Open a tube of oil paint and you get that smell. I first really smelled it in high school.
Mr.Salter, “Shake” (the nickname we all used), gave me a box of Utrecht oil paints from the darkest corner of his supply shelves. They were crusty, hadn’t been opened in fifteen years, likely some surplus he thought would be great for high school painting students. But with the students he had now, he’d better stick to something non-flammable, like tempera or acrylic. So they lived on a dusty shelf, until “Ol’ Sukys” showed up and needed that spark.
I commandeered my own drawer in that art room. I hoarded a few of the best brushes and kept my own supplies, far away from the burnout kids who took art as a way to fuck-off: the kids who used X-Acto knives to carve swears and pentagrams into the big wooden art boards, the kids who used their BIC lighters on the other kids’ drawings, the kids who would stick their chewing gum on your paintings, kids who tossed the good drawing pencils into the air so they stuck in the ceiling tiles, kids with mullets and chain wallets who wore all black, or maybe ass-sagging jeans and backwards LA Kings hats. They’d smoke weed and make-out in the dark room. They listened to Megadeth, or Dr. Dre. Then they’d eventually get in a fight, get suspended, or get somebody pregnant, or whatever, and drop-out.
My school record wasn’t that much better. It consisted of D’s, F’s and Doodles. I barely survived grades 4 through 12. I passed because the teachers collectively knew I wasn’t stupid and figured I’d work it out eventually. School just wasn’t a good fit. I drew pictures through every class. I never-ever did homework. I never studied. I did score well on quizzes, and all of the standardized tests (except math – I once drew a picture of girl I liked in the dot matrix and scored a 12%. The math teacher yelled at me, “Monkeys guessing should score a 25% on averages alone!”, “Okay, sir, but can monkeys draw cute girls like I can, using nothing but circles?”).
I listened to the Dead Milkmen. My parents were divorced, my Dad moved to North Carolina, and I had a shaky relationship with my step-father. I wasn’t violent or destructive, I spent my time drawing comic books or busty girls with swords. I had only tried pot a few times, and though I liked the hell out of it, I couldn’t afford it at all. Anyway, without some spark, I was dropout city.
So, like the other misfits, I found refuge in Shake’s art room. It was my home. I tweaked my schedule to include as many art classes as I could get away with. I spent all of my early arrival times, lunch periods, study halls, mandatory assembly times, all in the art room. Every day. Four years.
Shake was a Painter.
He was from Arizona and spent time in Mexico, and his work incorporated Southwestern themes and tones and his own Native American heritage. He would attach feathers to his canvases. He contrasted dull oranges with electric turquoise, and open empty spaces with deep blacks. He’d set-up a still-life featuring cowboy boots, wine bottles, cattle and deer skulls. He incorporated instant coffee stains and old receipts and scraps of paper to make mixed media collages. His office had xerox photographs of Mexican revolutionaries and famous painters taped to the walls. He would let his lunch rot and sketch it over the month on his over-sized desk calender. It would start with a green-yellow banana on the first, and end with a moldy black mass on the thirtieth. He’d draw the decay over time. “You should draw your self-portrait every day” he’d say.
Every day, I’d get him to sign a scrap of paper, “Britton to Art” which I’d take to the study hall supervisor. I still have a few, meaning I’ve lost hundreds. Each one bought me an hour away from the impending doom of adulthood. It gave me one more hour to explore myself. What I thought. How I saw the world around me. He never kicked me out. “Christ on a wooden one! Don’t you have anywhere better to be?”
I painted fantasy and sci-fi illustrations, hardly fine art, so he’d do his best to get me to paint from life. I was a product of early 90’s comic book and fantasy art, and I saw art as a career in illustration, and less a pursuit of the soul. But I did it constantly, and prolifically. “You are a real old Crank, Sukys.” Painting is a spiritual thing, and Shake was a real Shaman. He’d get cranky at the class for ignoring his lessons, and close himself off in his office. But the kids didn’t really need Art, they needed a Dad.
A kid who was having problems would go into his office and talk. He’d tell them what he thought of their future plans. “That will go over like a pregnant pole-vaulter.” Kids would be able to cry in there, bitch about life in there, laugh with an adult, as an adult, in there. You could tell him the crap you couldn’t discuss with your asshole parents. He’d treat you like the adult you were going to be, not the mess of a teenager you were.
I needed a father-figure, too, but I needed to find myself more. Shake saw this need in me, in the way that only a painter can see in another painter. I never discussed parental problems or life-choices, or girls. I’d ask about composition, or brush technique. “You are standing too close. Hold the brush from the end and paint from your shoulder. Don’t choke it.” I’d ask about how to mix skin tones. “Yellow ochre, cadmium red medium and white.” I’d ask what to do when I got ‘stuck’ with a painting. “Dirty-up the canvas, Dammit! Make a choice!”
My senior year I took the bare minimum of what I needed to graduate, skipping out on science classes for “independent study courses” in the art room. Six out of eight periods. Both semesters.
How I managed that and graduating, I still don’t know. I never checked my transcripts. Understandably, the University of Wisconsin system didn’t accept me. Oh well. Sometimes you got to say, What the fuck.
It was then that Shake gave me the oil paints. “I love the smell of oil paints”, he told me one day when we were alone, “They remind me of painting outdoors with my father.”
He stared out the big front windows, as if in a dream-trance. I waited for the next part of the lesson. But, he turned towards his office and left me in front of the easel.
Shake came to my graduation party, where my Mother had displayed all of my paintings, especially the larger oil paintings I did that year in those “independent study courses” in the art room. My mother told me years later that Shake spent a lot of time looking at the paintings. He told her privately how truly good he thought they were.
He gifted me a sketchbook and some watercolor pencils. I took them to Europe with me that summer as I left Wisconsin for good. I never saw or spoke with Shake after that day, and I have been blessed with many amazing teachers after him. But Shake was my Obi-Wan Kenobi. My Merlin. My Spirit-guide.
That’s where I was again, after hearing the news of Richard Salter’s passing January 24th, 2014. I cried like a misfit teenager. Over the past two months I’ve written notes to myself in his voice. I’ve seen my collection of blank, white canvases staring me.
“Dirty-up the canvas, Dammit! Make a choice!”
*Post-Script (6/29/14)- In thinking of Shake, and discussing stories with old friends, My old studio-mate, Nicole, reminded me of this Sage advice;
“Salter said that as long as you are thinking about your next piece you’re still okay and if you stop thinking about it then I guess you’re okay then too…”
“Shake in the Studio” (8″ x 11″) collage with photocopied photograph, ink, instant coffee, gouache, and crayon – (6-1-14)