The piece that follows is an old bit of writing and is still a bit rough though I did edit it some today before posting it. It’s fiction, of course. I hope you’ll find it entertaining. If you would, please leave your comment below letting me know how you liked this little sketch. Thank you. Dale
Sosa painted like a madman. But this was only how he painted when standing before an audience, like today—an audience of students on the first day of Studio Painting I, when young women were present, when those observing expected to be dazzled and he knew it. On these occasions Sosa wore his waistcoat and a broach on his lapel and his work shoes were polished. Only when he dressed like this could one expect this sort of show.
Sosa danced in front of his canvas like a Cajun at a honky-tonk except he had Brahms playing softly in the background on the sound system in the studio. His objective was to provide the students with a painting demonstration. To go with the dancing, he gesticulated wildly with his arms and elbows like a boxer threatening to strike a blow, and carried on a conversation with himself as a homeless panhandler would. Except this conversation was supposed to enlighten the audience, to give them insight into the mind of genius. As he painted, he pinched extravagant plops of color onto the palette and moved much too quickly to exercise control over what he put on the canvas. He overworked his pigments and, when selecting a new brush, paid too much attention to its grooming. I knew this was not how a professional worked.
To another artist he, undoubtedly, appeared nervous and distracted—unable to focus, undisciplined, lacking commitment and deliberation to the work before him. But he was not painting for the other artists in the room. No, this was not painting at all. This was pure performance. He gave the novice what she expected, and, god, he was good at it.
I had seen him paint exactly like this in front of a room full of academics that included the Provost and President of the College. They were all mightily impressed though not one of them could tell their ass from their elbow when it came to painting. But they were very impressed. Sosa knew exactly what they expected of an artist, that they expected a jester, so gave them a one-man interpretation of The Three Stooges. It was brilliant but it was not the real Sosa.
The real Sosa was moody and depressed and resentful of his colleagues’ willful ignorance and disinterest in Art. His perfomance was, in reality, a subtle way of flipping them the bird without them knowing it. And they applauded him for it. Afterward, the President expressed an interest in having one of his pieces for her office. Sosa showed her a pair of paintings he had stacked against the wall of the studio that he said were a good buy at eight-hundred apiece. They were pieces he had critiqued to me as “ultimately forgettable” because they were “derivative and failed to transcend the banal.” “Tired clichés of modernism,” he called them. The President of the college bought them both.
This day was a bright, clear afternoon in late August and a number of young women students had signed up for the class and were present as Sosa opened with his traditional tutorial painting demonstration. It was the first day of Studio Painting I. Sosa donned a white shirt, cufflinks, and a bolo tie, a black brocade waistcoat with an artsy broach that crouched on his lapel. He also wore black cotton work pants, and foam-soled shoes—also black—polished to a rich satin luster. His dark hair—what there was of it—he had pulled back into a ponytail. This was his studio uniform for first days of class and art openings. In appearance, Sosa must have come off to these small town kids as something exotic, something as rare and debonaire as Zorro himself, except shorter and without the cape. But even if he had worn the cape and mask and sword, he probably could not have made a significantly stronger impression on his round-eyed audience.
Sosa did, however, put on a crisp, spotless artist’s apron over his nice duds and rolled up his white sleeves as a sort of show of craftsman protocol before starting his painting demonstration. Or perhaps the rolling of the sleeves represented a nod to his working class background, to the family he had left behind in the trailer court. Either way, he liked believing he worked for a living, and painting was his occupation.
I was there that day because I had arranged a directed study class with Sosa, as I had done in the past, which primarily gave me studio space to work in and a locker for my paints and tools. I could come and go as I pleased and had my own work space in one corner of the room. It was a lot better than I was used to.
