I was almost completely unconscious of my co-workers at Oakland Public. I came, I glued, I left again. The first day my boss, Vi, belligerently declared that I would be out on my ear if I dared show up at 8:01 or later, so I was scrupulously punctual. A mousy coworker, Cynthia, once asked me to lunch out of pity for my temporary-employee state. She lived with her parents and had never been on a date. I did not dare to let on that I pitied her, too.
My work changed radically that semester. The ghosts of all the pent-up tensions and dramas of the school found their way onto my canvases. I started out small, tight, and surreal, and got bigger and bigger and looser and looser. By mid-semester I was working six by six feet, with swirling, writhing figures tangled up in grand pianos, writing cryptic and angst-written poems on the sides and bottoms of the canvas. By the end of the semester my penury and out-of-control inspiration caused me to paint on any material which came to hand, mostly burlap and construction palettes weighing 30 pounds apiece. My output was roughly four times that of the average student, and there was a regular stream of people passing my wall space to gawp.
In fact we all spied on each other; the instructors were pale nonentities that came in during daylight hours and made tentatively obvious observations. We learned our technique by sneaking into each other’s studios late at night, observing methods of glazing, layering, texturing, rendering, and scrubbing down.
Some people, like Colette
, meticulously applied layers of translucent glaze in formidable detail, to create Bosch-like images of mystical import. Others, like Dave, painted fast and furious in housepaint with great wide brushes. Ruut was clinically abstract; he would lay down a broad, forthright stroke, survey it critically, go over it with a roller, light a cigarette, and discuss the matter for half an hour with whomever was at hand. He said he didn’t think he was a real artist, but wanted to paint one original stroke before quitting.
Kristin was all over the map; realistic and tightly rendered one moment, collage of garbage and shopping lists the next. Halfway through the semester she discovered oil paint and sold all of her acrylics to Zack. She would make a painting, declare that it was the best painting ever created, and then paint something entirely different on top of it.
We all painted heavily abstracted portraits of one another, left small collages and poems as gifts in each other’s spaces, and knew that each of us was great. By the end of the spring we were so tightly interwoven that every person’s gesture was fraught with import to everyone else. I would drape a piece of burlap over some scrap wood and cover it with acrylic medium; Yari would say, “that’s very powerful” and attach a stick to his canvas in consequence. It was intense and unsustainable, like a heroin high.
(In fact the members of the in-clique all decided to become heroin addicts for a few months, because that’s what artists do. They made a 16 mm film of themselves shooting up. Our counter-clique rejected this as passé–Kristin and Paula had been there and done that, while the rest of us were classically content with binge drinking. We couldn’t have afforded heroin anyway.)