I sometimes wish I could just pick up a phone and call someone. It seems strange to me, having grown up in a house where we never had a phone until the late 1980s, to find myself living in a world where every twelve year old seems to get on a bus with Gangsta Rap blaring out of their I-phone.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m fine with the dread machine when at work and I have actual things that need to be talked about, but talking to a friend or relative at a distance is something I can happily put off for months on end rather than do.
But then I’m the chap at the party who only came because someone needed a lift and sits in a corner all night playing with the beer mats and looking like he’d rather be at home with a good book. It’s not that I don’t like other people – it’s just I don’t understand how they work.
So the prospect of phoning the Arts Guild was one that I had successfully avoided for three months on the very sensible grounds of Severe Intimidation. Would I have to fill in a questionnaire about Gouache? Would they ask me to name five great painters from the Pre-Raphaelite movement (guessing Raphael wasn’t one of them)?
I’d got the number from the main Art Gallery in town because I find art classes quite expensive and was hoping for a cheaper and more sociable way of getting a good practice whilst learning something at the same time. Even so, and even though it was something that I really wanted to do – I felt severely daunted at the prospect of picking up the phone and calling someone who might actually know what he was talking about.
Eventually, last Monday – and as part of my Plans For 2009 – I picked up the phone: asking for TC (Not Top Cat, in case you were wondering) – and, just as I suspected, ended up talking to a man who sounded just shy of the age of Methuselah (or whoever it was in The Bible who lived to be 900).
ME: Hello, is that TC? I’m ringing in regard to the Arts Guild – I was interested in joining.
TC: Oh yes? Well we’re a very sociable group – we meet every Wednesday at 7:30pm for a workshop and the first Monday of the month for a Guild meeting where guest speakers come along.
ME: Sounds great – the email I have says that you meet at United Reform Church, opposite ABC supermarket on the GZG road – is that right?
TC: Yes – that’s right. If you’re outside ABC supermarket you cross the road and it’s slightly up the road on the other side
ME: Yes – I know where that is – see you at 7:30pm on Wednesday.
Wednesday evening came and the friend I had arranged to meet in town after work cancelled at the last minute due to an overrunning meeting – leaving me with the choice of trying to rush home, get changed, eat and dash straight back out again or to hang around in town for 3 hours. As TC had said to bring some examples of my work along I elected to stay in town – having photos of my best stuff stored on my laptop.
The time passed very slowly, but eventually I caught the bus to the Church and waited outside at the specified place (around the back, by the door). Inside there was a martial arts class in full flow – but no sign of artists.
7:30pm came with no sign of the group – so when the Martial Arts class finished I asked the instructor about the art group – he had no idea what I was talking about. No art group there: never had been.
Cursing TC under my breath I walked around for a bit trying to decide what to do – there were at least two other churches in the area that I knew of: but which one?
I tried the home number that I had for TC – no response (clearly – as he was out at the art group: wherever that was). I crossed the road to the supermarket, looking for a Taxi home – nothing.
I tried the number again and this time I got TC’s wife – who sounded more elderly and fragile than her husband. I explained to her, above the noise of the traffic and the police sirens, that there was no sign of her husband at the designated church opposite the supermarket – secretly hoping that I wasn’t accidentally exposing some Love Tryst that TC was involved in with some teenage nymphet.
TCs Wife was very helpful – repeating the exact same directions that I had been given by her husband. Then she added, ‘I don’t understand…have you been under the bridge yet?’
I knew instantly that I was in the wrong place – and that the Actual Church was several metres up the road. I walked swiftly up to it – a Unitarian church, not United Reform.
Everything was in full flow – my first glance was enough to confirm my suspicions that everyone there would be getting a free bus pass (IE retired) – although I was not quite the youngest one there: two girls sat in a corner unloved and unspoken to – one of whom was drawing, whilst the other looked extremely bored.
I said hello to the two people that I knew from my course with Mad Penguin Lady (see previous posts) and explained my lateness to TC – who had been unaware of a second church on the road. He whisked me through to the kitchen, where I set up my laptop and proceeded to show him my efforts, accompanied by lots of comments along the lines of “I’ve never looked at anyone’s work on a computer before – isn’t modern technology wonderful”
Finally he pronounced my paintings “Very impressionistic” in an uncertain tone of voice that left me wondering if what he actually meant was “a steaming pile of horse manure” and asked me what Medium I preferred to work with. I successfully fought back the urge to say I usually preferred Doris Stoakes, but had left my Ouija board at home – and replied that I liked oils for texture, acrylics for speed and enjoyed paintings by Hopper…having then to explain who Hopper was.
