I imagine the Ren Faire to be a good random sample of local caucasian consumers. The bad history, horrendous detail, and several thousand turkey legs call out all strata of our class society—the college professor as well as the successful Quicky Lube technician. Dan gets about 2 customers per hour on average, with at least one purchase, maybe a t-shirt or a onesie. A hundred dollar day is nothing to sneeze at. So, the Indian businessmen would work with Dan’s model, improving upon it, making a mint for the family and clan. The Indian radical-clown however, after failing with his business model, does it again for good measure.

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30 canvas and 30 paper paintings for sale to interested porcupines.

And ho boy, does he succeed at repetitive failure!

Not one customer. 500 cars drove by, all headed to the same place, to spend money on the same stuff. SUV’s and Audi’s. F-150’s and RV’s a-plenty. 75% of the cars driving by cost about what we are asking for the land. Perhaps 75% of riders in the cars could name this year’s American Idol winner, and 75% would ride off a cliff if the last bag of Cheetos® on earth was leading the way.

I had a memorable anniversary. I love Marie. We will keep the land, grow our debt, and live as free as we can in a super economy on the American reservation. I am the radical clown who makes joy in the head. I’d say “Pleased to meet you”, if you ever got out of the rusting cage-on-wheels to look at my work.

 

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3 comments

  1. Great read. It’s a shame to see your talent go unrewarded. I can feel the disappointment of putting all your work out there and getting nothing, while tie-dyed shirts are considered more valuable, and more interesting. I actually understand your post so well that my left eye stings. Also really enjoyed the gently accepting deep sarcasm, though not in an entirely happy way. The pile of books for the crickets! Hope you’ll keep up the work anyway. Both your paintins and your writing are rich, beautiful things.

    1. Unrewarded is okay. Unpaid never is. I could live a monastic life, but not as a painter. Wouldn’t it be lovely to get a dishwasher’s salary for a year’s worth of output? Then I could reach into my pocket and buy a meal for the family. The great sorrow of art-making is the one in a thousand chance of making art a living. So self-doubt reigns. Yeah, I can make pretty pictures, but if no one buys them, then perhaps I’m just a stubborn narcissist, daily digging deeper delusionally, or an “alliterate” fool to the extreme. Or… and this is the great private terror… an incompetent dishwasher.

      I’ll always work, probably until death without compensation. During my outdoor retail adventure, I read a recently published book on the fame of Banksy. He achieved it practically overnight with a scam—taking a video of himself hanging work in the Tate I believe. Then the idea, and one museum after the other. Instant fame and fortune. Voila!
      I don’t know about you, but I would shun fame and relish the fortune. I don’t want a scam. I want $25 for a canvas painting. That’s five dollars an hour, not including materials or visual effect.
      There are books on sociology and economics waiting to be written that would cover the artist’s cultural position realistically. What’s out there now are the business books—simple pick-me-ups, how-to’s, and stay sane in the arts blah blah blah.
      From my limited viewpoint, there is no art economy. There are millionbillionaires rolling cigars with celebrity canvases.
      I’ll clean up after their party. Sometimes there’s enough meat left on the bone to nourish me another day.
      Thanks for reading.

      1. Yap. I’m in the same boat. As of now I don’t sell anything, and it’s getting harder to get recognition because there is so much competition. It appears that in order to sell art one needs some sort of promotion by presumed authorities. It can be difficult, dispiriting, humiliating, and enervating. But making art is its own reward, and as you say, many of us would do it for the salary of a dishwasher, but can’t get anything at all.

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