Excerpt from Cool Nation

This is the sixth section from the fourth chapter. All other excerpts are on the sidebar, lower right.

Lives Forming

My mother too had always dreamt of flying, but differently. Since childhood she had had the ability in her dreams to fly�not with a plane, but bodily, freely, without impediment or limit. She kept that ability throughout her life, except during the times of her worst depressions in Indian Heights, when weighted down by material riches and spiritual emptiness, the ability left her. In time though she got it back, and never lost it again. I inherited that same ability from her, although she�s always said it came from a previous life, and the gradual freeing up of this one.
Wherever she got it, it is that I suppose, along with so many other qualities, that led her to believe in reincarnation, karma, the power of love over hate, the limits of organized religion as opposed to the limitlessness of spirituality. All this led her on a lifelong quest, from Lutheranism to Unitarianism to Metaphysics, to finally her own set of beliefs, beliefs that remarkably paralleled those of so many of the people she met over the years. She said it was because they were drawn together. Dad said it was because they were all crackpots, and so naturally they were drawn together. Whatever the reason, she always found a common language with the people she needed in her life, and also with the people who needed her.
It was these things I suppose that gave rise to her beliefs in equality at a time when such things were rarely considered: equality of women, equality of race, equality of creed. Eventually she began to cultivate Jewish friends, although they weren�t allowed to live in Indian Heights like us. Through these friends we joined the Unitarian Church and, later, the Jewish Community Center�we, blond-haired Germans essentially. After that Mom went on to join Planned Parenthood and the NAACP, the last of which nearly proved too much for my father, who she was still trying to break the habit of referring to blacks as niggers.
Eventually Mom began attending, and giving luncheons for, the League of Women Voters. Several of the women she met from the League were Jewish. One of them, Barbara Levy, had tried to a purchase a house in Indian Heights. The Levys had recently moved to Kansas City from New Jersey, and had been renting an apartment in Brookside until they could find something to buy. No one had told them about the restrictions in Indian Heights and, being from the East Coast, they likely wouldn�t have believed it anyway.
On a Sunday excursion they�d discovered a two-story stone cottage on Indian Boulevard and decided to buy it. Since Dr. Levy was a surgeon at KU Med, and a well paid one, they anticipated no problem. They were wrong, and when they were turned down, then later learned from other Jews the reason why, Barbara Levy, after going ballistic, told my mother, who went ballistic after she.
Mom learned about it on a Wednesday, the day that Jean and I had our piano lessons with Mrs. Jones. When Mom dropped us off she had been as usual quiet and gracious, sending us inside with our sheet music and a five-dollar bill each; when she picked us up I could see she was livid. Something had transpired in the interim but I didn�t know what. I only knew that instead of taking a right on Indian Boulevard and going home, we took a left and drove to Neuman Realty.
The office was situated in a large model house that reflected Father Knows Best ideals that had never existed, and concepts of equality and justice that sounded good in the Pledge of Allegiance, which the Neumans spat out at every Boy Scout meeting they attended, but had no intention of implementing. My mother had been living with the hypocrisy of it all her life, gradually realizing as a girl the strangeness of it, comprehending as a young woman the wrongness of it, and finally as a mother exploding over the idiocy of it. This was the first in what would be a series of similar explosions, or rebellions, or outright protests. My sister and I were there, in the car, on the day that first explosion took place.
�What are we doing here?� Jean said.
Furiously Mom looked at us in the mirror, grabbed her purse, and got out. �You�re waiting. Don�t move.�
She went into the office, we shrugged, turned on the radio, and listened as WHB cranked out the hits. We were still listening when, ten minutes later, Mom came storming out, got in, and laid a little rubber backing out. We didn�t dare ask what was wrong, and wouldn�t have understood anyway, but this was one of the few times I ever heard her swear.
�Morons!� she said. �Goddamn morons. God I�m so sick of all these morons.� All this under her breath, just loud enough that you could hear it, just quiet enough that you couldn�t be sure.
I wasn�t in the office when the discussion took place, but I�ve heard enough of the story since to be able to piece it together.
My mother going into Bill Neuman�s office unannounced and laying right into him. She didn�t need to introduce herself; he knew very well who she was. He certainly knew who my father was, since they did business together. That was one of the things that threw him�that and my mother�s vehemence.
I can almost picture him trying to backpedal:
��I simply don�t understand your attitude, Mrs. Durrand. Those people don�t belong here. When you and your husband built your house I thought you realized that that was one of our policies.�
�Well we didn�t.�
�Well you should have.�
�Well whether we did or did not it�s an unenlightened policy, and I have no intention of silently endorsing it. You can either sell them the house or I�ll report you to HUD.�
�You can�t do that, Mrs. Durrand. This office is not yours to report on.�
�Well that is exactly what I will do, and you should know that several of my neighbors will do the same.�
�Who, for instance?�
There was a pause, and knowing my mother I�m sure it was a furious one. �Don�t you dare ask me who. You have no business asking me what I intend to do about your company�s transgressions. Transgressions that, unless I�m mistaken, we fought that war to end. At least I know my husband did his part in it. You did too, didn�t you, Mr. Neuman? Didn�t you? Or did you just lay up here and make money on real estate speculation?�
�We are not here, Mrs. Durrand, to discuss my war record��
�No. Only your ignorance.� She turned and started out of the office, saying: �I�ll be sending a report to HUD next week unless I hear that the Levys have acquired the house. You can have your secretary notify me either way.�
That was my mother at her best: cutting when she needed to be, direct when she had to be, and dignified always�falling back on a dignity that the Neumans couldn�t hope to touch, let alone understand. Yes she was quiet, and sometimes melancholy, and on occasion nervous or high-strung in that suburban manner of white women who have too much, know it, and despise themselves for it�but you couldn�t touch her dignity, or remove it from her, so much was she it, and it her.
Yes at our house it was our father�s presence that dominated: his size, voice, passion, drive and vigor. Mom couldn�t help being overshadowed by that. But in her own way her presence was felt also, like a constant undercurrent of warmth and compassion and a yearning to be better, to go farther�inside�than any of us initially ever thought possible. Her contributions to my life weren�t as dramatic as my father�s, or as obvious, but in their quiet way they were of a more enduring substance that, as I grew older, registered on me increasingly, and helped to keep me grounded through all the insane and difficult years that lay ahead.
I never found out what HUD did with the report, but Neuman was finally forced to sell the Levy�s a house the next year, when the Fair Housing Act was passed, and the first few Jewish families began moving into Indian Heights, then, much later, a scattering of blacks. Nothing Neuman could do would stop that, even though he tried, just like the Neumans of the world always have, just as people like my mother will always oppose them.

