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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Just Like Petey




Pipefitters and Joiners Local 212 occupied a squat cinderblock rectangle between two used car lots on Broad Street. By day, all the union's business was conducted in small beige offices. By night the spacious auditorium-cum-banquet hall was used for social and political events, depending on the members' wishes.
Now and then, pipefitters and joiners would get in the mood for something a little different, and that's where I came in: I teach adult art appreciation over at Robert E. Lee Tech. A few of the guys decided it would be fun to have a night class on art or new books, and, after a vote, Tuesday Night Art For Beginners won.
For openers, I took the twenty-some attendees through a typical power point show of American landscapes, European Impressionists and Modigliani's nudes. I pointed out the use of light and shadow or the predominance of certain colors by certain painters.
As the hour was drawing to a close, I clicked to Van Houte’s Dutch modernist oil painting of a boy in a middy-blouse with neckerchief and jaunty blue cap.
I felt the energy in the room shift.
Where there had been polite interest before, I sensed a vivid focus.
“How come he has no face?” asked Pete Vanelli. “Did the painter forget the face?”
“Shit, that looks exactly like a picture my Ma has of my kid brother,” said Johnny DeFalco. “I’m serious! He had a suit just like that. You remember our Petey?” he asked of the man next to him.
“Yeah,” the man said, “he’s the one died in Vietnam.”
Pain made a crooked stick of Johnny’s mouth.
“Hey, I had an outfit like that, too,” said a man in the back row with a pooch of Copenhagen in his left cheek. “Even had the red kerchief.”
“So how come he has no face?” Vanelli asked again, this time more urgently. “What kind of painter paints a little kid with no face?”

I wanted to say that good art makes a specific image universal, that the facelessness was exactly what allowed them to relate to the painting, each man imprinting his own beloved boy on the canvas.
But all I could bring myself to say right then was, “Hey, that’s modern art for you.”

2 comments:

Mike Handley said...

Fabulous story, buoyed by authentic dialogue. My favorite is ...
“So how come he has no face?” Vanelli asked again (the repetition is perfect).

Anonymous said...

"Hey, that's modern art for you." Gita, that's the right answer for a room of blue collars. You must enlighten them with one small piece at a time.

Please, don't paint me as unfair. You see, as a former member of the International Bricklayer's Union, I fit right in with Vanelli and DeFalco. I know these guys. In fact, that "pitcher" reminds me of my younger brother, Joey, when he was six, chubby, happy, and always smiling. This is an excellent tale. (Hope I didn't mispel any words.)

Note: I am really one of those guys. I don't know how to post this. I'll try "Anonymous." Stephen Torelli