While my quasi-job search continued, and freelance work kept trickling in, I mused whether to continue the solo journey or go to grad school. I’d made one inquiry years before about getting a Master’s Degree in Art from Northern Illinois University. The depressing response was that I’d have to start over as a freshman in order to qualify for their program. I wasn’t about to do that after four years of college at Luther, so I kept on painting the wildlife that I loved, and left the avant-garde art world to itself.
My brother attended Northern as an undergrad during seven years of fitful enrollment. His senior art show was an astoundingly brilliant collection of sculptures made from paper. Their texture and shape made them look like metal. They were works of genius.
By comparison, my artwork was considerably more prosaic. I’d gotten my watercolor technique down to the point where a balance of detail and subtlety was possible. Over the late stages of 1983 and early 1984, I built a collection of thirty-plus paintings. Many were medium to smaller sized works, fine little watercolors of ducks and songbirds and hawks.
Along the line, my roommate’s girlfriend invited me to hold an art show at her parent’s house in the quaint little town of Wayne. Her father was a bon vivant type and grand socialite, and her mother was tied in with the horsey set because the Village of Wayne was the regional equestrian host with trails in the woods and a training center at the edge of town. On weekends, the Wayne hunt would spread out to chase down fake foxes, with horses and mounted riders and herds of hound rustling through the woods. I was running in Pratt’s Wayne Woods one day when the hounds came rolling through the preserve in pursuit of the unseen prey. I stood there watching the dogs following their noses and admired their focus. Oh, to live a life so simple.
Of course, within the dog pack, there were likely rivals and pecking orders akin to human relationships. Every social group has Alpha Males and Omega Females, and all points in between. So the world is never so simple as it appears on the surface. Even among dogs, there is competition and a social order. The fact that they establish their rank by sniffing each other’s butts is not so different from human societies.
So I gratefully accepted the invitation to host an art show at a home in Wayne. I needed the money, for sure. I also wanted to see how well my art would be received.
The answer was both profound and dizzying. There was a dinner and the wine flowed freely among those in attendance. I quickly found myself selling one artwork after another. Some of the buyers took the time to talk with me, while others snatched up work, a cardinal here, a set of mallards there, and went back to drinking.
One of the men in attendance was the son of a corporate mogul for whose company I’d one day work. The father was a hard-driving man whose government contracts fueled a firm employing hundreds of people. The work was so secret, and the personality of its head operative so controlling, that when people within the firm argued over whether they’d get a corner office with a window, he ordered the facility to be built with no windows at all. Oh sure, there were windows on the outside to give the appearance of normal functionality, but in truth, the dark panes covered only concrete walls.
So the son lived in the shadow of that control, and unfortunately, he fell into drinking and drugs. The Rich Kid Syndrome. But on the night that I held my art show in Wayne, he was feeling good and speaking in affectionate, grandiose terms about my work. So he bought a few pieces, and we had our connection. “This is going great,” I told myself.
Linda was working the crowd, talking with people about my work, and now and then another person would sidle by and ask questions about the artwork perched throughout the house. As the evening wore on, and the drinks kept flowing, I encountered a few women who disembarked from their husbands or lovers to wander by and catch up with me. One of these pulled out her purse, snatched a hundred dollar bill from her wallet, and shoved it into my pants pocket. She held her hand there a moment, slid it over to give my crotch a squeeze, and whispered, “I’ll take that one,” pointing at an elegant painting of a pintail duck.
I’d had a few glasses of wine myself by that point. And when Linda came by minutes later to ask how it was going, I could only mutter, “Pretty fucking good.”
She laughed, not knowing what I’d just experienced, but I think she understood. By evening’s end, there were people tearing pages out of the sketchbook I’d brought along to show the process of how the paintings came out. “There’s nothing left to buy,” one woman crowed merrily. “But these are pretty,” she laughed, holding up a page covered with pencil drawings. “How much?”
“$50,” I replied. Her husband pulled out a checkbook and wrote it out. “Thanks,” he chuckled, giving me a wink.
The Renaissance Man
By evening’s end, I’d sold $2000 worth of artwork. The host cruised by as the night wore down and handed me one last check, “an appearance fee,” he told me, for $150. “Now don’t spend all that money in one place,” he advised. “Put some of it away.”
I thought to myself, “I wish. The rent is late.” The very next day I deposited all that money, checks, and cash, and tried to catch up on bills. I wondered at that moment if I’d ever really catch up.
Well, some people do. People with common sense and a lack of artistic ADHD, anxiety, and pursuant depression. Those people seem to save and handle money just fine. The artist in me was admittedly not practical. It’s not that I thought the world owed me a living. Not exactly. But how does one recreate the social scene in which people are throwing money at you and stuffing it in your pockets? That’s the world where I wanted to live. It was out there. But it’s all about connections. In the meantime, I felt a bit like my own sacrificial lamb.
After the big art show, I went back to training in February and March of ’84 and cranked off fifty-mile weeks one after the other. The first race of the season was the Shamrock Shuffle five-mile, a race scheduled to begin at Montrose Harbor. Linda came downtown and stayed the night. The next morning broke fiercely cold with a stiff northeast wind off Lake Michigan. The temperature was sixteen degrees, with traces of snow still lining the streets.
Despite the freezing conditions, I raced well to start off the season, cranking through the first mile in 4:46, the three-mile mark in 15:03, four miles in 20:46, and a final mile into the wind. By then I was so cold it was hard to care about anything but getting the race over. The bright March sunshine provided zero warmth as the wind tore at my thighs. I finished at 26:10 for sixteenth place overall.
That result felt good given the freezing cold day and the damned cold wind. The winner was a guy from Wisconsin in the mid-24:00 range. I wore my Running Unlimited kit for the first time in a race with black and silver Nike tights that barely kept my thighs from freezing up.
We headed back to my apartment to warm up. We had some hot tea and lunch and took a bus down to the Art Institute of Chicago later on. Linda particularly loved the work of Renaissance artists, and did not seem to see any irony in dating an artist and writer who was trying to be a Renaissance Man on his own terms.
Fulfilling that promise was my job in life. In that light, I viewed everything I did in the framework of “transfer of excellence.” That is, use the quality of one experience to set the standard for another. It would take time, but that would become my life’s work, and running helped fuel those standards.