New York City. Winter, 1987.
What I’ve come to call, with a laugh at fate, my starving artist period.
Don’t worry, we weren’t actually starving, just pretty hungry for a few days now and then. We managed to survive on the staples of a New York artist’s diet; pizza, street food, and beer.
So, with our bellies as full as they were going to get, there was time to pause and consider the finer things in life. Manhattan offered ample opportunities for cost effective options, as it has done for generations of out-of-work artists before and since. Exploring the city was a fun occupation in itself and not everything one does need cost money, especially the museums and parks.
The parks allowed you the chance to remember what green was and to feel something softer than concrete beneath your feet. If it were the weekend and the weather was fair, the parks had a wonderful atmosphere as people rushed to enjoy themselves before the weather changed.
Often I would take my sketchbook to the park. I'd draw dogs and children off the leash, both of which are good subjects, perhaps because they act so naturally. I also enjoyed drawing squirrels and chipmunks (critters which do not exist in New Zealand), and birds in trees or scratching for worms in the grass. The mounted police, with their beautiful, shiny horses, also made for the chance of a good drawing.
An artist must keep himself in continual practice. Look for stories and draw those! Observe everything! And remember to draw with love in your heart.
Because if you think it's shit... it is shit.
Anyway. We really were hungry and out of work, but it wasn’t so bad, if you kept the fears at bay. It helped to have a partner like Suzie, who could take it and not complain, sharing the bad times and the good, who even brought some sunshine and gaiety into our uncertain lives. Anything you did with Suzie was fun, for she had a way of laughing at the world that got you laughing, too.
So we kept pretty busy, in spite of our meager resources.
If the weather permitted we bundled up (if Andrew weren’t going out, I could borrow his overcoat and gloves… Suzie had winter clothes of her own, not taken with the stolen suitcase) and headed out. To save money we’d walk downtown instead of using the subway, then catch the Staten Island Ferry. It was just twenty-five cents for the ferry trip and what a view of the bay, my god how do you describe it it's so breathtaking? The Statue of Liberty looked smaller than I expected she would, standing lonely and proud as dozens of boats circled and pestered her, tourists snapping photographs by the thousands. Being on a boat was like being in the park. It gave one a chance to escape the dark valleys of Manhattan’s skyscrapers for a while and enjoy the sun on your face.
Some of the best museums and galleries on earth were all within walking distance of the apartment. Sometimes we bought a dime bag from one of the dealers in Washington Square, careful not to inadvertently purchase oregano like we once did, and enjoyed a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Standing on Fifth Avenue, Suzie would take a last toke and we would run up the wide, imposing steps to the entrance, laughing and breathless.
Only a small donation was suggested, so we could easily afford it. We ambled along the spacious galleries, stoned, soaking up the cultural artifacts, paintings and masterpieces. I loved the African section with its collection of fetish sculptures and masks. It reminded me of when we’d lived in Africa. Suzie went quiet while we were there, and I figured she was thinking of her family, so far away. The quiet and dignified museum interior was a world away from the city outside, a great escape from the noise and bustle of Manhattan.
There was also the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. We loved it and returned there many times. I used to stand across Fifth Avenue against the wall under the leafless, winter trees that lined the park, stamping my feet to keep warm while Suzie bought a hot dog from the corner vender.
"Over the top, please!" she'd order in her sing-song voice.
Meaning with everything, or "All the Way" as New Yorkers called it, and we'd laugh.
She always got it wrong.
I’d light a Marlborough and look across the street to admire the sweep and simplicity of the graceful Guggenheim building. I thought it extremely beautiful in the silver winter light. I enjoyed the elementary mathematical precision touched with whimsey of the design. Suzie would join me and finish my cigarette while I finished her hot dog and we’d cross the street to see what treasures waited within.
Then there was the Museum of Modern Art.
I love modern art. It speaks to me more directly than any of the other visual arts. And now to see them in person! Not just pictures in books. I could stand and admire Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows, and turn to view a sublime Joan Miró Constellation painting without moving from the spot! Dali, Klee, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Matisse and on and on and of course the greatest ever, Picasso.
I couldn’t stay long in the midst of such greatness, it was overwhelming as a viewer and belittling as an artist.
Why should I even try to be an artist, I thought, when I’d never be as good as they?
Luckily, I was too stubborn to listen to myself when I talked like that.
What if everybody thought that way? Nothing would be achieved and there would be no cultural progress for our civilization.
Which is not to say that as an artist I achieved much or advanced civilization even by an inch.
It is only to say that I can be quite stubborn, sometimes.