I haven’t been able to complete any new art this month [see samples of my art above], nor write articles. It’s because I had the opportunity to move back to the U.S. and stay somewhere where I could devote myself to art for about a year, and thus I moved. This was the kind of fortunate circumstance I needed to really apply myself and get my art career off the ground. However, after leaving Cambodia – and I gather while my plane was in the air – the pivotal person who was making this venture possible had a debilitating stroke. Now I am sleeping on my girlfriend’s Mom’s couch in Hawaii, where we arrived, as planned, en-route to the mainland for a visit. Looks like I’ll have to go back to full-time work, hopefully something that will allow me to chip away at art on the periphery, and most likely move back to SE Asia as well. Starting from scratch in America without significant help is not really feasible, though my girlfriend is looking into house sitting [let me now if you know someone who needs it]. Instead of a great opportunity to take my art to the next level, I have another major roadblock, and the carpet pulled out from under my feet. And it’s not the first or second or third time this sort of thing has happened.
True, I could make art for a whole year with the proceeds of just one of Damien Hirst’s thousands of dot paintings, painted by assistants, and about as inspired as the most generic wallpaper, but, until one is popularized by the appropriate authorities, fine artists make so little that being a starving artist is a relative privilege. [Just looked it up and it looks like I could work for a decade or more on said proceeds.] If you are a starving artist it means you are still able to make art. Most have to abandon their dreams, gifts, aspirations, and purpose in order to work office jobs or in the service industry, which I’ve certainly done myself, in which case they don’t get to be artists at all. I still aspire to being a starving artist as soon as I can make the leap. In the interim I can at least write, for now, and thus this more personal sort of post.
Lessons in Humility:
Some people go through life more or less in a protective bubble, shielded from reality, and able to make self-serving judgments from a cozy perspective of entitlement. It’s not a lot of people, and even in America it may only be (or have been) normal and taken for granted by a few generations of folk. If I got what I wanted most the time, which would have happened simply if I had enough money, I’d be one of those people. As it happens, at least comparatively speaking, I’m not. I’ve traveled enough in the developing world to know, quite clearly, that simply by being an American at all I’m immeasurably better off than, say, the school-aged child I saw pushing a metal cart of edible snails in blazing hot and humid weather down a dusty street where I lived and worked in Siem Reap, Cambodia. No school for her, and the child-labor was of the more grueling variety.
When it comes to true artistic freedom, that kind of individualism doesn’t exist in a lot of other countries. It’s not something one would even think to aspire to. So, at least in the U.S. one hypothetically has a chance to make original art.
I had a drawing teacher at Pierce Jr. College, one Milton Hirschl, who once told me I needed lessons in humility. I thought, but didn’t say, “you got the wrong guy”. Rather, he was falling for my act. I must have been about 20 at the time, and you really want to present yourself to your peers as, if anything, better off than you are. I could have probably used a lesson in the opposite. I didn’t need lessons in humility then, and I don’t now – others could far more benefit from even a single dose – but new servings keep arising unexpectedly. But there is a sort of silver lining to having ones complacent bubble of stability popped, and that is the frequently unpleasant brush with reality that keeps one from being a mentally complacent ass, which is a very common affliction.
I can give you a simple analogy to make my point. In my experience traveling my richest journeys were the times I traveled one star, and usually alone. For example, I crossed Laos by local bus a decade ago, making every planned stop and also stopping for people who mysteriously appeared with a suitcase or basket of fruit after the driver pulled over for no apparent reason. Without enough seats I sat on a bag of rice and gazed on the pigs and goats that shared the ride. Truck tires were loaded along with anomalous boxes on top of the bus. When the bus would pull into a designated more major stop children would rush the side of the bus reaching crucified bird carcasses (too small to be chickens, maybe they were quail) through the windows in hopes of a sale. This sort of transport was infinitely more interesting than going by private car, taxi, or in a tour bus. One would rarely if ever choose to be jolted around in a suspension-less bus and arrive at ones destination covered with red dust. But what’s the point of travel if you don’t get your hands a little dirty?
I wouldn’t have chosen to work at Burger King while in High School if I knew a better option (a friend worked in an office making an amazing $10 an hour while I worked the broiler and the garbage compactor for $3.75). I had a peculiarly sadistic manager, named Luther, who kept me hours overtime inventing new and ever more unpleasant tasks for me to perform. One was cleaning the drains in the floor, another was sweeping the gutters outside the restaurant on the corner of a busy street, and my favorite was scraping the gum off the cement in front of the drive-thru window. This was in addition to the usual undesirable tasks I customarily performed, including removing the bags of garbage from the trash bins and compressing them in the garbage compactor, and when the compactor reached its limit, using a hydraulic dolly to transport the contents out to the dumpster, jacking it up to roughly shoulder height, flipping the heavy bag of grease and other reeking compacted refuse onto my back (where it leaked onto my uniform), and heaving it into the dumpster. The task I hated the most, though, was putting little Burger King crowns on the kiddies, which meant I had to act like I was happy and also subordinate to the royal child – the chosen one – who I was entrusted with anointing. Nothing caps a day of disgusting menial labor like being smilingly subservient (even if it somehow gave me insight into what it must have been like to be a eunuch traipsing around in a royal court).
