Let me tell you about this:
Laird Drive straddled the border between districts. To the east were houses, and to the west were the square grey mountains of abandoned factories falling slowly to ruin. Laird had once been a major thoroughfare but became a byway back when town was subsumed by city, long before I was born.
In a middling-decrepit upstairs commercial space overlooking this demoted drive was the Dick Jones School of Art. I attended the institution twice weekly from pre-pubescence until university.
I’m not sure how my mom found the place. She must have been driving by and seen Dick’s trademark signature on the rectangle of yellowing plastic over the door. Beyond it was a steep staircase with metal-edged risers, the air pungent with linoleum wax and linseed oil. I can remember that particular perfume as if it were in my nose yesterday. And the way the stairs squeaked – I remember that, too.
I must have climbed those steps a million times.
The unit was divided roughly equally into the adult studio, the children’s studio, and living quarters. The floors were hardwood, scuffed and matte, worn to pale where people walked. Every sink was stained with swirls of muddy colour. Dick’s drip-laden, highly stylized paintings hung on every wall.
The children’s studio had giant factory-style metal-frame windows. The glass was old and imperfect, the whorls of distortion apparent if you moved your head while looking through. The thickest parts cast strange shadows on the floor. When I was a kid I used to lie on my belly on that floor, completing my lessons and quietly biting my eraser into chunks.
“Erasers are not food,” Dick would remind me. “Now let’s get on with it!”
Dick had been English before becoming Canadian, so he had yellow teeth and an accent. He also had a big white beard and a penchant for baby blue trousers. He gestured a lot. He used to clap his hands sharply before telling us all to get on with whatever it was we were doing – colouring colour wheels or cutting out viewfinders or drawing perspective studies or washing brushes. “Too much chin-wagging,” he’d bellow; “not enough getting on with it!”
He also used to get annoyed when my pal Mac and I would draw Transformers in the margins of our studies. Mac could draw a wicked Unicron the Planet Eater. I specialized in Optimus Prime. “No bloody robots!” Dick would cry from across the studio.
There was a stereo behind the counter. Dick favoured Al Hirt’s trumpet and Caravelli’s easy listening: my memory’s official soundtrack of learning three-point perspective and mixing theory.
I liked to wander into the adult studio, to chat up the old ladies while they pored over meticulous watercolour recreations of photographs – usually from National Geographic or a fashion magazine. Dick was a big believer in National Geographic as the cornerstone of all artistic endeavour.
If any kid was stupid enough to complain that they didn’t know what to paint in the free painting periods Dick would throw a National Geographic at them. “There’s no such thing as ‘what should I paint,’” he’d pronounce, dipping his tall frame down to child-level. “The only question is ‘What shouldn’t I paint?’ The world is quite beautiful, really. Copy a piece. Let’s get on with it.”
The old ladies liked it when I came around to chat. They were always very careful with their work, and enjoyed explaining the details of that care. “You can see in the photograph how her scarf’s scarlet, but I’m changing it to vermilion. That’s my little bit of creativity, you see.”
Watercolourists dab their brushes against a cloth between applications of paint or washes of water. Each of the old ladies was quite proud of her cloth, which carried in the form of small overlapping streaks of colour on the mildewing fabric the complete history of her hobby. Many of the cloths had had previous lives before being repurposed, so each had a story. Some of them used to be baby washcloths.
“There’s fifty paintings worth of dabbing in this cloth, young man. Do you see that smear of azure? That was for my daughter’s wedding present. These cadmium spots are from the tiger-lilies in my foyer.”
If any of the ladies had brought a snack for themselves they usually shared some with me when I dropped by. Fig Newtons, pound cake, sunflower seeds.
I never visited adult men in the adult studio because I felt intimidated. They hardly ever talked to kids, anyway. They often seemed grumpy. They were angry at their paintings. They muttered. They never brought snacks, and didn’t enjoy being watched.
“Let’s get on with it!”
