You don’t ask, you never learn. This maxim has been running through my head a lot lately. Three Wednesdays ago the Liberal Ironist was in a bar until very late. While there he became acquainted (through entirely-benign means, rest assured) with one of the bar’s bouncers. I wouldn’t have thought to say a word more than “Hey,” to him, except his name came up in conversation–and it’s a great one: Larry B. Quick.
That name, the bouncer’s peaceful appearance and the amused state I happened to be in were the only things that kept me talking to him long-enough for him to ask me where I was from. I told him I was from New York–the oversimplification I usually give. “New York’s too busy for me,” he said. “I like the peace and quiet.” Since he was bouncing in a bar in the downtown of a major city, I thought it logical to ask, “Well, where are you from?”
“I’m from here,” he said, meaning Washington, DC. “I’ve been here my whole life.” When I asked why someone who liked it calm and quiet would be a bouncer at a busy bar in a major city, he said that it was both a job and a place that allowed him to work on and exhibit his art.
I knew better than to be surprised by such a revelation, but…well, I was. I’d already noticed this bouncer’s rather pronounced calm, and as bouncers typically are he was quiet unless repeatedly approached. Still, under the circumstances the response that came to mind was, “You’re an artist?”
No, I was sober.
That’s when he told me about his arts degree. I wondered, Am I having one of those unaccountable, memorable moments that come out of nowhere? “What sort of art do you do, sir?”
“I do faces,” he said, with a certain informal intensity.
“You’re a portrait artist?” I asked.
“Yes. My portraits–Here, let me show you, I have one downstairs,” he said, and with that he made for the stairs. It was interesting how quickly he took the opportunity to show his artwork to someone he had just met upon an expression of interest. His expression still suggested casual conversation–and the conversation had only migrated in this direction as a result of my prompting–but once the subject was raised and I’d invited him to continue, he immediately presented his work–not “Well, would you like to see one?” but “Here, let me show you.” His words and actions expressed the eagerness that his emotions either naturally or studiously avoided.
Sure-enough, downstairs, behind the server bar, was a portfolio, and in this portfolio was a large drawing of a woman’s face, drawn out in a series of contours on a large white sheet of paper with a black marker. He had filled in some of the contours, which were like plates marking-out specific angles on the woman’s face, with colored pencils, each of a slightly different hue of predominantly red or yellow. Her head was thrown back slightly, and her hair was tightly-braided with much detail. He explained to me that this was a template, not the finished product–and shortly after indicated that the templates mean nothing to him once he had exhausted their potential through development into the portraits themselves. He said he would throw this template away at that point.
Then he showed me a portrait. It was very similar in outline to the sketch of the woman he had shown me moments before. “See, this is the finished product. Here, I’ve used an acryllic paint. It’s easier for me to paint on the canvas more-thickly, as it dries faster than oil.”
“Yes, I noticed it’s…thick,” I said, accepting that hiding my complete ignorance of the technique of portraiture was a losing battle. Then I noticed the texture. “There’s a lot of texture to this,” I said. You’re doing good, I told myself.
“Yes, that’s the reason for the use of acryllic paint. See, I want the paint on this portrait to be thick, so that I can paint lots of grooves into the paint as it goes on the canvas. The idea is that while this is on display, someone standing at a distance will see the texture from far-off.”
I was leaning forward a bit in spite of myself. “Uhh…”
“You can touch it–Go ahead,” he said. That was exactly what I had been wondering. “The point is, I want people who look at my work even in passing to clearly see that texture, to want to come closer, to want to touch it. It’s durable-enough that it can take that. Also, I had to use just the right kind of finish on it. You could use other materials and give it a nice gloss, but the problem is that some people want to take a picture, and with too much gloss in the finish the flash washes-out the picture entirely.”
“Huh. You’ve given a lot of thought to the function your work has to serve while it’s on display, haven’t you?”
“Yes, indeed,” he said. “You know, part of my approach is that the image of this face looks a bit clearer at a distance. As you come closer to it, the ways in which the colors and proportions are slightly-off on parts of the face come more-clearly into focus. So, because this portrait is very colorful, because it has such texture in it, it can draw your attention. You want to touch it. But as you get closer, you lose your overall impression of the work a little. These apparent imperfections start to show. You start to feel uneasy about it, you aren’t so sure you like it–and so you linger over it longer.
