Thursday, December 23, 2010

You're International

Dear Reader,
Thank you for reading my blog. As stated on the home page, this is my meager gift to you. I want to hear about you and what's capturing your attention. What would you like to read more of? Less of? You may post a comment on the blog site, or email me directly: artist(at) I look forward to hearing from you. Some people see the blog as a note on Facebook. You are invited to visit the site: FaceBook

You have joined an international readership. Someone in Guernsey has read this blog. I am humbled to admit, I knew nothing of Guernsey before.  Google Analytics tells me I have been read by people in fifty-five countries, including Iran, Nepal and Kenya. This blows me away. 

Only a handful of people in these countries visit my site, but connecting with you gives me great satisfaction. We  live far apart and may never meet in person, but we can share some thoughts instantly. We can be of value to each other. I like it.

I've said before that we're lucky to be living at this time. Blog communication reaches all around the world instantly. Nothing like this was possible only a few years ago. If I wanted a pen pal in Asia, the old message in a bottle was the state of the art.

Blogs remind me of printed publications like pamphlets. This form of communication was crucial during the 18th century. I wonder if the American Revolution could have happened without printing presses and pamphleteers like Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine. These authors didn't have to get journalism degrees; they just needed to know someone with a press and care enough to publish their ideas. 

Now, an average, insignificant person like me can type in San Francisco and be read in Qatar. This both excites and scares me, but I'm an optimist. Good things are happening, amid the fear. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

2010 In Review

When Max draws on the sidewalk, train tracks figure prominently. 
I do this every year, for those who want to know what's going on with us. Please tell me the news from your world. At the end of 2010, all three of us are healthy and happy. No shocking changes happened this year, just normal ones. Misa kept our lives running, a considerable achievement. I turned 50, Max went to First Grade in both his English and Japanese schools.

The rest is mostly photographs.

Max had a birthday party at Daly City Party Playhouse. His friend Coco played air hockey in the arcade.

We attended the wedding of Lynne Rutter and Erling Wold, a Rococo event, unlike any other wedding we'd seen. The photo of king and queen gives you a taste.

A pleasant surprise, Moe Kawakami and her mom visited from Japan. We met the ABC PreSchool parents and children for a class reunion playdate.

We live by the ocean, but it's not the Bahamas. About 363 days a year, the weather is cold and gray here.

Magically, about two days a year, our beach looks just like Hawaii. The water looks warm, but it's still freezing.

Doves nested outside my studio.  

We spent a week in San Diego in August. 

If you want to make Max happy, just put him on a train. It doesn't matter where the train goes.

We did repair work and painted our house. Actually, we paid other people to do both. I'm significantly poorer, but my back feels good.

That's it for us. Lots of early mornings. The sun goes down before we know what's happening. Happy holidays and a joyous 2011 to you.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

New York and Me—Part 3

Into a murky future: 
I returned to San Francisco from my adventure on 57th Street. The next three years were tumultuous. I separated from my wife and moved to a tiny apartment on Nob Hill. Most days were a struggle to keep my head attached, but I continued to paint and court gallery attention. A new gallery opened and showed my work. I promoted the exhibition along with the gallery director. I was glad to get the work out in public, but nothing sold and the show didn't lead to others. 

One afternoon I talked to an artist friend who'd had a show in New York. He said art dealers wanted close physical proximity to their artists and if I ever wanted to show in New York, I'd need to live there. This made sense to me. I began saving money and making plans to move. I was fortunate to have other big moves behind me. I knew the first thing to do was to go scope out a neighborhood where I wanted to live, perhaps even see an apartment, then line up a job and budget to move with my stuff. Most people approach it the other way, with job and money first. I knew if I had a clear goal I was attached to, the job and money could be arranged. 

I arrived in New York on a rainy autumn afternoon. My train slid through the monotonous landscape of New Jersey. I looked for Manhattan as we approached Jersey City, but I could only see the bottom half of the World Trade Center. Well, this was it!

I knew exactly where I was; I'd been in and out of Madison Square Garden hundreds of times. This time, however, the city came at me in a completely new and frightening way. The instant my feet touched the platform, I felt dizzy and hot. Walking out of Penn Station, I kept repeating the address of my hotel, which was only a few blocks away: 17 W 32nd Street. The streets were dark and narrow, under enormous facades. A bridge crossed over, between buildings. I crossed Broadway at Herald Square, down two blocks to 32nd. I was sweating. I couldn’t take in all the faces streaming past. “Just keep walking,” I thought, “17 W 32nd Street, 17 W 32nd Street.”

