This is my 400th post. I’m not sure that much that I’ve posted has been too important, but 400 posts adds up to a lot of words and a lot of time writing them. Many thanks to those of you who stop and check in from time-to-time.
The title is tongue in cheek. I remembered, upon some thought, that I’ve been trying to make money creating art for a very long time. (Note – I’ve revised the title. It’s still an awkward working title, but less tongue in cheek. The original working title was The Professional Artist – My Early Years.)
I’m sure this could use a bit more editing, but I wanted to get it posted. Consider it a work in progress.
The Professional Artist – My Early Years
We spent our summers in a wonderful old foursquare cottage, The Nest. It’s been twenty-five years since I spent a night in that house but I’ve no difficulty calling up the smells of old pine and mothballs, the sounds of distant bell bouys and the lumpiness of my ancient mattress. I’ve fond memories of awakening each morning to the sounds of lobster boats and crows and gulls fighting over their mudflat treasures.
Our house had once been part of a small island resort, the Sawyer Island House. Though the main house had burned down shortly before we began to spend our summers on Sawyer Island, there were still remnants of this quaint resort. The carriage house, with its barn swallow inhabitants and a clay tennis court with one remaining net post were within view of our front porch.
My family, sometimes with and sometimes without my father, travelled from Indiana to Maine to open the cottage early each summer. We stayed for a week or two hooking up the water, setting the mooring,putting the boats over, painting (both boats and house) and other preparations for the renters that occupied our house from mid-June until the end of July. The month of August was all ours.
One of the many highlights of these magic summers was when my three cousins, Cathy, Kimmy and Chrissy (along with my Aunt Sande and Uncle Gary) came up from Connecticut to stay for a week.
When the cousins arrived – the grandparents were already in place – we had eleven folks in the house. All these folks, mostly female, were packed into a house with three bedrooms and one bathroom. (I often slept in the kitchen on a cot.)
When it got rainy (It always did, we were in Maine.) we spent a lot more time indoors. We had no TV or even a phone, so rainy days were spent around the fireplace reading or sitting at the table playing games.
It was one of these stretches of wet weather that began what might have been one of our greatest traditions, the Art Auction.
I need to back up a bit so that you understand why we began the Art Auction.
We had a daily ritual. We would load our pockets with whatever pennies and nickels we could find and walk the mile to Trevett to buy penny candy. Trevett was the kind of place that could only exist in Maine. There was (and still is) a tiny swing bridge marking the entrance to Back River (another minor inlet of the Sheepscot) and separating Hogdon Island from Barter’s Island. Standing above this tiny bridge on a massive granite foundation was a white clapboard general store and post officer built right up the water’s edge. Adjacent to the store was Mill Cove Lobster Pound, a long red rambling building that snugged up against the river. From this building came the sound s of water circulating through the lobster tanks and the unmistakable stench of baitfish.
The store and the post office were run by Stan Hodson. Stan was a Mainer like you don’t find anymore. His speech was thick and he dropped his ” r”’s . His speech was peppered with “ayuh”’s, “wicked” this and “ain’t that a corker?”. I remember him being tall and slim and perpetually 60ish. He was kindly and we always felt safe and welcome. (I do remember him teasing my father and Uncle Gary – both legendary drinkers – about the volume of beer that they purchased.)
Stan’s store (and a few other Maine stores of this time) had not succumbed to the modern concept of self-service. We didn’t do much of our marketing here, Mom thought his prices high, but when we did Stan expected to do all of the work for us. You handed over your shopping list and he went to it, scuttling around the wooden shelves grabbing this and that. What wasn’t on the shelves he had in “back”. (It was a three story building. There was plenty of “in back”.) I even remember fresh meat — though never on display in a case — that was brought forth wrapped in white paper and tied with string. Stan must have had some butchering skills. Many of his customers called their orders in on the telephone I remember a line of boxes on the floor along the counter.