“I want them to linger over it longer,” he said. “I want them to be unsure, upon closer inspection, whether they like it. That way it will stay with them afterwards.”
“You mean…the most-important thing in your artwork isn’t making it beautiful and symmetrical?” I asked. I was a little fascinated at this point.
“I’m past making my work look beautiful,” he said, brushing beauty aside with a gesture of his (left) hand. “I’ve moved on, I want them to see this thing and see something original in it and not to know whether they like it.”
At this point, a question seemed obviously in order to me. “So, how exactly do you end up working in a bar as a bouncer?” At this point I’d forgotten that this was just a different form of the question that started everything.
“It’s a good steady job for me,” he said. “I’m a portrait artist. Here I can see other people’s faces as they come and go. I always like to see different faces, some coming and going, some as they’re sitting down at the tables. It gives me a chance to think about different ways of seeing faces in general. While I’m checking people’s IDs, I take a moment to look at their face in the photograph. I like to think that every time I can see a face a little bit differently, that I’ll have something to think about in the appearance.”
He returned to the portrait. “Now, all these different contours on the face are sewn together. So, my basic approach is no different from a lot of other guys. It’s called quilting. The only difference is that I don’t use fabric, I use different shades of paint on canvas. I have to be careful when I use the sewing machine to piece this together. Now, if you look here…” He held the portrait up and pointed to the thread. “…you can see the thread is orange. Every portrait I quilt together uses 1 color of thread, depending on the emotional significance of the portrait for me. Orange is the color I use for love.”
He told me that the girl in the portrait was his girlfriend. “My work on portraits has actually led to conflict in relationships,” he admitted. “Women sometimes get excited when they hear I’m an artist. ‘Oh, that’s so romantic!’ they think.”
“I guess they don’t find it so romantic when you’re up painting until 5:00 am?” I ventured.
“Exactly,” he said. “‘I can’t sleep while you aren’t here!’ one would say.”
“…But you couldn’t sleep if you had an idea in your head? You’d have to work?” I imagined.
“Yes, exactly. I would tell her: ‘I love you and I will always be faithful…but I’m married to this.'” He gestured back to his portrait. He really did sound like his portrait art was his central passion, but who really knows what another person feels? He also seemed a bit tired at mention of this point, and while his words seemed serious they also seemed to exhibit the polish of rehearsal.
Maybe I’m imagining that tired and rehearsed tone. This might be a good time to mention that I had previously mentioned to Mr. Quick that I had a blog, and when I told him that I could understand how he could feel torn like this even though I wasn’t an artist, he said, “But you are an artist. You write! That’s an art, too.”
I’m still not sure why it didn’t occur to me to compare writing to painting. The screen of a word processor certainly starts blank as a canvas, and you have to impose a preconception of order on it. Even if it doesn’t turn out as you initially intended, the written work has to have an order to it and as it progressively takes shape you must hone it around that order.
Out of curiosity, I asked him how he felt about the potential for combat with rowdy patrons in his job. “I always prefer to avoid a fight. Most of the time it’s possible to just talk someone down. Some guys in this position, they’re ready to go to town on someone. They’re just looking for an excuse. ‘I already told you once; now, back against the wall!'”
Mr. Quick was in good-enough physical condition that simply hearing him imitate a thug was intimidating. His manner was very reassuring, though.
“As far as I’m concerned, if you act like that when you don’t have to, if you’re rough with 1 person like that, that’s genocide. I don’t care what race you are, that’s genocide. I’m not like that.” A moral severity like this was a surprising discovery in a bouncer.
The following night I recounted this unexpected conversation to my roommate; his immediate response was “You know, all these people lining up to come into this bar give him their IDs and they probably think, ‘Ugh, another bastard just exercising his arbitrary power over me.’ They wouldn’t have any idea that when he’s looking at their ID, he’s actually looking at their picture and seeing their faces in his own way as an object of art.” So this, and not assurances that you can paint thickly on canvas or tips on how to draw attention to your work at an art show, is the point of this story: You can never know, just from what you see, how big the World is. Space in “the World” cannot be measured solely in feet or miles but includes the workings of the brains of the people in it. So we will never know how big the World is–but we can get a better idea if we ask.