I’ve done many pet portraits over the last couple years but few have been of animals I knew or have even met. I had a dog for a short time and shared a home with my ex-girlfriend’s dog, Porkchop, for three years, but I’ve never had a connection with an animal which would inspire me to get their portrait done. Pet owners have thousands of photographs of their beloved friends but a painted likeness seems like more of a commitment. Aside from the money involved, right or wrong, everyone is at least an amateur photographer now; whereas few adults consider themselves painters of any kind. I’m always happy to get these jobs but wonder sometimes about what it means to immortalize animals I know next to nothing about.
Ernie and Eddie are Kelly’s dogs and I didn’t paint their portraits for money. I’ve spent some time with these guys and we get along pretty well. Kelly’s just moved back to town and the paintings are for her new place. I hope to see more of them now and there will likely be more portraits to come. But in the meantime, I just got a commission to paint a cat on a bookshelf. I’ve seen neither in person but I’ll do my best.
I’ve never been good with the in-between times, the days or weeks after one thing has ended and before the next has begun. The transitional periods are to reassess and rethink what you’re doing, a time for introspection, and I just hate it. I function best when going by feel, with no plan or pre-game plotting. But since hanging my portrait show three weeks ago I’ve felt kind of unmoored.
I’m still reading books, going to movies and concerts and museums all the time, but it all feels like a dodge to avoid work when I have nothing of my own going. It’s one thing to be inspired by what others are doing, but kind of hollow and unrewarding when I’m not making anything in reaction or counterpoint. Part of my current restlessness has to do with a growing dissatisfaction with some of the ways I’ve been cobbling together a living. Reviewing books and movies hasn’t been a complete waste of time but neither has it always felt worthwhile. Criticism will always feel like a secondary craft to me. Even my most subtle and ingenious opinion will always pale next to a third-rate Hollywood star vehicle or the most forgettable airport novel because those were made to stand on their own, whereas what I write can only exist in response.
More than anything, whether painting or writing, I value working from life, trying to make something with what’s before my eyes and within range of my ears. There’s no way that writing reviews can scratch that itch. Not that I went into it thinking it would, but after doing them awhile it becomes a matter of diminishing returns. I can’t quit the racket completely because I need the money but I’ve been wracking my brain for other ways to get by. I may end up having to pick up another bartending shift or two to regain my equilibrium.
There are other frustrations which are keeping me from diving into the next thing but they’re not worth going into here. I try not to make this a forum for bitterness and whining. If history’s any guide, I’ll snap out of it soon and get on with the business of documenting the world out my window. That’s what I’m here for. I just forget sometimes.
I’ve been going to the Unique Thrift down Halsted from my place regularly since I moved to Bridgeport a year and a half ago. In the last few months I was mostly looking for frames I could use for the portrait show I just put up. More often than not, the artwork I remove before reusing these frames is forgettable, but the other day I stumbled on a Rembrandt. It was signed and everything. I didn’t really need any more frames but curiosity got the better of me. It was marked $4.99 but that Saturday was half-price day so I paid only $2.74 tax included.
When I got home I popped the print out of the frame. The backing was water-damaged and the paper had spotting, but there was an indentation to indicate that at the very least it was printed from a plate rather than copied digitally, so I scanned it in and emailed an image to my friend Mark, who’s a curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute. I knew enough to be under no illusion about this find. For one thing, Rembrandt didn’t sign his prints in pencil with the date the way mine was signed, for another, the paper was obviously at least a couple hundred years too new. Still, this was a lot more interesting-looking than the average machine-produced color copy which is passed off as a print these days.
On the back of the print was a stamped name and address in Rotterdam, Holland. A Google search turned up a couple auction records of prints from the 1920s and not much else. Mark emailed me back suggesting I forward my query to a colleague who works on Rembrandt to figure out whether what I had was an original etching or a photogravure (a forerunner of modern photocopying).
The question of what any artwork is really worth is practically unanswerable. Or, rather, it has endless answers. As an artist, more often than not, the value of my work is whatever I can get for it on a given day. That varies according to who the buyer is, how broke I am, and many other factors which I have little control over.
When a piece of art ends up in a thrift store it has gone the entire length and breadth that a consumer item can go in our society. Someone made it and marketed it to someone who bought it and took it home, then, they either resold it or kept it in their home until their death, at which point some unlucky relative was charged with carting off their unwanted belongings to the thrift store. It might sound macabre but I’ve always hoped to find one of my own paintings on the shelves at Unique or Salvation Army. It would be a sign that something I made went through the culture, in a manner of speaking.
I don’t know whether my $2.74 Rembrandt is worth any more than what I paid for it or whether it’s “authentic” to any degree. I also don’t know whether a painting I sold for $1000 is any better than one I got $10 for. Whatever price you pay, if you think enough of a picture to decorate your home with it, it must be worth something.