Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 9, 2010

A Caddy’s Tale

I hear a lot of complaining about how hard it is for teenagers to find jobs in this economy. But, when I was a kid, summer jobs were really hard to find. There were no lawns to mow, because the great Northwest Territory Forest was still being cleared, and what little land had been opened up was planted in corn, soybeans and rutabagas, the cash crops of the day, not pretty little lawns. I worked for a while in a gas station, but it quickly became apparent that I didn’t know the first thing about cars, and after the owner’s sons came back from their tours in Vietnam and Cambodia, I was what you call redundant.

There was occasional farm work, subject to the ups and downs of the season. Baling hay required extra hands from time to time, but mostly the farms there were family farms, and they didn’t expand beyond their ability to work the land with whatever children lived on the farm. “Okay, Mom, I’m reckonin’ that five, six years from now, I’ll have that bottom land cleared out. We’re gonna need us another hand ‘round here by then!” Oboy. Romance in the air!

The jobs of today? Forget it. They didn’t exist. Fast food? We had seen a MacDonald’s; there was one down in Kenwood on the northern edge of the Cincinnati suburbs. Not exactly a growth market for employment then. The only restaurants in our town were staffed by people who were already working there when Charles Dickens came through on his tour of America, and you weren’t going to get one of their slots, although they would recall Mr. Dickens’ visit with fondness. One election year I did make good money working for the local Republican party tearing down Democratic campaign signs during a June primary, but that was very seasonal work of the scarcest kind.

Then I fell into being an art caddy.

It started early one June evening when the usual gang and I were drinking milkshakes in the parking lot of the United Dairy Farmers store, our usual hangout, discussing how we could throw the underperformers off our Demolay softball team and what jobs we could get.

One of the guys said he’d been picking up work as a caddy. We all scoffed, of course, the notion of walking around a golf course swatting at little white balls being entirely outside our cultural frame of reference.

“No, I’m an art caddy.”

This idea was so alien to us that we couldn’t even think of a way to make fun of it, even though mocking things is what 16 year-old boys excel at most. He told us that he carried the easel, paint box, canvas, chair, all the gear that plein air painters needed (we managed to make fun of that phrase a little), and handed them brushes and so forth as they needed them.

Before I knew it, I had caught on as an Art Caddy. I’d show up at the Art League in the morning and check in to the Caddy Garrett (no caddy shack for us) in the morning and wait for a customer. Things were slow at first, but eventually I had a regular clientele.

And, gear? I mean to tell you. Inevitably, these characters would roll up in a Volvo with the trunk packed full of stuff. Robinson Crusoe himself didn’t manage to accumulate that much junk in two years of salvage operations from the shipwreck that put him on his island. Not just painting gear and a chair, mind you: they had hampers, coolers, parasols, fold-up tables, tarpaulins. Worst of all, most of them were extremely fussy people, and I knew that once they were done painting and I’d hauled all this junk back to the car, it would take me at least half an hour of agony to pack it back into the Volvo just so.

I went out to Cowan Lake one day with a painter who stated that he was going to do a sailing scene in the style of Winslow Homer. Now, Cowan Lake is one of those placid, silty landlocked bodies of water that entertain Midwestern families on weekends and provide shelter for the lesser breeds of carp and catfish. I guess if you squint just the right way, you might imagine that the paddle boats out in the middle are sailboats, but it’s a far cry from Homer’s heaving swell of the Atlantic out beyond Gloucester, Mass. Nevertheless, I was ready as he started in to work on his heaving main:

“I think for those waves you’ll want the #12 filbert brush and…”

“Don’t be an idiot.” Hand me that number 10 round point.”

“I really think the fil…”

“Are you sure you’ve done this before? Give me the round tip.”

So I watched as the poor idiot tried to create waves on his imaginary ocean scene with a brush that could no more make waves than a desk fan blowing on Lake Erie. After about forty-five minutes he swallowed hard and said, “I, uh, think I’ll just put a few touches with that filbert brush. Hand it to me, will you?”

Another time I was out with a woman who was painting by the pond on the farm of a friend. I asked her what subject and style she’d be attempting today.

“I’m thinking that I’ll focus on these leaves, in the style of Cezanne.”

And will you sketch first or start painting directly to the canvas?”

“I think I’ll make a quick sketch to get the composition … Cezanne was a master of composition, you know?” And she held out her hand for the implement.

For the life of me, I couldn’t find a soft-point drawing pencil in her box, but I had exactly the one – a Staedtler ergosoft — in my pocket, and placed it in her hand without a word.

She glared at me. Charcoal, if you please; I’m sketching.

