Wednesday, April 5, 1989

Letter to David Best

An issue of Creative Discourse arrived in the mail reeking of oil paints. I marveled at technology—an arts magazine smelling like an artist’s studio!

I've always had an intimate association with paint. When I was very young, I ate some of my mother's white oil paints. Making my first metaphor, I assumed, because it was white, and looked like ice cream—though it was in a small glass tube and not in the freezer—ergo: it must be ice cream. Pavlov rang a bell.

Van Gogh had a certain fondness for cadmium yellow, and his habit of indulging in eating paint was partially responsible for his madness.

My mother who was also mad, didn't have to eat paint, but that’s another story. Her studio was, appropriately, at the Project Artaud in San Francisco. Artaud was another madman. However, when an arts magazine carries the odor of an artist's studio, the mind has a way of unwrapping itself from linear time.

Since I no longer have a studio, having forsaken brush for pen, this made me nostalgic for our old painting studios at the College of Marin, and the basement of Darwin Hall Science building at Sonoma State University. Fledgling artists worked in scientist's basements.

Einstein, who prized creativity over knowledge, would have loved this admixture of art and science. But the ventilation in Darwin Hall was non-existent, and one way or another, we were all stoned out of our minds. Eveything is relative. Einstein, couldn't add simple equations, nor remembered to wear socks. What Einstein and I have in common is an inability to add.

After I collected my degrees in painting, I became disillusioned with the gallery-pimping art world, and took up the horizontal process of writing around.

I remember a childhood visit to my mother in the City, I wandered next door to the San Francisco Art Institute and watched a man painting in the courtyard under the Spanish tiled arches.

Not a brilliant conversationalist at the age of eight, in a child's drooling of absorbed preoccupation, I finally slurped, “I paint too.” When he asked what I used, I said, “Oil on newsprint.” His surprise turned to disbelief when I elaborated that I didn't like canvas. I liked watching the linseed oil make ghostly halos on the unpainted surface.

He resumed his painting without saying another word, his lips making a thin line of concentration and denial. The courtyard was filled with the pungent smell of turpentine, and the soft scratching of a brush across canvas orchestrated its own kind of silence. I remember how cerulean the unadulterated sky was, and a crow with blue-black feathers sat watching us with an indifferent gaze.

A Xeroxed drawing of a deer with oil paint fell out of the magazine: Number 214. Signed, Best. David Best. A name crawled out of my reptilian memory.

It was 1970, David was making odd altars of clay and baubles in the ceramics lab. Overnight, glue-sniffing artists crawled out from under Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul refuse bins and Dipsea dumpsters—glass and junk, old bureaus, chairs, spheres and cars were transformed into glittering altars.

Someone lined the toilet bowl at the Sausalito Art Center with pennies. We polluted our lungs with verdigree fumes.

One afternoon, a life-size bejeweled horse showed up on the San Geronimo Valley Golf course with a real Lady Godiva on its back. Her red velvet cloak, a gaping wound on the putting green. Golfers and commuters either ignored the apparition, or nearly drove off the roads in disbelief; some making hasty mental notes to stock up on more of that good dope.

Artist Dickens Bascom's beaded Ford Falcon with its fins covered with scales made from the soles of tennis shoes, actually worked. It had to, the sight of it was like the siren call of a red flag in front of the bull for the local cops who were always pulling him over for vehicle safety inspections.

After a while, they’d hit the lights just to keep in practice, or to see the latest additions. Once, in front of the Fairfax Hardware store, I tried to use the typewriter glued to the back of his Ford Falcon but that was before I became a writer. There were no words. Just blank paper for the accolade.

David also decopaged an entire vintage ’50s Cadillac. The hood ornament was the stuffed head and horns of a water buffalo with red eyes.

I like to think of that Cadillac as an homage to water and 20th century of abandoned technology. A Las Pulgas water temple on wheels. The sides of that gas-hog were of faceted glass and on the mink-lined back seat, plastic ketchup bottles, stuffed toys, and toasters were chauffeured about in style.

This was during the great Marin County water drought, which rode hot on the heels of the gas shortage. I remember old Mr. Buck smoking stogies on trail rides up at the Meadow Club. When his wife died, she left a few Standard Oil stocks in a trust fund for artists—who’d have forseen the gas shortage would make Mrs. Buck so posthumously wealthy?

We became experts at siphoning gas, and rustled county water with a double-ended hose that connected the county pipes to ours; at night we ran water uphill to fill our tanks. An artist, inspired by David's eclectic stable of cars, covered an entire Oldsmobile with chia plants, but he couldn't drive the delicate, undulating carpet very fast. At night, the deer came down to graze on it.

An old gas station with the flying red horse in Mill Valley became the temple of The Unknown Museum. The jeweled mannequin with antlers greeted the visitor. A wall of old T.V.'s, overgrown with nasturtiums and electrical cords dangling like roots.

A weathered Fiat filled with rubber Disney toys. A mandala made of bullets, pencils and toy cars. Bureau altars with fur-lined drawers as elegies for Vietnam and Reganomics. A decomposed teddy bear was caught napping in the baby carriage by a leafy green spear of dandelion blooming from his navel.

What survived of the Unknown Museum are merely frozen images on film. The trashman cometh and he taketh away. Recycled technology. One man's garbage. Out of the rubbish heap, a phoenix circles the place of birth. Glittering birds.

Every seven years our cells regenerate. My cells have resurrected themselves five-times-seven. Memory is locked within the skin.

There was a meat company that wanted to boost sales. Expecting a Pavlovian response from customers and increased sales, they ran bacon-scented ads of ham, but all the neighborhood dogs ran off with the newspapers.

Some things are hard to forget. A taste for paint. A drawing of a deer against green pigment. A cloudless blue sky reflected in a mirrored Cadillac with chrome mag rims.

© Maureen Hurley 2007 Reprinted from Creative Discourse, Petaluma, Ca 1989

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