Suffering of an Art Coot

Suffering of an Art Coot

by Mark Driver

Sunday afternoon found me suffering through the Seattle Art Museum, yet another attempt on behalf of my girlie to culture me, and like some sort of surly aborigine accepting Christ to get more sandwiches from the missionaries, I tagged along and did my best to look interested. I gotta hand it to her for still bothering to drag me along through these things, because I have to be the most annoying person in the universe to traipse through a gallery with. If I wasn’t repeatedly saying, “That sucks, I can paint better than that” about the modern art, I was doing my best to annoy her with lines like “I used to stare at a poster of that one over there while I fucked that girl from Kentucky”, and “I used to stare at a poster of that one over there while I fucked that girl from Florida”, or “do they have that one where the people are walking around that upside down triangle and some are right side up and it’s all crazy? I had a coffee mug with that one on it.”

Truth be told, the only thing that impresses me about most paintings are the cool frames that surround them. Intricately carved golden borders jutting out from the wall, wasted around blurry smudges of fat women with umbrellas swarmed by little flying babies. My constant fascination with the frames is what pisses my girlfriend off the most about taking me to the art museum, so I praise the frames constantly, generously, and loudly – a tactic she counters by staring at a painting for more than 10 seconds, in which case I get bored and go tell one of the guards that I saw a girl licking a Schiele or a Klimt a few rooms back, and then point her out, “over there, the one that looks like a Modigliani girl.” I didn’t say I never learned anything.

I was scuffing my shoes on the tile floors, making squeaking noises and enjoying the deepening shades of red on the back of Krusty’s neck, when we were approached by an old man. He was quite the Sigmund Freud with little round glasses, a candy striped bow-tie, white shocks of stringy hair, and a facial fur arrangement suggesting an 80 year old Vladmir Lenin. He looked at Krusty like he knew her, his eyebrows raising with the corners of his lips, his shoulders swiveling towards us underneath his worn blue suit. Assuming he was either some old pervert or a senile coot who was about to identify us as his grandchildren, I looked for a guard to pawn the old guy off on. The guard seemed to be watching us already and when she saw my face look up, she just smiled and turned the other way. She obviously knew the guy who thought he knew my girlfriend. She didn’t go for her walkie talkie, which was slightly reassuring, but considering the noise I had been making, she was probably more than happy to have me diverted for a while. The guard walked into the next room.

“My dear,” the old man said in an eastern European accent. I was assuming (and hoping) he wasn’t referring to me. Luckily, he was accosting my girlfriend. “My dear you are a natural beauty. A piece of art surrounded by art. Would you do me the honor of letting me sketch you? It will only take a minute.”

I started walking, waiting for Krusty to say, ‘no’ and follow me into the next room, but behind me, I heard the squeaky voice of a flattered young woman say “Me? OK!” Christ. Five more minutes tacked on to the already endless museum tour. I walked back and grudgingly joined them.

“When I see beauty,” he continued, “I must sketch it. It is a weakness of mine. One of many.” He winked a wink that would’ve gotten him punched if he was anywheres short of 80.

They sat on the center viewing bench usually reserved for pouting children and sleeping senior citizens. The little man pulled out a thick, worn pad of paper and a mechanical pencil. Thumbing through his encyclopedia of sketches, he found a blank page and dated the corner. I sat on the other side of her, waiting for the senile old man act to wear through, and jump to her aid as he sunk his mechanical pencil into her thigh. The attack never came. He put on his artist act and turned on the charm.

The old man looked at her. I mean LOOKED at her. Stared her in the eye and held an expression on his face of an amused shepherd watching his favorite lamb playing piano. “You are absolutely beautiful. Riveting. You are Ukrainian?”

She choked out a meek little “Yes.” The only girl I know who can open a beer with her teeth without removing the cigarette in her mouth was blushing. “How did you know?”

“I can always tell the women of the Ukraine, there is something …….. uniquely enchanting about them. A harsh climate breeds beauty.”

She giggled. Krusty? Giggling? Damn. The last time I remember her giggling was during Faces of Death 2 when the guy got eaten alive by the alligator. I was suddenly very happy the man sketching her face was elderly, and not some dashing 40ish stud in on the killtaker. I moved a bit closer to her, lest his mind control lead her to a waiting van.