Project Under Construction

Image above is a courtyard for a new building I’m doing the art consulting on. A sculpture by Brent Collins, who I discussed Tuesday, is being considered for this space. If chosen, he’ll do a monumental piece in bronze. The grace and understatement of that would work beautifully–not to mention the contrast of bronze to stone-and-glass. Man I do dig it. We’ll see how it shakes out.

Saturday. Off to swim laps, deflate in the sauna, take my beautiful wife out on the town, have a few bourbons, and defeat the purpose of the laps and sauna. Sound cyclical? It is.

Friday Tips For Artists: Starting Low, Ending High

Mark Twain, by Jim Brothers

I discuss Jim Brothers’ monument of Mark Twain, and how we placed it in Hartford, CT, in the book. It’s a pretty good story. In a nutshell, some scheming Missouri businessman tried to “commission” the piece of Jim, meaning the guy wanted it for next-to-nothin. The deal fell through. I began representing Jim at that time, presented the piece to the City of Hartford, and in 1994 they bought it–although for far less than what Jim gets now.

Why did I take the lesser price? You know why: I desperately needed to place one of Jim’s monuments in a national venue, even if we had to do it for less than we wanted to. Using this as a springboard, I was able to exponentially increase his prices over time, until eventually he could command the fee he wanted. If we hadn’t placed that first piece in so prominent a location, this would have been much more difficult to achieve.

When you’re starting out, you will likely deal with much the same thing. The point is, later on you must be bold enough to ask what you’re worth, once you establish what you’re worth. You’ve paid your dues already; no need to go on paying them.

Why did we place it in Hartford? Twain built and lived in a mansion there for 25 years. That structure is now the Mark Twain House & Museum. Sure Twain was from Missouri, and most people associate him with this state, but the truth is he got the heck out of Hannibal the first chance he got.

The noteworthy thing about this monument? It’s all in the face. Twain’s life, like that of most artists, was an emotional roller coaster. His mood swings were enormous, and his last years were plagued with depression, despair and bitterness. His middle years were the happiest of his life, but after his bankruptcy, the loss of two children to disease, and eventual estrangement from one of his daughters, he was never able to regain his former vigor. This shows in the face, which Jim sculpted flawlessly, and faithfully, showing the real man rather than the myth. And when it comes to history, I am not particularly interested in myths.

This is why I feel Jim’s “Twain” is the best yet sculpted. Am I biased? Of course.

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Showing Your Art in Other States / Kim Casebeer Show

Sunset in Tallgrass, Oil on Panel, Kim Casebeer

After I get a new artist in, and help build his/her career a bit, I’ll then often help them get into galleries elsewhere: east coast, west coast, southwest. This is critical to the development of any career, since you really can’t expand that career if you only show in your region.