The hotel was a tall, narrow building, one section of an unbroken wall, facing another dark wall of stone across the narrow street. It was the sort of place where direct sunlight only penetrates a couple of days a year. I checked in at the desk; even the lobby was tiny. My room was on the 12th floor, facing the rear. I had a view of the lower floors of the Empire State Building. Even this disturbed me. I felt like I was up against a wall, facing a firing squad. My head wouldn’t stop spinning.

I sat on the bed and cried. It was damnably embarrassing and inconvenient, this extreme reaction. New York never made me nervous before, why now? I never seriously considered living there before. There’s a difference between an interesting weekend and a permanent residence. I’d asked a specific question of myself—could I live here—and I was getting a definite answer. "Oh come on!" I thought. "It can't be over so soon, can it?" and yet, I wanted more than anything to run away. Minute by minute, I managed to stay in my skin. I had to buck up and stay a few days. I'd see if I felt differently later on. It was a big decision, and I didn't want to wonder what would have happened if I'd stayed.

The next day I walked up Fifth Avenue. Again, I soon began to suffer from sensory overload. I passed five hundred faces in one block, then five hundred more in the next, then a new army in the third. I'd spent a lot of time looking closely at my surroundings, and especially at people. I couldn't turn that sensitivity down because it was inconvenient. This sounded like a reasonable explanation, but what about everyone else? Why weren't they freaking out, like me?

Some people never seem to suffer claustrophobia, but I think it's unlikely that they are immune from it. A person who never received alarms from the environment wouldn't survive long, in a state of nature. If our personal buttons are pushed with sufficient intensity, our horns will blow. I grew up with a boy who became an officer on nuclear submarines. He chose that career, and he succeeded at it. Years later, after remaining submerged for several weeks under the Indian Ocean, he felt a little tap on his shoulder, and a small voice said, "Let's not re-enlist next time. I mean it!"

I went to lunch with an actor who'd moved to New York from San Francisco a year before. I was especially interested in his experience because we had somewhat similar personalities and he'd moved for the same reasons I was considering it. We met at a deli near Grand Central Station, where hundreds of people lined up like a painting of the Last Judgment. 
He said, “You wouldn’t recognize me now, John Paul. I yell at people, I push them, I slam doors in their faces. I have to, to keep my head above the tide here. When I first started work, I couldn’t get on the subway because it was too crowded. Now I push with my whole body and cram myself into that tin can every morning. I’ve been here over a year, and I’ve had one understudy part, that’s all. So I don’t know if this is going to pay off or not.”

I stayed a few more days. My nephew came down from Boston with his girlfriend and we had a nice dinner together. I endured, but I never got comfortable. I never slept through the night at my hotel. I hated to give up, but I had no choice. New York is a fantastic city. A commanding contingent of important people live and work there, and I felt defective that I could never be one of them. Like it or not, that unpleasant fact had to be accepted. I was pushing forty, and part of getting older is recognizing your limits. I had no doubts about this one; I was never going to thrive in New York. I might get by and pay my rent, but I'd never be able to paint. I'd need to spend every spare minute decompressing. 

On my last afternoon in the city, I walked with my nephew and his girlfriend in Central Park. It was another perfect New York moment. Yellow leaves blew down in a slow motion ballet, but all I could think was, “I can’t wait to get the hell out of here.”

Two years later an arts organization asked to hang my paintings at a show at the Hungarian Consulate in New York. I was thrilled to return and to see my work exhibited there. I didn't freak out this time, but neither did New York charm me into thoughts of renewing our romance. I worked on my life in San Francisco and had many victories, but New York would remain unconquered. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

New York and Me—Part 2

After a year of post-school life in Philadelphia, I moved back to Dallas, Texas and got married. Things did not go well. My wife suggested we take a three-day trip to San Francisco, because she'd always heard it was interesting. I was not interested, but agreed to go along. I'd never been to California. I'd heard about it on the TV news, growing up: earthquakes, mudslides, forest fires, and hippies on drugs. 

What I found surprised me. Here was a city with some of the excitement of New York, but it was relatively clean and quiet. I could imagine getting on with life here, not merely surviving and paying the rent. 

I walked the costal trail through Lincoln Park. I couldn't believe how pretty and peaceful it was. Seals played in the water. Downtown, I saw people fishing from the Ferry Building pier. I never saw anyone fishing the waters around Manhattan. On the third day, I decided we would live here. 

