|when a painter dies
I have been painting 20 years. It started
with a painting class at Harbor College in
Carson, a suburb of Los Angeles, or
what passes for one in these parts and
memorably described by the writer
James Kunstler in a book about LA as
The Geography of Nowhere. You
could also say: Living On the Moon.
But there I was—with a business in
Carson and when I got the bright idea to
paint and to take a painting class Harbor
College was my destination.
Carson isnt Beverly hills and over at
Harbor JC where the average student
passed his or her high school years in a
fog of sex, drugs and video games while
zeroing in on a sparkling 2.3 GPA you
are likewise a long way from UCLA or
USC but as I have always maintained—
its funny where you can find some good
That was Craig--mid-forties, weighed
about 240 and holding down 3 part time
Community College type jobs—at
Harbor, Pierce and Mission. Craig was
victim to the trend in recent years—to
hire more part timers and in this way
eliminate the cost of benefits—health
insurance. It was the new economics.
So Craig had 3 part time jobs at three
schools separated at vast distances from
each other and he spent more time on
the freeway driving back and forth
between teaching gigs in his jalopy—a
1969 fungus green Ford pinto with
diseased pistons—badly in need of some
health care of its own.
But as I say—teaching-wise you never
know. Craig had a masters in philosophy
from UCLA and 35 years of painting
under his belt with a Curriculum Vitae 9
pages long including shows with some
top LA galleries and in Europe as well
and I was on the receiving end of it all 2
nights a week for 4 hours a night for 4
months for $15.
The class was the usual mix of
housewives and civil servant retirees
and a few student drop outs in need of
some academic re-hab and they all
pretty much fell into the same category:
painters of thrift store type paintings.
You follow my meaning.
But there we were at Harbor, to meet
twice a week under the expert tutelage
of Craig and at mid-semester there
would be a critique. Out into the hall we
marched to prop the paintings against
the wall andCraig would start at the first
and work his way down to the last, and
to deliver at each piece a critique,
carefully worded to minimize any
emotional trauma and otherwise resist
the urge to state the obvious: dont quit
your day job.
These were his students after all—his
children—and also: he knew which side
his bread was buttered on.
From time to time Craig would have a
show and the class would attend and we
would ooh and aah over the show that
would run for 2 weeks or a month and
he would sell two or three paintings for
maybe $15,000 and the gallery would
take their 40% cut and that would be his
reward for a years full of work. Call it:
being a painter.
But this isnt a story about my painting
class or Craigs painting shows but of the
paintings themselves and their fate.
Craig was living in Inglewood over by
LAX and now he moved closer to the
job, to San Pedro, to rent a double
storefront on a side street off Pacific and
threw a party to celebrate.
The space was cool, with living and
painting on one side and the other side
to serve as storage. Normally as a
painter you live apart from the studio
because 1) painting is messy and 2)
fumes. But Craig couldnt do that
because he had a storage problem.
When a writer dies everything he has
ever written can be dumped in a closet—
or these days on a flash drive the size of
a cigarette lighter.
Craig couldnt do that. I invite you to
visualize a space, 30x70, the size of
your neighborhood hardware store and
along one wall from front to back and
floor to ceiling rack upon rack upon rack
of paintings--small, medium, large and
extra large and lets not forget the prints
and lithographs and pastels and
watercolors and sketch books and
sketch pads and sheets of stencil and
even works of fresco—wall sections. It
And now I had a thought—an obvious
thought but occurring for the first time.
Craig was pushing 50. In 20 or 30
years—and another 1000 paintings down
the road—he would drop dead. He was
unmarried, there were no kids or
girlfriends or boyfriends. He had a
sister. She was the heir. When he died it
would all go to her. And that was my
thought: what would she do with it? The
options were limited. She couldnt sell
the paintings because there were
no buyers. She couldnt donate to the
museums because the museums were
not interested. Craig had a reputation—
a small reputation. Museums prefer the
large reputation. That left solution 3:
storage. Storage was $500 a month.
What about solution 4: to burn them?
I dont know. I didnt know then or
today—15 years later. Craig is still
around—still in Pedro, retired now and
he continues to paint. Painters dont stop
painting. They drop dead. Then all their
problems are solved. But the problem
of the works of a lifetime they leave
behind and what is to become of this
work persists. Call it: being a painter.