This interesting article was written by
Nikolaus Maack (former owner of this website)
My father, who used to own a restaurant, knows too many people for his own good. The old man can’t walk ten feet through a mall without meeting at least three friends from the restaurant. One person he knows is a local owner of a gallery/frame shop in downtown Ottawa. Dad gave me the name and phone number of the guy and said to me (in his thick German accent): “Go und zee him, show him some paintings, cuz you neffer know!”
So I agonized over it for a week. A phone number. A name. A gallery downtown. Me with a bundle of paintings and drawings. None of them on canvas. I’m such a goddamn amateur. But to sell them. Wow. That would be amazing. What to do with this phone number? Well, obviously stall for as long as possible until it’s too late to do anything. So I started doing that.
My father reminded me every time I saw him. “Did you go to zee gallery yet? No? Vy? Vy haven’t you gone?”
And then there was that very valuable lesson I once learned: often I want to do something so much it terrifies me. So use the fear to make yourself DO it! Otherwise you spend the rest of your life kicking yourself, saying, “Why the hell didn’t I do that? I lost that opportunity! I am such an idiot!”
So I called the guy at the gallery, nervous as hell. “Hello, may I speak to Mister Goldman please?”
“Uh, yes, Gladman,” the man corrected me.
And I cursed my father’s incompetence. Dad’s a sweet if somewhat odd guy, but he has this thing with names. He forgets them; he messes them up; he bends them. For years he has referred to my buddy named Sean as “your friend John.” And Goldman instead of Gladman? Now Gladman was going to think I was an anti-Semitic lout.
The reason I’m sensitive to all issues Jewish is also because of my father. He occasionally rants about how the Jews run the universe, embarrassing everyone at the dinner table.
“If you vant to succeed in dis verld you haff to be more Jewish dan zee Jews!” is one of my father’s favorite expressions.
Dad gets very animated if you call him anti-Semitic. It’s not that he’s opposed to Jews. He envies their success. They banded together and took over the entire world, and now run it through a well orechestrated network of key players in every business of importance. Is it anti-Semitic to envy their incredible success?
Yes dad, it is.
So I wasn’t ten seconds into the phone call and already I felt like I had blown the whole thing. Instantly the gallery owner put me at ease. He sputtered and hemmed and hawed and seemed more nervous than me.
“Well… Come by and… Any day this week. During the day. Any day at all. Any day, but Thursday. Thursday’s, no good.”
He had a voice that, while not exactly monotone, only hit two notes. Maybe C and C-sharp.
“Great! Thanks!” I yelped in a hysterical voice of gratitude. “I’ll be there tomorrow!”
“Okay,” he mumbled. “Yes. That’s… Yes. Goodbye.”
And so I hung up the phone and let out an agonized sigh of joy. Tomorrow I would go. Jesus. This guy was going to take one look at my artwork, undo his fly, and piss all over them. He was probably used to artists showing up with thin black leather attache cases. I’d be showing up with a roll of work stuffed in a garbage bag. This guy would laugh in my face.
The next day, just before heading downtown, I called my lover Michelle and demanded reassurance. “Tell me I’m a great artist.”
“You’re the greatest artist I’ve ever met,” she said.
“And how many artists have you met?”
“Well… Just you.”
So with that encouragement dancing in my head, I left the house.
I forgot the address. There I was, standing on a busy street, looking back and forth between three different galleries, a garbage bag full of art in my hands, wondering which gallery was the one I wanted. Damn it. Okay, so I’d just call him again. I fumbled in my pockets for some change. No quarters. A dime, a nickel. And a looney. So I plonked the looney into the payphone, knowing the phone would give me no change.
“Hello, Mister Gladman?” and then I explained I was an idiot.
“Yes, okay,” he said, and gave me the address once more. He seemed unsurprised. Maybe all artists are this unorganized.
Two seconds later, I was in the store. I’d walked past it on my way to the payphone.
Mister Gladman turned out to be a bald man with dark brown eyes set deep in his face. The hesitation in his voice showed in his posture and demeanor. He seemed somewhat bent in on himself, as though concealing a great secret slightly above his heart. His eyes often avoided mine, jerking this way and that. While well dressed, his posture managed to make his clothing look ordinary and dull. He seemed very human. I liked him as soon as I saw him.
