Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Portrait of Tracy

By Elliott Joseph

Reprinted from California Living
San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle

Photo By Roz Joseph

Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

July 2010

Sometimes I wish I never wanted to paint. What about photography? Ansel Adams. Imogen Cuningham. You could be the world's greatest woman photographer, age 21. Hold up the camera, and click! A work of art. If only there weren't so many photographers. Everybody, I mean everybody, has a camera. Click! Click!

Who cares about painting today? I like that little part. What else was she wearing on her right wrist? This will work. You're a genius. Forget photography. You don't know which end of the camera to look into anyway. Just keep on painting. You're the new Picasso. Age 21.

There's Jerry. "Hi, Jerry." He's so crazy. Cute, but crazy. He paints circles. Soft circles. He says they're not circles. Canvas after canvas of circles that are not circles. I can't believe it.

Do you have to be crazy to be an artist? I hope not. I am so hopelessly sane. So deliciously lucid. I think so clearly it's positively frightening! Loony bin, next stop. Paint, paint. Never give up. If we give up, art will die. Die, die, die. Dead, dead, dead.

Paint, paint, paint, you super gorgeous genius, and save the world, the Bay, the Mission District, and let's hear it for Yerba Buena!

There's Gordon. I can't stand that man. "You can go into advertising," he said. A fine thing for an instructor in Fine Arts to tell a fine, Fine Arts student. The pimple! Do I have to develop a heavy set of arrogance to defend myself from people like that? I am easily bruised, you inferior superiors. Oh, look at that blue. It's so wrong. It's so wrong! Maybe Gordon is right. Maybe I should go down to Batten, Barton, Honig, Harrington and Thompson. After all, some of my best friends are in advertising.

Is that all we are, illustrators, bartering our ideas for food? Is that what I am going to be, an illustrator? Is that why I came to the Institute? Is that why I paint until I think I am going blind?

Oh, oh, here comes Esposito. That man frightens me. Oh my God, he's looking at my painting. If he says anything, I'll die. I'll just die. I am not going to look at him. I am not going to acknowledge his presence. There he goes. The monster, he didn't even say a word!


Thank you. Thank you. Oh, thank you. Yes, my instructors lavish praise on me. You are so kind. Oh, it really isn't that good. It is? You're just saying that. You really mean it's the best thing you have ever seen in your entire life? Thank you, Mr Frankenstein, thank you Mr. Fried, you really are outstanding critics.

I am such a phony, such a sick, sick phony. I searched for a garret, and found a two bedroom flat in Pacific Heights. I force myself to suffer. Send me no money, father. I shall steal the little clothing I need. If I am hungry I will shoplift. Don't worry, I can take care of myself.

I hate my job. I hate making Cafe Borgia and cappuccino. I will never drink coffee again as long as I live.

Tiny, tiny stroke. Once over very, very, very, very lightly. Careful, dammit. That's all right. Painted with an eyelash. What am I saying. What am I not saying? Don't think. For God's sake, don't think.

I could always go back to selling waterbeds on Broadway. At least that was fun. That freak and all those people from Nebraska. Why do they come to Broadway anyway? A waterbed in Nome? No, that's Alaska. The time that guy tried to get me on that waterbed. "I just want to see if it's possible," he said.

Why couldn't I sculpt? Because it's a silly little word, sculpt, that's why. And besides, I'll be able to go to Los Angeles or New York, and sell this canvas to a forger for a very small fortune, who can then auction it to the People's Republic of China, so that Avery Brundage can be so impressed that he will switch to collecting young, beautiful painters from the San Francisco Art Institute, and the world of art will say, "Lo and behold, Tracy What's-Her-Name, she'd be all right if her painting wasn't out of date ten minutes before the canvas dried."

Actors are the only people in San Francisco who are worse off than painters. I am going to do something about your eye, changing lady of my portrait. I have looked at your two eyes, your one sad and your one happy, your one mad and your one glad, your one lost and your one won, your one tossed and your one fun, and I am going to do something right this minute.

What are they looking for, those galleries? Why do they tempt us with success?

That eye. That eye.

Lady of my painting, can I feel your body through your blouse? Are you warm? Are you breathing a little more heavily than usual?

Bessie walked to Vista Point. Twenty-two shades of gray in the silver sunset. She wouldn't have done it unless - but who knows why they do it? You're dead now, Bessie. Dead. What does that mean, anyhow? Some want to live. I want to live.

You've got to have luck. Maybe it's all a matter of luck. Ben painted Aunt Lara twenty years ago as Mother Earth, a nineteen-year-old girl. And now Lara has become Mother Earth. That's genius.

If they don't buy it, it's not important as not letting me paint. You don't have to buy it! Do you hear me out there? No offense. If you don't want it on Union or Geary or Sutter, I'll simply take it to 57th Street and have John Canaday insist that I get a Guggenheim.

