pk the Painter

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pk the Painter, Indeed

I can recall finger painting at school but I never felt any urge to sketch, draw, paint, or even smudge that I can recall with the couple of exceptions I’ll narrate here. I’ve told at least a few people of the time I had an order for a Cuca Romley etching but no stock on the item. I told Cuca that Brewster Gallery wanted another one of the alligator pulling the elephant’s nose. She said she’d have to make it, take a few hours. When I got to her place before that much time had quite passed I explained that I wanted to watch her work. It’s long fascinated me how conductors and painters occasionally seem to live forever with their wits and skills still about them. It occurred to me that painting in particular might for some (not counting Bacon or Appel) be a tranquil form of meditation. I wanted to see.

Cuca Romley you may be aware makes colored etchings. The etchings are printed in sepia and are then hand colored. She may hire staff to help with parts, but her hand touches every one and as often as not, 100% of the coloring is hers alone: as is of course the etching itself.

Watching her work was so beautiful I was getting envious. I asked her if she had a spoiled etching, a reject that I could mush colors onto without endangering anything. She found one that had printed too dark and invited me to knock myself out. Tinting leaves green within the printed outline, alternating different tints of green, I entered Nirvana. After a bit Cuca looked up, expecting no doubt a mess. “Oh, you’re doing much too good a job to waste. Here, paint your own order.” And she handed me a good print of her Kipling elephant.

Hours slid by as I painted this pebble blue and that pebble aqua. Cuca started on another, presumably still wondering if I’d slip. With much of it done, she took it from me to wipe in the sky and do the elephant herself. Once she handed it back to me I saw that I couldn’t sell it: she’d signed it and dedicated it to me! The other one was for the client. Of course I still have it. I’ll never let it go.

And that, I’ve been telling people for decades, is the only time I’ve ever held a brush. Till I was reminded differently this evening.

Columbia crew, Harlem River

In the fall of 1956, Al, Columbia’s freshmen crew coach, announced that he needed a volunteer to paint the Columbia C on the rock that NY Central RR cuts through on the Harlem River just across from Baker Field and the Columbia boat house. A lightweight oarsman or a cox was preferred since the oarsmen would have to haul him up and down. “I can do that,” I said.

So one Saturday morning I tie myself into the boson’s chair and get lowered down the rock by my grunting crew-mates. Piece of cake. The rope is strong. I trust it’s well secured. There’s another lighter safety line I’ve got bowlined around my middle. The brush is on a lanyard, and here comes the paint bucket: on its own line. After a few hours of mushing light blue paint onto granite, another line comes down bearing a hero sandwich. Then the line returns with a half quart can of cold Rheingold. I’m good and sunburned by the time they haul me up.

By now I trust you understand: I did not start the Columbia C on the rock in the Bronx. Neither did I finish it. It was not my idea to paint it. The design or scope of the letter was not mine. I just painted a damn lot of it, left it far more complete and looking much more like a Columbia C than I found it.

Back on campus I have another beer with my favorite people, the musicians. “That’s … like … a big letter,” Myron pronounces.

(West African jazz diction already mixed vividly with our New York English, but there’s a rivulet of California spacey mixing in.)

I retired from crew at the end of freshman year and thought no more about it for years. Then one day lyric alto man Pete Heim, a reed genius (shredded by a collision with junk) tells me that they’re announcing my name on the Circle Line. “Huh?” “Yeah. Like I’m on the Circle Line, like circling Manhattan, and the cat says there’s Baker field and that nearly one hundred foot C is for Columbia Crew.” So Pete bounds up to the announcer and tells him: “Why, didn’t you realize? That C was painted by the great contemporary American artist Paul Knatz!” Pete even spells it for him.

Years later people were still telling me they heard me introduced as “a great American artist” on the Circle Line!

2012 09 17 I’ve been a great writer for a long time, I can’t help it if the culture vetoes propagation of the perception. And I say I’m a great artist too: in media not even recognized as media. But painter? Uh uh. Visual (as well as verbal)? yes, but no painter.

All changed, changed utterly
2017 09 02 I repeated this latter story to some dance friends at the American Legion last week, and emailed bk that I’d done so. bk sends back an image of my C that I don’t recognize: a park, with trees, and a woman walking. In the background is my C!

Where is this park? It would have to be in the middle of the Harlem River! There’s no such place, not in my experience. I tell bk that maybe it’s a PhotoShopped double exposure. Or maybe it’s taken from Baker Field and very much foreshortened by telephoto lens. Well, I’ve looked further: where I there today I wouldn’t recognize Baker Field. The northern tip of Manhattan hasn’t just been relandscaped but re-geographied! Land now spits out into the Harlem Rivert. That’s where the park has to be. Could the tree a figure walks past have matured like that in the in the nearly sixty ears since I last saw the area? Maybe they just shoved part of Inwood into the river.

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pk the Painter

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Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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