A long goodbye

I was pleased and surprised when I got the notice that the Butler Institute of American Art wanted my painting of taffy for its Midyear exhibition, since other work had been rejected this year by our local museum and another regional gallery. After a decade of selling my work and showing it in juried exhibitions, it was still a game of percentages, entering these events. This year it might be only the two small museums that showed my work—Arnot and Butler—mostly because I haven’t had the time to finish enough work to enter other shows. Last year, I’d vowed not to enter anything larger than 24” in at least one dimension, and if possible enter nothing larger than that in any dimension. The difference in cost, and the amount of hassle that goes into the whole physical process of getting a painting to and from a show, is dramatic, when you exceed a certain size. But I had nothing else to enter, having submitted smaller paintings to other shows. So in the week I was home in Pittsford, I had to build a new crate, the largest yet, and figure out how to get it to Youngstown, Ohio and back.

The only reliable way to do this was either to drive it there myself—about ten hours of a round trip on the road to deliver it and another ten to pick it up after the show, which I had done for the last show I was in at Butler—or ship it through the UPS Store. I had tried both Fed Ex and UPS before, signing up for accounts, but in every case I got lost in the obstacle course of being transferred to other people, or put on hold, or told to do things that weren’t available to me in the online forms. This time was no exception. The shipping companies aren’t terribly interested in a non-commercial shipper who wants to do things—like print out a return label—that only retail companies usually need to do. Getting that return label pre-paid and printed and inserted into the crate was the stumbling block. I called and the UPS help desk and they told me I had to actually create a permanent account with them, and so I did. They supplied me with my own account number, but it changed nothing in the form. Still no option to print a return label. Which is when they put me on hold for a transfer—and no one picked up. So I surrendered to defeat again and decided I would have to lug the four-feet by four-feet crate to the UPS Store, all sixty pounds of it, rather than have them pick it up.

Before 8 a.m. I drove to Home Depot and got a 4′ x 8′ sheet of quarter-inch plywood sheathing— thin and flexible and lightweight. It’s more delicate than typical plywood and pretty easily punctured if you were to drop the crate onto something like a giant paper spike, which UPS once apparently tried to do with a previous shipment, luckily without damaging the painting inside. I had a friendly, helpful worker cut this sheathing into two identical squares and then slice the six-inch boards I would use for the sides of the crate into a pair of four-feet long planks and another pair of slightly shorter ones. I’d create the box out of them and then screw the sheathing to each side, using drywall screws. I’d done this many times, so I was finished by noon. Inside the crate, I attached a convoluted foam mattress top to the sheaths as cushion for the painting, and constructed an inner “lid” out of foam core to slip over the front of the canvas, so the lining wouldn’t press against the canvas inside the crate.

In transit, linen quickly gets slack if it isn’t stretched tautly to begin with. Any pressure against it will leave it buckling slightly like a loose sail, so this last little component, the foam core, is essential. I’d ordered a box full of these sheets, and though I could never find any large enough for my biggest work I would make two of them and slide them together until they overlapped to fit snugly around the edges of the painting.

But that wasn’t enough. This particular painting had already gotten slack on the stretcher bars since I’d finished it in January—humidity alone is enough to loosen stretched linen—so I had to remove the frame and pulled out the staples from two contiguous sides of the painting and retighten it with canvas pliers, stapling it back into place until the canvas sounded like a snare drum when I flicked the back of it with my finger. All of this is slow and laborious. While I was doing it, I saw small imperfections in the surface of the painting—in the background color—so I took a sable rigger brush and touched it up. This would mean shipping the painting with a couple tiny areas of new paint, but they were tiny and would be fixed in place by the dried wax. It was at this point that I realized I’d never applied a final, protective thin coat of wax to get a uniform finish, a matte shine over the entire surface. Without this coat—which can be removed at any time, even years later, with a rag soaked in mineral spirits—the paint has an uneven, rough look from certain angles. In some places it shines more than others. A thin layer of wax is the best way to remove the disruptive shine. I managed to apply it without a problem, though I had to let the painting sit overnight before enclosing it into the crate.

The following day, I was still determined to get a shipper to pick up the crate at my home. I tried to weigh it using a bathroom scale but all I got in the digital readout was ERR. So I guessed 75 pounds and clicked to the UPS website whereupon I chased my tail for another hour.  I wouldn’t have even bothered with the online option if we had had an SUV large enough to accommodate a painting that size, but our Jeep is long-gone and my wife Nancy owns a smaller Honda CRV, because she has no need for a roomier cargo hold. (She likes to to sit up high on the road and in parking lots.) But there was no way I could slide the crate into the back of it. So, as I had many times before, I needed to drive to Victor, rent a cargo van from U-Haul and drive it back home, load up the painting and deliver it to the UPS Store a block away from the U-Haul office. When I got to the U-Haul, a retired couple ahead of me were waiting to unburden themselves with their tale of woe about their own truck rental the day before. It had broken down and they called U-Haul and it took two hours for someone to find them on the road. The men who showed up refused to help this elderly couple transfer their bedroom set from the bad truck to the good one. So they had to do it themselves—she was clearly the younger of the pair and in charge, while her husband smiled benignly but uselessly through the whole story. The fellow at the desk cancelled all charges and apologized, but she kept on for several minutes telling her story, not out of anger as much as simply wanting to release it into the air after having held it in since the incident. (She’d started telling me the story before her turn came up at the register. ) I got my van without a problem, drove it home and hoisted my sixty pounds into the back—the opening was just barely wide enough from top to bottom to get the crate into the truck, though I could have gone in diagonally.