I even made a point of dropping Rolf Harris’s name into the conversation a few times – knowing that it would annoy them (for some reason so-called “serious” artists have a problem with the clearly brilliant and highly enthusiastic TV presenter/artist/musician – possibly because he has done more to make art accessible than any Picasso and by doing so has stopped Art being the property of the intellectual elite)
Then TC encouraged me to take a walk around the room and talk to a few other people about what they were doing. Each person was busy in their work and I spoke to a few – feeling very much like a walker who has just struggled to get to the bus stop at the top of a local hill, only to find a man there talking to his mate about what a piece of piss Mount Everest is to climb. Each one of them seemed to be producing a work of art so brilliant that I could barely even dream of doing anything that came close and each one of them added that their current work was “nothing much” or “I can usually do better” (don’t you hate talented people? Grrrr!).
TC introduced me to Sideburns Man (we’re talking full on Wolverine sideburns here – in the style of overweight British men who stand in fields chewing stalks of grass and saying “ooh aar” a lot in comedy sketches) – saying “here’s another oil enthusiast”
Sideburns Man sat me down (fortunately next to one of the people I knew from MPL’s class) and – having established that I find Proportion and Perspective difficult - proceeded to lecture me for the next hour on how to measure the body; that you can tell how far apart the arms are by aligning your pencil with the north star (or something like that) and proceeded to draw a stunning sketch of a horse in pencil before announcing easily, ‘of course, that drawing is totally wrong – but you see what I mean’
To be frank it was all a bit too much. He clearly knew a lot about art, but he also clearly knew that he knew a lot and felt that it was his role to remind me how little I actually knew. At times I felt like he was being helpful and informative, but he never bothered to establish what I already knew – saying things like I needed to start looking at objects photographically and composition wise without asking me if I knew anything about this. I got out my pencil case (admittedly my two pencil cases have pictures of Fido Dido and Bart Simpson on the side – to remind me that nothing in life should be taken too seriously) and he started complaining about my sketch pad (you want to buy better quality than that) and the way I sharpened my pencils (you need to use a knife – won’t be sharp enough for what you want to do otherwise)
Looking back on it now I feel that he was trying to establish his credentials as the All-Seeing Oracle Of Art, the man to ask for advice. In a bizarre, almost surrealist way, I think he was trying to be friendly: but in many ways he couldn’t have more clearly marked his territory if he had raised his leg and pissed all over me.
By the end of the evening my brain was complaining – my one or two attempts at humour had gone way overhead and I walked out of the building with a deep built desire to go home and burn my art books and sketch pads. However, having survived the Dodgy Bloke waiting by a car (who, bizarrely, tried to sell me perfume whilst I waited for the bus) I went home having realized that something Nigel (the well meaning, but slightly annoying Sontaran at work) had said earlier in the week was true.
Art is subjective. What one man says is art is another man’s Tracy Emin. And it reminded me of a lyric in a U2 B-side (already quoted on this blog) – the lyric is “He said he was an artist, but he really painted billboards” To me that just goes to underline the fact that anyone, including myself, can chose to view the world from their own perspective. If I say I am an artist or a musician then who can really say I am wrong, regardless of my actual level of knowledge or ability?
OK – so Sideburns Man has studied a lot about art and clearly knows his stuff…but that doesn’t mean that his view of what is right is utterly right and that his methods can’t be challenged. After all, where would we be if no one had ever challenged the thoughts and actions of previous generations?
I think I’m big enough and strong enough to listen to what he says, take on board the things I think I can use and ignore the things I can’t. I wonder if the same thing can be said about him?
A note from the Pixies:
The main bulk of this post was written on Friday 16th January 2009. On Sunday 18th January Artist and TV presenter Tony Hart died aged 83 after a long period of illness.
Tony was famous in the UK for programmes such as “Vision On” and “Take Hart”, as well as the centre of the awful school playground joke that went:
PERSON A: Have you been to bed with Tony Hart?
PERSON B: No!
PERSON A: So you’ve never been to bed with Toe-knee-heart?
PERSON B: Well obviously…
PERSON A: Yuk! You’ve been to bed with Tony Hart (and so forth)
As well as creating a home for Morph the first plasticine creation to come out of what would become Ardman Animations (Creature Comforts, Wallace & Gromitt and The Nightmare Before Christmas) Tony – alongside Rolf Harris – made a generation of children (including myself) excited about art.
Follow the link below for a fairly long clip from Take Hart