What caught our interst was the merchandise on the shelf immediately across from the cash register where the penny candy was on display. Mary Janes, Root Beer Barrels, Dots, Bit-a-Honeys and licorice laces all filled these shelves. At the end of the counter was a large metal cooler filled with ice and Orange Crush, Coca Colas, Root Beer and, that Maine original, Moxie. Stan would wait
patiently while pennies and nickels were slapped down and slid across the worn wooden counter in exchange for our treats. Before long we’d all begin the trek back home with a tiny paper bag in one hand and a soda in the other. (I would love to wax sentimental and write about drinking Moxie, but I hated the stuff and would only drink it on a dare.)
These trips to Trevett for penny candy and soda were the motivation behind our Art Auctions.
On these rainy days we would collect around the big dining table at the end of the living room. We didn’t really have a dining room. The house had been built as the annex to the Sawyer Island House. Since every room in the house had begun as a hotel room every room in the house was about the same size and shape. During renovations many years before someone had removed the thin wall from between two of the downstairs rooms to make a large living room and dining area.
Around the dining table we sat in ten press back chairs, many missing a rung or or several turnings from the seatback. No more than two or three matched one another. The eleventh seat was a painted wooden trash barrel with a fine plywood lid.
It was around this table that we hatched a plan to pry a few coins from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles for our trips to Trevett for candy and soda.
We would hold an Art Auction!
The auction would start with a two or three day art creating frenzy. First we gathered materials. Crayons, paints, colored paper and pencils, paste, glue, brushes, google eyes and pipe cleaners were pulled out of the old red dresser. We were always collecting driftwood, sea glass, shells and smooth blue stones.
Then we went to it, creating a body of work that we thought would bring top dollar to a very captive and motivated
Unfortunately I don’t remember many specific works art. One that I do remember was a sculpture consisting of two pipe-cleaner bodies – stick figure in style – with green painted shell heads and google eyes. They were seated on a piece of old brick holding hands. I titled this work The Blind Date. I remember it being around Mom’s house for years. (I’d like to claim this as my first titled work, but Mom has earlier G.B. Davis classics like Spider and Electric Box in a bottom desk drawer.)
Those days or creating were amazing! We would be completely focused on our work. Some of us would produce many, many pieces hoping that volume would trump quality. Interesting experimental media would surface – shells in plaster. Mobiles were big. (really, they were huge!) Driftwood landscapes with tiny houses and boats were big. Found objects, especially glass and shells, found their way into all kinds of projects. There would be collaborations. There would be secret projects. There was a whole bunch of art.
After two or three days we would hold an evening auction. Following a dinner of seafood, the six adults, and a few assorted neighbors, would be seated in carefully arranged mismatched press backed chairs. Most of these folks had been on hand while we worked and each had a particular piece in mind.
I’m not sure who acted as auctioneer. I remember playing the role, but I suspect we each auctioned off our own work. I’m not sure where we learned to run auctions, but we seemed to know what we were doing.
When the bidding closed for each item, it was delivered and the money collected on the spot.
I remember clearly when my grandfather, an often serious he-who-shall-be-obeyed Quaker would shout out ridiculously high bids.
“One hundred dollars!”, he would shout.
“Sold”, we would quickly respond.
He then would look around the room in feigned confusion and deny he had ever bid. This act was repeated several times at every auction.
I don’t remember how high the bidding ever went. We never collected Grandpas’ $100. We all left with a brown paper bag (Yep, the same ones that we carried our candy home in) filled with pennies and nickels and dimes and maybe even quarters.
Looking back, forty years later, I can only speculate about the adult planning and posturing behind the scenes. Did they plan together and decide what pieces they would purchase? Did they decide, ahead of time, how much money we would each make? Our parents were ever fair. I suspect that if we had bothered to count our profits we would discover that we all had collected the same amount.
I’ve spent my career as an educator trying to provide students with authentic learning opportunities. Opportunities where students are highly motivated to produce their best work. Opportunities where students will spend days in intense study and collaboration. I doubt that I’ve ever produced a better learning opportunity that we did, all by ourselves, on those rainy Maine, days.
Copyright © by 50 Little Birds and G.B. Davis 2011
If you liked this you may like When I was a Kid in Maine, a short essay outlining what was special (to me) about summering in Maine.