At Dick’s clapped hands I’d scamper back to the children’s studio where his wife Svetlana would arrange a still life and preside over our recording of it. Svetlana’s brown hair was graying at the temples, and always tied into elaborate mixtures of buns and braids like an Eastern Bloc Princess Leia. She didn’t wear a bra and her shape complimented a pair of jeans. She was from Russia but didn’t have an accent.
“Cheeseburger Brown, have you lost your viewfinder again?”
“That’s why I always have to make extra – because of you.”
The still life would be focused around a bowl and a few antique doodads, often with a drawn bundle of dried grains, always with at least one gourd. Svetlana loved gourds and wouldn’t compose a still life without them. Gourds were her go-to object. They were Svetlana’s National Geographic.
“Be mindful of your light sources, children. Notice the double shadow on this gourd’s warts.”
If we hung around late after class Svetlana would make popcorn and talk about anything we wanted to know about. She first drove a truck when she was nine, on her Papa’s dairy farm. She was Dick’s second wife. She used to be a painter but was becoming a sculptor because Dick was a painter. She really believed in Dick. Dick was going to be big.
When I was a kid I had this best friend that I used to play Star Wars with, but then he sickened and died. That’s another story and shall be told another time. But after he was gone the principal of our primary school commissioned Dick Jones to paint a memorial mural.
The mural featured my friend playing with a model Royal Air Force Spitfire fighter-plane. I felt it would’ve been more authentic for him to be playing with a Rebel Alliance X-Wing, but Dick didn’t like Star Wars.
That mural would stand in the school corridor for decades, and be looked at by thousands of kids. They would think my pal had been keen on classic aircraft when he was alive, but they’d be wrong.
It occurred to me for the first time that the messenger necessarily distorts what he conveys. Upon delivery, every message is just a version.
I was in the local paper, pointing to the mural and holding a forced smile. The reporter asked me questions about what it was like to help Mr. Jones work, steering me aggressively into blubbering trite pre-selected phrases he’d already decided to base his piece around. For the reporter, meeting with me was a formality – he’d worked out what my message was in advance. “Say cheese!”
On Saturday mornings I stretched canvas over wooden frames for Dick’s paintings, then primed them. I scraped his palettes and knives clean. I poured all of the little dirty turpentine pots into the big drum that got driven to the toxic waste dump.
When I was a teenager I moved to the adult studio. Few of the old ladies I used to know were there anymore. The furniture had been moved around, too.
Svetlana didn’t tell me what to paint, and Dick wasn’t armed with National Geographic. I painted what I wanted to – stupid teenage things. Dick critiqued my methods, and provided coaching. “Don’t brood over the bloody thing, just paint it. If you’re not sure, draw it out, work it through, splash some paint where it wants to go, tra la la la, Bob’s your uncle, you’re finished. Now let’s get on with it.”
In watercolours you start in the light and push into the dark; in oils you start in the murk and pull out the highlights. I muddled the methods. I used too much oil or too much turps or both. I hesitated. “Stop pretending it’s watercolour, it isn’t. Stop trying to draw with it – it’s paint.”
“But, Mr. Jones, it goes wrong and I need to correct it.”
“Your underpainting should be correct. By the time you’re painting it’s far too late, so there you are and what are going to do about it? I’ll tell you what: make your brights bright and your darks dark. There’s no use mucking around, because it will all turn grey. You’ve started painting so you might as well finish. Make your marks sure. Alright? Fine? Wonderful, splendid, excellent. Get on with it, then.”
Svetlana was pregnant. She spent a lot of time on the telephone arranging Dick’s exhibitions, then infuriated herself by reading the coverage afterward and finding it obtuse or erroneous or mean. She carried a jar of pickles around.
There was another teenager in the adult studio, too. Her name was nearly Mary. She painted Jesus Christ and hid behind her hair.
Sometimes I brought my girlfriend by to paint with us. She was short and dashing and played the violin. She liked feminism and punk rock and art, and especially feminist punk art. She had European armpits and was sexually exploratory.
Over popcorn the subject had somehow come to something about an injury or a paint spill or another red thing. I was sitting on a barstool by the counter competing with Svetlana for the butteriest kernels. Mary was not participating but stood half-turned to us nearby, washing her brushes. Dick made a remark about being dizzy at the sight of blood and my teenaged girlfriend, with mystifyingly extraneous stridence, proclaimed that “as a woman” she was “used to blood” and therefore unshockable in that regard.