And here’s a caricature I made of Luther at the time:
The day Luther kept me overtime I consoled myself that I’d quit the stinking job. However, when you come from a very working-class home, the values are a bit different from the middle or rich kids. Thus, the problem wasn’t Luther, but me. “Are you too good to take out the trash compactor!?” “no” “Are you too good to clean toilets?!” “no” “Are you too good to clean drains?” “no”. Keep in mind that someone saying that sort of thing has had to do that sort of thing, or worse, and is coming from a perspective of real struggle. And that would be a relatively light “lesson in humility” that I’m willing to talk about, that isn’t too personal or embarrassing. If I’d just said to Mr. Hirschl, “Eeeh, I used to work at Burger King” he probably would have taken back the thing about humility without me even elaborating.
[Little tangent. When I first worked temp jobs I would specify warehouse or physical work because I didn’t have a single button-down collared shirt, pair of slacks, or any formal wear. Though later I made the transition and did office work galore.]
Good Luck/Bad Luck:
When I was a kid I watched a lot of re-runs on my B&W TV: I love Lucy; Bewitched; I Dream of Jeanie; Happy Days; Gilligan’s Island; The Partridge Family; The Brady Bunch… The only thing I really liked was The Twilight Zone, or, better yet, The Outer Limits. I barely remember anything from all those sappy sit-coms, but one Brady Bunch stood out, and it was the one about Good/Bad luck.
They went to Hawaii and Bobby, I think, found some old Polynesian tiki idol at his dad’s construction site. A local tells them it’s taboo and brings bad luck. Since they had it there was a tarantula that crawled on Peter in his sleep, and Greg wiped out in a surfing contest and could have drowned. Finally there’s some monologue, probably delivered by the father, Mike, about how it could be good luck because the spider didn’t bite Peter and Greg wasn’t harmed in his wipe out. That episode stuck with me because there are just so many instances where I could interpret something as either bad or good luck.
Probably the best instance of bad-good luck was when out of desperation I accepted a teaching job with a language school smack in the middle of China. Purportedly the school was in a scenic mountain outpost, but was really situated in a flat, gray, drab, concrete city where the pollution was so thick you could look directly at the sun without squinting, as it was hidden behind a perpetual gauze of coal and other industrial mist. My keyboard would acquire a film of white powder I’d need to mop off every few days, and once the ambient particulate in the air was so dense that within a classroom I could see a wisp of it like a glimpse of a ghost.
Worse than the city was my assigned apartment (you get no choice in the matter) against which all the other teacher’s apartments were homes of the rich and famous. Mine was filled with grease; had a coating of cigarette residue; reeked of sewer gas belched up through the lidless toilet and drains; and there was the distinct impression that the last tenant had died there alone and desperate, and his body had only recently been discovered and removed.
If you complained about conditions in China some other English teacher would always admonish “THIS is China”, but they didn’t live in my apartment. As it happens, a Chinese teacher, upon visiting, claimed, “There are 3 things wrong with your apartment. Everything is old. Everything is ugly. And everything is broken”. Even by local Chinese standards, my apartment was shit.
Here’s some pics I took of my apartment, affectionately known as “The Monkey Cage” with witty captions (and typos). Oh my, I forgot about the surveillance glass. Click thru and have a laugh at my suffering. I lived there for over one year, when I was in my 40’s, with a Masters in art:
There were only a handful of “lao wai” (foreigners) in the city, and so everywhere I went I was surrounded by locals announcing “LAO WAI”, and as soon as one did it others would take up the chant and there would be pointing, laughing, gawking, mocking, and so on.
My students were children and my job was surely to teach them, but also to be their personal Jim Carey or Mr. Bean or combination thereof. You want humbling or humiliating, try doing that for 6 months, or a year. Oh, I forgot to mention I had no internet connection and could only go to a local internet bar, which I rarely did, because it was so difficult. This means not only had I been deposited in the middle of a country where I didn’t know a single person, I was also effectively cut off from everyone I did know. This is somewhat equivalent to hitting “hyperspace” while playing Asteroids. And this was not a tourist destination like Chiangmai or Siem Reap. When I later moved to Chiangmai I kept forgetting I was still living abroad because the culture shocks was, well, comparatively speaking, more like going to a theme park in America.