That boy was kind of nice. I told him I was going one block. He got out of the car, took a long, disbelieving look at me and said I should be ashamed of myself. Then he took me by the hand and walked me up the hill. Will he call me?

Everybody at Perry's says they never go there, and they never dress like that. What was that story? "A Clean, Well Lighted Place." Why are we so afraid to be alone? We are the topless generation. No head. It's weird. Four out of five people I meet are from the East.

What if I made both eyes happy-sad-happy?

The library upstairs is so clean. Books are so clean. Ideas are so crisp when they're written down. Look at this place. Nothing crisp about Studio 116. "Do not remove!" "Paint for Jesus!" You could put a frame around this floor and get a fortune for it. Oh look, somebody's painted the bulletin! "College of the San Francisco Art Institute. Offering the Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in filmmaking, painting, photography, print-making, and sculpture/ceramics." Ah, the fun life of art. "Abandon all hope, ye that enter."

There's Ted. He's really good. He doesn't look like an artist. The enemy of art is the artist who looks the part. Do I? Am I too happy? Sometimes not knowing why or how I am alive tears me apart with fear. So why am I so happy? Wait, there's plenty of time. You won't always forget so conveniently.

Wipe the extra paint on your sleeve. Mix and match, not so precisely, not so exactly. You used to get less paint under your nails, when you bit them.

"Hi, Ted. What? Do you think so? Thanks. I like the thing you're working on now. Really good. True, we are all geniuses. How can a genius not get a passing grade? Even from Esposito. Keep struggling."

I'll bet Ted would be a great teacher. Another year to get my degree. Is there life after graduation? There's something about getting a degree in painting that's silly. Where would I have gone if I didn't come to San Francisco? They say this is the best part of your life. So why not end it at twenty-one? Technique, technique, technique. The message, the message, the message. Whatever happened to the happening? Art. What is art? That's for the critics and the teachers to decide. That particular changing moment of that particular life is for you to decide. They decide if you decided right. They judge. You are the judged. Will I play an imaginary zither to my paintings, like that old woman I saw on Beach Street? Let's sing to the canvas and the glory of art.

Where would I take my dear little brother if he came here? What would I show him? Pretty little Union Street? Ghirardelli Square? Things all nicely decorated to sell? Is that the only answer to filth and poverty? Am I getting all this in that eye? No, that's what a background, an environment - you should excuse the expression - is for. The socio-psychological-cultural milieu. When you put it that way, you don't put it. So just paint your mistresspiece and then go to your friend's concert on Maiden Lane and stare at the hat on the sidewalk so it will fill all the way up with money. One person, one single person listening is enough. Play your heart out. Keep your beat. Count if you have to, but keep on playing. Never, never open that valve to nothingness, the way they did at that party. That can't be the way. That's what beer used to be for, and now the new way is faster and different, but not so different.

If Jack would only put some paper in the printer when he writes that novel. But there will always be Wendy who can play so that you wonder how it all can happen, and be grateful that your egg was swimming at the right time. On Maiden Lane and at the Faire she plays in her sandals and flowing robe. On the stage at San Francisco State, pardon me, Cal State San Francisco, she's neat and formal and her hair is civilized. And she's part of a bigger sound that speaks to many people one at a time. And her eyes dart up at the conductor and back at the music.

I can't get up in the auditorium and tell everyone how she helped me, when I kicked the bed and cut my hair, telling me not to say anything when Tim said he was leaving. He was going to stop working for praise, and was going to Los Angeles to get on a TV series about a successful young beautiful actor in San Francisco. Then he finally said that he didn't study Chekhov and Shakespeare to do that.

Why does a man need victories, so many victories?

What did I study? Where did I look? Music and Art High School. Visual Arts. The Brooklyn Museum. The Whitney. Modern Art. The Metropolitan. The Louvre. The Rijksmuseum. The National Gallery. The Prado. Venice. Florence. Rome. The fields of Arles. The faces of my mother and father. This woman, this lady of my painting. This changing woman. The olive trees of Toledo. The stones. The woods. The inaccessible light. The walls. The blues, rich, trumpeting, blinding. Soften them. Soften them. Just beyond control. A wildness that isn't wild. Confusion that isn't confused. We are both witness and victim.

"Light, more light," said Goethe. Just enough on the canvas. Not one bit more. It travels fast enough itself. You are not being painted to be hung, my lady of the painting, but to remain on the easel. You are never quite finished. Your blood is on my arms. You comfort me. You satisfy me, when I don't understand. You feed and house me. I don't need to worship or escape into the noise or oblivion of shock and tastelessness. You are my medicine, my law, my social service, my Ph.D. You free me, and I am grateful. Lady of my painting, soon I won't know you as I think I know you now. I won't know what it is that we want from each other. You are different every time I look at you.

Here comes Esposito! Who is that with him? They're coming this way. The four of them. They're coming here. They're all going to look at you, my lady of the painting. They want to see you, my candidate for the museums of San Francisco. Are you ready?

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