But because I was already insanely nervous, the way he moved made me ever more nervous. He shuffled around in small circles, looking like he expected me to attack him. It was easy to picture him throwing himself into a corner, holding up his hands over his face, and saying in that hesitating near-monotone: “Don’t… Look, don’t, hurt me. Don’t, okay?”
Maybe he had some bad experiences with artists in the past. Or maybe I should have shaved that morning and worn a better shirt. I don’t know.
He asked for permission to see my paintings, which for some reason made me happy. And the way he handled the paintings and talked about art was thrilling. Even if he didn’t want to deal with any of my stuff, it was obvious that he loved art, loved looking at it, loved touching it. There were long moments of silence as he shifted paintings from one pile to another. He made a few comments, tossing them off casually, but they all struck home.
“You, prefer, certain colours,” he said, handling the paintings by the edges.
“Yeah, I’m mostly into primary colours, the brighter the better. And faces. I’m really obsessed with faces, right now, as you can see. That’s all I paint. Portraits.”
He nodded silently, scanning the paintings with impenetrable eyes. Some works he looked at longer than others, and I couldn’t figure out why. What was he seeing? What was he looking for? What was so special about this work, and not that one?
I’d brought a book I was painting for a friend of mine, figuring any art I had to show couldn’t hurt. My “patron” was a computer programmer with money to blow. He asked me to paint in the margins of his copy of Steppenwolf. I’d been working on this project for months, and I still had 70 pages left to do. Mister Gladman asked to see it, and after a panicked moment, unable to find the book in the bottom of the bag, I found it, and handed it over to him.
He flipped through the pages, slowly at first, and then with more speed. “Oh,” he said. “I like… I like these more. They’re, happier. Than, your other works.”
As soon as he said this, I knew it was true, although it had never occurred to me before. His words hit me like a slap for some reason. I thought to myself, If I get nothing else from my meeting with this man, this is enough. He’s given me something to think about.
“Do, you know, David Cation?” he said after a while.
I shuffled through the index cards in my head. Kay-shun? Was that some big artist name I should know? Is my vast ignorance showing? “Uh, no. No, I don’t.”
Gladman nodded, and continued flipping through my paintings.
“Uh, who is he?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s, a local artist. You should meet him,” he said.
While Gladman spoke with a lilting pausing song of hesitation, his voice had a profound authority to it. All of his comments about my paintings, all his suggestions, hit home, and hit hard. There was something about his hesitating voice that made all his advice seem incredibly well thought out, as though he were very careful about what ideas in his head he chose to express in words. Beneath his nervous tremors there was a deep well of wisdom.
“Cation, he likes colours, like yours,” Gladman said. “That’s one of his works. Over there.”
He pointed at a red and orange face painted on what looked like homemade paper. Two green stripes cut the face in two places. There seemed to be a stack of similar works behind it. I wanted to rifle through them, check them all out, but I hesitated. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe that was bad form.
“I, hear you’re a, writer as well,” Gladman said, continuing to flip through my art.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “I try to do everything.”
“What, sort of things, do you, write?”
“Well, it’s a bit of a family secret, but I tend to write for men’s magazines.” That was a polite way of saying I wrote mostly porn.
And it wasn’t that much of a family secret. My parents notified my entire family tree. The previous Christmas had been particularly embarrassing when my aunt Molly came up to me and insisted on giving me a big hug.
“I always said we needed a pornographer in the family,” she told me with a laugh.
The wickedness of my admission pleased Mr. Gladman as well. He smiled, an odd joy twinkling in what used to be unreadable eyes. He asked a few questions about porn writing — does it pay well? what percentage of your work do they accept? — and my answers seemed to increase his happiness.
Eventually we got down to brass tacks.
“Your work is, interesting. But would be, very difficult, to sell,” he informed me. “People want to buy pictures of the canal, the Parliament buildings.” And he sneered. “Are you involved, with the local, art community?”
I admitted I wasn’t. In fact, I didn’t even know one other artist in the entire city.