“And I know who you are,” he said, glancing at me for about a trillionth of a second before returning his gaze to my girl. “You are an oaf who has stupidly stumbled upon a treasure. You are the luckiest man in the world. The second you stop remembering that, she will leave you.” His voice sweetened as he addressed her again. “Does he treat you well? A man who is allowed to be with a beautiful woman, should thank the Lord every day and then thank the woman for even allowing him to look. In my life, I have dedicated myself to documenting beauty. I see a beautiful woman on the street, at the museum, at a café, and I must capture her image. Not by camera, but by hand. The camera is a crude, obscene tool. It records things as they are, not as we would remember them. I am not a great artist, but I attempt to capture beauty as well as I can. In my life I have done many things. I have sold meat. I have mined coal. I have fought in wars. I have shined shoes. I have sold art. But through all that, I have kept a sketch book, and captured all the beauty I have passed. It may hurt you to hear this, but you are not the first beauty I have passed.”

The guy’s sketch book was impressive. About two inches thick, clad in black leather, all fastened by a simple strap fixed with a scratched brass buckle.

He began the sketch. My mind started working. I remembered some story I heard where, late in his career, Picasso would leave sketches on napkins as payment for his meals. I myself am hoping for a similar arrangement where I can pay for my drinks at a bar by writing a few lines on an odd napkin, but somehow “People are all fucking stupid. They should all be killed. – Mark Driver” doesn’t seem like it could procure much more than a thimbleful of Coors Light with a chaser of bleach. But I was thinking maybe this guy was some famous artist, some maestro who chose to spend the last of his days wandering the wastelands of Seattle, haunting art museums with drawings that would be worth millions once his pen left the paper. And one day I could brag to my drug-addicted crime committing kids that ‘you know, once the mighty Joe Blowino sketched your mother because he thought she was so beautiful,” and they could say “yeah you fat drunken fuck, you’ve told us that one a million times” before stealing the Pinto and wrapping it around a tree.

I waited to see the man’s hand construct a two dimensional sculpture of lines, shading, and shapes that captured the beauty of my girl. I waited for her face to take a place in history along with the other faces this great artist had passed over his many years of life. He clicked a button on the pencil which produced a thick lead, pursed his lips, took a deep breath, and put his hand to the paper.

The first line was slashed as her forehead. A bit large if you ask me (and as someone who has woken up drooling cheek-to-scalp to that forehead for the last five years I should know), but I wasn’t the artist, so what the hell did I know. He would bring it all together. The eyes were next, a bid far apart and bulging, suggesting a condition of Down Syndrome that my Krusty was lacking. OK. Maybe it was abstract beauty. ‘Beauty Through the Mutilation of Beauty’ or some shit like that. Well if that was his plan, to mutilate, he was succeeding full force. As the drawing went on, it turned out that this master’s vision of my girlfriend had three nostrils, no ears, fourteen strands of hair, a chin made out of creamed corn, and a coinpurse for a mouth. It was beginning to resemble the hideous scratchings of a preschooler that would only be spending a few hours on the refrigerator, lest it spoil appetites for future meals.

As he worked he kept grimacing and saying “No. No no no. Oh. No. Oh No.” Finally, as the monstrosity was completed, he let out a full volume “No.” He sounding annoyed. His charm left and was replaced by businesslike anger. “This isn’t right at all. Please do not be offended. I can not draw. I’ve never been able to draw.” He slammed the sketchbook shut, and threw it into his little black bag, collecting his jacket and his umbrella. “Thank you for your time my lovely, I am sorry to have wasted it.” With that he kissed her hand, shot me a look of pure meanness, and quietly stomped off, swearing under his breath.

“Quick,” I said, “where’s your purse? Did he steal it?”

A purse suddenly broadsided my head, indicating that it was still in the hands of my girlfriend. “This poor guy crumbles in front of us, and you think he’s a purse snatcher?” I ignored her and checked for my own wallet, which was still in my back pocket.

“I dunno, he ran out of here in a hurry. I thought he might’ve stolen something.”

“You fucking asshole. He was embarrassed. He felt like an idiot! I mean, here he is, hanging out at an art museum, surrounded by beautiful works, and he’s trying to do his own little thing, and he fucks it up! He probably fucks up every time! That’s so sad!”

“Yeah, he was a pretty shitty drawer.”

“God, doesn’t that depress you! Doesn’t that strike you at all tragic that this poor guy’s been trying to draw all his life, and he can’t? And he’s like haunting the art museum in the last years of his life, hoping maybe he can accomplish one good drawing somewhere? Doesn’t that make at least some part of you cringe, somewhere?”

“Did the Phantom of the Opera want to be an opera singer?”

“What!?!”

“I was just thinking about a cool parody. Like the Haunter of the Art Museum. Like maybe his hands got burnt off in some industrial accident, and ….”

“Ugh, I can’t believe you! You are a fucking heartless bastard!”