Case in point: Kim Casebeer. Her opening is tomorrow night. 20 new works. Magnificent Impressionist. I expect to sell about half the show by 9:00 p.m. (when I always turn out the lights, no matter how many people are in the joint, and head out to dinner with friends). The reasons why I anticipate this are many: she’s a great painter, she has a great following, and she shows in Scottsdale. The first two are the most important. The last one is significant only if you’re in a provincial city. My clients all know that Kim does well in Scottsdale (and soon Jackson). I make sure they know it. This helps those who have been sitting on the fence to cross over. We later celebrate over sushi.

Oh yes, she was featured in the April issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Nice little coup for her; she’s earned it.

Miners and Artists

My father came from the mining town of Picher, Oklahoma, which is a forgotten, weathered place in the northeast corner of the state. It’s a hardscrabble area known more for its poverty and lead-tainted water than much else. The water is tainted because the region was recklessly mined in the last century, owing to the enormous lead and zinc deposits there. The mining camps that sprang up—Picher, Cardin, Commerce—struggled to become towns, but no more thought was given to that by the mining companies than to the lives of the miners they so recklessly expended. Then in the ‘fifties the mines played out, the mining companies pulled out, and things really got tough.

What the companies left behind was a region raped, with water-filled mines and lead leaching into the water table. I don’t think I need to discuss the effect that that can have on an adult, let alone a child. This places those towns in the center of the Tar Creek Superfund site, the Environmental Protection Agency’s longest-standing such site. The clean-up job they have before them is beyond comprehension.

My grandfather worked two of those mines, that is when he wasn’t brawling or moonshining. My grandmother tried to hold the family together, and succeeded–no easy task in a town where in the 1920s the murder rate was about 100 per year. I still return to Picher each summer with my sons, to climb the tailing piles or walk through town or play a little ball on the local diamond. My point? Anytime I think I have it tough as an artist–a novelist–all I have to do is think of Picher.

Brent Collins

Atomic Flower, by Brent Collins

Brent Collins is a mathetical genius who expresses himself in bronze and wood. Each piece he creates is a reflection of a mathematical theme, often with themes of peace–global peace–interwoven. Hence titles like Pax Mundi.

This quiet Missourian has spoken at Harvard, Berkeley, and for a Microsoft audience. His work is ideal for the courtyard of one of my corporate clients, at least after it’s enlarged. What do I dig most about this? He is for the moment relatively unknown, though I think that will in time change. Well, he’s earned it.

Book Review from the UK / Grumpy Old Bookman

I gather that Artist’s Life was reviewed last week on a website in the UK, Grumpy Old Bookman. I also gather that the Guardian ranks this as one of the top ten literary blogs. Having said that, you can imagine how honored I was by the review. The site belongs to one Michael Allen, who I’d venture to say is more literary than grumpy, but I guess that depends on one’s point of view.

Excerpt from Cool Nation

This is the fifth section from the fourth chapter. All other excerpts are on the sidebar, lower right.

