Words and Illustration Alex Botten
I was always The Arty One in our family. My mother was good, my great grandfather a master silversmith, but I was seen as the one with the skill. I was good at school, good at Sixth Form but not good enough to get into Bourneville School of Art. I was told, by him, that I was technically a better painter than my art lecturer at Newman College.
I believed myself to be good, I was The Arty One.
But I saw people I felt inferior to me being more successful, saw fellow students who weren’t The Arty One getting into the colleges I wanted to get into. I saw people I believed to be less talented than me getting paid work, getting asked to do things.
After many years of not making art at all, years in which I’d become The Musical One and experienced the exact same feelings of envy and inadequacy, I started painting again. I started drawing, making prints, I kept an easel up in the living room, a canvas always on the go. I started to believe in my work, even sold a couple of paintings.
I was still unrecognised though. Why wasn’t I ever invited to be in an exhibition? I hadn’t finished my degree, so I’d not even had my work featured in a graduation show. No-one had ever stood in front of my work and nodded with appreciation while holding a glass of wine. I began to wonder, began to think seriously about it. I asked around, surely there was a gallery that would be up for showing my work?
Of course! There was Ort! Ort was an art cafe on the 50 bus route in Birmingham, and I had played music there several times. I emailed the manager, she replied that I could have a fortnight in May 2012. It was real, it was happening! I had talked a good talk, persuaded a venue to host my work.
But my work didn’t exist.
I had paintings, prints, drawings, a whole pile of pieces, but I had promised something else, something new. I’d had the confident notion that I’d be able to make a piece that required it be destroyed if you wanted to see the work. I would do detailed pencil drawings on A1 sheets of paper, then completely cover them over with carbon from a thick, soft, pencil stick. To see the work the viewer would have to use one of the supplied erasers, would have to carefully work at the layer obscuring it while avoiding destroying the image below. It was, and still is, a glorious plan, and appealed to my contrary nature. I loved the thought of discomfort being forced to destroy the art would generate in visitors to the exhibition. I told the gallery it would be called ‘Erase Carefully’
Two nights before it was due to open I hadn’t made anything. I’d become paralysed with self-doubt, frozen with indecision. I conceptually knew I had to make the work, but nothing was coming. In a panic, I hastily scribbled five images, then scrubbed over them with layer after layer of silver-black carbon. Five pathetic drawings! They were rubbish, bad drawings, a bad implementation of what I had imagined. There was no way I could take only these feeble pieces.
I sent a message to the venue, I would be exhibiting two themes: ‘Erase Carefully’, and the tiny handful of canvases I had sitting around the house. They were of stylised isometric cityscapes, painted in primary colours which I’d not considered anything other than practice pieces done for fun. I threw in the prints I had, some of those also featured the isometric towers. This second set of work I dubbed ‘Future Cities’.
What I had would just about fill the walls. They would look useless, half-arsed, embarrassing. I had seen the securing of the exhibition as the end point, hadn’t considered how much work I’d need to do before it could hang it. I hadn’t even purchased erasers, or white tack to hang the work! I put the shameful ‘art’ into the back of my car and drove over to Ort.
The whole way, I wondered if there was anything I could do to pull out at this late stage. Maybe I could feign illness? Would that work? No, they’d merely postpone the hanging until the following week, assuming I’d be well by then. There was also the small matter of the opening. I was to be there all evening, playing a musical set and fielding any questions from the dozens of people I still delusionally expected to turn up to see the work.
I could tell the manager wasn’t impressed as I flitted around the cafe, attaching drawings to walls. I’d been right about how bad it all looked, the spotlights only accentuated the lack of quality. I was so ashamed! This handful of poorly presented rubbish, bulked out with thematically unlinked canvases and prints, was awful, truly wretched. I grinned and pretended everything was fine, but inwardly wanted to leave. I was genuinely relieved when barely anyone showed up to the opening, even the promise of a musical performance didn’t lure anyone out.
Perhaps the promise of the music had kept them away? I always struggled to pull an audience for my music, maybe the added exhibition made me even less of a draw! I kept the plastered on smile, acted as if I was proud of the work on the walls. At the end of the evening, I thanked the manager and went home.
It was such a relief to pull into my parking space outside the flat in Lye I shared with my (now ex) second wife. She asked me how it had gone, I lied and said it was great, that the work looked great, that everything was great. So it was great? she said. Yes, it was great, I replied. My husband, the artist, she said, smiling.
At the end of the fortnight, I went back to see how visitors had approached the erasable pieces. Had they been left untouched, or had they been erased? I hoped for damaged paper, smudged and faint images, something I could take home and feel good about. When I stood in front of them I realised I’d not considered a third option, that people had used the opportunity to mess about. One of the images had a crude cat erased onto the surface, another had a name. Some of them had sections half-heartedly erased to reveal the hurried drawings beneath, but even those had seemingly been given up on.
The worst was right in the middle: across the image, a visitor had used one of the erasers to write an advert for their forthcoming gig at the cafe! There was a band name, the support listed, the date, even a ticket price and start time! I hid my disappointment, smiled at the manager, took the work off the walls. I put the canvases and the easel on the back seat, the prints went back into a hardback folder. The drawings were rolled up and thrown onto the back shelf. There they stayed, getting crushed and crumpled over the following weeks until I took them out and threw them in the bin.
Over the following weeks and months, I rationalised the debacle to myself: it had been deliberately bad, I told myself! I’d been ‘sticking it’ to the art establishment that had frozen me out for so many years! I was an arch trickster, a pied piper dancing around the fools who took art far too seriously. That way I was able to move on, weave the failure into a suit resembling something like success. But it was a lie. I’d allowed my arrogance to take me down a road of humiliation. I have not exhibited since, and that is how it should be.
Now I write, both music and visual art proving to be closed arenas to me, am I as deluded about my words as I was about my sights and sounds?