All that summer, I had painted under a makeshift tent—a blue plastic tarp stretched over the patio behind my house because my girlfriend had grown tired of the chaos “my crap” created in “her” living room. Consequently, she had kicked me and my equipment outdoors as soon as the weather turned nice. Spring wasn’t bad but it had been a miserable—hot and dusty—summer under the tent. My project that summer had been to paint—simultaneously—an entire show’s worth of work—some forty paintings in all, painted on tagboard paper. I had them spread all over the front yard to dry, turning the lawn into its own sort of art mosaic. But I hadn’t had time to finish them before the end of summer.
Now that the weather would be turning cold and wet again soon, I needed a new place to work because I was still banned from the house. My answer was this arrangement with Sosa for studio space at the campus. The cost of a class was cheap rent for space and it was generous of Sosa to fix things up the way he had. I did not expect it, even for a friend.
Mary McCullen—one of the students attending Studio Painting I that day—was about thirty and sat at the end of one of the long tables, farthest away from Sosa. She was what the college referred to as a “non-traditional student.” Anyone over the age of twenty-four was considered non-traditional.
She wore a blousy, pinstriped shirt that appeared to be a man’s dress shirt—untucked, of course—and a pair of snug clam-digger pants, white bobby socks, and bright green, low-top sneakers.
As Sosa continued his demonstration, she slouched in her chair to the point of sitting on her lower vertebra with crossed legs, nervously kicking her suspended toe at the rate of one-hundred-eighty cycles per minute while wearing an irked expression on her face. She gnawed at her fingernails like a frightened gerbil and seemed more interested in them than in the marionette show going on in front of her.
Ms. McCullen—Mary—was a third-year nursing student who had put off her required fine arts course until the last minute. She had cleverly gotten into Painting I without meeting any of the drawing or design course prerequisites. She had done so by scheduling an interview with Sosa during “Advising Week” prior to the start of the semester and brought with her a bundle of sketchbooks stuffed with copious drawings—produced over many years—and presented them to Sosa at his office. He thumbed through the portfolio and arrived at the conclusion that Mary was more advanced than the majority of his third-year drawing students so signed her waiver, letting her into Studio Painting I.
Mary had always been interested in art and had always drawn, doodled, and cartooned throughout junior high and high school to deal with the boredom of getting an education. Hers was an active mind which did not cope well with droning—not even illustrated droning. One could argue she had a natural talent for drawing. At one point, she even considered becoming a high school art teacher but in the end decided on nursing instead which she felt would be the more practical and better paying career. Still, she had always wanted to paint.
Getting into Studio Painting I worked out well for Mary. Her schedule that semester was heavy with difficult nursing courses but she had heard that studio classes did not require a paper or other homework—just time in the studio and nine completed paintings. So Painting I, she figured, should be an easy B or B+ without absorbing too much of her time.
Finally, Ms. McCullen’s frenetic nature got the best of her so she sat up and quietly unzipped her book bag from which she stealthily retrieved a sketchbook and mechanical pencil. She set to work drawing, hunched over her drawing pad on the table at which she sat like Bob Cratchet at his accounting desk. Sosa continued his demonstration without noticing. He had stopped painting for the moment and was now lecturing:
“A skilled painter is able to mix the exact hue he needs on his pallet before applying it to the canvas,” he told the class. “That is the way we were taught in graduate school. My studio professor was very strict about this technique.”
Sosa repeated the bullshit rules of painting he had learned at the prestigious art school he had attended in New York. All that the rules had ever done for him, as far as I could tell, was bind him up—erect giant psychologically intimidating bulwarks against free expression which he could not breach. My opinion was that the rules had hindered Sosa as an artist yet he was determined to pass them on to his greenhorn students because some professor, in New York, had insisted they had value. He did this, I think, because the rules seemed impressive and made painting difficult.
But, for Sosa, painting was supposed to be difficult. It had to be that way. After all, he believed that mastering the tedious technicalities of painting the academic way in which he was schooled was all that separated the craftsman, the true artist, from the hack. I, of course, was happy to write my own rules and remain a hack in Sosa’s eyes.