I drove it back to Victor, unloaded and carried it into the UPS Store and waited while they weighed it and calculated the costs. It sat on that little scale on the countertop, standing upright, towering over everyone’s head as he printed out the two shipping labels, one for the trip to Youngstown and one for the return. I had left a manila folder inside the crate with the lip sticking out, with four screws in my pocket, one corner of the sheathing loose enough to slide the label into the envelope and then push the envelope back into the crate. “That’s a great idea,” Chad, the manager, said. I’d forgotten to grab the screwdriver from the passenger seat in the CRV when I parked it at U-Haul so I had to ask Chad for a screwdriver and he rummaged in back and found one. I fastened the sheathing with it, and it was ready for pickup. I snatched the shipping receipts with the tracking numbers and thanked him and drove across the highway to the rental, turned in the van and walked out to our CRV. A woman had just pulled in next to me.

“Are you renting from U-Haul?” she asked, urgently, as she stepped out.

“Yeah, a cargo van.”

“Well don’t. I called the better business bureau. The guy changed my mileage charge from $.59 to $.79. See?”

She held up her rental contract.

“I complained, but he wouldn’t do a thing about it.”

“Wow. The odometer seemed off to me,” I said. “It always racked up more miles than Google maps.” I had tracked the mileage during my delivery and it never matched up with my phone. The miles on my phone were always slightly fewer than the ones on the van’s odometer. The difference in the charge was negligible, but it wasn’t inspiring me with confidence in the company.

“Good luck,” she said, as she marched back into the rental office.

“Same to you,” I said.

An hour later, at home, I got a call from Chad.

“I don’t think you paid,” he said.

“I’m sure I did. I remember signing,” I said, but then wondered if I was thinking of my payment at U-Haul, across the street. “I have the receipts.”

“Those are the shipping and tracking receipts but do you have, you know, a long cash register receipt, like the one you get anywhere?”

“Hm, let me look,” I said, and pawed in the kitchen trash, found the other flyers he’d handed me but no receipt.

“I guess you’re right. Looks like I pulled a fast one, Chad. Can you take my card number?”

“Sure. Just a sec,” he said.

And I was done with a process that required many hours over two days: $418 to get the painting to and from the Butler Institute. Another $60 for the wooden crate materials, though I could amortize the cost of the crate over the time I would reuse it for other shows and other paintings. Around $40 for the memory gel egg crate foam—it was what I’d ordered the year before from Amazon without realizing how heavy it was, with the gel. So, all in all, $600 simply to get a painting to a neighboring state for exhibition and back again. (I have a story of a simple shipment to Cambridge, Mass. and back that is even more involved and more expensive.) If I’d been sending to California, as I’ve done many times in the past, the cost would have been significantly higher. When I was finally done with the process, having begun shortly after Home Depot opened that morning, it was around 2 p.m. My work day was over.

Being a painter, unless you are one of the most elite and successful, means being many other things as well: carpenter, shipper, renter of U-Haul vans and primarily a profligate spender. For someone selling out a show of work with five- or six-figure price tags, none of this is consequential. You can hire someone else to put on the gloves and submit your credit card. But for the vast majority of professional painters who make part or most of their living by creating and selling work, this is an integral part of the life. You are a physical worker in the actual, three-dimensional world—not a “knowledge worker” or part of some “creative class” that hovers above the rest of the toiling billions. Painting, and everything else it entails, is fundamentally a physical way of life that requires a body as much as, if not more than, a mind. Writing doesn’t have these physical contingencies. Stephen Hawking proves the point: to think and write books, one can very nearly be a disembodied mind. To be a painter, you are as wedded to the earth, its gravity and its elements as a plumber. And it not only drains you of calories, it slowly erodes your bank account as well: the cost of painting, the literal economic toll, is far larger than any act of writing ever exacts, unless it involves having a staff of researchers like Elmore Leonard or a factory of ghostwriters like the James Patterson book assembly lines. I imagine Keats hardly had to spend more than a few farthings to write his immortal odes, nor get up from his chair. With Turner or Sir Joshua Reynolds, it was another sort of life altogether. (Keats never tied himself to the mast of a ship in order to describe a storm accurately.) In the end, it’s worth the cost and the calories, but there is a unique toll in all of these ancillary logistics that you need to endure cheerfully and gratefully: emotional, financial, physical, and most of all, in the time it steals from your work and family. But all of this is an inevitable and essential part of the privilege of having your work seen, judged, written about, awarded money and sold, if and when that happens, so you try to do it with grace.

Or maybe stick to a rule of painting pictures no larger than a couple feet in any dimension.

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