My Dad, Myself, and the Art We Keep in the Attic

I wrote most of this post yesterday (my Dad’s birthday) as I rode the bus to work…

My dad was a professor by trade, but also, throughout his life, a practicing artist. He taught sociology at the university, and he painted in the little room in the attic of our house.

He had reasons–rational or less so–for limiting his exposure as an artist. Early in my life, he was a newly tenured professor, worried that his colleagues might not think he was giving full attention to his academic duties if they knew of his artistic endeavors.

As time when on though, and certainly by his retirement, he began to seek more recognition and appreciation for his artistic work. He entered some local contests, and did well in a couple–although I don’t believe he ever took the biggest prize, which discouraged him from doing more of the same. He had greeting cards printed from some of his works and he and my mom went to at least one festival where people sell such things at tables in long tents. I wasn’t living nearby, but the reports of these endeavors seemed short-lived. After his death, my mom showed me a box of correspondence with various art galleries, written in the 90s, where he had sent query letters and copies of his work.

In the latest years of his life, my dad reverted to his earliest ambition, to to be a comic book artist. He created graphic novels, and sent excerpts out in blind submissions to publishers, but rarely heard back from them.

As far as I know, he never took an art class after college, though he read books and watched videos. He never went to an artist’s retreat or a comic book convention.

And yet, I can see that even though he never said it in these words, he was secretly hoping to find a champion. Finding one can make all the difference in the life of an artist. It’s someone who can take the burden of the world, find the right audience for your work, advertise, find patrons/financing, filter the myriad rejections.

In his lifetime, my father never found that, and while I sympathised, I also resented his unwillingness to be that person for himself. He was like an actress who rejects the undignified rounds of cattle call auditions and continuously self-hawking because she wants the myth of being discovered at a soda fountain. In the case of the letters to the galleries, I’m certain he foisted the administrative tedium (and the emotional vulnerability) off on my mom.

And because of his refusal to seek out others with like minded pursuits, the burden of being audience and encouragers fell to his family. With my every visit home from Los Angeles (the land where–especially from far away–anything seems possible) he’d ask me “how to break in” who to talk to, what avenues to pursue. I would protest, that as an underachieved artist myself, I had no easy answers, until, under continued pressure, I would tell him what I had heard and read about joining organizations, attending events and networking, asking for informational interviews, but he never followed up these tips. Nor did I expect him to, because implicit, and sometime explicit, in his questions about what to do, was the bigger question: Will you do it for me? He’d propose that I take his graphic novels and turn them into screenplays, and take them into the world.

In truth, I could not do it for him. I didn’t have the connections, the know how. I didn’t yet have the training to turn his stories–which were convoluted to my eyes–into screenplays, and I didn’t have the passion for his work. One other things that the books say is, you have to write what you love, because that’s what you will do best, and you will be living with your work–writing and re-writing and pitching, and rewriting–for a very long time. This is why novelist rarely write the story that someone gives him at party with the words “You know what you should write a book about?” I didn’t love aviation art. I couldn’t talk about historical events, or model numbers of planes. I didn’t grow up during World War II and have it shape my entire life and worldview the way he did. He did have a story to tell that was only his, and although as my education continued, I did make more attempts to help him shape all this into a story, I couldn’t. I can say that he was hard to talk to, that he tended to dissociate from his own life, and drift into spiraling details about other people. I can say there wasn’t enough time, that in the end, he was older and tired, and not ready to put effort into a new discipline. Mostly I can say that I failed because I lacked will. And though I can justify it–I still feel it.

And at the end of his life, we–mostly my mother–were faced with an attic full of paintings and drawings…a life’s work in a room of a house that will someday be sold as my mom downsizes. Would it end up at the Goodwill? In a dumpster? We parceled out as many as we could to family and friends. Then, at my mom’s first yard sale after my father’s death, someone was captivated by some toy airplanes he had used as models. We took him up in the attic, and he loved, and eventually bought, one of the paintings, then another. We let people have them who seemed to appreciate them, who said they would give them good homes.

Another year went by, and Mom was another yard sale. Not knowing what else to do with the remaining paintings, she put some on sale. And now a different man saw my Dad’s paintings.

He loved them.

He’s made a website. He wonders where the other paintings are, wants to do a retrospective, has held a small exhibition and plans another. This week, an older watercolor sold for two hundred dollars.

I don’t know if my dad would have been happy with that sale price or not. But certainly he would have had to be happy with the effort that is finally being put forth on behalf of his work. He has found his audience–and his champion.

I don’t know if there’s a single lesson to take from all of this–but it’s hard to shake this final detail: The man had come to yard sales at our house before. He had met my father, without knowing he was an artist.

It’s hard to feel you are constantly undervaluing your own work, to put it out there, at the equivalent of a yard sale, to be so undignified or desperate, but maybe if my dad had laid himself out there, he would have gotten to know his champion when he was still alive.

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