“But, Cezanne didn’t use …”

“I thought you were an experienced caddy.”

“I am, and I know that Cez…”

Then hand me the charcoal.”

Great. Another self-made expert who’d never studied a single fact about the work of painting. I’d get no tip from her, I could tell. Not that it mattered. Artists don’t tip … as in not just not well … not at all.

I could just imagine the caddies over at the muni counting up their take at the end of the day: Lincolns. Hamiltons. Jacksons! I’d be lucky on a good day to get a couple of Roosevelts: as in dimes.

The worst time of all was the summer after my senior year in high school. I really needed to make some money for college. That year, Primitivism was in big demand – you know, that Grandma Moses stuff. There was a big gallery scene down in Batavia and Hillsboro – Clermont and Highland Counties to you Ohioans – and they couldn’t get enough primitives to meet the demand. Those cats only had one look: flat, dead flat. Well, you only need one brush for that. I could stand next to a dude all day while he looked at a barn or a farm scene, and he might spend six hours smearing big, flat surfaces with colors mixed just barely more subtly than grade-school-crayola-primary. The worst thing was the ones who used only handmade brushes they’d made themselves – more gen-u-ine, you know – and they’d constantly be handing them to me to fix because the bristles were coming off in their paintings. Then, suddenly, after several hours of smearing those big flat barn sides and flat-as-amoeba livestock, they’d decide to add some big Van Gogh-like sunflowers with an impasto knife. Now, how was I supposed to be ready for that?

Artists since Masaccio and Giotto have been struggling to liberate themselves from the two-dimensionality of the artist’s medium, and these bozos really expected me to believe that well-educated modern people, who had grown up seeing realistic representational painting, photography, television, and even 3-D Viewmasters didn’t know that things progressively got smaller as they got farther away, nor how to add shape to objects on a canvas. It was like being in an insane asylum and believing the inmate who told you that gravity was decreasing and we would fly off the surface of the earth. I bit down on my objections and played the game.

One of these treasures actually insisted on grinding her own pigments, in order to “attune the present with past,” as she put it. I drew the line there. I was darned if I was going to stand out in a muddy field with a glass plate, carborundum grit, some smelly mass of pigment and linseed oil and try to mix custom colors to her specifications. I suggested that this was a skill that only a true aesthete could master, and she bought it. No tip, of course. Then, working one day out on a farm out by Henpeck, one dude actually had me catch a chicken and hold it for him so that he could “get the shape” right. Well, when he was done he might just as well have cut the damned thing out of construction paper and glued it onto the canvas. The horror!

That same guy eventually asked me how I liked his farm scene. What I wanted to say was, “apparently a steam roller has run out of control and run over your fence and your horses, because they’re all laid out flat on the ground.” What I said was, “I think you’ve just about captured it.” I hated myself for that.

Back at the Art League, after the session, the artists would waft into the lounge to sip absinthe or strega, while we art caddies trudged back to the garret to clean their brushes and strain their used turpenoid and other media back into their jars. It was a quiet, demoralized scene, and we kept the worst of what we’d witnessed during the day to ourselves.

However, I did get to college. One day I met a former golf caddy who was going to school on an Evans Scholarship from the Western Golf Association. Great. A college scholarship for brushing the mud off some local banker’s shoes. I congratulated him, then hustled off to catch up with good ol’ Warren Fessler, who was galumphing across campus in his tie-died shirt and patchwork jeans on his way to make fun of some new sculptures the school had installed by the student center. We artists gotta hang together. I swore then that I would never touch another filbert brush and be a writer, instead.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017

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Responses

  1. That’s an instant classic. Thanks.

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    • Well this took a decidely different route than the one I was expecting. Admittedly, I’m not an artist, such as you or the previous replier, but I did enjoy your remembarences of your early endeavors.

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      • any actual details about painting technique I owe the genuine artist in the house.

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  2. Can we anticipate further tales including Mr Fessler? Seems a likely candidate for semi-regular appearances here, as I recall past tales.

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  3. Tell the genuine artist that a good Giotto reference is always worth working in, though I don’t know if it helps increase your hit count.

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    • Shockingly few people found the site with the search term “Giotto.” Or even “Jotto” Perhaps I should write about “Lotto”

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  4. Cowan Lake, Clinton County, was there a few times, not to sketch, to catch, as in fish. No problem at all to catch plenty of small, very small, catfish. An older gentleman who worked for your granddad called them “husking pigs.” There was a restaurant overlooking the dam that we and the other couples of our card club sometimes would meet to eat. Never saw “husking pigs” offered on the menu.

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