My Lives as a Famous Artist

OK, first of all, we all know I’m writing “tongue in cheek” when I describe myself with the word “famous”…

There have been a few times when I’ve been completely absorbed in making visual art. One of them I was working for the Denver YWCA and being paid in art supplies. I could go to Meiningers in Denver and buy anything I needed and keep whatever I didn’t use. Everyone knew I was buying extra; I had a quiet mandate from the YWCA director to do just that. Five sheets of watercolor paper for posters and five sheets in case I failed.

It was great. I did illustrations for brochures and posters for events. I couldn’t afford art supplies at all on my graduate student stipend but working for the Y, I ended up with nice watercolors and silk-screen equipment. For an art table, I used the dining room table. As part of this, I got to go to a lot of fancy parties.

A few years later, after the visual art thing had gone underground (as it does) and I was being a “famous” writer, I met a guy named Wes Kennedy who looked uncannily like my brother, Kirk Kennedy. It was a little creepy, but we got to be very close friends. He was determined to become a legit artist. Working in the mailroom of the Denver law firm where I was a paralegal was just a way to eat. He reawakened my sleeping visual artist and we spent most Monday nights in the life drawing sessions that were held at the historic Muddy Waters of the Platte.

Wes was very determined to “get a show.” “I gotta’ get a gallery show, Martha,” he said over and over, like not getting one meant he was a failure, traipsing around town with his work, all done on paper, most in gouache, some in pastel. Finally he got a show and we both lugged his work — now mounted with glass — to the gallery that was showing his work.

Then I, with suddenly a LOT of artwork in my apartment, decided to see if I could get a show. I didn’t have any particular drive to get a show in a gallery. I just wanted to hang it up somewhere. I lugged some of my stuff to a coffee house, Nepenthes, and they said, “Sure.” That pissed off Wes to the point where he didn’t talk to me for a month or so after saying, “I try for a YEAR to get a show, and you just go to Nepenthes?” and he slammed the door behind him, not thinking of the difference between a show in a coffee house and a show in a gallery but OH WELL. But he showed up the night before my show and said, “You can’t carry your shit in your Bug. I’ll take your stuff in the morning and help you hang it,” and he did.

I take myself seriously as a writer, but have never taken myself seriously as a visual artist. As I’ve been working on these little Christmas tree decoration paintings which teeter the line between “craft” and “art,” I thought about that. My mom was the opposite of supportive of my brother’s and my “forays” (Kirk did somewhat more than make forays) into the life of an artist. She was objectively nasty about it. “Art’s a dirty word in this house!” she would proclaim. She really hated it, and since I lived to please her, I kind of knuckled under.

I’m grateful for her attitude as I sit here typing a blog post at the “end of the day.” As I’ve been painting pretty much all day every day for the past week or so I’ve had a blast. It’s fun discovering what a period of dormancy has nurtured and what the Valley has taught me in the interval. I did some good watercolors last winter and a good oil, and then, nothing. Painting these little landscapes as been so much fun — and I realized that many artists do small “studies” of something they might hope to paint “for real.” One of the little paintings is just that. At 2 x 3 inches it could emerge quickly and naturally, an idea that’s been incubating for nearly 2 years. If my mom had been supportive, I don’t think this would have been half as much fun over the years. I would have been driven to make a living from it and 1) I’m not that good, 2) it would have eliminated visual art from my life as a source of joy.

As I drove to Del Norte yesterday — only to find the museum closed — and looked at the various edges of a storm front reaching and receding over the San Juans here and there, I was, as always, captivated by the light and colors. Winter is incredibly beautiful (to me) here. All shades of white, gold, silver, gray and cerulean. All in motion, changing all the time. As I drove these beautiful scenes seemed to go straight into my heart, skipping my eyes and mind completely. And I thought, “I’ve lived here long enough now that this is part of me. It come into my heart through my eyes and comes out again, transformed, through my hands.”

(Featured photo is Wes hanging one of my paintings at Cafe Nepenthes)

7 thoughts on “My Lives as a Famous Artist

  1. To me, fun is a really important part of art and creating. If it is marketable, and people want it, fine. But, again this is my experience, if I start with the product/customer in mind, then I get so much less free than if I keep it part of what one of my teachers used to call high play. I’m really enjoying seeing your little paintings!

    • Thank you! I started these thinking of selling them then a few sneaked into the “real” zone. Those were the most fun. I got a commission to do two of the wreath on the fence post. I hope I can replicate that!

  2. How amazing to have the talent to express your affinity with the place you love so much through visual arts. It must make you feel even more connected to it all. I wish I could do that, but I’m useless at doing anything with a brush or a pencil, so I really admire your work. Wes clearly knew talent when he saw it. 🙂

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