Monday, November 3, 2008

Pumpkins for Palin

Here's a cool thing that happened: I was called late last Wednesday night, October the twenty-ninth, by people working with the Republican National Committee, out of Arlington, VA. They were in York, PA organizing a rally for Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin and they called the Art Association. Earlier that day, they had talked to the Director, who gave them my name curtly, then abruptly hung up on the partisan fellow. He was looking for an artist to hand-paint a pumpkin on an area larger that forty-square feet. Since they obviously had no knowledge of Fine Arts materials and processes, when they called back later that evening, I recommended a smaller area as I was concerned about my arms falling off after finishing a painting that large in one afternoon. He (whose name was Josh) conferred with his supervisor and then agreed that perhaps twenty by twenty feet would be more reasonable. I asked what their budget was and they said [xx] dollars. I did some calculations on the calculator and figured that canvas that size would cost at least [xx] dollars. Since this was for a good cause and they seemed in a bind, (they admitted that they had misplaced their own campaign posters) I was happy to agree to a price far below most painters. I knew I could paint a twenty foot canvas in less than twelve hours, but I was unsure of where I would get material to paint on that large for free or @ a very reduced price. I told Josh that I would call him back. Then I called Rick Walker from Walker's Framing, who has helped me in more than a few massively unrealistic, last minute, low paying jobs. Fortunately, Rick had acquired a large roll of canvas left over from the restoration of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building and twenty feet in one direction was no problem. Twenty feet in the other however, was a problem. Rick said he would do the job for [xx] dollars but it would have to be nine feet in one of the directions. I called the Josh guy back and relayed this information and Josh said this was fine, 20'x9' for $[xx]. He said he would call the next morning @ 7:30am and that they may want two. I met Rick @ Walker's that night and we coordinated things we would need and made a quick trip to Home Depot.
Rick said that we should meet @ his shop @ 6:30am. I went home and worked on my web page 'till 6am, made a thermos full of coffee, kissed Andrea goodbye and drove downtown. Rick called a few minutes past seven. We went in to the shop, and measured and cut and gathered. While we were cutting the 2'x4's' ends into 45 degree angles I missed Josh's call. I called him back and we agreed to meet @ the York Fairgrounds when we could. We loaded everything into Rick's truck, tied it down, put an orange plastic bag on the overhanging end of the wood as a flag, and drove to York, PA.
We called Josh when we arrived and he met us out front of the Convention Center. We shook hands and Josh swatted my shoulder aggressively and made a joke about the difference between twenty feet and forty feet. I laughed and we went in and talked for a while about the design and I said that I brought some dried corn for a second composition in case they should want two. He was talking rapidly and forcefully, playing 'bad cop' and lying through his teeth, about how fortunate we were that they now definitely wanted two and that because they had originally wanted a twenty by twenty, not a twenty by nine piece that it seemed quite reasonable to ask us to do two, twenty by nine pieces, for $[xx]. Rick said that since his material costs were $[xx], that he would lower that to $[xx] and do two of the same size pieces 2 for [xx] dollars, which reduced my take. Since apparently all of the sudden when we had already made the trip and begun work my fee of $[xx] was no longer separate from the equipment and framing costs, which according to the original agreement would have brought the total to [xx] dollars, Josh asked me if that was O.K. with me if I got only [xx] dollars for two twenty by nine paintings and assured me that it was still about six dollars a square foot, and added some inflammatory comment about who's paying who/who's in charge to pit me against Rick. He was asking me if it was fine with me if I got less that half to do twice the amount of work. I thought maybe Josh was angry about being unaware of the costs associated with such a project and unappeased by our attempts to drastically lower those costs and donate a large part of our services to help the American political process and the local reputation of the community of York and central Pennsylvania as our abilities and standards of ethics dictate we should. This was not just a poster, or some half-assed copy shop print-job, we were giving this last-minute gig the same attention that Rick and I give all of our work, high-end Fine Art and Framing. I think maybe the campaign people thought they called a lesser quality 80 year-old gallery and 50 year-old third generation framer. Our business ethics were not sullied by these base tactics and we agreed to divide the costs equally, 50/50 and do our best to complete the job to our usual highest of standards.
We finished stretching this Moby Dick and leaned it up against the far wall and I began assembling my paints and brushes. Rick left to get the stenciling for the letters, which was being donated by a sign maker friend of his, and also to get more wood for the now requested second painting. Seth, Josh's supervisor, and 'good cop', came over and said that he was surprised that twenty feet was so large and said that one would be plenty and that we shouldn't do two after all. I called Rick and told him that he wouldn't need to get more wood because they now only wanted the one. Rick, exasperated yet sounding a bit relieved, asked if they were going to pay us the original cost. Of course not, they knocked [xx] dollars off the original quote we gave them.
I painted the pumpkins. I talked to the union guys setting up the stage and bleachers. One of them was an artist but didn't have the time to pursue it seriously. They were all very encouraging and comforting. They had the luxury of a union to prevent them from having to deal with people making their jobs many times more difficult, holding their needs hostage, eating dogs in their dog eat dog world, destroying business, building bureaucracy, growing government and poverty and desperation, anxiety and ill-will. Without a gold standard, consumer confidence, trust and goodwill now back the dollar in the place of gold... I felt a tap on my shoulder which shocked me out of my artistic trance. A woman and a man with a camera wanted me to do an interview for Fox Local News. I had my hand covered in red paint like a bloody maniac sticking out of a can of red paint, as I had been throwing paint around in a spattery, Jackson Pollack way. Of course I would do an interview! The camera-guy apologized as he stuck his hand up the back of my sweaty back and dropped a microphone down my collar and clipped it in place. I apologized that I was a fat sweaty mess that he should have to do that. The woman asked me my name and what the purpose of the painting was. I explained that it was a backdrop for the rally that the organizers had wanted to have a regional stress to. I explained that I had used an expressionistic style in the brushwork as an homage to Li Hidley, the former Curator of the Art Association of Harrisburg, where I work part-time as a Gallery Assistant. I said that I was just happy to support the American Political Process, and that it was excellent. This last part is what aired. They showed me throwing paint on the canvas with my bare hand. When I watched it later that night on the ten o'clock news I laughed well into the next day. I spoke in a nervous, slightly sarcastic, over-eager, over-tired, over-caffeinated, chubby, twitchy, endearingly genuine way. My wide eyes and double chin emphatically encouraging my sincerity and how fun politics really is.
The camera went off to explore the rest of the large room and half-constructed steel-polls of the bleachers. As I was finishing the last delicate touches on the largest pumpkin ever, Josh was tossing around and punting a football with some of the other organizers. I recognized that they were playing with a football because of the sound. Both my father and I had both punted for our High School football teams, he for four years earning national records on his Varsity high school team, Chelsea High, and myself, on the Junior Varsity team, for one year with records for the furthest shoe flinging off my foot while punting, and fewest penalties for playing without a chinstrap. He complimented the painting, asked if I did this for a living, said it was obvious and that the painting looked great.
Rick returned with the stencils. Then Rick left an open utility knife on top of the ladder in haste to make an appointment and when it teetered and rocked upon his descent, it fell, blade first, on his thumb to the bone. The blood formed a fast little ball on his open hand. I continued to work on the lettering while Rick's friend from York who lived nearby and stopped over after work, who makes Stealth Bomber parts for the military, helped him bandage his hand.

I left that night and called Rick Saturday afternoon because I slept through the rally, he missed it too. Here's a link to the footage of the rally, scroll to the video box and play it. You can see in one of the camera pans the painting in the background:

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