I'm kind of weird that way. My parents moved several times while I was growing up, so I don't have a normal person's reticence about it. To them, this is like proposing marriage on the first date. If I see a place I like, I figure, "What am I waiting for?" I'd only been to Philadelphia once before moving there for five years. I don't like to travel at all, but when I do, I'm open to changing locations permanently. 

Me in seagull city, 1986

Life in San Francisco went much better. We got an apartment across the street from Lincoln Park, so I could paint on the cliffs every weekend. I got my first office job, and we managed well, despite the higher cost of living. I built up a considerable number of paintings, but galleries in San Francisco were unanimous in their rejection of my work. I published a weird brochure, with photos of my paintings and a strange, unrelated story inside. I sent this to every promising listing in the ArtNews Gallery Guide. Responses were negative or non-existent. Then one day I opened a letter from a gallery on 57th Street in New York. Accustomed to rejection, I harbored no hope for anything positive.

To my great shock, the gallery director—I'll call him Otto—wanted to see more work! I corresponded with Otto and spoke to him on the phone a few times. He said, "Don't make a special trip, but if you happen to come through New York, I'd like to meet with you."

I had spent a lot of money on the printing, and only had a few hundred dollars free to spend. I wasn't going to breeze through New York by accident any time soon. I decided to spend my remaining pennies, and go see Otto. It wasn't a difficult decision. Only one person in the art industry liked me, and even though he was well-situated in midtown, the art business was highly volatile. Any day Otto might move on, or the gallery might close down. If I didn't go now, I'd always wonder what would have happened. I made an appointment to meet him on 57th Street and bought a plane ticket.

I got up early on the day of our appointment. I walked up Fifth Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum, to see some pictures before going to 57th Street. I phoned the gallery from the museum, to let Otto know I would be right on time. Otto's assistant Seth answered. When I told him I'd be there soon, he said, "I'm not sure you want to do that. Otto's not here. He had to take a picture back to Italy yesterday, and he's still there."

This was not good. 

Seth encouraged me to go ahead with my other business in New York—like I had other business—and Otto would see me on my next visit. Oh no, he wouldn't. I went on down to the gallery. Seth gave me an interesting exercise in groveling, which was all I could do, under the circumstances. He looked about 25 years old, and already he had that detached, effeminate, expressionless look, like Andy Warhol. I dubbed this type The Art Fop. True to this type, Seth was only polite to the extent I forced him to be. He said, “Our gallery only handles mid-career artists.” 

I replied, “Yes, of course I’m not mid-career, but I’ll soon be middle-aged. Will that help any?” This provoked a slight smile, which he immediately squelched. Trying to warm him up, I asked, “How did you get into this business, Seth?” He waved the question away, “Oh, it’s what I’ve always done. I’ve been in galleries forever.”
“Seth, you’re 25 years old,” I thought, “you haven’t done anything ‘forever.’”

A few days later, Otto returned and agreed to meet with me, shortly before I had to fly home. On my way in, I saw Seth coming out of the building, and I half-waved, half-saluted him. He turned his face to the wall, ignoring me.

Otto was a handsome man, mid-40s, with raven-black hair that looked dyed. He was dressed impeccably, and I was glad I came well-dressed. We went into his office in the corner of the building. The windows looked out on 57th Street and Madison Avenue. Dark gray carpet, white walls. A couch that looked ordinary revealed its high quality when I sat down on it. A priceless painting—I'd seen it in an art history book—lay on the desk, unframed. Otto did his best to encourage me while promising absolutely nothing. In his opinion, I should choose an identifiable theme for my work, paint a show around that theme, and then send slides out to galleries. Otto would cheer from the sidelines. I had decided to come three thousand miles to hear this. If the information was ultimately useless, I had no one to blame. 

On my way back to my hotel room, I noticed a sign in the elevator for the Garden Terrace and Sky Garden Tea Room, so I pushed the 31st floor. When the door opened, there was Central Park, set out like a banquet table. The sun was setting, the lights were twinkling all around, sheer Heaven. "New York, you’re a fickle woman," I thought. "Just when I want to leave you with no regrets, you pull off your blouse and rub your breasts in my face." I came in from the terrace and wandered through dark, vacant dining rooms with big windows, so elegant and [unusually!] quiet.

I never saw Otto or Seth again. Soon after my return to California, Otto left the gallery. Strangely, this did not end my relations with New York. Coming soon: Part 3.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Rainy Weekend with Antoni Gaudi and Max

My brother Mike has given us a subscription to National Geographic for several years. The magazine excites my son Max. This weekend he opened the current issue and saw this drawing of Antoni Gaudi's unfinished cathedral, 

Max said we should begin building a model of the cathedral immediately. We spent a good part of this weekend on our model, and Max is deservedly proud of it.

