Monday, May 12, 2008
(I Used To Be A) House Painter
I've had lots of interesting jobs in my life. I've had lots of very uninteresting jobs, too, but they always seemed to turn interesting somehow too. There's a lesson in there somewhere, but I'm unlikely to figure it out now.
I used to paint. I've painted lots of things. Plain things. Ornate things. Big things. Little things. Important things. A long, long time ago when I was a young man I was offered a job by a man I hardly knew for a project that was just beginning. He said he was painting the White House. There was something about the offer that told me that all the "interesting" was on the cover of the book, as it were, but all the pages were blank. It sounded exciting but turns out boring. I am not generally wise, but I turned it down, and had a glint of recognition a few years ago, when I read an obscure notice in some publication that the job was completed. "My mind is kind," my older brother says often, meaning we often forget that which is unimportant, but I think 6 presidential terms had gone by in the interim. I'd had 4 or 5 careers.
There is a reaction, somewhat common at the Post Office, which is featured on the news from time to time, that inflicts people who seek a sinecure and then are faced with endless quotidian diet of the same damn thing. Be careful what you wish for.
Anyway, I used to paint on the walls. There's a long and proud tradition of painting on the walls, and I was allowed to be included in that tradition, even if it had a little less Michaelangelo to it than maybe it should have.
Tromphe l'Oeil. Fool the eye, it's called. There's a fellow named Graham Rust who's published a few books about it recently, and is very good at it. If I had dedicated my entire life to it, or at least as much of my life as the average White House painting job lasts, I'd probably be about half as good at it as he. I dabbled. It was fun.
It's hard to explain fool the eye. It's like a joke; if the audience doesn't laugh, it's pointless to explain it. It's not a mural exactly, it's more like an illusion of depth or space or material. The lines between all these various kinds of painting on the wall are fuzzy. It falls in and out of favor, but goes all the way back to a cave in Spain. Any Steely Dan fan knows that. Out of favor or not, it's not going away any time soon. Upon reflection, it's not the only thing I have in common with stone age men.
The picture above is a powder room in a fairly elaborate sort of Gothic revival house. The owners of the house were the nicest people I've ever had as customers. Everyone who knows them would give them a kidney, but they don't need any. They wanted interesting things to look at in their home, and I hope they're still interested in it after all these years.
I jabber all the time. But like many who talk too much, I don't reveal much, really. The words are for you; my thoughts are my own. But I'm going to explain why I did what I did in that room for the first time, ever, although it's been over ten years since I did it.
People would rely on me for advice, guidance towards what was possible as much as what was desirable. And when I was smart, soemtimes I'd offer advice that was pointed towards the ultimate benefit of the end user, without them really understanding it. That's risky, for if you fail, you can't go back and explain why you did what you did.
There was this magnificent house. You'd walk in the front doors, which were massive mahogany items, and enter an big hexagonal foyer, with a marble parquet disc in the center of the floor copied from a portion of the floor at St. Mark's in Venice. Two and a half stories up there was a mural of the sky. But the architect was trying too hard to impress, and forgot his real job. The very first thing you noticed in that house, the thing that caught your eye first and foremost -- was a toilet in the powder room off this foyer.
Trailer park meets mansion. The powder room was very small, too, but the ceiling was high, as the first floor rooms had high ceilings. It was like an elevator shaft with a crapper in it. As the picture demonstrates, it's hard to get far enough away from anything in that room to even get a picture of it.
I painted all that stuff on the walls and ceilings with the help of my brothers, and the owner of the house later told me that she couldn't keep anyone out of that room. Her children were instructed to use one of the other numerous bathrooms in the house, but they'd sneak in there to look at the stuff on the walls, sometimes even when they didn't need to use the toilet.
The owner was pleasant enough to tell me that the little powder room was the most memorable thing in the house to a visitor. I was pleasant enought to refrain from telling her that it was even more memorable, in a different way, before I started.