by Ken O’ Steen —
My father was a painter, a man with no discernible ego whatsoever. He was all curiosity and enthusiasm, reverence and devotion. He painted daily, and ritualistically, even romantically in the best sense.
He lacked the gift for self-promotion, and in fact was constitutionally incapable of it. He was open to selling his work but only rarely would he let a painting go.
At local bars he was an ardent talker, bursting at the seams to discuss painting and music and politics, usually more enthusiastically than articulately, but yet knowledgeable. Local students and bohemians enjoyed his company. The few who’d seen his work thought highly of it, praising its earthy poetry. It was oddly raw, seemingly unschooled, imbued with its idiosyncratic aura of mystery. Pops possessed an art degree but his art life and his social life scarcely reflected that. He was regarded as eccentric and he certainly was. But it was a gentle eccentricity, not a hard one.
He survived almost exclusively on temp jobs, when he was younger invariably manual labor. Mom taught in elementary schools. Together they could support a rich but unadorned existence. Genteel poverty it was called once, before falling out of favor entirely, artistic work associated with it dismissed as déclassé, naïve or categorically inferior.
Pops had his own room, which essentially was a studio with a mattress on the floor. There were long rows of paintings jutting out from the walls, a corner where he kept his materials, a record player, and piles of vinyl albums, issues of Artforum and Rolling Stone here and there, and then the stacks of folded, dark blue jeans, which he washed in the bathtub, dried in the bathroom, then returned to the piles.
Artists with reputations would come down from Manhattan from time to time for stints at the university, hear of Pops through the grapevine and show up at our door. Invariably they expressed an admiration, often buying a painting, though often as not Pops would simply give them one.
I was still a teenager, seventeen or eighteen the day the head of the university art department came to call.
Bert Christianson was an esteemed art historian, and a painter in his own right. He was well connected with the gallery and museum set up in the city, locally regarded as erudite, which no doubt he was, praised as elegant, astute and discerning.
He and Pops had been vaguely acquainted, each inhabiting several of the college town’s intersecting art loops. Pops engaged with every sort informally. The two encountered one another in a market near the university, and Christianson asked if he could drop by. He’d never had a look at Pop’s work he said, and was often hearing about it. He wondered if he could get a look. Of course, Pops told him.
He arrived on a Saturday morning. He was cordial when he came into the house, declined the coffee Mom offered him, and followed Pops into his sanctuary. Mom vanished to elsewhere, but aimless as usual, I tagged along.
Christianson appeared authentically curious, but also gave off the air of a visiting foreign dignitary, or glamor puss charitable with his time. The small talk was painfully small.
“Been here in the house quite a while now have you Vernon,” he noted.
Though Pop’s full name was Vernon, nearly everyone else referred to him as Vern.
“I have Bert,” Pops said.
The visitor pulled paintings from out of the stacks against the wall and gazed upon them. He occasionally offered a hmmm or maybe an oh. They were quite a contrast, Pops with his ruddy peasant’s face, and uneven mop of loopy brown hair that resembled an overgrown, chaotic lawn, Christianson sleek and slender with his swept back salt and pepper locks.
There were several portraits and quite a number of landscapes, none of them terribly straightforward, slightly ethereal, off-kilter in a visceral or sensuous way. There were numerous automobiles, but always out of context. One of what might have been called Pop’s signature paintings was a realistically rendered taxicab that somehow occupied the heavens, much as if it had been dreamed there.
Pops was piddling about, went to get a Diet Coke, and was standing near me just inside the doorway when Christianson said, “I do sometimes enjoy this brand of flamboyant primitivism Vern, and many of your pieces certainly are intriguing.”
It was a velvety stabbing, but it was vicious in several ways. Pops had encountered this primitive label before, and he rejected it with furious indignation. He wasn’t some rare bird who’d never sniffed the academy, nor was he was some oaf with a wild imagination, nor a rustic painting charming scenes. Maybe Rousseau was beloved as such a type, but Pops didn’t see himself that way.
Besides, Pops knew that intriguing coming out of Christianson’s mouth was a code for novelty, or even kitsch. While idiosyncratic, there was nothing flamboyant about the paintings at all.
Pops didn’t respond. He just acknowledged it with something like a grunt, and returned to piddling. Christianson took up a stance in front of another of Pop’s signature pieces, which often elicited effusive reactions. The painting depicted McDonald’s. It wasn’t slick, in the Pop Art vein, or naturalistic either. The McDonald’s was stranded in the dark, a perhaps welcoming and perhaps menacing island surrounded by murk and miasma.
“Would you take two hundred for this Vernon?”
“No Bert, I wouldn’t.”
“Okay. How about three?”
“I’ll keep it,” Pops said. “Thanks.”
Such was Christianson’s final blow of disrespect.
Pops had been offered much larger sums for the painting before. But for him it had to feel right when it came to a painting’s departure. It wasn’t calculation, it was solicitude. An estimating inside his head of the potential cost of such a personal break. Christianson’s lowballing was simply a dart.
Shortly thereafter, without another word exchanged with Pops, Christianson went into the living room, thanked Mom, said goodbye and left.
He walked out seeming greatly satisfied, as if to say I’ve seen what all the fuss is about, now I’m free to forget it.
Later Pops said little, other than scoffing, “three hundred.” At the time I thought it distressed me more than it did Pops.
I could not understand what created such proprietary pettiness when it came to the arts. What character dents or artistic insecurities fueled such rancid lust for elevation and separation? What could Pops ever have done to provoke schadenfreude in anyone?
I didn’t know why people took such disproportionate satisfaction from choosing the prescribed courses and the official avenues. There was nothing wrong with it, even if my own conception of such pursuits was of a greatly more individualistic, slightly more socially renegade sort of life. Obviously the other way was smoother. It brought certain guarantees perhaps.
Even though I couldn’t have said for sure, not by any stretch, that there was a difference in Pops after that, there were times I thought I spotted the slightest crack. He must have been mystified by the origin of such contemptuousness directed at him. Why had a man like Christianson gone out of his way to put him in his place?
I wondered whether deep down Pops had begun to doubt himself, even a tiny bit, where he hadn’t before. It was simply human nature.
In any case Pops painted with just as much rigor as he ever had, unswerving in his diligence almost until the day he died. Christianson needn’t have fretted. Pops remained largely unnoticed in the wider sense, one small, delightful secret to only a few.