“You should, get, involved,” he told me. “I have an invitation to, Cation’s next show. Somewhere.” And he began digging through piles of paper on his desk. “I’m not very well organized,” he admitted, and kept searching. “No. It’s not here.” He paused, looked about himself for a moment, and sighed. “They throw my things out. Without telling me. They throw away my things.” And then he threw himself back into the search, but to no avail.
“Chris Downing,” Gladman said suddenly. “You should know him. Him too. Downing. I have an etching of his. Somewhere.” And he started looking for that. “Downing,” he said to himself. “Downing.” Something about the name struck him as wrong. As he flipped through framed drawings leaning against one wall, he frowned to himself. “Downing?” he asked the air. “Dunning!” he said triumphantly.
He wrote the names for me on a piece of paper. David Cation. Chris Dunning. Then he went and played with his computer, looking for these two artists’ phone numbers. Which he also didn’t find. “Their numbers are in the phone book, I’m sure,” he told me.
“You should, get to know, people,” he said. “Get, involved. In the community. I can’t sell, your work.” He pointed up at the wall, where five paintings hung in a row. “One of my artists. Fairly well established, in the community. I sell, two of his paintings, a year. But if you, got involved, with other artists. Showed some work in one of their shows. You could sell your paintings.”
We talked a bit about art and writing and the role of artists and writers in society. I told him how a friend of mine had put it: Once upon a time, artists were considered vitally important, and computer programmers — mathematicians back then — were considered useless. In today’s society, it’s the other way around. Programmers are gods, and artists are looked down on. It’s just the latest fashion.
Gladman disagreed. “Artists and writers, have always been useless,” he said, not unkindly. “For all the, big successes, there were, hundreds of artists who were never recognized. You have to become, famous first.”
“So what’s the trick?” I asked with a sly grin.
“There is no trick,” he said. “Then, maybe… Ninety percent of success is self-promotion. You have to know people, get involved.”
And later he said, “If you hang out with the people who count long enough, one day you will be counted.”
As he warmed up to me, his hesitations seemed to disappear.
By this time I had packed up my art. Even though he hadn’t been interested in taking my work, I felt like I had learned something from our meeting. Not all of it made me happy, mind you, but such is life.
“Self-promotion is the key,” I said. “That’s kind of depressing.”
“It’s very depressing,” he agreed.
As I was leaving, his parting words were, “Get yourself a tuxedo, with a nice white shirt, with frills in front. I don’t care if the shirt has no back to it. Get yourself a tux.”
“Rob a grave to get one?” I laughed.
“Exactly,” he said. “It’s no joke. Get a tux. Be with the right people.”
I thanked him, he thanked me, we shook hands, and I left.
Self-promotion. People who count. I thought about these things as I walked to the bus stop, lugging my garbage bag full of art. I’d heard about self-promotion before, from a script-writing professor, when I was studying creative writing at Concordia University. The professor had said:
“If you want someone to produce your script, you have to know people in the business. You have to be in the business, working with lights, or cameras, or make up, or I don’t care what. Watch the credits at the end of a movie. Learn the names. Memorize them. Get to know the people who can help get you IN on things.”
His words depressed me to the point where I decided not to pursue script writing, even though I love writing scripts. I hate people, for the most part. My father is a great shmoozer, but I don’t think I am. I would rather hide in a corner and read than go to some big party and “network” with a lot of “names”.
Once, while traveling in Yellowstone National Park, I ran into a man from California. He was a shmoozer in the extreme. He told me all about his novel, was thrilled to learn I was also a writer, insisted on taking down my name and address, and blathered on about all the big names he knew. He claimed he used to live next to Ray Bradbury. He and “Ray” used to chat all the time. The man’s forceful, salesman voice made me wince in pain.
The Californian seemed insulted when I didn’t ask for his name and address. Obviously I didn’t know how to play the game.
I hate the game. I don’t want to play the game. But if I want to be famous, if I want my words to be read, my paintings to be seen, do I have any choice? Perhaps I will have to go out, dig up a grave, and get myself a tux. Start hanging out at art functions. Maybe I’ll phone up Mr. Cation and Mr. Dunning and say:
“I want in. How do I get in? Can you help me get in? Let me in, damn it!”
Or maybe I’ll find success through a much more difficult path.