I first saw cathedrals in Europe when I was twenty-five. After an afternoon inside Notre Dame in Paris, I wrote:

These people wanted to construct an edifice so big and high and powerful that everyone would look at it and say, "Wow, they must have mighty faith! I'd better listen to them!" The weight, the solidity, the permanence of the cathedrals was a reminder of a faith just as solid and indestructible. When I stood under that magnificent vaulted ceiling, I couldn't help but think that they succeeded.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

New York and Me—Part 1

New York, you’re a fickle woman. Just when I want to leave you with no regrets, you pull off your blouse and rub your breasts in my face. —1994

Coming to New York for the first time is like meeting a famous world leader. You can't hope to separate the actual city from the legends told about it. I grew up far away, but the city forced its particles into my brain: Central Park, Radio City Music Hall, Times Square. Growing up in any part of America, we'd hear these place names many times. Half the power of visiting Manhattan is to plug in to their reality: "There's Radio City Music Hall! It's real!"

New York took on new allure when I watched Woody Allen's movie, Manhattan. I left the theater jumping up and down with excitement. It was a vision of a different life. A place where people talked for entertainment, where a beautiful woman might call and say, “Would you like to walk through Central Park with me this afternoon?” No freeways, no loud music. It looked like a black-and-white heaven to me! I loved the silvery photography. I loved the Gershwin music. The love stories were a bit silly, but I wanted to be Woody, to live in that world. Of course I would discover that Woody's Manhattan did not exist. But first I'd have to get there. 

I was twenty years old. My art school in Philadelphia organized day-trips to New York, and I went up on the first one. How can I describe the excitement of just walking along Fifth Avenue on an autumn afternoon? New possibilities opened up in every direction. Each minute felt more important, when spent here. The stones throbbed under my feet. I stood on the beating heart of the world. 

During the 1980s, I cultivated a connections in New York. I spent many days and nights in Manhattan. I felt comfortable, never threatened or intimidated by the city. The excitement did not wear off, but I had to deal with reality, not cinema. Woody Allen's characters do not stand shivering on urine-soaked subway platforms; the subways were a vision of Hell during the 1980s. 

Another let-down was the constant noise of New York. Allen's characters exist in a hushed environment, where they can speak in whispers and be understood. In the real New York, a rumble pecks at your brain always, everywhere, and no amount of money can protect you from it. More than once, I awoke on Central Park South at 3AM, to the sound of crashing metal and spine-tingling shouts. I looked out my window and saw—what else—sanitation workers, screaming at each other and bashing trash cans together, working as though they were paid to keep every person in the city awake. Like other frightening titles given to New York, "The City That Never Sleeps," isn't an exaggeration.

Another title well-deserved, New York is the capital of the art world. Other American cities have good art galleries and museums, but people rarely fly to them specifically to see or buy art, as they do here. When I first saw it, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was New York in miniature for me. I thought every important painting in the world was here. All the images I'd only seen in school textbooks, like George Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. On my first day at the Metropolitan, I stayed four hours, determined to conquer the place with my eyes. I failed. At the end, the museum had many more rooms, but I couldn't bear to see anything else. I ran from the building, breathing hard. 

Central Park, 1986, L to R: the author, Regina Pettus, Reginald Pettus
At graduation, I was happy to stay in Philadelphia. I had a restaurant job I liked and a serious girlfriend. I even had money in the bank from a grant award. I contacted art galleries and made appointments to show my paintings. No one scooped me up, as I'd hoped. This disappointment fed into a larger re-consideration of my future. Within a few weeks my girlfriend broke up with me. At the same time, I noticed that Philadelphia was difficult to live in when I didn't have school to build my life around. I spent most of that summer alone, thinking hard about what to do next. 

I didn't come up with many ideas, at least not consciously. I went on working my job, and got a new apartment for the next year. I didn't know it then, but that summer would have been the ideal time for me to move to New York. If the idea hit me, I didn't take it seriously. Instead I signed my new lease and gave Philadelphia another year to turn around. 

Meanwhile, a less conscious part of my brain said, "What you need is a new girlfriend." In September I duly acquired a new girlfriend. For the following ten years, every decision was determined partly by my desire to keep her. New York could not help in this effort, so moving was off the table. Nevertheless, New York and I would meet again.