Krusty stomped off into the other room, and I smiled meekly at the crowd that we had attracted. “Performance art,” I mumbled as I stood up and found sudden new interest in the first painting I could find. The old dude had affected me, but like everything else I deal with, I initially make fun of the situation to give myself a little time to reflect over it. I also know Krusty well enough to realize that anytime she gets sad about something, she takes it too hard, and the best way to shock her out of it is to let her get mad at me. My life as an emotional rodeo clown.

What depressed me about the whole situation wasn’t that this guy couldn’t draw. Hardly anyone can draw very well. It wasn’t even that he spent his life doing something he wasn’t very good at and never got better at, I mean at least he spent his life doing something. Most people just work and watch TV until they get too old to leave the house. What really depressed me was that he spent his whole life doing something he didn’t enjoy, and then beat himself up about it. I only spent about five minutes with him, but the expression on his face wasn’t one of someone enjoying themselves. It was one of desperation, of stress, of near pain. Here he was, his whole life, trying to be a great artist, and he didn’t even have fun with it. He didn’t even seem to be able to realize his shortcomings and use them to his advantage by doing some tweaked form of art. He wanted to be something desperately he didn’t have the talent for, not because it gave him pleasure, but because he simply wanted that identity I guess. I mean here is a guy, in his 80s, stumbling around the art museum, drawing strangers, fucking up, making a hasty exit, and probably going home to flagellate himself with half a bottle of aquavit for being so lousy. True, this is probably a better fate than driving between Orlando and Phoenix in an RV until you die in a septic tank accident, but that’s not the point.

Sometimes talent and enjoyment run in parallel lines. When you’re good at something that makes you happy, consider it a blessing. So far, my biggest talent has seemed to be shooting guns – shotguns in particular – as the box of trophies in my parents basement will affirm. Not entirely a lucrative or practical skill (I did, after all, move out of LA), but as far as balancing my sometimes temperamental disposition, nothing beats screaming “Pull!!” and feeling the punch in my shoulder as I shatter those orange clay targets screaming across the sky, picturing the face of whatever boss is harassing me at the time splattering on a wallful of urinals. It’s even fun to go show those serious Yuppie jerks with the $300 shooting vests and the personalized custom guns that targets can be as easily nailed with a rental gun while wearing a Slayer T-shirt. I’ve never been hunting, as blowing the fuck out of a defenseless deer seems a bit of a downer to me, but once I get my shack in the woods, I’m gonna load my Mossberg up with rocksalt and blast anyone who comes on my property. And I’m gonna get a pack of German Shepherds and have heat sensors on the perimeter, razor wire and – wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, talent.

Sometimes talent for an activity and enjoyment of that activity live on other sides of the galaxy from each other and aren’t on speaking terms. Anyone who has ever seen any of my paintings will attest to this shortly before vomiting into their own hats. Still, I get drunk and churn out terrible, terrible paintings by the dozen. I suck and I know it. So what? I love it! I know so many people who have tried something and quit soon after because they weren’t any good at it. For the most part, they quit because they weren’t amazing at it right off the bat. Like everyone thinks they have to be this savant who picks up a clarinet at the age of 30 and can suddenly play like Benny Goodman, otherwise it’s not worth it. God forbid you practice for a few years, and God forbid you still suck after all that time. So what? Did you enjoy the space in-between?

Well tell you what: the world is going to judge you whether you’re good or bad. Even if you’re good, some people are going to think you’re bad. If you’re really bad, some people might think you’re good. The world doesn’t matter, and anything you do to limit your own activities makes you that much smaller of a person. So go be the worst artist in the entire world – just don’t beat yourself up about it, and don’t go sobbing into your pillow just because you can’t get it right. You probably do suck. So fucking what! There are like twenty geniuses per generation, and the rest of us just sorta muck and hack our way through everything. Do stuff you love and do it for yourself. If someone else likes it, cool. If not, well cool. It sounds so simple and stupid, but everyone seems to forget how many things they could be doing and are so busy looking around to see if anyone else is laughing at them; nothing ever gets done.

And before you think I’ve turned into some motivational schlockmeister, let me just say that the reason I’m telling you this is that I’m sick of you miserable bastards harassing me in public. Seriously. I’m sick of all you hobbyless souls wandering the streets, filling your lives with meaningless junk instead of shit that makes you happy. For all my absolute bastardness, I’m a pretty mellow guy who has a million better things to do than bother anyone in public. Not things I’m particularly good at, but enough things to keep me out of your hair. Do me the same favor. Get some fucking hobbies and stop getting me into trouble with the girl. Word.