Lives Forming

He had always dreamt of flying, my father, since his earliest days as a miner�s son, climbing the tailing piles that sprouted like small mountains around the mine shafts of Picher. He would climb the great piles and watch as the occasional mail plane, a Curtiss, would pass by on its run from Joplin to Tulsa, unsteady and wavering in the sky. Like many people, he believed it was a better life up there. In his case he was right.
When the war came he tried to enlist in the Army Air Force but they wouldn�t take him; he�d had polio in his left leg as a child, and the muscle was deteriorated and the bone weak. So he worked in a war plant in Kansas City, building B-25s. It was on that Fairfax strip that he learned to fly.
By the time I was four he had his third plane, a Beechcraft Twin Bonanza. It seated seven and was white and red and cruised at 225 and topped out at nearly 300. When he taxied it onto the runway he would come to full stop and push the throttles forward and the engines would throb and the noise would deafen and he�d release the brakes and we�d be screaming down the runway, pressed back in our seats, then like a dream leap free of the world, over the Missouri, over the skyscrapers, and off to wherever we were going. Sometimes it was on business to St. Louis, sometimes just a cruise down to Picher, where he�d buzz the closed mines, and once a year a vacation, to Colorado or Arkansas or maybe even California.
I felt royal with him at the controls, his aviator glasses on, he forever chewing Wrigley’s, and going over maps and gauges and checking and rechecking everything that could be checked. When he flew you never doubted his competence, or his certainty.
In �66 he took us to Padre Island, or at least tried to but we got weathered in at Dallas. So we spent four days in the rain there, driving around looking at the mansions, driving past Daly Plaza to see where the bullets had struck, sampling Texas barbecue to see if it compared to ours.
Every morning Allen and I went with Dad to the airport, where he would get the weather reports and talk with the mechanics and with the men in the tower. Then he�d go into a sheet metal building where they put him in a flight simulator to take refresher courses on instrument flying. These he took to make sure he’d get us home alive, since by the fourth day of unceasing rain we knew we weren�t going to Padre.
When we took off for home that last day the overcast hadn�t changed, and with the rain hitting the windshield he powered us up through the storm and then into the blue as we rose above the clouds.
Three hours later we got to Kansas City, circling the airport not once but many times. As we circled he stayed on the radio with the tower, nodding into the headset and talking that rapid-fire jargon that only pilots use. My mother stared at him the whole time he talked, since only she could hear what was being said. I can still remember the way she looked at him, and the whiteness of her lips, and the tension on her face. Then his hand went down to the floor and grasped a small handle and began cranking it, around and around and around.
That was when Mom got out of her seat, and in her harlequin sunglasses and polka dot dress she came down the aisle, touching each of us, trying to smile, checking our seatbelts. She went back to her seat and belted herself in as if girding for some coming battle, and rigidly waited.
Finally Dad nodded one last time into the headset, banked the plane, and went sweeping down toward the runway. Like tension incarnate my mother waited for us to touch down. At last we did, and roared toward runway�s end, gingerly slowed, then Dad taxied off for the hanger. As he did I noticed Mom was shaking, her hand tight and slender in one of his, he holding it and squeezing it and whispering to her.
Not until I was a man did she tell me about the landing gear.
Somehow in flight the gear electronics had failed, the gear wouldn�t descend, and Dad had had to lower the wheels manually. But without the electronics he had no way of knowing whether the gear had locked, and whether or not they would collapse. Being children we had never noticed the fire engine standing near the end of the runway, or the second one standing to one side. My mother did though, and the sight of these, and the fear of losing us, after having already lost one child and in a sense two others, was nearly more than she could bear. It�s not that she cared a damn about dying, she just didn�t want us to die with her.
No one died though, there was no crash, the fire engines were sent away, and we pulled up before the hanger and watched as the props swung to a stop. My father, you see, was flying. He had always taken us wherever we needed to go, and always brought us back. We never doubted, as children never do, that he always would.

Book Review from Canada

Learned yesterday that a woman in Canada, whose site is called Gone to the Dogs, reviewed Artist’s Life. I gather she lives in Newfoundland, and while I’ve ridden bikes across much of Canada at various times, with different characters, (Will never forget this dude from Montreal who strapped a bit of fleece to his tank so that his dachsund could dig her claws in. Cat took her all the way to Banff.), I’ve yet to go to Newfoundland. Will eventually. I hear the shellfish are great and the hospitality greater.

Friday Tips for Artists: The “Guilt” of Selling Your Work

Rodin in His Studio (after the starvation years)

Throughout the course of my book tour, whether speaking in New York, Seattle or Oxford, Mississippi, one common refrain ran true: I constantly met artists who felt guilty about attempting to market, and sell, their work. Where on earth does the guilt come from? Invariably they tell me that it was formed in college, partly from their fellow-students, but mostly from certain professors.

If this wasn’t so tragic I’d find it amusing: tenured art professors advising their students on why they shouldn’t sell their work. Of course those professors–who are in the minority among profs as a whole–have secure positions, so it doesn’t matter if they sell or not. But the vast majority of artists will never gain a university position; they lead lives of risk that those few misguided profs know nothing about. However dealers like me encounter those artists on a regular basis–especially after they’ve reached their 30s or 40s, are broke, emotionally exhausted, and feeling like a failure on all fronts–even if their work is great. That is indeed tragic.

Listen: there’s nothing wrong with marketing and selling your work, as long as it is done with integrity. This doesn’t degrade you, it doesn’t demean your work, and it doesn’t make you less of an artist. All you are doing is allowing society to financially express appreciation for what you do, just as society does with teachers, legislators, farmers, and everyone else. As artists, the function you perform is essential to the growth and evolution of any society. By God you ought to be paid for it. If a few profs disagree–and most do not, being well aware of the realities of an artist’s life–ask them to forego their salaries for ten years, then resume the discussion. I suspect you’ll find their attitude changed.

Of course there are artists who have no intention of ever selling, and for whom the very thought is anathema to the process of creation. For them, that’s likely the right choice. As for the rest of you, once you become accustomed to the process of receiving income for what you create–and define the rules by how you’ll do it–I think you’ll find it relieves a great deal of stress, allows you to focus better, and to give more generously to others. I’d say that’s a pretty fine way to live: where the heart takes precedence over avarice.

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