I don’t paint; I schmear. Not in the pejorative sense, as in spreading bad gossip—a schmear campaign. No, I schmear as in cream cheese on a bagel—but more frenetic. Schmear, [from Yiddish ____ shmir 'smear'; cf. German schmieren] New vti. to make a mess with paint.
I share a studio in West Vancouver with several other painters and print-makers who make beautiful work and spend a lot of time on each piece. They’re careful and serious about their craft. Quiet, steady, serene. And there I am—schmearing. I tear up pieces of water colour paper, tape them to a board, mix my pallet of acrylics, and I’m making the kind of mess worthy of a preschooler. Therapy or just good ole fashioned incompetence? Who knows? And who cares? I’m with Henry Miller, who said, “Paint what you like and die happy.”
At first I was intimidated by my studio mates, and I’m not sure they quite knew what to make of me. I wear paint splattered blue coveralls, the kind auto mechanics wear. And as I say, I work away in my corner, splattering and swiping and carrying boards out onto the balcony to dry. “Oh, but what if it gets rained on?” someone asks. “Might be just what it needs,” I answer. At the end of an afternoon, when I take the tape off the boards, I have between 27 and 45 small paintings. I’m just as surprised as everybody else at how some of them turn out. What was a rather large gloppy mess becomes a number of colourful small pieces with neat white edges where the tape was. So there is a kind of method to my madness. Or every once in a while a surprising result. A small painting that’s not bad to look at.
“Wow!” says Jim. “You did so many!”
“Yeah,” I say, “but remember I’m an American. I go for quantity, not quality.”
I was busy getting born in St. Louis when the Abstract Expressionists were emerging in New York. I knew I would never be able to catch up. Besides, I had other things to do. Now, in my fifties, I get to turn the clock back—back before post modernism—and play with paint. I returned to the painting studio after my first book was published 17 years ago, and I felt completely baffled by writing. I had won a literary prize and somehow I felt I ought to know what I was doing. And yet that’s not why I wrote—ever. I wrote to find out what was going to happen next. I wrote out of curiosity and a sense of discovery. Now I was writing because I was published, and it was expected of me. I think more than anything I was bored.
I needed to go do something I didn’t know how to do. So I signed up for an oil painting class on Thursday night at the Maine College of Art. I got a special deal on classes because I taught English in the BFA program there. And so I began (or in actual fact resumed) my long and joyful incompetence as a painter. So incompetent have I been for so long, I’ve had to invent a new verb. What I do when I jump into my monkey suit and drive across the Lion’s Gate Bridge is go back to say 1957—at any rate, a time when I might have been excused for simply being curious about paint and what it could and couldn’t do.
What’s more is I don’t have to do it alone. I’ve always envied potters and furniture makers and blacksmiths—all the folks who usually work in collaboration. Painting can be a lonely pursuit, but it doesn’t have to be. So when I saw an opportunity to share studio space, I jumped for it.
The best part about sharing a studio is that having others around forces me to work—otherwise I feel weird—like a voyeur. Something about others doing their work in the same room contributes to the energy I need to do my own. And I like the conversation. Some days we’re more chatty than others. Mostly we talk materials—acrylic gels, brushes, paper—that sort of thing. At other times my studio mates instruct me about all things Canadian—from the proper use of the word “wack” (as in a “wack of loonies”) to the mystery of the Burnaby crows.
At some point, we roam from table to easel to table to look at each other’s work. We are generous with our curiosity and delight, interested in new directions, excited by things we like. If there’s one thing we’ve got, it’s diversity. From oil to mono-prints to watercolour to assemblages …. The more we talk, the more we generate new ideas.
So I get to have it both ways. I can live out my fantasy of a misunderstood and very hip American Expressionist circa 1957, and I get to do it among congenial, smart, and talented people.
Or, I guess should say: Not bad, eh?
Image above: Firedoors by Alfred DePew