After the first 6 grueling months I could say two things with confidence: 1) I would never have willingly put myself through that, nor go through it again. 2) Those were the richest 6 months of my life.
Why was this such a valuable time? I ended up staying in China for about 4.5 years, though that was broken up with a 9-month stint in Vietnam. Sometimes when I reflect on my life in China tears well up in my eyes and I miss it dearly. It’s not that I miss the un-flushed squat toilets in restrooms you never needed to look for because your nose could always guide you, in which case you just needed to move toward the horror. It was because my life was so different there, and so cut off, that it was like a separate life altogether tucked into my overall life. The locals didn’t speak English so I had to rely on my Chinese. The only Western food option was one KFC, and Chinese restaurants didn’t have English. I was completely immersed in, and ingesting Chinese culture. About 50% of the time I was also teaching with virulent strains of antibiotic-resistant Chinese chest colds. Nothing like doing monkey impressions for little kiddies while choking down loogies. It was a parallel existence. I’m as cut off from it now as America was for me when I lived there. It’s almost as if I have an identical twin, which whom I share telepathic powers, who is still lost in China somewhere.
I’ve often thought that the most momentous events in my life were the ones I couldn’t anticipate: the sudden complete and unforeseen changes. They were the things I hadn’t already taken into account. Rarely were those changes on the face of it good, and if they were they quickly revealed themselves as the opposite, at least in the short run.
There are ways in which we try to grow, and there are ways in which growth is forced upon us. If we had our way I for one would skip what on reflection are some of the most valuable experiences I’ve had. Had I the money, when I first saw that apartment in workaday China, I would have insisted on being shown to a hotel, and would have been on the next train out of there. Not only that I would have delivered an eloquent and damning lecture, probably with a few choice epithets, and perhaps a double bird salute. Of course, I wouldn’t have gone to China at all if I had found work in NY at the time.
Even more of a whopping coincidence, or instance of synchronicity was the day I left that city in China, but I’ll leave that story for another time.
It’s All a Game:
This is the kind of idea that depending on my circumstances and frame of mind is really useful or else would piss me off something fierce. It goes a little something like this:
This life is a game, and the purpose is not to win, to beat others at it, to amass a fortune, or to collect possessions. The purpose is to get it, to open up, and evolve.~ J. Sri Bhagovwid
The idea that life is a game is a real pisser in a way because it seems to trivialize real hardship, like stepping on a land mine, or working in a sweatshop. [Note that a former classmate of mine from elementary school maintains that people in the developing world should be grateful for sweatshop labor, even if it drives them to suicide, which might bring you back to my earlier paragraph about the danger of being a judgmental, mentally complacent ass.] But the useful part is the argument about the purpose of life, which is a lot like Socrate’s infamous pronouncement, “the un-examined life is not worth living”. In this context one becomes less bitter or angry about less-than-desirable circumstances or outcomes – barring the extremes, such as torture – and bearing the difficult-to-bear as a challenge rather than a damnation. It’s also a lot like Nietzsche’s “that which does not kill me makes me grow stronger”, except Nietzsche’s vantage exists within a paradigm of a “will to power” which can easily slip into the idea of winning, or dominating others. And if that’s not enough truisms/clichés, there’s always the one about “how you play the game”. But I like my version [of course I am J. Sri Bhagovwid] in which life is a game, because it helps one not take things too seriously (if they are not), and keeps focus on what really matters, which is evolving. What I mean by evolving is something along the lines of what I experienced that first 6 months in China, not developing a sixth finger.
Even if things get a little tight and I end up having to hightail it back to SE Asia and teach full-time, which I’d rather not do, I didn’t have a stroke and I also didn’t have my forefinger bitten off by a dog (which recently happened to my girlfriend’s stepfather), and it will all be easier with a better attitude.
And I just remembered to add that many years after I’d left Pierce college, and probably when I was at UCLA (which I’d never dreamed I’d ever have the privilege of attending) I ran into Milton Hirschl in a grocery store. He asked how I was doing and I told him of my struggles in my art program. And he gave me that other sort of lesson finally. He said, “That’s because you are a REAL artist. You won’t be happy in any art school.”
I think I’ll wrap things up here, as I have an art book review to write up next. One of the good things about being marooned on this Island is the local library had a couple books of art criticism. Feel free to comment and share the post.
Be back soon with another baboon.
Oh, and if you are one of my long time followers (or a newbie) and have thought about dropping me a donation in the coin jar, and you are still laughing at my China apartment, this might be a good time to let your better side shine.
Funding. Through Patreon, you can give $1 (or more) per month to help keep me going (y’know, so I don’t have to put art back on the back-burner while I slog away at a full-time job). Ah, if only I could amass a few hundred dollars per month this way, I could focus entirely on my art. See how it works here.
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