When I retired from the 9 to 5 workaday world I had been the painter for the local school system for thirty-four years. All things considered it was a pretty good job. For one thing, the adults with whom I worked were generally well educated and intelligent, if not necessarily sophisticated. For another thing, the job permitted me an exceptional degree of autonomy. Though I reported to a series of supervisors over the years none of them were micro-managers and they all had much more important issues to deal with than the minutia of painting. As a result I was left to plan, schedule and perform the job as I saw fit. In short order I was performing all of the necessary functions from those of the visionary to those of the flunky.
In the last ten years of my tenure it also fell to me to provide certain design strategies and artistic embellishments. By the time I left the job this probably consumed 25% of my time. It was while I was working on just such a decorative project in the new, monotonously white-walled, multi-million dollar high school that a math teacher approached me. We were familiar with one another. We’d passed one another in the halls, but I don’t think we had ever had anything resembling a conversation.
He complimented my work and asked if I knew any other artists who did decorative work of the kind I was doing. Instead of answering the question directly I asked what he had in mind. He, in turn, asked if I had ever seen the wall-sized, photomural of outer space. As I had helped another teacher in another school mount just such a photographic mural in the classroom I nodded my head. He went on to say that they were very expensive and he was hoping that someone could paint just such an image on one of the walls of his house for less than the cost of the printed photomural.
This was not the first time I had been asked such a question. Usually this was the time when I would just look down, mutter inaudibly and shake my head “no.” But on this occasion I had exhausted my supply of polite deference and rather than quietly demurring I looked him straight in the eye and said something like “Let me get this straight. You want to hire a skilled, professional artist to paint something that will take days or weeks to finish just so you can get it more cheaply than the five or six hundred dollars it costs to buy the mass-produced photo-mural? “
He looked shocked at my response and it was he who looked down, muttered and walked off. Later he came up to me an apologized for what he had realized by then was an insulting question. But let’s look behind this brief encounter to examine some of the misconceptions that fueled his inquiry.
Many people, perhaps even most people, do not know an artist and have no idea what they do and why. If pressed to consider the question they very likely think of an artist as someone who is a compulsive, gushing source of the beautiful, of tasteful decoration, or something of the sort. Insofar as they probably do not have original art in their homes it never occurs to them that art may have a commercial component or any common value they might recognize. It is not unlikely they think artists are born talented. The training and study associated with the work of an artist is overlooked or simply unrecognized. Ultimately, their unfamiliarity with art may lead them to believe that artists are just waiting for an opportunity to exercise their natural impulses and that an audience and appreciation are reward enough. The typical example of this oversight is when someone approaches a painter and asks, “If I provide you with a canvas and some brushes, would you paint me a picture?” The artist’s time and ability are reckoned to be worth less than the materials. Don’t try this on a house painter when you want your living room repainted. Maybe art schools should instruct their students to always reply “yes” to such a request, at which time the former student will quickly roll out a single color in commercial, latex house paint onto the canvas and return it. Alas, you know who in this transaction will be accused of having a bad attitude.
“Why do people think artists are special? It's just another job.” (Andy Warhol)
Two and a half years out from retirement I’m leaving the grocery store when I run into two ladies who I knew from my previous work-life. They were a mother and daughter who both worked in the school system. One was an educator and the other a central office employee. We were all retired by this time and we stood outside of the store catching up and comparing notes on the state of retirement. Amid the usual talk of children and grandchildren they asked how I passed the time. “Well, you know, I teach a couple of classes at a community college. I occasionally paint an art gallery. I write a bit and I spend four or five hours a day working in the studio.” The younger of the two replied that it was wonderful when one has a hobby to retire to.
I am very fond of these two ladies so I kept my corrective impulse in check.