In the lee of this remark was a moment of uncomfortable silence.
Dick stroked his beard and then gently scoffed at the drama of the statement. My girlfriend was pissed and started talking about the patriarchy. “Well, let’s not get barmy about it, dear,” he offered, smiling hopefully.
That was the wrong answer. She went ape-shit. Men weren’t supposed to call her “dear” because it belittled the dignity of her yin. The exchange escalated.
Pained, I shared a look with Mary. She looked back at me through her big hair, and the look was sympathetic.
My girlfriend didn’t come by Dick’s studio after that. I tried to explain to her that a gap of two generations was exacerbating her impression of Dick’s misogyny, but she wouldn’t listen. She thought Dick was a cock.
One night after class I took the bus with Mary. She had blue hands because she’d been underpainting in French ultramarine. Mary was always careful to rinse her brushes but careless about rinsing herself. Her blue hands plucked at her hood of hair while she very diplomatically and haltingly and quietly tried to broach the subject of my girlfriend being an asshole.
She was so relieved when I agreed.
We discussed Joseph Heller and John Irving, and got off at the same stop together.
Mary’s father was a minister, but he drank. There was some kind of gulf between him and Jesus, I guess. I never knew the details.
Mary’s family lived one neighbourhood to the east. It was near my father’s house so I started coming by now and again. Mary was very quiet most of the time. She’d make lemonade and I’d ramble. When I made a remark she didn’t care for she’d throw a small object at me, like a pencil or a spoon. But that is another story and shall be told another time.
When I graduated from secondary school Dick and Svetlana’s kid was a cherubic toddler. All the old ladies were dead. The space that had been the children’s studio was sublet to somebody else. Dick and Svetlana argued, but never in front of us. We could hear it through the walls, though. There were just a few of us left. Some nights it was just Mary and me.
“What are you painting, Mary?”
She’d retire the soft jazz and put on Simon & Garfunkel, leaving ultramarine prints on the stereo. Svetlana never made popcorn anymore. Dick seemed increasingly ill kempt and temperamental. Certainly he was deafer, and more often bewildered by the things we said. He sometimes seemed to lose track of what he was talking about, too. He had such nice clear blue eyes. At times they took on a childish cast.
Dick started to seem very old. I became the apprentice of a young fiery Sicilian. He excited me. He was passionate and emphatic and faintly terrifying. His exhibitions were downtown, his commissions more grand. He was profane and lustful and loquacious. I was still stretching canvas and scraping palettes while getting yelled at, but the content of the rants was novel.
Eventually I flew away to art college. Dick helped me prepare my application after Vincenzo disappeared and left me in the lurch.
When I got back to the city the Dick Jones School of Art was gone. Laird Drive was gentrifying. The derelict factories had been knocked down to make space for big box iterations of massive foreign retail chains like Best Buy and Home Depot, skirted in wide parking lots full of upscale cars. The commercial space Dick rented had become a sushi bar.
The telephone number was not forwarded.
“I think they moved out of the city,” said Mary. “At least, I think Mr. Jones did. But I don’t know to where.” She shrugged and toyed with a lock of hair whose tip was a paint-hardened spear. “Maybe Prince Edward Island.”
As far as the Internet is concerned they don’t exist and never did. It holds no memory whatsoever of the Dick Jones School of Art, or of Dick Jones himself. No publically accessible collection archive contains any reference to his work.
I remember him, though.
I am so, so, so grateful to this man and his wife and his students and his studio.
I’m glad you found the place (or that your mother did) and that you were such a diligent student.
“That the transmission of a message neccessarily contains a dimunition of the information in it is a corollary of the second law of thermodynamics” — I first learned that from Jaques Monod, in “Chance and Neccessity”, although I think it was Claude Shannon who first pointed it out.
Thanks again for this wonderful memoir.
Ah, I love your real-life work. Wasn’t Vincenzo your zed guy?